William Tecumseh Sherman once said that “War is Hell”. It certainly can be. But, in a broader sense, it can also be weird and wonderful, unexpectedly hilarious and quite touching. It isn’t all bombs and Rambo, it isn’t all Schindler’s List. This is not to minimise the horror inherent within mass conflict, rather it is to underline the more human and humane aspects, to highlight that, at the end of it all, each soldier is also a human being – good, bad or indifferent… and sometimes on a bike.
Here is a list of the more wacky, strange and unexpected things from the world’s militaries. Enjoy.
10 The Bolivian Navy
Bolivia has a navy, and a decent one, at that. They have a good number of patrol vessels, 3 hospital ships and thousands of well-trained personnel. There is one issue—they don’t have a coastline.
It all started back in the late nineteenth century when Chile defeated a joint Bolivian-Peruvian coalition in the ‘War of the Pacific’. The victory extended Chile’s territory northwards up the South American coastline, cutting off Bolivia’s access to the ocean. When your nation is named after one of the world’s greatest military leaders, it shouldn’t be any surprise that your nation’s institutions should display a supreme level of pluck and stubbornness – and don’t you dare tell them otherwise.
Although they have adapted to turn their naval force into a ‘Lake and River’ force in lieu of access to the sea, neighbouring Peru granted access to Bolivia to the coast back in 2010, albeit on a limited basis.
9 ‘Ji-had’ Joe
In the early 2000s, the CIA developed a doll with former Hasbro exec Donald Levine, famous for inventing another American icon – GI Joe.
It was an Osama Bin Landen action figure with a heat-sensitive plastic ‘skin’ covering the face. When it peeled off, his real face would be revealed – a monstrous, inhuman face with cat-like eyes that looks like a cross between the demon from the first ‘Insidious’ movie and Darth Maul. It was designed to make young people who lived within Al Qaeda’s sphere of influence fearful and disgusted by the man and his band of barbaric terrorists (as though their actions weren’t enough).
It is rumoured that 600 or so of the figures were shipped to and distributed in Pakistan, but only three figures confirmed to have existed.
In 2014, a prototype said to be from the estate of the late Donald Levine was put up for auction and sold to an anonymous bidder for $12,000.
8 Weirdest War Monument
The ‘Portuguese Fireplace’ is, well, a fireplace.
It stands alone in a clearing in England’s New Forest, a really weird sight considering it’s not inside a house. It stands to commemorate the Portuguese soldiers who, aided by the Canadian Timber Corps, filled the labour gap in the timber industry in the area due to the conscription of local workforce. The fireplace was part of the cookhouse which serviced the soldiers.
This quirky commemorative structure serves to remind all who see it that war is more than battles, dogfights, and submarines—Hard work to plug gaps on the home front can be as powerful a weapon as a Vickers machine gun or a slam-fired Winchester 1897.
7 CONOP 8888
Zombies were everywhere for a while. Not literally, but in pop culture. Every graphic novel, carton series, new TV drama and film seemed to want to jump on the slowly chugging Z-train. Sometimes, people take these fads too far, fully absorbed into the fandom, believing that these fictions are real. In 2011, the US Defence Department succumbed to this.
CONOP 8888 was a document drafted as a guide for the US military to combat the undead. But is it really that crazy? The project was designed to obfuscate any chance that the public would believe the plan were ‘real’ should it get leaked. What does this mean? Imagine the defence scenario was a ‘ground operation in Belgium’ or ‘how to gain air superiority in Crimea’ or ‘invasion and reigime change in Mexico’. Even if it was clear that this was just a scenario designed as an exercise, you know the press would have a field day. So, they formulated a totally unbelievable, fictional scenario.
The document covers many aspects of combatting zombie hordes, ending with how to “aid civil authorities in maintaining law and order and restoring basic services during and after a zombie attack.” And then it turned out to be vampires… what a waste of time.
6 The Most Dangerous Biker Gangs Ever
What could be more terrifying to your nation’s enemies than coming upon a platoon of well-armed, well-trained… bicyclists.
Many nations have traditionally had an active unit of bicycle-riding soldiers in their armed forces. Although these specialist units have dwindled over the years, no longer active in many countries they used to be an integral part of many countries’ fighting forces.
Contrary to what may seem like basic common sense (why didn’t opposing armies just reintroduce jousting polls to knock them off?), a lot of militaries used to use bicycle units – Cheap to run and maintain, these units were also able to access hard-to-reach areas twice as quickly as marching units. Quiet and ensuring the recruitment of physically fit soldiers, bicycle-riding soldiers were also perfect scouting units, used well into the 1940s.
Later on, the Viet Cong used bicycles to ferry supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Tamil Tigers made great use of bikes during the Sri Lankan Civil War.
The Swiss Army maintained their bicycle corps until the early 2000s. the unit had been integral in defending Swiss neutrality during WWII, patrolling the borders in order to deter Nazi invasion. Right up until the end they trained in combat – recruits would have to complete a gruelling 200 km ride through the mountainous countryside, carrying kit that weighed at least 25 kilos.
You may be thinking that an ‘army bicycle’ is a stupid idea. Remember, though, that this is a ‘Swiss Army Bicycle’…it also contains a fighter jet, a tank and, of course, an awl.
5 The British Empire vs The Central Powers vs Mother Nature’s Minions
The First World War was more than just trench warfare in some Belgian fields. It truly was a World War.
Some of the most brutal fighting took place in East Africa, in what is today Tanzania and Kenya. The Battle of Tanga was one such bloody battle. Today, it is mainly remembered for the strange enemy that appeared on the battlefield, attack Germans and British alike.
Swarms of angry bees.
Opposing sides met on palm-oil and coconut plantations in the northern port city of Tanga, engaging in skirmishes. The heavy ordinance raining down across the fields agitated the bee population who were quietly making honey in their hives. The bees attacked scores of soldiers, sending many fleeing from the battlefield.
4 Forgotten Wars
Forgetting where you put your car keys and forgetting that you are at war with another nation are qualitatively different. This has not stopped many conflicts slipping the collective minds of whole nations.
In 2006, Japan finally capitulated to the demands for recognition from Montenegro, ending their brutal, bloody war. No? don’t remember this one? Neither did Japan and Montenegro. Back in the Russo-Japanese War from 1904-05, Montenegro decided to (symbolically) back Russia against Japan. When the war ended with the signing of a peace treaty, Montenegro wasn’t mentioned, thus resulting in the small Balkan state remaining in a state of war with Japan. 100-years passed, and Montenegro decided to split from Serbia towards the end of the Balkan crisis. Japan promptly recognised the nation’s independence, thus ending the war.
Even weirder is the ongoing struggle between Russia and the small town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Due to its position as the northernmost town in England, right on the border with Scotland, whether Berwick-upon-Tweed is part of England or Scotland has been a dispute for centuries. As a result, it was customary for documents such as treaties to be signed ‘King/Queen of England, Scotland/Great Britain, Ireland, Berwick-upon-Tweed and all the British Dominions’. The Treaty of Paris ended the Crimean War, but Berwick-upon-Tweed wasn’t mentioned. So, for the last 150-years or so, the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed has been in a state of war with Imperial Russia. A country that no longer exists. Sort of. Not really.
In 1651, in order to recoup some losses suffered by supporting the losing Royalist faction in England’s civil war, Dutch Admiral Marteen Tromp tried to extract reparations from the Isles of Scilly, a small chain of islands between southern England and France. Tromp declared war on the isles. When the opposing side in the conflict, the Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell, took control of the war, they quickly took control of the isles and the Dutch sailed home. They never rescinded their declaration of war. It took until 1986 for this loophole to be noticed after a local historian uncovered the fact that a peace treaty had never been drafted and, after a 335-year war, the Scilly Isles finally had peace with the Dutch. Nobody cared.
3 Battlefield Blunders And A King’s Last Straw
England and Scotland, the ‘auld enemy’ and, um, “those hairy men in skirts.” These two nations have had their fair share of bust-ups. One of the most inglorious conflicts (for the Scots – don’t worry, guys, just remember Bannockburn) was the time James V of Scotland threw a massive hissy fit and sent his forces down to invade England.
Henry VIII had just legalised every last thing he wanted to do that was previously illegal, even making his own special church. When his nephew, the King of Scotland, turned down his “offer” to follow suit, maintaining the primacy of the Catholic Church in Scotland, Henry sent up some troops to rough up those insolent celts. James didn’t enjoy this, sending his own force across the border.
The large Scottish army of around 15,000 men found themselves quickly corralled into an are between the River Esk and a large peat bog called ‘Solway Moss’. The much smaller English defensive force essentially watched them, only harassing their fringes, causing hundreds of the panicking Scots to drown in the bog or the river. They took over a thousand prisoners as the remaining Scots fled back home.
James, who was busy suffering with a fever and being thoroughly disappointed that his wife had just given birth to a girl, took the news of his loss at Solway Moss quite poorly – he died.
2 Sulu Warrior
There are a lot of awesome things about Fiji – tropical beaches, amazing rugby players and an amazing, multicultural heritage. One thing that is slightly less awesome but very comical is the sight of the Palace Guards wearing the traditional sulu skirts as part of their dress uniform.
The skirt was a cultural import from neighbouring Tonga in the nineteenth century, adopted by Fijians as a sign of their conversion to Christianity (so don’t cry ‘cultural insensitivity’ – it’s a new-ish, Tongan import. *Author’s note* Check out our Welsh national dress, you have my permission to mock us freely, as I do).
It is now part of the national dress, worn proudly by the men and women entrusted with guarding the royal palace The only problem is that once you think “it looks a bit like the bottom of Wilma Flintstone’s dress”, you cannot unsee that mental image.
1 Alternate History IRL
Films, video games and novels that deal with ‘what if the Nazis won’ have been popular for a while – it’s fun to read ‘The Man in the High Castle’ and imagine what you’d do if the Nazis occupied New York… no, not fun… terrifying, I meant terrifying.
In 1942, the city of Winnipeg in Canada got a taste of such an alternate reality in real life.
The ominously named “If Day” occurred on the 19th of February, complete with fake stormtroopers hassling citizens at checkpoints, ‘blown up’ bridges (set-dressed with rubble to render them impassable), a mock aerial blitzkrieg bombing and even fake reichsmarks being issued throughout the city. The reason for the day was printed on the reverse of the banknotes:
“Bonds or bondage, the choice is yours!”
Yes, this was a push to sell victory bonds to aid in the Allied war effort. And it worked – Winnipeg smashed their expected target in Bond sales. Eventually, the Allies smashed the Nazi regime in turn.