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The Strangest Wars in History

By Edited Jun 14, 2016 0 0

Whether it's WMDs (weapons of mass destruction) which don't exist, religious differences, or desperate efforts to distract the population from economic problems at home, going to war for the right reasons has never been one of humanity's strong points. Countless wars have broken out for reasons which, in hindsight, were petty or ridiculous. Among history's most bizarre conflicts are these four wars:

The War of the Oaken Bucket (Modena vs Bologna, 1325)

The nation of Italy is a recent invention. What Italians refer to as the Risorgimento (literally, "the resurgence") lasted between 1815 and 1871, and saw the various kingdoms and states on the Italian peninsula knitted together to create the Kingdom of Italy, which in turn became the current Republic of Italy after a referendum abolished the monarchy in 1946.


In the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, much of northern Italy was divided between supporters of the pope's territorial and temporal power (known as "Guelphs") and those who backed the Holy Roman Emperor (called "Ghibellines"). Modena and Bologna were at loggerheads for this reason. Modena - these days better known for its long association with the sports-car makers Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati - was the seat of an archbishop and a center of learning, the university having been founded in 1175. Among its many splendid houses of worship are the Church of St. Augustine and San Giovanni Battista Church; the latter houses the superb wood sculpture of St John the Baptist shown above.

Bologna, where humans have been living for at least 3,000 years, was in that era probably the fifth-largest city in Europe with a population of over 50,000. It stood at the center of a canal network which facilitated trade and led to enviable prosperity. One of the world's most popular dishes, spaghetti bolognese (in Italian: spaghetti alla bolognese), is named after the city, yet in this part of the world pasta isn't usually served with bolgnese sauce.

Modena was staunchly Ghibelline, while Bologna's leaders had thrown their weight behind the papacy. In  1296, after Bologna captured the minor towns of Bazzano and Savigno from Modena, then Pope Boniface VIII (held office from 1294 to his death in 1303) quickly ratified Bologna's sovereignty over the vanquished territory. Rivalry punctuated by warfare characterized the Modena-Bologna relationship during the following decades, with Pope John XXII  (held office from 1316 to his death in 1334; pictured below) going so far as to declare Mantuan Passerino Bonacolsi, leader of Modena from 1308 onwards, "a rebel against the Church." What's more, the pope's fatwa-like announcement decreed that indulgences would be granted to anyone who harmed Bonacolsi or damaged his property.

Pope John XXII

Armed clashes escalated in spring of 1325, followed by Bolognese soldiers invading Modenese lands, burning crops and killing livestock. In September - the precise date isn't recorded - a small group of Modenese troops infiltrated Bologna, took a bucket from a public well and some other loot, then returned to their lines. Bologna demanded Modena return the bucket; when the Modenese refused, Bologna declared war. The decisive fighting took place on November 15 at the Battle of Zappolino. The Modenese were outnumbered more than four to one, but their professional fighting skills and superior weapons gave them an easy victory. But at least 2,000 men died for nothing. The bucket was never recovered (it's now displayed in Modena's city hall); Modena quickly surrendered the castles it had captured earlier in the year; and the Guelph/Ghibelline split continued for another century and a half. In the long run, however, Bologna has emerged as dominant. The city is now capital of Emilia-Romagna, an administrative region which includes Modena.

The War of Jenkins' Ear (Great Britain vs Spain, 1739 to 1748)

Spanish-language history books refer to this conflict as Guerra del Asiento, and this name makes clear Great Britain's less than honorable motives in opening hostilities. Between the mid-16th and early-19th centuries, the term asiento referred to permission given by Spain to other countries to ship African slaves to Latin America. Under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, Spain had promised to allow British traders to land and sell an unlimited number of slaves in Spain's American colonies, as well as a total of 500 tons of conventional cargo, each year for the next 30 years. Despite war breaking out between the two sides three times between 1718 and 1729, this concession was too lucrative not to be fully exploited by the British.

In the first half of the 18th century, the movement to abolish slavery had barely got under way. The practice was ended in Mexico in the 1820s; in Columbia, Peru, Venezuela and Argentina in the 1851-54 period; but not until 1886 in Cuba. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1834 by Act of Parliament. The painting below depicts slaving in Brazil circa 1800. Even now, the interwoven problems of de facto slavery and human trafficking haven't gone away.

Salvery in Brazil

Because Spain suspected British merchants were shipping more goods to Latin America than the treaty allowed, they negotiated with London for the right to stop and inspect British ships on the high seas. This right was granted, and in 1731, the Rebecca was searched by Spanish coast guards. The commander of the Spanish vessel, believing the Rebecca's captain, one Robert Jenkins, to be guilty of smuggling, sliced off the captain's ear. It seems Jenkins was able to recover the severed body part. When, several years later, it became known in political circles in London that a Briton had been brutalized by the Spanish, the captain was able to appear before a House of Commons committee - and display as evidence his detached ear!

An ear

For more than a year, the British government sought compensation from the Spanish court. None was forthcoming, so military reprisals began on October 22, 1739. Royal Navy warships attacked Spanish ships, forts and harbors in what's now Cuba, Panama, Columbia and Venezuela. The Spanish, for their part, made an unsuccessful attempt in 1742 to invade Georgia, then a British colony; clashes between Spanish-ruled Florida and Georgia continued for some years.

Little real fighting occurred in the half decade before the formal end of the war in 1748, because both London and Madrid paid far more attention to the War of the Austrian Succession (1742 to 1748), which involved most of Western Europe. Nonetheless, the total number of combatants killed, captured or wounded in the Caribbean region may well have exceeded 30,000. The conflict wasn't known to English speakers as The War of Jenkins' Ear until 1858, when Thomas Carlyle (a historian-commentator best known for dismissing economics as "the dismal science") devised the bon mots.

There was a fresh moment of public awareness about the war during the 1992 British election campaign, when then Prime Minister John Major (who went on to win the election by a narrow margin) was attacked by the opposition Labor Party, led by Neil Kinnock, for mismanaging the National Health Service. Labor claimed a little girl, supposedly called Jennifer, had been waiting an entire year for an ear operation. The prime minister's campaign team got wind of the attack before it was launched because the girl's grandfather was a member of Major's Conservative Party; they responded robustly, exploiting inaccuracies in the Labour version to cast doubt on Kinnock's truthfulness. Wags in the UK media quickly dubbed the squabble "The War of Jennifer's Ear."

The War of the Golden Stool (1900)

Among Westerners, the Ashanti (sometimes spelled "Asante" or, as on the map below, "Ashante") are one of Africa's best known ethnic groups. The empire they built from the late 16th century prospered thanks to gold, ivory and slaves which they traded to the Dutch and later the British. As Great Britain began to expand its presence in West Africa (the Ashanti realm is now part of Ghana, a former British colony which gained its independence in 1957), the regional superpower came into conflict with the global superpower . In an 1823 clash, Sir Charles MacCarthy, governor of Sierra Leone (then a British colony where London had settled freed slaves and African-Americans loyal to the British crown), was shot and killed. According to one of the few British soldiers to survive being captured by Ashanti warriors, MacCarthy was decapitated post-mortem; his skull was cleaned, lined with gold, and later used as a drinking-cup and trophy.

Map of Ashanti Empire

In 1897, the British sent Ashanti King Prempeh I into exile. Three years later, facing growing unrest in and around their colony of The Gold Coast (now called Ghana), British Governor Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson entered the still semi-independent Ashanti Kingdom and ordered the tribespeople to bring to him the Golden Stool - traditionally believed to hold the soul of the Ashanti nation - so he could sit on it and take it away, to symbolize the tribe's submission to British rule. While he was at it, he demanded the immense sum of 160,000 British pounds, which the British Empire believed was owed to them following the Third Anglo-Ashanti War of 1873-74.

Hodgson's order outraged the Ashanti, and prompted Prempeh I's mother to mobilize the kingdom's warriors. Fighting broke out almost immediately; the British delegation, which was protected by 500 Nigerian soldiers, sandbagged themselves behind a stockade. A siege began on March 25, after which the Ashanti concentrated on ensuring no food or messages reached the British, and harrassing relief columns, rather than attempting a frontal assault. The British outpost wasn't rescued until July 15, those inside saying starvation and thirst would have forced them to surrender within two days if relief hadn't come. In all, 1,007 British and colonial troops died. Ashanti losses are estimated to have been double.

Ashanti Golden Stool

The war was an African victory in that the Golden Stool didn't fall into enemy hands, and the kingdom retained a great deal of autonomy. That said, the region was added to The Gold Coast in law if not in fact, and the queen's mother was exiled to Seychelles. She died there in 1921, the year after some laborers had stumbled across the Golden Stool hidden in a forest. They passed it to British officials, who also had to arrange the laborers' escape from the region after a tribal court sentenced them to death for desecrating the stool.

Independent Ghana recognizes the Ashanti royal line and the stool makes occasional appearanes during traditional ceremonies, such as the 1992 event pictured above, where it can be seen  placed on a wooden throne on the left of the reigning but powerless monarch.

The Soccer War (El Salvador vs Honduras, 1969)


El Salvadoran flag
What's variously known as the Football War, the Soccer War or, in Spanish, La guerra del fútbol, lasted just over four days. The match that lit the conflagration - which led to between 1,000 and 6,000 deaths - was a game of soccer, but the tinder on the ground consisted of tensions over immigration and border demarcation.

Like most places in Latin America, football is the national sport of El Salvador (flag shown at the top of this section) and Honduras. Qualifying games ahead of the 1970 World Cup were followed with intense fervor. Honduras won the first game between the two countries 1-0. Ahead of the second leg, held in El Salvador, the Honduran team was beseiged in its hotel; according to news reports, eggs, stones and dead rats were thrown through the building's broken windows. It was no surprise the terrified Hondurans lost 0-3.

The deciding third match was held on the neutral territory of Mexico, but such were the tensions between the two sides that Honduras broke off diplomatic ties with their neighbor and rival on June 27, the day of the game. El Salvador went on to win 3-2, qualifying for the next year's World Cup (where they performed dismally).

Honduran flag

In terms of land area, Honduras (flag shown here) is five times larger than El Salvador. In the late 1960s, however, El Salvador had far more people. Not surprisingly, landless peasants from El Salvador were migrating by the thousand to Honduras, competing for jobs with Honduran workers and sometimes taking their land. Rioting occurred in Honduras after the Honduran team was defeated on the soccer pitch, and on July 14, El Salvador responded by invading parts of Honduras. The Organization of American States scrambled to negotiate a ceasefire, but not until 1980 did the two countries sign a peace treaty, agreeing to accept International Court of Justice (ICJ) mediation of their border dispute. Finally, in 1998, the two nations began implementing the ICJ verdict that El Salvador should turn over to Honduras 374.5km2 of land. By 2014, the population of Honduras (almost 8.1 million) was greater than that of El Salvador (6.3 million).

The Soccer War is the title of an engrossing book by masterful Polish reporter-writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, who witnessed the conflict.

The Soccer War
Amazon Price: $15.95 $2.90 Buy Now
(price as of Jun 14, 2016)


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