History is full of examples of great men and women who did some great and fantastic things, often driving the species forward. Today we will not be looking at these people. We are going to focus on some of the great and terrible mistakes of history. Human history stretches back millennia and humans are prone to the occasional boo-boo, so this list is non-exhaustive, but the five examples that I have selected rate high on the “F~*% Up List”.
From the ancient world’s loss of, what was essentially, their version of the internet to an accident that brought down the “Evil Empire” of the Soviet Union. Enjoy!
Battle of Karánsebes, 1788
We will start off with one of the worst incidents of friendly-fire ever. Austria and the Ottoman Empire were at war between the years of 1787 and 1791 and on the night of 21-22 September 1788, the Austrian army fought an entire battle with itself!
The Austrian army, approximately 100,000 strong, was setting up camp around the town of Karánsebes (now Caransebeș, in modern Romania) when the vanguard, a contingent of hussars (light cavalry), crossed the Timiș River nearby to scout for the presence of the Ottoman Turks. There was no sign of the enemy but they did come across a group of local Tzigani, who offered to sell them some schnapps. The war-weary cavalrymen happily purchased the alcohol and started to drink.
Soon afterwards, some infantrymen crossed the river and demanded alcohol for themselves once they realised they were missing out on the party. This was the hussars booze, however, and they refused the demands of their sober comrades and began to set up makeshift fortifications around the barrels. A heated argument ensued, and a shot was fired.
Immediately, both sides engaged in combat with one another and some infantrymen began shouting “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). The hussars fled the scene, believing that the Ottoman’s attack was imminent. Most of the infantry also ran away (although presumably the tricksters and their friends stayed and got drunk instead). The polyglot Austrian army was comprised of Austrians, Serbs, Croats and Italians, as well as other minorities, many of whom could not understand one another. The situation was exacerbated when officers, in an attempt to restore order, began shouting “Halt! Halt!” which sounded like “Allah! Allah!” to the troops with little knowledge of German.
As the cavalrymen ran through the Austrian camps, one of the commanders reasoned that it was an Ottoman cavalry charge and ordered the artillery to begin firing. The whole camp awoke to the sound of battle and fled. The soldiers were so spooked that they fired at every shadow, believing the enemy to be amongst them; in reality they were shooting fellow Austrian soldiers.
Two days later, the Ottoman army arrived to the area. They discovered dead and wounded soldiers and captured Karánsebes without resistance.
One source, written in 1968, has the causality rate at over 10,000 dead and wounded… but this has been dismissed as entirely fictitious. A more credible source from the time cites 1,200 dead and wounded.
So, there you have it. That time the Austrian army defeated itself in battle when no enemy was present.
The Destruction of the Alexandria Library, 48 BCE
The ancient city of Alexandria at the mouth of the River Nile in Egypt was founded by the Great man himself, Alexander… one of around 70 cities that the egotist named after himself (he even named one after his horse). But this one, the Egyptian one was the most magnificent. It housed one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Lighthouse of Alexandria. But it was the Great Library that was the real crowning jewel of the city.
The Great Library of Alexandria was founded in 283 BCE and for years, scholars and librarians filled it with thousands of scrolls and was frequented by academics from across the Middle East and Mediterranean region. It was one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world.
Unlike most private libraries, the library of Alexandria was open to whoever could prove that he or she was a worthy scholar and was more democratic than most other learning institutions.
However, hundreds of years after its establishment, the world was shocked to learn that Julius Caesar (yes, that Julius Caesar) had accidently burned it down during an attack. Though the historical accuracy of this account is shrouded in controversy, there is a consensus that the library was burned down and that most, if not all of the scrolls, were destroyed. The destruction of the library and the knowledge contained within it became a symbol of the destruction of knowledge and culture.
The destruction was thought of as an “international catastrophe” as it was considered the greatest archive of knowledge. At one time, it is believed that the library contained over 500,000 documents accumulated from as far afield as India, Egypt, Greece, Persia and Assyria as well as many other nations of ancient times.
Stories about the loss of the library have been circulating for centuries, but what is evident is that the world had lost a gem, and all due to an accident. Imagine if the world lost the internet!! That is how serious the ancient world considered this!
Chernobyl Disaster, 1986
On the evening of 25 April 1986 all was well and nothing unusual was occurring in the city of Pripyat in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. The same could not be said of the evening of 26 April.
In the early hours of 26 April, Soviet nuclear experts tested one of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant’s four reactors by turning off the backup cooling system and using only eight boron-carbide rods (any scientists out there because I am flummoxed) to control the rate of fission (seriously, anyone who can explain?), instead of the fifteen rods required as standard operating procedure.
This faulty reactor design coupled with human error led to a runway chain reaction that blew the steal and concrete lid off the reactor, creating a fireball that burned for ten days and released 100 times more radiation than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs combined!! The radioactive material managed to escape into the environment because the plant lacked the massive containment structure that is present in most nuclear power plants today,
It is estimated that 4,300 people tragically died as a result of this radiation and more than 70,000 were permanently disabled with a further 7,000 cases of thyroid cancer in under 18-year-olds linked to the accident. Around 135,000 civilians had to be evacuated from the area after the incident which was also one of the largest financial losses in history, totalling an estimated $358,000,000,000 (that’s billions, not millions).
In 2006, ex- Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev called the Chernobyl disaster the “real cause” for the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A Wrong Turn in Sarajevo Leads to WW1, 1914
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Balkan region of south eastern Europe was one of the most volatile places on earth and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was looking to make gains in the area at the expense of the declining regional power, the Ottoman Empire. Austria-Hungary annexed several smaller Balkan states which angered their Serbian neighbours.
In retaliation, six Bosnian born Serb would-be-assassins, belonging to the Black Hand terrorist organisation lined the route that the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was scheduled to take on a trip to the Bosnian city of Sarajevo. These men wanted to avenge the 1908 annexation of Bosnia by the Dual Monarchy.
When the first terrorist got his opportunity, he threw a grenade at the archduke’s car which bounced off, wounding members of the entourage. The angry archduke arrived at the town hall reception, but instead of visiting the museum as planned (or, you know – go home!! There were obviously people in the crowd wanting to kill you!!!) the royal party decided to check in on the wounded at the hospital.
This was a terrible idea!
On the way to the hospital, the driver took a wrong turn and coincidentally stopped just five feet away from the 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip who was eating a sandwich. It just so turned out that he was one of the six members of the Black Hand who wanted to kill the archduke. Astonished at the opportunity, Princip fired twice, killing both Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie.
Their deaths led to a series of events known as the July Crisis that ultimately led to the First World War. And that is how a wrong turn in Sarajevo started World War One.
Massacre of Sparrows, 1958
In 1958, Chinese ruler, Mao Zedong, introduced the Four Pests Campaign, which was one of the first actions of the Great Leap Forward (the state policy to rapidly transform China from an agrarian economy into a socialist society). The campaign was viewed as a campaign of hygiene and the “four pests” to be eradicated were those associated with pestilence and disease: the mosquitos responsible for malaria; the rodents that spread the plague; the pervasive airborne flies; and the sparrows which ate grain seed and fruit.
People started to shoot sparrows, break their eggs, destroy the nests and kill young chicks. Chinese citizens also banged pots and pans, creating noise that would not let the sensitive birds rest and many dropped dead from exhaustion!
What the Chinese leader did not realise was that along with eating grain seed and fruit, the sparrows also ate insects which were otherwise harmful to the crops. Without the sparrows to control the insect populations, they started to increase. The insects harmed the crops, and as a result, the rice yields began to decrease. The locust population, in particular, boomed and China literally had a plague of locusts swarming the farmland. Crop failures ensued, and the result was the Great Chinese Famine that lasted from 1959 – 1961 resulting in the deaths of between 15 and 45 million people.
The moral of the story is that humans should not mess too much with the environment. Every ecosystem works in harmony and we would be wise to remember that in this age of increased global warming and loss and destruction of habitats.
The Rest is History (or it will be)