5 Minor Screw-Ups That Created The Modern World
Today we continue our crusade to convince the world that most of the truly important events in history happened due to some kind of ridiculous accident.
It should be no surprise that some of the best examples of this have occurred during wartime. War, after all, combines mankind's most lofty ambitions with its deepest stupidity. That means that some of the most crucial moments in warfare have played out like ridiculous slapstick.
The Colonies Were Saved by a Poker Game
Thomas Paine described December 1776 in his poorly-Xeroxed The American Crisis as "times that try men's souls" for a reason: It was the single suckiest month in the single shittiest year in American memory.
"It is a dark time for the Rebellion ..." - Thomas Paine
By Christmas Eve 1776, the city of New York had fallen, the Continental Congress had fled Philadelphia and General George Washington's ragtag Continental Army had just barely survived the single most hellish commute in New Jersey history. The rebellion was off to such a disastrous start that, hell, even the Canadians were schooling the U.S. in warfare.
Fortunately, we all know that Washington was able to stave off defeat by heroically crossing the Delaware to win key victories at Trenton and Princeton. The Colonies would live to see the new year.
"Wool stockings and typhus for everyone!"
Of course, for every heroic Hail Mary play, there's a defense that has screwed the pooch. What was regarded as a miracle for the Colonies was a disaster for the British.
What ruined it: A poker game.
While Washington's heroic crossing of the Delaware may be firmly implanted into the American psyche, the truth is actually a whole lot stupider than what we were taught in history class. It turns out a loyalist spy named Moses Doan observed Washington along the Delaware on Christmas Eve, along with what he described as "a boatload of soldiers." He immediately notified Col. Johann Rall of the Hessians about the impending attack but was turned away because the colonel was engaged in a heated game of chess -- or, depending on who you ask, a poker game.
Since the colonel had no wish to be disturbed, Doan left him with a note that read: "Washington is coming on you down the river, he will be here afore long." Rall, still deeply engrossed in his game, stuffed the note into his pocket without giving it a thought.
"I had a pair of threes. You never back down on a pair of threes."
Sure enough, Johann Rall was found dead the next morning, his little "Washington is coming on you down the river" note still unopened in his pocket.
... And that's why America exists.
Had things been different:
If the British had been ready for Washington's surprise attack, everything changes. Washington could have been killed or captured as he made his way across the Delaware, along with Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, James Monroe and a handful of other Founding Fathers who were freezing their balls off as well that worst Christmas ever.
"I swear to God, if there isn't a Kinect under the tree I am going to scream."
Also, to make matters worse, the timing of Washington's victories at Trenton and Princeton was just the buzzer beater the nation needed to keep the Revolution together. Had Washington failed at either battle, which is an occasional subject for scholars, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware "would have surrendered almost immediately." America would have just settled for forever being one more British colony.
An Unlocked Door Dooms Constantinople
For a brief period in the Middle Ages, perhaps best described as "all of it," the city of Constantinople was one of the biggest deals on the planet, back when it was the citadel to the Eastern Roman Empire. The city survived barbarians and Attila the Hun, withstood siege after siege from Arabs, Bulgarians and Russians, and outlasted its Western Roman counterparts for a solid 1,000 years. When the city fell in 1204, they took it right back and held it for two centuries more.
And then ...
What ruined it: Some jackass who forgot to lock the door.
Shit got real for Constantinople -- and the entire Christian world -- in the form of Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire. Equipped with the best soldiers and technologies 1453 had to offer, Mehmed II rolled into town that April with as many as 200,000 troops, over 100 ships and some huge, huge cannons to crack through the city's legendary walls.
The Medieval Death Star.
For the next two months, shit went down like Disc 2 of the Kingdom of Heaven director's cut, but withstanding sieges was what Constantinople was best at, despite being hopelessly outnumbered. That's how you survive for 10 centuries.
But fortune smiled on Mehmed II on May 29, 1453, in the form of human stupidity: Some jackass had forgotten to lock Constantinople's Kerkoporta gate during the siege. No treason, no bribery; it was 100 percent accidental, "Pobody's Nerfect" territory.
As the Ottomans raised their flags over the Kerkoporta gate, the city fell into panic, and its defenses collapsed. The city was pillaged, its inhabitants massacred and enslaved, and Emperor Constantine XI killed. Thus passed the Byzantine Empire, the period known as the Middle Ages, and, at long last, the Roman Empire ... thanks to this unknown medieval fucktard.
S.P.Q.R. (27 B.C. - 1453 A.D.)
Had things been different:
Although the Byzantines had clearly been taking a nosedive for some time, there's no reason to suggest that Constantinople could not have withstood Mehmed II. Sieges in general are expensive as hell and absolutely terrible for armies, and Mehmed's own Grand Vizier Candarli Halil Pasha protested the invasion from the beginning out of fear of crusades and/or Dracula.
Had the Kerkoporta gate actually been locked or at least gone unnoticed long enough for Mehmed to call it quits, there's a good chance this would have meant no Ottoman conquest of the Balkans, no "Istanbul," no Hagia Sophia mosque...
... and about 400 years of completely rewritten Russian history. After all, it was Russia's Ivan III who married Constantine XI's niece right before Constantinople fell. This lucky break is why Moscow to this day considers itself the Third Rome, right down to the seven hills. Why the hell else do you think they called themselves czars? For their health?
Hell no ...
Hannibal's Army is Devastated by a Cane
One cannot underscore how enormous Hannibal's crossing of the Alps during the Second Punic War was for the ancient world. As far as Rome was concerned, crossing the Alps was damn near impossible. Today it would be like China launching an attack on Los Angeles by tunneling through the goddamned Earth. That is how outside the box Hannibal of Carthage liked to think.
Once Hannibal finally made it across the mountains, his campaign through Italy would become remembered as one of the most perfectly executed military operations in history. His victory at Cannae remains the archetype for military pwn3ge to this day, and his tactics were so revolutionary that the Romans had no choice but to study him all they could. It is for this reason that Hannibal has been called "the father of strategy."
Just seeing him was a war crime.
It's probably a testament to the man's genius that he tattooed his wang across the face of history in what was ultimately a losing effort. He gave the Roman Empire the fight of its life for sixteen insane years, but at the end of the day, Rome was standing, and they'd picked up a bunch of pretty sweet tricks.
What ruined it: A cane.
As we mentioned, Hannibal chose to sneak his army into Italy using the single most treacherous route on the planet, and crossing the Alps with fucking elephants ended up killing more of his men than the Romans ever did. Part of this was due to the Alps being coated with snow on snow, and rest of it because of a certain pass Hannibal took his men and beasts through called Certain Death.
There is an episode in the Roman epic poem Punica which details this odyssey where Hannibal tried to demonstrate to his men that a certain cliff was safe to pass along. He chose to do this by ramming his cane into the snow. This in turn triggered an avalanche, which wiped out one- to two-thirds of his invasion force, killing 18,000 of his 38,000 men, 2,000 of his 8,000 horses and a shitton of his precious pachyderms.
For a brief moment in Italy, it was literally raining elephants.
According to the story, he lost nearly one-half of his infantry and one-fourth of his cavalry before he was even ready to start getting his hands dirty. Since Hannibal happened to be one of the greatest generals who ever lived, he was able to work with a -67 percent handicap to give Rome hell for 16 years, but that brings us to one of history's great "What If's."
War was a lot more fun back before pants became standard issue.
Had things been different:
There is no doubt in the world that Hannibal would have conquered Rome, since the only thing holding him back was losing a big chunk of his army while coming over. Carthage would have completely supplanted Rome in history, and just about everything in the Western World, from its laws to its art and architecture to its genetic makeup, would probably look a lot more, um ... Tunisian?
John Paul Jones' Invasion of England is Stalled by Sweet, Sweet Booze
John Paul Jones' raid of Whitehaven on April 23, 1778, was a feat just as crazy as it was crazy-awesome. To begin with, this was what John Paul Jones looked like.
The father of the U.S. Navy.
Just to set the record straight, John Paul Jones was not a pirate. He simply came off as one because, you know, he tended to ride in captured vessels, sail with rugged crews and fly colors that no country on the planet could claim were theirs.
John Paul Jones' skull and crossbones.
During the American Revolution, this pissed-off Scotsman put his lifelong hatred for King and Country to the single best use on the planet by joining the U.S. Navy long before it was popular. He was given a sweet new ship, the USS Ranger and a boatload of U.S. Marines which he used to successfully invade England in one of the most daring acts in U.S. history.
This man's balls had balls.
What ruined it: A pub.
Despite boasting the single largest pair of cannonballs on either side of the Atlantic, Jones' midnight raid of Whitehaven nearly turned into a disaster for two reasons. The first was a traitor named David Freeman, who started the raid by going all Paul Revere through the city, warning everybody that "pirates" were there to burn it down. This half-truth can be forgiven, if only because Jones was not there to burn Whitehaven -- just the 200-plus ships in its port.
He sure wasn't there for the bangers and mash.
The second screwup, however, involved a subordinate named Lt. Wallingford of the U.S. Marine Corps, whom Jones had tasked with burning the ships. The man had instead used his Marines to invade "the nearest pub," where they dutifully "made very free with the liquor, etc." In short, they invaded England just to get drunk.
"Come on, you apes -- do you want to be sober forever?"
Out of the hundreds of boats Jones had hoped to sink that evening, his pirate/Marine raiding party managed to sink only one. Nevertheless, Jones later remarked, "what was done ... is sufficient to show that not all their boasted navy can protect their own coasts," we imagine while putting out a cigar on a stolen portrait of King George III.
The raid successfully scared the fuck out of the entire British Empire, and Jones got to join the ranks of William the Conqueror and Julius Caesar as one of the few leaders in human history to successfully invade the British Isles.
Thus securing America's supply of Damp for decades to come.
Had things been different:
Had Jones' U.S. Marines done their job instead of getting drunk with your great grandmother, it would have been an absolute nightmare for the British. Every single ship in Whitehaven may have been torched. The fire would have been seen from a horizon away, and it would have been impossible for the British to cover up the damage.
The British were already worked into a frenzy over Jones. Multiply that by 200, and you might have an idea how the Royal Navy would have been forced to respond.
This is JPJ's coffin. We don't have the faintest fucking clue what's going on there, either.
It is worth noting that this was just a dress rehearsal for Jones' bigger baby: the Armada of 1779. If Jones had had his way, a U.S./Spanish/French coalition would have ended the Revolution in 1779 by doing to the British Isles what he did to Whitehaven. He flat-out wanted to conquer England.
Which we are pretty sure is every single Scotsman's dream.
The French are Thwarted by a Tomahawk
The Seven Years' War, which started in 1756 and lasted for the next -- hold on, we need to look this up here -- seven years, is probably the most important war in history that most people don't know or care about. Winston Churchill described it as "the first world war" in A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, and for good reason. Just take a look at its participants ...
World War 0
The war kicked France off of America, catapulted England into superpower status and cost so much money that the Brits decided to pay for it by taxing the barley out of their underrepresented American colonies. In short, the war was the American Revolution's equivalent to the Star Wars prequels, and it all started in the Ohio Valley in two little-known battles that involved an even less-known 22-year-old militiaman named George Washington.
Who hadn't yet mastered the subtle art of not cutting his face while shaving.
What ruined it: A random nutcase with a tomahawk, and the fact that Washington didn't know French.
At the Battle of Jumonville Glen on May 28, 1754, the fate of the entire Western world resided within the brain of a Frenchman named Joseph Coulon de Jumonville. He was captured by the young Washington (who was fighting on behalf of the British at the time, this being well before the Revolution). The Frenchman told Washington that he was in fact there on a diplomatic mission to negotiate with him.
Thankfully, this was before the Willis style of combat negotiation.
But before Washington could respond or make a deal, an Iroquoian chief named Tanaghrisson decided to send a loud and clear message to tomorrow's textbooks that history is not boring. He split de Jumonville's head open with a tomahawk, "took out his Brains and washed his Hands with them and then scalped him."
Naturally, the French were pretty pissed over de Jumonville getting brained, and in response they eventually captured the young Washington at the Battle of Fort Necessity. It wasn't that big a deal until Washington formalized his surrender, at which point the French tricked him into signing a document declaring that he, George Washington, had "assassinated" de Jumonville -- we're guessing by tomahawk -- while under his care as a P.O.W.
Washington's signature immediately turned into a diplomatic nightmare for the British Empire that exploded into the first world war faster than Michael Bay could film it. It was the largest and most expansive conflict the world had yet seen, and it was all made possible thanks to young Washington signing a document he couldn't read, because he flunked French in middle school.
Once more, an inspiration for children everywhere.
Had things been different:
Had Tanaghrisson not gone all Patrick Bateman or had Washington not slept his way through French class, the Fates would have rewritten history so radically that we'd somehow have the dinosaurs back.
Would the British have passed the Stamp Act of 1765 without the Seven Years' War killing their credit? Would the American Revolution had been avoided, or even flat-out made unnecessary? Would there have even been a United States, a French Revolution, a Napoleon, or ... hell, a Hitler? Your guess is as good as ours. All we at Cracked know is that when de Jumonville's brains were still intact, the French-speaking world looked like this (the blue part):
Yeah, it's a little different today. That's why you don't try to pull the wool over George Washington's eyes, kids.
For more incredible war stories, check out The 5 Most Badass Prison Escapes in the History of War. Or learn how else the modern world was shaped, check out 6 Random Coincidences That Created The Modern World.
And stop by Linkstorm to get your daily dose of WTF.
Do you have an idea in mind that would make a great article? Then sign up for our writers workshop! Do you possess expert skills in image creation and manipulation? Mediocre? Even rudimentary? Are you frightened by MS Paint and simply have a funny idea? You can create an infograpic and you could be on the front page of Cracked.com tomorrow!