Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and seven 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Their adversaries had rifles and muskets, many of which were outdated.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. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

THE MAN WHO WAS BURIED ALIVE (and survived to tell the tale).

Not many people are buried in a snowdrift for five months and come out alive.
But then not many people have the stamina of Augustine Courtauld, a young stockbroker from London.
In 1930, bored of his day job, he volunteered to join an expedition to conduct weather observations at Icecap Station, a purpose-built post atop the Greenland ice cap.

Icecap Station: Courtauld is buried alive

It was 2,600m above sea level and 112 miles west of the expedition's main base. And it was very, very cold.

Weather data was desperately needed for Arctic Greenland: the quickest air route from Europe to North America was over the ice cap, but no one knew what the weather was like, particularly in winter.

Augustine Courtauld went to find out.
He traveled from the coast with a party whose task was to supply the weather station with enough food and fuel for two men.
‘But atrocious weather had so slowed down the journey that most of the food intended for the station was eaten on the way there. It looked as if the place would have to be closed down.’ So wrote one of the men from the supply party.
Courtauld thought it would be a shame to abandon the expedition, simply because there was almost no food.
'I worked out,' he wrote, 'that I could last out alone for five months. As I had frostbite in my toes, I had no wish to make the journey back. So I decided to stay on my own and keep the station going.'
Frostbitten toes is an eccentric reason for choosing to stay on the Greenland ice cap in midwinter, but to Courtauld it had a certain logic.
Soon after settling in to his new home it began to snow. Hard.
The small tent was buried by drifting snow until only the tip of the ventilator pipe poked above the surface: for the last six weeks of his mission, Courtauld was completely snowed in and effectively buried alive.

Gino Watkins digging out Augustine Courtauld

His supplies of food and fuel were by now exhausted and he had no communication with the outside world. But he had faith in his ultimate rescue. He wrote afterwards:
‘As each month passed without relief, I felt more and more certain of its arrival. By the time I was snowed in I had no doubts on the matter, which was a great comfort to my mind. I will not attempt any explanation of this, but leave it as a fact, which was very clear to me during that time, that while powerless to help myself, some outer force was in action on my side and I wasn't fated to leave my bones on the Greenland ice cap.’

He didn’t despair; instead, he dreamed of roaring fires and his wife singing to him. He also prayed that Gino Watkins, his would-be rescuer, was on his way.

‘I began to feel complete confidence,’ he wrote. ‘I knew that even if Gino was having to wait for better weather, he wouldn’t let me down. I began to realize that I should not be left to die.  I came to know that I was held by Everlasting Arms

On May 5th, exactly five months since he was left alone, the Primus gave its last gasp. ‘Very soon, there was a noise like a football match overhead. They had come!’

That first cigar tasted good.
‘A hole of brilliant daylight appeared in the roof.  There was Gino’s voice saying: “Put these on”.  He handed me a pair of snow-glasses.  How different it was from the last time I had seen the outside world!  It was May and now dazzling sunshine.  I had not realized it would be like this. 

‘They lost no time in pulling me out and I found I was quite all right.  My legs were a bit weak ... We set out for home next day.  I rode on a sledge the whole way, reading The Count of Monte Cristo.  Conditions were good and we completed the journey in five days; it had taken us six weeks on the way up”.

Courtauld declined to return to his former life as a stockbroker after his Greenland experience. Instead, he undertook an extraordinary 600 mile open boat journey in an 18ft whaleboat down the unmapped and uninhabited Greenland coastline.
It was not an easy journey, but it was more interesting than sitting behind an office desk in the city of London.

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