History was never my favorite subject in school because it was usually about war, and I soon reached the point that I wasn’t going to study war no more.
Think back to the big chapters in history: the Egyptians chasing Moses, Rome burning Carthage, Athens battling Sparta, the Hundred Years’ War, revolutions, coups, Nazis, the Cold War, us vs. Russia, us vs. Korea, us vs. Iraq. Why can’t we all just get along?
I was greatly surprised, then, to come across a book that, although titled The Greatest War Stories Never Told, left me with a peaceful, easy feeling.
Written by Rick Beyer, who has worked with The History Channel, and published in 2005 by HarperCollins, it is subtitled 100 Tales from Military History to Astonish, Bewilder, & Stupefy.
And it does. Beyer devotes two pages each to 100 stories behind the stories of the past 2,400 years. My favorite parts are not the casualties, but the effects on our culture and language.
Let’s take the Charge of the Light Brigade. In 1854, during the Crimean War, British cavalrymen were destroyed by the Russians in the Battle of Balaklava. We know it from Tennyson’s poem.
In Britain, the military blunder was romanticized, though, and brigade commander James Thomas Brudenell was declared a hero. The collarless, button-down sweaters he had bought for his men to wear under their uniforms became big sellers back home. The garments took their name from Brudenell’s title: the seventh Earl of Cardigan.
Besides the cardigan (I’m wearing one today), another article of clothing got its name from that battle. The officer who ordered the ill-fated charge “into the valley of Death” had lost an arm at Waterloo, so he wore a capelike overcoat with sleeves that went all the way to the collar. Ever since the handicapped Lord Raglan dressed for necessity, we have had raglan coats.
Another fight that left us a couple of modern-day expressions took place in 1683 in Vienna. After besieging the city for months, Ottoman Turks tunneled under the walls. They were thwarted when lowly bakers, slaving away at night, heard the digging and raised the alarm.
The city secure, the bakers celebrated by creating a pastry in the shape of the crescent moon from the Turks’ flag. They called it a “crescent,” or in German, Kipfel. Nearly a century later, when Austria’s Princess Marie Antoinette, 15, went to France to wed Louis XVI, Parisian bakers churned out Kipfels in her honor. The German Kipfel became the French croissant.
The baking wasn’t done. Poland’s King John III, who had come to Vienna’s aid by ousting the Turks, was such a good horseman that, in his honor, those same Viennese bakers created a roll shaped like a stirrup. They called it a Bugel, or, as we know it today, bagel. That’s the story anyway, Beyer writes.
Centuries earlier, in 1281, the Mongol empire’s Kublai Khan sailed off to invade Japan. As his ships neared the islands, a typhoon destroyed them and drowned thousands; those who made it ashore were slaughtered by the Japanese. Perhaps 100,000 Mongols died.
Grateful natives called the typhoon “The Divine Wind.” In the 20th century, their heirs used the same expression for their warriors who sacrificed themselves when defeat seemed certain. Their word for The Divine Wind: kamikaze.
In 1681, the Defenestration of Prague took place when angry Protestant nobles tossed three Roman Catholics out a high castle window. The church officials fell onto a manure pile and ran off, but the scuffle mushroomed. Fighting killed 10 million people and drew the face of modern Europe. We know it as the Thirty Years’ War.
I’m out of space. Read The Greatest War Stories Never Told for yourself.
You’ll find it makes all the killing throughout history almost worthwhile.
Reach Glynn Moore at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column distributed by Morris News Service.
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