War ... war never changes.
Oh wait, yes it does. Otherwise, all of our wars would be still be fought by naked leprous giantesses. You know, like they were back in the good old days. Doesn't sound familiar? Well, despite the homogeneous tones with which your history books have painted war, the past is full of, shall we say, "colorful" armies. Such as ...
Picture the medieval Crusaders: handsome, noble bearded men in shining white armor, swinging the broadsword of Christianity into the skulls of philistines. Now picture them physically falling apart like an army of religious zombies. Now you have a pretty good idea of what the Leper Knights of St. Lazarus were like.
Order of St. Lazarus
We're not 100-percent sure how leprosy works, but we know zombies, dammit.
If you caught leprosy in the 12th century, your career paths were limited to "boogeyman" and "cautionary tale." People were so scared of catching it that lepers were banished from society and forbidden to mix with healthy people. The Order of St. Lazarus was a leper hospital in Jerusalem dedicated to caring for knights who had been stricken with the disease. The Templars would send leper knights there and pay for their care -- it was like a medieval VA hospital. Well ... like a slightly more medieval VA hospital, at any rate.
Every Leper's Day, they'd reminisce about the Gross War and World War Eww.
But when the Crusades escalated and the Ottoman hordes came knocking on Jerusalem's door, the leper knights weren't about to take it lying down. Instead of waiting to fall to pieces while their healthy cohorts did God's work, the Order of St. Lazarus donned their armor again, picked up their broadswords, and entered the fray.
The leper knights weren't particularly successful in their campaigns, but they earn points for having giant balls (assuming that they hadn't fallen off yet). That doesn't mean they weren't formidable opponents, though. Imagine a bunch of dudes who know they're going to die soon anyway, who can't feel pain due to nerve damage, and who are basically walking biological weapons. Actually, if you can wait a year or so, you won't have to imagine it -- that is, if Hollywood picks up our badass new screenplay, Knight Of The Lepers.
If you have an interest in military history, you might have a collection of memorabilia lying around somewhere. If you're an absurdly rich and slightly crazy Prussian king, that memorabilia might come in the form of large human beings. King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia (modern-day Germany, for those frantically scouring a map) liked to collect soldiers. Real ones.
Samuel Theodor Gericke
"You have your GI Joes, I have mine."
And not just anyone who was willing to sign up; Friedrich was obsessed with tall dudes, so much so that he scoured the world for additions to his army of giants. Anyone over six feet tall was an ideal recruit. And Friedrich didn't handle rejection well -- if someone said no, the King would pay mercenaries to kidnap him and drag his beanpole ass back to join the Prussian basketball league.
There are stories of Friedrich sending teams of talent scouts out as far as Ireland and Sweden to abduct locals whom he'd heard were particularly huge. In one case, they almost caused an international incident when they spotted a tall guy getting into a cab in Hanover and tried to grab him, only to learn later that their intended victim had been an Austrian diplomat.
The Schwarzeneggers have been an angry clan ever since.
If you were the king of another nation at the time, you knew that the best way to win over the nutty King of Prussia was to send him lanky dudes as gifts. The King of Russia (not the store brand knockoff of Prussia -- totally different place) intentionally groomed his tallest subjects for such purposes of "diplomacy." Friedrich didn't simply think that an army of giants would be a good intimidation tool, though; he really, really loved his collection. When he was sick in bed, he would have his giants march through his bedroom to cheer him up with drums and, often, a bear. Why a bear?
Why not a bear?
Cornelis van Haarlem
"Nothing's unbearable when he's around!"
"HA ... but seriously, five guys died getting him in here."
Friedrich's obsession only got crazier as time went on. Eventually, he mandated that the soldiers were only permitted to marry equally freakishly tall women, so that they might have even taller kids -- perhaps because he was super into LARPing and Prussia was tragically short on authentic Frost Giants. After Friedrich's death in 1740, his heir foolishly disbanded the giant army and, as we all know, Prussia was immediately invaded by the elves.
What do you do if you have marital problems and divorce is not an option? Well, if you lived in the Dahomey kingdom in Africa, you sent your wife to join an unstoppable all-female army of rejected women. Although come to think of it, punishing your wife by sending her to a boot camp where she's trained as an unstoppable killing machine sounds like a bad idea.
"Well, at least she's no longer going to be talking my head off ..."
At the time, the male population of Dahomey was decimated by constant wars and the ongoing slave trade, and the King decided to open military conscription to women. Many joined up willingly, but often the ranks were filled out by wives who burned the dinner once too often and were forcibly removed to undergo military training ... to learn how to prep militarily precise meatloaf? We're not sure of the logic here.
The Dahomey Amazons swore two things: to remain abstinent and to kick ass. And kick ass they surely did. At their height, the army contained over six thousand scorned women -- around half the military force of Dahomey -- all of them ready and willing to rip a man's balls off with their ritually-sharpened teeth.
The Amazons were widely considered the bravest of the kingdom's armies, and tasted defeat only twice in their history. In return, they had unparalleled freedom for women of the time: They were allowed alcohol, tobacco, and 50 slaves each, and the penalty for touching an Amazon was death. After the kingdom was defeated, the Amazon corps was disbanded, but in 1979, the last survivor, a woman named Nawi, still recalled fighting the French, before dying at well over 100. As to the fate of the disgruntled husbands, we have heard suspiciously little.
At the height of World War I, Russia's worst enemy was their own demoralized men. So the Russians gave in to the enthusiastic petitions of women volunteers, and allowed Maria Bochkareva, a woman who had survived Siberia and two abusive husbands, to create the first all-female battalion.
George Grantham Bain collection
The Women's Battalion of Death was established to either shame or inspire the menfolk, depending on who you ask and how they feel about fedoras. But the women in Russia's gimmick army turned out to be a lot more badass than anyone expected.
Bochkareva, who had already been fighting semi-illegally in the Russian army since 1914, didn't pretty up the girls for show appearances -- she put her recruits through a training regime too punishing even for Tsarist Russia standards. During the catastrophic Kerensky Offensive, her unit was the only one that kept going in the battle of Smorgon, eventually capturing three German trenches. During the end of their push, men from the other units were breaking off from their own battalions to join Bochkareva.
Library of Congress
They even looked badass in the middle of a tea break.
The Women's Battalion of Death was so successful that their unit survived the 1917 Revolution, and was only dismantled after the all-male regiments complained about their behavior. Which is to say that they didn't appreciate the way the ladies prevented the men from retreating in the face of battle. Just like a woman, right? Always nagging you to take out the garbage, spend time with the kids, quit fleeing certain death and hurl your body at the enemy like they're doing ...
The Gaestatae were mercenaries hired by the Celts to take part in their wars against the Roman armies. Historians describe them as young men who ran into battle with nothing but their spears in hand (not a euphemism, we assume). According to Polybius, the Gaestatae were concerned about brambles getting caught in their clothing and slowing them down, which is why they eschewed any attire. What a fantastic excuse! Hey boss, we're afraid we're not going to make it to work on time, slowed down by all the brambles on 4th Street, so, uh ...
"Hmmm ... Better get rid of hair and eyebrows too, just to be safe."
In 225 BC, the Gaestatae went up against the Romans, leading a large (and, disappointingly, dressed) Celtic force. They, of course, were entirely naked, save for their golden jewelry, charging with dongs a-flapping to the terrible din of horns, war cries, and trumpets. The Romans were surely intimidated, but for some reason, the naked maniac warriors lost to the ones with armor. The only explanation we can come up with: Reality is super lame.
The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was an unusual division of the U.S. Army during WWII. Nicknamed "the Ghost Army," it was fitting that their entire existence was kept top secret until 1996. With a name like that, you're probably envisioning an army of dudes like Snake Eyes from GI Joe, attacking and disappearing into the night. The reality is a bit more ... fabulous.
The Ghost Army was a special unit composed of visual artists, fashion designers, actors, and sound engineers. Their mission, besides dazzling Hitler into submission, was to use Hollywood magic, sleight of hand, and misdirection to confuse the shit out of the German forces.
They used inflatable tanks, pyrotechnics, looped sound effects, and costumes to set up fake battlefields and lure enemy units into traps. The actors of the regiment also went to local bars, made friends, flirted with women, and spread false information in the process. Their mission, "to get drunk and have sex with European girls for America," was perhaps one of the less harrowing tales to come out of the war.
But harrowing all he same.
The Ghost Army took part in around 20 missions during WWII, and several members became famous afterward, like fashion mogul Bill Blass, sculptor Ellsworth Kelly, and actor Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. The modern-day equivalent would be if Tom Hanks, David Bowie, Stephen King, Carson Kressley, and Edgar Wright were commissioned to take down ISIS. Side note: We would watch the shit out of that movie.
Dimitra Nikolaou is a journalist and writer, currently doing her PhD on Role-Playing games.
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For more details you probably missed, check out The 5 Most Idiotic Wars Ever Fought and 5 Famous Wars That Showed Up In The Last Place You'd Expect.