The story of 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' makes your officers look pretty smart - We Are The Mighty
MIGHTY HISTORY

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

The “Charge of the Light Brigade” has become shorthand for a military disaster, especially one that is filled with heroics but is still a catastrophe. In the actual Charge of the Light Brigade, approximately 670 men rode into the teeth of Russian artillery because their officers didn’t understand their orders and didn’t want to talk to one another.


Yes, one of history’s most famous military failures was caused by officers who couldn’t get along.

The Crimean War was fought by Britain, France, Sardinia, and the Ottoman Empire against Imperial Russia between Oct. 1853 and Mar. 1856. The Battle of Balaclava in late 1854 took place in a mountainous area. Two valleys, known as the North Valley and the South Valley, ran east-to-west across the battlefield and were split by the Causeway Heights which contained a road.

 

The road was key to the movement of supplies and communications for the allied forces and the Turks were constructing redoubts to guard it. On Oct. 25, the Russians attempted to capture the road and the incomplete redoubts. A large cavalry force bore down on the Turks who retreated soon after.

The British commander, Lord FitzRoy Somerset, the First Baron of Raglan, saw this take place from his headquarters to the west of the valley. Lord Raglan sent orders for British infantry to move from the hills into the valley and for the British cavalry, who were camped in the valley, to move against the Russian cavalry.

The British cavalry Heavy Brigade under Lord George Bingham, Earl of Lucan, managed to turn the Russian attack and even sent the Russians past the Light Brigade, but the Light Brigade failed to attack the exposed Russians. The Russian cavalry dropped back to the abandoned Turkish redoubt and began attempting to capture the naval guns positioned there.

The British senior commanders were angry that the Light Brigade’s commander, Lord James Brudenell of Cardigan, had failed to attack and were worried about the potential loss of valuable cannons. Lord Raglan sent orders for the cavalry to attack the Russians before the Russians could carry away the guns. Since the infantry was still making its way to the valley, the cavalry would be on their own.

The order, written by Sir Richard Airey, read:

Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. R Airey. Immediate.

This would have been a valuable use of cavalry in what was an accepted practice at the time. Cavalry riding against artillery would have been able to close the gap between themselves and the enemy guns quickly, giving the enemy just enough time for one or two shots from the cannons. Once the cavalry reached the guns, they could have cut the gun crews to ribbons with their sabers.

Even better for the British, these were Russian cavalrymen retreating with Turkish guns. Chances are, they wouldn’t have attempted to fire the cannons at all, abandoning them or dying in their attempt to remove them.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
Lord Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, 1st Baron Raglan. Raglan’s unclear orders would doom the Light Brigade in their famous charge. Portrait: William Salter

But, Lord Raglan worded his orders with the assumption that Cardigan knew the Turkish cannons were being carried away. From their positions on the valley floor, neither Cardigan nor Lucan could see the former Turkish positions. When the order to attack came, they didn’t know what Russian guns they were being told to attack.

This is where a quick conference between the commanders or clearly written orders would have saved everything. But Raglan and Airey provided unclear orders and the courier who carried the orders may have indicated the wrong target for attack. Cardigan and Lucan, the two cavalry commanders, hated each other. (Cardigan had married Lucan’s sister but the couple later separated, embarrassing Lucan.)

So, Lucan simply passed the order to Cardigan and the cavalry mounted for an attack. Instead of attacking the retreating cavalry and regaining the Turkish naval guns, Cardigan led the Light Brigade into the North Valley in an attempt to attack Russian artillery at the eastern end of it.

The attacking cavalrymen made it most of the way through the valley in two ranks before the Russians opened up with the 30 cannons in the main battery. Immediately after those cannonballs punched holes through the lines, additional Russian artillery placed on either side of the valley fired into the still-charging cavalrymen. Then, Russian infantry that was formed in ranks on the hill added musket fire to the mix.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
Painting: Richard Caton Woodville, Jr., Public Domain

 

Survivors described the carnage in vivid language, talking about severed limbs, riders decapitated in their saddles, and smoke as thick as that from a volcano.

The Heavy Brigade was behind the Light and realized that the attack into the Northern Valley was a mistake. Lucan turned the Heavy Brigade around as the Light Brigade continued charging in. Despite heavy losses, the Light Brigade made it to the Russian guns and infantry ranks and began slicing through their enemies.

Surprisingly, the Charge of the Light Brigade was costly but initially successful.

They pushed past the cannons and forced a massive retreat of panicked Russians.

The Light Brigade formed up and were preparing to kill the rest of the gun crews and advance when they realized that the Heavy Brigade had not followed them in. Without the Heavy Brigade, the British were vastly outnumbered. With the Russians forming up for a counterattack, the Light Brigade was forced to retreat back through the valley.

The retreat of the Light Brigade was soon interrupted by Russian cavalry attacks that attempted to hold them in the valley. As the horsemen on each side clashed, Russian artillery crews that had withdrawn from their guns returned to position and began firing grapeshot and cannon into the Light Brigade, killing more men and horses.

Luckily for the English, the French cavalry took it upon themselves to attack Russian positions on the north side of the valley, reducing the cannon fire coming down.

Still, of the approximately 670 men who rode forth with the Light Brigade, 110 were killed and 160 wounded. The brigade also lost 375 horses and the Turkish guns were captured from the hills and later paraded by the Russians in Sevastopol.

A correspondent for the London Illustrated News was on the hills during the battle and wrote an article about the heroic but doomed actions of the cavalry. The article would stir the imagination of the British public and lead to Lord Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate of Britain at the time, writing the famous poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

MIGHTY HISTORY

This is why it’s not a good idea to mess with Texas

There’s a lot of uncertainty to life in the 21st century.


But on one point, we can say we have a definite answer.

It was in the tiny village of Gonzales, Tejas, a territory of the newly sovereign Empire of Mexico, that scholars can definitively pinpoint the historical birth of the notion that, though there are many things you might be tempted to mess with, you don’t, if you know what’s good for you, mess with Texas.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
Ironically, Texans apply this sentiment liberally.                                                                Photo via Flickr, brionv, CC BY-SA 2.0

In Gonzales, on Oct. 2, 1835, a village militia vigorously resisted disarmament at the hands to Mexico’s newly self-declared dictator, Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón, who, for obvious reasons, usually went by Santa Anna.

Santa Anna was the prime mover of 19th century Mexico’s socio-political agenda — the man who would shape its fate as a nation independent of Spain.

Gonzales was just one tiny frontier town in the vast sweep of Mexico’s northern territories, populated largely by settlers from the United States. And the skirmish that occurred there, hardly deserving of even that wimpy designation, was really more of a loud, multi-day argument over possession of Gonzales’ single, miniscule 6-pound cannon in which the Texians were the aggressors and the Mexican army tried quite hard to avoid an actual battle.

Casualties on both sides of the skirmish amounted to two Mexican soldiers killed and one Texian with a bloodied nose.

Doesn’t sound like much of anything, does it?

Indeed, the incident at Gonzales was just one small fracas in a centuries-long stretch of conquest and political rebellion in Mexico. Nevertheless, the battle, such as it was, marked the beginning of the Texas Revolution, which would lead to the establishment of the Republic of Texas and the Mexican Cession of all of its North American land holdings to the United States.

Viewed from our 21st Century vantage, it’s easy to see larger geopolitical forces at work here. The Gonzales brouhaha exemplifies a trend that was sweeping the globe at the time, namely the collapse of monarchy as an acceptable form of government and the concurrent rise of democracy in all of its multivariate shapes, forms and means.

Rebellion at that time was so commonplace as to be unremarkable — witness the American Revolution, the French Revolution, Mexico’s own war for independence from Spain in 1821 and the hundreds of micro uprisings that initiated it. All over the world, kings were getting the boot if they were lucky and the ax if they weren’t.

Santa Anna himself had played an instrumental role in winning Mexico’s Independence and protected the democratic government that replaced it from power grabs by several of its generals in the years that followed. Yet even he was unable to resist the temptation of centralized rule. In 1835, just prior to the Battle of Gonzales, Santa Anna overthrew the Mexican constitution and named himself dictator, putting himself firmly on the wrong side of history.

And when he tried to take one, lone gun away from some Texians in Gonzales, he put himself on the wrong side of the eventual founders of the Lone Star Republic. The flag they raised during the Battle of Gonzales had one star, one cannon and coined a simple message that modern Texans still live by to this day: “Come and Take It.”

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The British actually had an effective plan in 1776

One of the biggest questions of the Revolutionary War is this: How did the British of 1776, with immense advantages in troops and ships and an effective plan, manage to lose the war? 


When you look at the material state of affairs, the 13 colonies really didn’t stand a chance. So, how did the British lose the war despite all of their advantages?

 

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
British troops marching in Concord. (Engraving by Amos Doolittle)

 

The reason was not a lack of strategy. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, the British assumed that the American uprising was a number of local rebellions. It wasn’t until 1776 that they realized that they were dealing with a uniform rebellion across all 13 colonies. Granted, some states were more rebellious than others (Massachusetts being the most notable), but they had a big problem due to the sheer size of East Coast.

Like this? Read: Rarely seen illustrations of the Revolutionary War

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

At the Battle of Long Island, the actions of the Delaware Regiment kept the American defeat from becoming a disaster. Fighting alongside the 1st Maryland Regiment, the soldiers from Delaware may well have prevented the capture of the majority of Washington’s army — an event that might have ended the colonial rebellion. (Image courtesy of DoD)

So, they came up with a strategy.  The British plan was to first seize New York City to use as a forward base. Next, they’d move one force north while a second force, from Canada, moved south. The goal was to meet somewhere near Albany in 1777. This would cut New England off from the rest of the colonies and, hopefully, strangle the rebellion.

This was not a bad strategy. The problem was, after coming up with the plan, they flubbed the execution. They seized New York and, in fact, George Washington had a close call trying to escape the British. But then, Washington, with a successful Christmas strike on Trenton and beating Hessian mercenaries at the Battle of Princeton, drew the attention of General Howe. Instead of going north, Howe chased after Washington’s army and the Continental Congress, completely discarding the strategy. There was no on-scene commander-in-chief to reign him in.

 

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
This 1777 mezzotint shows General William Howe, who would blow up the British strategy by chasing after Washington and the Continental Congress in Pennsylvania. (Image from Brown University Military History Collection)

The British force moving south from Canada was eventually defeated at the Battle of Saratoga and forced to surrender. Meanwhile, Howe managed to seize Philadelphia but didn’t get the Continental Congress. Meanwhile, Washington’s army battled well at the Battle of Germantown. The combination of defeats at Saratoga and Germantown doomed the British strategy. The French and Spanish, now convinced the colonists had a chance, joined in and forced Britain into a multi-front war.

Watch the video below to see a rundown of how British strategy evolved during the Revolutionary War.

 

(Civil War Trust | YouTube)

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Russians were all drunk when Trump Tomahawked Syria

When Syrian President Bashar al-Asad used a sarin nerve gas attack on his own citizens during the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Trump was pissed. According to veteran journalist Bob Woodward’s 2018 book, Fear: Trump in the White House, Trump wanted to kill Asad for the attack, using a targeted leadership strike.


But cooler heads prevailed, and then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis convinced the President to hit Syrian airfields with a series of Tomahawk missiles instead.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

Sparing them from getting hit by Mattis’ personal Tomahawk.

The Russians came to Syria in September 2015, at a time when things looked pretty bleak for the regime, good for the loose confederation of rebels, and great for the Islamic State. Almost immediately, Russian intervention began to make the difference for the Syrian government forces. By the end of 2017, the government had retaken key cities and areas from both rebel groups and ISIS fighters.

Also the end of 2017, the Russians began to make their presence at air bases in the country permanent. That’s who the United States called in April 2017, delivering a warning that some of America’s finest manufactured products were being forcibly delivered to a Syrian airbase that night.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

There goes id=”listicle-2636430379″.8 million worth of forcible export.

Nearly 60 Tomahawk missiles were fired from the destroyers USS Porter and USS Ross of the U.S. Navy’s Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea that night. The Pentagon ordered the Navy to deliver a warning to Russian troops in the area right before the attack hit at 3:45 in the morning. According to Woodward’s source, the Russian airfield troop who picked up the phone sounded like he was dead drunk.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

“That’s our secret, captain… we’re always drunk.”

The warning worked, and the attack reportedly killed no Russian troops at the Shayrat Air Base, though it did damage and destroy aircraft and missile batteries, on top of killing nine Syrian government troops and seven civilians. The U.S. attack purposely avoided attacking a sarin gas storage facility on the base. The base itself was targeted because it was the source of Asad’s sarin gas attack on Syrian civilians.

Warning Russia of the pending attack may have given the Syrian Air Force notice to shelter its planes and prepare for the attack, as it was noted that many of the planes there survived the assault and its airfields were operational again less than 24 hours later.

MIGHTY HISTORY

The Coast Guard left a scow near Niagara Falls that’s still there 100 years later

The Niagara River’s famously beautiful Horseshoe Falls is truly a wonderful sight. But if you look upriver before the falls, you might notice a rusted out hulk of a scow that looks like it’s been sitting on the river for a century. 

That’s because it has been.

A rusted scow at Niagara Falls
Aerial view of rusted scow at Niagara Falls.

Two workers from the Buffalo, New York were doing a regular day’s work of dredging silt from the mouth of a canal that diverted the river to hydraulic power generators when they suddenly broke loose from the tugboat and began to float toward the falls. 

Not many people survive going over Niagara Falls and those who do call it a “miracle.” But in 1918, the number of people who survived was two, the first being a 62-year-schoolteacher who went over in a wooden barrel. 

Going over Niagara Falls will drop your body 187 feet into the rocks and water. You might get to the bottom of the river and not make it back up. If your body survived the impact, the freezing water would give you 15 minutes to get out before you began suffering from hypothermia. 

The scow was beached on a sand berm when the tugboat came to release it and bring it back to shore. As the towing commenced, the rope between the boats snapped and sent the scow hurtling toward the falls. Luckily, it ran aground on some rocks in the river, 650 feet from oblivion. 

Unable to reach the men by boat, Canadian firefighters were able to get a lifeline to its two crewmembers as the U.S. Coast Guard was dispatched to rescue them. The Coast Guard was able to get a lifeline to the iron dredging boat and the two men climbed to safety. The entire rescue operation took 17 hours due to tangled lines. 

It was Canadian World War I veteran William “Red” Hill Sr. who climbed out to untangle the lifelines throughout the night. He’d only been back from the war for four days when he made the rescue.

Unsure of what to do with the iron hull, not knowing who would pay for a costly dismantling operation or if it was even worth the risk and effort, the Coast Guard did what anyone with a little common sense would do: leave it there.

The scow sat on the rocky shoal that miraculously saved its two crewmen for more than a hundred years. In 2019, a powerful storm raised the water levels of the river and freed the scow from the shoals. 

The rusting iron mass shifted from the rocks and floated closer to Horseshoe Falls, flipping onto its side 50 meters closer.

The rusted hull of a scow at Niagara Falls.

In the years since the 1918 accident, around 5,000 bodies have been found at the bottom of Horseshoe Falls, either suicides or as stunts to survive the trip. An estimated 25% of those daredevil attempts end in death. 

One of those daredevils was William “Red” Hill, Jr., the son of the valiant rescuer of the two men trapped on the scow. In an effort to honor his daredevil father, the younger Hill went over the falls in a barrel, dying in the attempt. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

How Machu Picchu successfully eluded the Spaniards for generations

Emperors create impressive structures as tangible proof of their power and control over their kingdom. High nobility often build ceremonial places of worship to win the favor of their creator, raise fortresses to apply pressure to a region physically, or indulge in pleasure palaces where the woes of leadership are massaged away.

Machu Picchu is an Incan citadel, originally constructed by Emperor Pachacuti in 1438 A.D. in the Andes Mountains of Peru, overlooking the Urubamba River valley. It has earned international fame for its sophisticated, earthquake-resistant structures built without mortar, iron tools, or the wheel.

Historians theorize Machu Picchu served all three aforementioned functions, all while remaining completely unknown to the Spanish during the invasion of Latin America. How was that possible?


The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

The first rule of Machu Picchu is that you don’t talk about Machu Picchu.

(Poswiecie)

The nobility never spoke of it

Machu Picchu was a retreat for the aristocracy roughly 80 miles from Cusco, the then-capital of the empire. It’s surrounded by steep cliffs and has a single, narrow entrance, enabling a small defense to stave off the attack of an otherwise overwhelming force.

The Spaniards had the reputation of defacing temples and, wherever they met resistance, they employed a scorched-earth policy. So, it’s no surprise that the population never spoke of Machu Picchu and kept it a secret; the lower class wasn’t allowed to know of its existence either. They went so far as to destroy all roads leading to it, and hid all evidence of their sacred city.

Machu Picchu 101 | National Geographic

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The city is earthquake resistant

Machu Picchu sits at 7,972 feet above sea level, and it’s peak reaches roughly 8,900 feet. Humans can experience altitude sickness (AMS) at 8,000 feet, but it is uncommon to get AMS unless you come directly from a low-altitude region. Luckily, when building the thing, the Pachacutec Inca brought huge, perfectly cut blocks of stone from rock quarries on site. This prevented them from having to carry the stone blocks up the steep cliffs and allowed them to focus their engineering and achieving seismic-proof buildings without mortar.

The engineer’s solution was to cut the blocks into trapezoids that fit perfectly together so that when an earthquake hit, they would fall back into their original place. It also meant that there weren’t glaringly obvious supply lines running into the hidden city, making it difficult to find, even during construction.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

Roman technology, worlds removed from Rome

The population didn’t need to leave for fresh water

In 1450, the engineers of Machu Picchu built an aqueduct that ran half a mile from a rain-fed spring to a series of private and public fountains for the population. Two springs fed the canal that satiated the fresh water needs of the people. It measured five by five inches deep at a three percent incline. Using hydraulics, the canal could produce up to 80 gallons per minute.

Machu Picchu’s fountains had spouts designed to form a water jet to fill clay water jugs efficiently. These fountains were all interconnected and the residual water was used for agriculture. Naturally, Emperor Pachacuti had the first fountain built directly into his home, allowing the royal family access to the freshest, cleanest water.

Again, not needing to leave to collect water meant there were fewer obvious inroads into the citadel.

The Inca empire eventually collapsed due to civil war, colonization, and disease transmitted by the Spanish. Machu Picchu itself, however, was never invaded by foreigners and the nobility was spared the fate of the commoners.

“Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” – George Santayana

It begs the question: Would our leaders save us in our darkest hour or would they save themselves in their hidden fortresses?

MIGHTY HISTORY

How enemy aircraft get their American nicknames

So, if you’re a loyal WATM reader, you’ve probably noticed that, when we’re talking Chinese or Russian aircraft, they’ve got some odd-sounding names. Fishbed, Flanker, Backfire, Bear, Badger… you may be wondering, “how the f*ck did they get that name?” Well, it’s a long story – and it goes back to World War II.


The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
This painting shows ground crews loading AS-16 Kickback air-to-surface missiles on a Tu-22M Backfire. (DOD painting)

In 1942, Captain Frank McCoy of the Army Air Force was tasked with heading the materiel section of Army Air Force intelligence for the Southwest Pacific. Early on, he realized that pilots could get confused about enemy fighters. To address this potential confusion, the Tennessee native began giving them nicknames. Fighters got male names, bombers and other planes got female names, and transports were given names that started with the letter T. Training planes were named for trees and gliders for birds.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
When it first was encountered in the Pacific, the A6M3 version of the Zero was given the code name ‘Hap,’ drawing the ire of ‘Hap’ Arnold. (Japanese Navy photo)

The idea was a good one – and it began to spread across the entire Pacific. All went well until a new Japanese Navy fighter got the nickname, ‘Hap.’ You see, that was also the nickname of the Army Air Force Commander, General Henry “Hap” Arnold. To say Arnold wasn’t happy is an understatement. McCoy was quickly called in to explain it.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
This modernized MiG-21 Fishbed in service with the Indian Air Force is armed with AA-12 Adder and AA-11 Archer air-to-air missiles. (Wikimedia Commons photo by Sheeju)

When the Cold War started, and both the Soviet Union and Communist China became threats, the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization turned to a version of McCoy’s naming conventions. They adjusted the system. This time, code names for fighters started with the letter F, those for bombers started with B, transport planes start with the letter C, other planes start with M. If the name has one syllable, it’s a prop plane. If it has multiple syllables, it’s a jet. Helicopter names start with the letter H.

For a comprehensive list, go to designation-systems.net.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
Chinese Communist planes, like the J-8 Finback — shown here flying a little too close to a U.S. Navy EP-3E Aries — were also given NATO code names. (DoD photo)

The system also covered missiles: Air-to-air missiles start with the letter A, air-to-surface missiles start with the letter K, surface-to-surface missiles start with the letter S, and surface-to-air missiles start with the letter G. NATO even began to use code names for Soviet and Chinese Communist submarines and surface ships.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
Code names were also assigned to ships, submarines, and missiles. This Indian Navy Osa-class missile boat is firing an SS-N-2 Styx anti-ship missile. (Indian Navy photo)

McCoy retired as a two-star general in 1968, but what he did in World War II still helps pilots and troops today. So, that’s why they call a Flanker, a multisyllabic fighter jet, a Flanker.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This military unit has been guarding the Pope without a break for over 500 years

The Vatican Swiss Guard is primarily regarded as a tourist attraction, but they are actually descended from a famous military tradition and their duties are anything but just ceremonial.

Composed of a company of former Swiss military, the Swiss Guard are responsible for the protection of the Pope and perform many ceremonial functions as well. Though best known for their colorful uniforms and halberds, plainclothes Guardsmen also serve as bodyguards for the Pope and security for the Vatican.


Entrance requirements for the Guard is strict. Potential Guardsmen must be Catholic males, of Swiss nationality, and have completed Swiss military training. Their service records have to be spotless, and they must be at least 5′ 9″ tall and be between 19 and 30 years of age. Though the Guard has considered opening up positions for women, for now it’s exclusively male.

The Guard’s history stretches back to the Middle Ages. Swiss mercenaries, or Reislaufer, were among the most feared fighting forces of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. Switzerland was an overpopulated and poor country, and its independent cantons would contract out its militia to other countries as a means of support.

Gaining their reputation with spectacular victories over their Austrian Habsburg overlords in the 13th century, the Swiss were famed for their skill in using pikes and halberds in deep column attacks. Their general refusal to take prisoners only added to their ferocious repute, and they became the most prized mercenaries in Europe.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
Kneeling salute in Clementine Hall, 1937 (Public Domain)

Noted for their loyalty, Swiss mercenaries served as the bodyguard contingent for many European monarchs such as the French throne. During the storming of the Louis XVI’s palace during the French Revolution, his Swiss Guard refused to surrender despite being hopelessly outnumbered and running low on ammunition. It took a note from the king himself for them to lay down their arms, and their spirited defense so enraged the revolutionaries hundreds of them were summarily executed.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
Swiss Guards defending Louis XVI’s palace during the French Revolution.

Swiss mercenaries had been serving the Papal States for centuries, but it wasn’t until 1506 that a permanent Guard of 150 men under the direct control of the Pope was formed, at the suggestion of the Swiss bishop Matthaus Schiner. When mutinous unpaid troops from the Holy Roman Empire sacked Rome in 1527, the Swiss Guard proved their bravery by losing most of their number defending Pope Clement VII. Out of 189 men, only 42 survived, but they bought time for the Pope to escape through a secret tunnel ahead of marauding enemy soldiers hoping to hold him for ransom.

When German forces occupied Rome during World War II, the Guard took up defensive positions and prepared to fight to the death, but Adolf Hitler chose not to attack the Vatican.

The Guard gradually morphed into a mostly ceremonial unit during the later 20th century, but this changed with the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981. Mehmet Agca, a Turkish national believed to have been backed by the KGB, shot the Pope four times as he entered St. Peters Square, nearly killing him. The Guard has since refocused as personal protection, with the pope’s security detail beefed up and armed with light automatic weapons.

In 2006, the Guard celebrated its 500th anniversary by marching a contingent of former Guardsmen from Bellinzona in southern Switzerland to Rome, in emulation of the first Guards journey in 1505-06. Since Switzerland banned mercenaries in 1874 with the sole exception of the Vatican, this unit is the last remaining example of a storied line of soldiers.

MIGHTY HISTORY

These are the 5 weirdest presidential elections in American history (so far)

Every presidential election has memorable moments — some inspiring, some questionable. And then some are just plain bizarre.


If the possibility of a reality TV star becoming president sounds outlandish, history proves that crazier things have happened. One thing is for sure; there’s never a dull moment when electing the leader of the free world.

Related: That time the US Army attacked veterans because they wanted their benefits

1. That time the president ran against his vice president

 

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800 via White House Historical Association. John Vanderlyn portrait of Aaron Burr, 1802, Creative Commons via Wikimedia

Before the election of 1800, the electoral college picked the president and vice president by voting for their favorite candidate. Whoever got the most votes became president and the runner-up became vice president. But in 1800, the “two-vote” practice led to a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. It took over a week to sort the mess out, with Jefferson eventually becoming president. The ordeal resulted in the creation of the 12 Amendment, which eliminates the possibility of another draw from happening again.

2. That time a president attended his rival’s funeral

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
Ulysses S. Grant and Horace Greeley. Photos by Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs division.

The presidential election of 1872 sounds like it came out of an episode of the “Twilight Zone.” President Ulysses S. Grant was running for his second term in office against New York Tribune founder Horace Greeley, who died before the electoral college vote.

Greeley was running as a Liberal Republican, a party started by Republicans who were dissatisfied with Grant and his radical Republican supporters. Despite his new found party and the additional support of the Democratic Party, he lost in a landslide and died three weeks after his defeat. Grant attended Greeley’s funeral.

Other noteworthy candidates were Victoria Woodhull of the People’s Party—the first woman to run for president—and her running mate abolitionist Fredrick Douglass, the first African-American to be considered for the vice presidency.

3. That time a socialist ran his presidential campaign from prison

Eugen V. Debs was the Socialist Party’s front-runner through five presidential elections — from 1900 to 1920. He ran his last campaign as prisoner 9653 from an Atlanta Federal Penitentiary while serving ten years for opposing World War I.

4. That time Ronald Reagan stole President Carter’s debate notes

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Photos by U.S. federal government.

 

“Debategate” happened in the final days of the 1980 presidential election. Someone stole Jimmy Carter’s briefing papers he was using in preparation for the debate with Reagan from the White House and turned them over to the GOP team. Reagan’s camp used the notes to destroy Carter in the debate and swipe the presidency.

No one knows for sure who the culprit was but Craig Shirley—a Reagan biographer—gathered enough evidence to suggest it was Paul Corbin, a Democrat, and one time Kennedy family confidant, according to Politico.

5. That time a president lost the popular vote but captured enough states to win the electoral vote

 

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart
George W. Bush and Al Gore. Photos by U.S. federal government

 

The 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore was one of the closest in U.S. history. The presidency hinged on the Florida vote, whose margin triggered a mandatory recount. Litigations ensued, and various counties started additional recounts, ultimately involving the Supreme Court. The grueling 36-day recount battle seemed like an endless election. When the high court finally announced its contentious 5 to 4 decisions for Bush, no one was happy. Depending on which side of the aisle you were in, the belief was that the Supreme Court handed the presidency to Bush, or took it away from Gore.

MIGHTY HISTORY

This World War II slugfest was Poland’s ‘Battle of Thermopylae’

Poland doesn’t get nearly as much credit as it should for its performance in the Second World War. The Nazi invasion of Poland is too often glossed over as a starting point for World War II as viewers just wait for Britain, the Soviet Union and United States to get involved. 

But the Nazis had their hands full with Poland in the West, even as the Soviets were coming in from the East. Despite being outnumbered, outgunned and obsolete, the Poles weren’t about to just roll over for anyone. These are the people who enlisted an angry, drunk bear to fight with them, after all. 

If the rest of the Nazi invasion of Poland had gone the same way as the 1939 Battle of Wizna, the Nazis would have been sent home packing. The Poles gave them a bloody nose that forced the Germans to reconsider how they invaded other countries. 

On Sept. 7, 1939, around 700 Polish soldiers manning a half-finished fortification near the Polish town of Wizna, very close to Warsaw. Some 40,000 Germans with 350 tanks and 650 pieces of artillery, led by vaunted General Heinz Guderian were coming right for them. 

Wizna was the centerpiece of a 9-kilometer line that protected the Biebrza river crossing. By the time Nazi tanks crossed over the border, only a handful of the reinforced concrete bunkers that made up the fortifications were complete. The Poles held the high ground but augmented the defenses with trenches, barbed wire, and minefields. They were as ready as they would ever be.

They were about to make such a stand that Guderian had to answer questions about it for the rest of his life. 

Though the Germans captured Wizna almost immediately, their attempt to cross the nearby Narew River were thwarted when Polish engineers blew the bridge as they crossed. Every time they tried to make small unit raids under the cover of darkness, the Poles threw them back. 

The German Luftwaffe dropped leaflets on the defenders, telling them Poland was captured by the Nazis and encouraging them to surrender. Polish officers in the fortifications told their troops they wouldn’t be taken alive. With that out of the way, the Nazi assault continued. 

By Sept. 8, the Poles had to abandon the trenchworks for the relative safety of the half-finished bunkers. They were cut off from the rest of the retreating army, including their own artillery support. Enemy tanks were able to move on an capture nearby towns, but the Poles were keeping the wehrmacht at bay with heavy machine guns in well-placed pillboxes. 

The Germans attacked from both the North and South over the course of three days, having to clear each of the heavily-defended bunkers one by one. To take them, the Germans would have to destroy most of them to crush the Polish resistance inside.

Eventually a ceasefire was called and surrender options were laid out. The officer in charge of the Polish defense, Capt. Wladysław Raginis, ordered his men to surrender only because they were running out of ammunition. 

Only 70 Poles who defended the Wizna fortifications that day survived. The Nazis never released their official body count of the Germans who died trying to take it.   

MIGHTY HISTORY

Discovering the North Pole: Who got there first?

Since the dawn of humanity, people have been as competitive as hell. We want to be the best. The first. While most of the world has already been explored today, the tallest peaks, darkest caves, and iciest tundras were once undiscovered mysteries, and humans were obsessed with discovering every corner. Before the 1900s, the North Pole was one of those untouched corners. All early attempts failed, upping the allure of the so-called top of the world. 

In 1909, that changed. First, US Navy engineer Robert Peary claimed to have reached the pole on April 6th of that year. But shortly after, an American explorer named Frederick Albert Cook declared he had actually reached the pole first, nearly a year prior. So who was right? 

The Race for the North Pole Was Cutthroat and Controversial

The North Pole is both barely habitable and intensely difficult to reach. Situated in the moddle of the Arctic Ocean, accessing the pole is impossible without first traversing treacherous, unpredictable sea ice. Every attempt before the 20th century fell flat. William Edward Parry, a British Naval officer, tried but didn’t even get close. An American explorer named Charles Hall tried and failed in 1871. Over two decades later, a pair of Norwegian explorers, Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen and Fridtjof Nansen, got painfully close before having to return home defeated. An Italian explorer got marginally farther before giving up as well. 

Then came Peary and Cook. They began as friends, but their differences were pointed. Peary was born in 1856, and he was deadset on achieving fame. His expeditions, like most, relied heavily on the assistance of the locals in each region he explored, but he treated them more like chess pieces than friends. He went as far as to dig up graves to sell to New York’s Museum of Natural History. Cook, born nearly a decade later in 1865, was an ambitious, young doctor with a more modern approach. He was genuinely interest in the lives of indigenous peoples, diving into their culture and learning their languages. 

The two traveled together to Greenland once, but Cook turned down a second invitation. Peary wanted him to sign a contract preventing any accounts of the expidition from being published before Peary did it first. Left with a bad taste in his mouth, Cook broke contact with Peary for several years. They were reunited when Peary was lost in the Arctic and Cook was called upon to rescue him. Rescue him he did, treating him for scurvy and several other conditions. On a later expedition to Greenland, Peary badly broke his leg and Cook stepped in once again to treat his injury. Still, the two were very different men. Instead of colleagues, they were competitors. 

Peary, one of the last imperialistic explorers, would have died for fame. 

In a message to his mother about his longing to conquer the elusive North Pole, he wrote, “My last trip brought my name before the world; my next will give me a standing in the world….I will be foremost in the highest circles in the capital, and make powerful friends with whom I can shape my future instead of letting it come as it will….Remember, mother, I must have fame.”

Peary did travel to the Arctic once more, but whether or not he made it all the way to the pole is highly disputed. According to him, he made it to the North Pole on April 6th, 1909, but he straight up refused to share any definitive proof. According to a later review conducted in 1989 by the US National Geographic Society, the photos Peary took suggest that he did make it within eight kilometers of the official North Pole. 

Even with this supposed endorsement, the truth of his claims remained controversial. Firstly, no one else on the expedition had the navigational skills to confirm or deny Peary’s reports. They did, however, mention multiple, agonizingly long detours, while Peary claimed to take a direct route. Secondly, even on his own expedition, he may not have been the first to arrive at the pole. He was joined by four Inuit men and his assistant, a black man named Matthew Henson. Henson was a skilled explorer of his own right, adventuring in the Arctic alongside Peary on seven different occasions. 

Yet Peary considered himself to be superior to Henson, and was unwilling to share the credit with him. In fact, he intended to abandon Henson to reach the Pole first on his owe. He lost track of the distance, however, and according to Henson, he was livid that five others shared “his” glorious North Pole victory. He later took all the credit, and it wasn’t until Henson published a book in 1947 that he began receiving recognition for his achievements. 

Whether they truly made it to the pole or not, their unopposed rule of polar discovery didn’t go unopposed for long. 

Cook claimed that he reached the pole nearly a year earlier, but his evidence was unconvincing. 

The daring Doctor Cook was just as keen on finding the far north as Peary was. After a Mount Denali expedition that was also shrouded in suspicion, Cook headed straight for the Arctic. He set off from Annoatok, a settlement in Greenland, February, 1908. He claimed to have arrived at the pole on April 21st, yet he didn’t make it back to Annoatok until the next spring, nearly starving along the way. 

In total, they were gone for 14 months, and it remains unclear where they ended up. Cook was never able to produce convincing navigational records. According to him, he left the records in a box along with some of his other belongings at Annoatok. There, an American hunter, Harry Whitney, attempted to load the box onto Peary’s ship, the Roosevelt, Peary forbid it. The contents of that box were never seen again. 

By December 1909, experts at the University of Copenhagen determined that Cook’s records were insufficient to prove he had reached the pole. Some researchers have noted that Cook’s account of the journey, which he tracked in a diary, describes the landscape with remarkable accuracy. If he didn’t reach the pole, how could he have known what it looked like? 

Whoever got there first, both men were intrepid adventurers who paved the way for later, less disputable expeditions. 

north pole
Personnel at an Antarctic Base, circa 1946-47. Back Row:(left to right) Dustin; Cox; Dr. Paul A. Siple; Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, USN; and Boyd Kneeling: (left to right) Morency; Shirley; Amory H. Waite: Richardson; and Wiener U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph

The true “first man to the North Pole” is nearly impossible to determine, but many have followed in their footsteps. About 60 years later, American Ralph Plaisted, along with three companions, were the first to reach the pole without a shred of controversy…by snowmobile, in 1968! Other adventurers have succeeded as well, by plane, submarine, and on their own two feet. I wonder which murderous wasteland will explorers fight over next. 

MIGHTY HISTORY

This American-built King Cobra was passed on to the Russians

The United States fielded a number of famous fighters in World War II. The P-40 Warhawk, the P-47 Thunderbolt, the F4F Wildcat, the F6F Hellcat, the P-38 Lightning, the F4U Corsair, and the P-51 Mustang all made huge marks. There was one plane, however, that did a lot of damage to the Axis but didn’t enjoy the same fanfare.

And it makes sense — because the Bell P-63 Kingcobra never saw action with the United States.


The P-63 Kingcobra did most of its fighting for the Soviet Air Force, where it served as a tank-buster, armed with a 37mm cannon (about 25 percent bigger than the A-10’s gun), that could also hold its own in the air.

The Kingcobra also packed four M2 .50-caliber machine guns — two in the nose (with 200 rounds per gun) and two in the wings (with 900 rounds per gun). These guns proved more than enough to take out German fighters. The Kingcobra also was able to carry up to three 500-pound bombs or drop tanks. And, with a top speed of 410 miles per hour, this plane was no slowpoke.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

The P-63 packed a single 37mm auto-cannon and four .50-caliber machine guns.

(USAF)

Nearly 2,400 Kingcobras were provided to the Soviet Union under the provisions of the Lend-Lease policy. Despite its solid performance, the Soviets never gave this plane much credit for what it did to the Nazis, preferring to highlight the Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik, a Russian design, for propaganda purposes.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

Some P-63s did serve in the American military – as training aids for pilots headed overseas.

(USAF)

The P-63 also saw some service with the French, who got 112 planes and used them in Indochina until they got second-hand F8F Bearcats from the United States.

In a way, the Kingcobra did serve in the United States — mostly as either aerial targets or target tugs to help American pilots practice their gunnery. Some were even slated to become (but were never used as) target drones.

Learn more about this forgotten fighter in the video below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpnXb5qmJsQ

www.youtube.com

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

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MIGHTY HISTORY

5 memorable Vietnam Veterans

Vietnam Veterans Day is a way to honor and thank those who fought and contributed to the war, as well as families who lost loved ones that served. While we celebrated all the Vietnam Veterans last week who served, we look to remember some of the most notable ones out of the 2.7 million soldiers who dedicated their time and blood to the Vietnam effort (between November 1, 1955 and May 15, 1975).

Many memorials have been created honoring the Vietnam Veterans, including 58,000 names carved into a black granite wall in Washington, D.C. While we remember those that died, we often forget those who lived, including the 304,000 service members who were wounded, 1,253 soldiers missing in action (MIA), and 2,500 prisoners of war (POWs).


Among these names are ones that are still recognized today, including these 5 memorable Vietnam Veterans:

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

John McCain

Famously, Senator John McCain spent five years in the Hoa Loa war prison, where he is said to have been physically and mentally tortured. He was released in 1973 after a ceasefire. For his time, he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross, Silver Star, Bronze Star, and Purple Heart.

McCain is a third-generation Navy member. He served as a pilot, completing several successful missions, before his plane was shot down and he was captured. Though Vietnam officials attempted to trade for his release due to being an admiral’s son, McCain refused and remained in captivity.

Nearly a decade after his release, he joined the House of Representatives via the state of Arizona. In 1996, McCain made a successful bid to the U.S. Senate, and later ran for president, losing to Barack Obama.

Other notable Vietnam Veteran politicians include Colin Powell, who retired from the Army after being injured in Vietnam, and going down in a helicopter crash, and Bob Kerrey, a former Navy SEAL who lost part of his leg in a Vietnam grenade explosion.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

Roger Staubach

Captain Comeback AKA Roger the Dodger was an NFL star quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys who brought home two Super Bowl wins. But before he was making his way in the NFL, Staubach graduated from the Naval Academy and served in the Navy. Upon graduation, he requested a tour in Vietnam, where he spent a year as a supply supervisor.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

Fred Smith

As the founder and Chairman of FedEx, Fred Smith is a notable businessman. But before he was setting up smart, overnight delivery infrastructure, he was serving as a U.S. Marine. In the late 60s, Smith put in two Vietnam tours where he worked as a forward air controller. He has cited his time in the Marines as helping him to understand and utilize military logistics for FedEx’s future success.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

J. Craig Venter

Another incredible Vietnam Veteran is J. Craig Venter, who was the first to sequence the human genome. Venture was drafted to the Navy, where he worked as a hospital orderly. He has said the experience with heavily wounded soldiers and frequent death prompted him to attend school and dedicate his career to medical studies.

The story of ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ makes your officers look pretty smart

She is one of 8 women named on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington D.C.

Annie Ruth Graham

Though little info exists on female service members of Vietnam, there were hundreds of nurses, news researchers and more who put their efforts to the war. This includes Annie Ruth Graham, a Lieutenant Colonel who served in World War II and Korea, before lending her nursing expertise to Vietnam. She died from natural causes during the war.

These are only a few names who helped offer their time and efforts to the Vietnam War. For more on their service, or to read about other veterans, check out the National Archives website.

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