Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Shortest War in History

It began at precisely 9.02am with a bombardment of the royal palace. It ended at 9.40am when the flag was shot down and the besieged defenders capitulated.

At 38 minutes in duration, the Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896 is the shortest conflict in history.
It was fought between a British army, numbering 1050 men, and a force of Zanzibaris numbering 2,800 men.

British commander Henry Rawson.
In no mood for nonsense.
But numbers do not tell the whole story. The British were armed with heavy guns and artillery along with a fleet of naval warships.
Their adversaries had rifles and muskets, many of which were outdated. Their heaviest weapon, a bronze cannon, dated from the 17th century.

The war centred on the sultan’s palace in Zanzibar town. It had been seized by Sultan Khalid bin Barghash, an imposing individual who intended to succeed as ruler of Zanzibar on the sudden (and, some say, suspicious) death of his brother.

The British preferred choice as sultan was Hamud bin Mohammed: he, after all, was far more favorably disposed toward the British overlords.

But Sultan Khalid refused to stand down: he barricaded himself inside the palace and prepared for battle.

The British bombardment began at 09:02: the Racoon, Thrush and Sparrow targeted the palace with a blitz of fire. The Thrush's first shot was particularly lucky as it destroyed one of Khalid’s 12-pounder cannon.

The sultan's harem: the British put an
end to the fun and frolics. 
The three thousand soldiers and slaves defending the wooden palace were hopelessly outgunned; they had built barricades with crates and boxes but these proved no defense against the British high explosive shells.

In the space of 38 minutes, the British commanders Rear Admiral Henry Rawson and Brigadier General Lloyd Mathews fired 500 shells, 4,100 machine-gun rounds and 1,000 rifle rounds. 

The palace was steadily reduced to rubble before spectacularly bursting into flames. According to the Reuters correspondent who was there, Sultan Khalid ‘fled at the first shot with all the leading Arabs, who left their slaves and followers to carry on the fighting.’ The erstwhile sultan was later given asylum by the Germans.

The shelling of the palace came to an end at around 09:40, by which time the palace was in ruins, the enemy guns had been silenced and Sultan Khalid’s standard cut down.

A job well done: the British were delighted.
The death toll was as unequal as the battle: 500 Zanzibaris dead, among them most of Khalid’s best gunners who were said to be ‘decimated.’ British casualties were rather lighter - one petty officer was slightly injured and soon recovered.

The British installed their choice of sultan on the throne and congratulated themselves on a job well done. 

After 38 minutes, the shortest war in history was over. 

Monday, December 6, 2010


The name William Brydon is unfamiliar to most people today.
But this young man - a Victorian surgeon - was one of the greatest survivors in history.

He served in the First Afghan War of 1842, which was a true military catastrophe for the British Army.

Last stand of the British army at Gandamak
The British garrison in Kabul had suffered many setbacks and was in a desperate plight: it needed to reach the back-up garrison in Jalabad, 90 miles away. But herein lay a major problem. The 4,500 Kabul-based soldiers and 12,000 civilians had to traverse numerous passes and defiles. Worse still, it was mid-winter and temperatures were already well below freezing.

Over the next seven days, the rag-bag convoy of soldiers and civilians was constantly attacked by Afghan tribesmen. By the time they reached the halfway town of Gandamak, it was snowing heavily and the food had run out.

It was now that the Afghans struck in force. Soldiers were massacred, captured or murdered in cold blood. The civilians were likewise cut to pieces - even the children.

William Brydon rides into Jalalabad, minus part of his skull

The British garrison troops in Jalalabad grew increasingly nervous for their comrades as day after day passed without news. They peered anxiously over the ramparts and - one morning - were surprised to see  a lone figure in a pitiful state ride up to the main gate.

It was Dr William Brydon, minus a part of his skull (cut off by an Afghan scimitar). He had survived because he had had a copy of Blackwoods magazine stuffed into his hat, which saved the rest of his skull.

His survival was later celebrated in a famous picture by Elizabeth Butler.

It later transpired that 50 others had survived the retreat and were eventually released from captivity.

Nonetheless, William Brydon's survival was memorable and he was feted as a hero in Britain - not the first time that popular mythology turned catastrophic defeat into some sort of moral victory.

Thursday, December 2, 2010