From papier-mâché horses to opium-laced cigarettes, these weird war tactics worked.
Throughout recorded history, warring nations have devised a variety of unconventional war tactics to defeat or foil their enemies. Listed below are just eight of the most bizarre strategies.
1. Snake Bombs (Punic Wars, 190 BC)
While Hannibal Barca (the great Carthaginian general) is perhaps most famous for leading an invading force of elephants across the Alps to attack Rome, his most impressive, and perhaps most creative, victory came in 190 BC against King Eumenes II of Pergamon. The battle initially began when King Eumenes and the Pergamenes sailed for Bithynia to provoke a sea battle. Realizing he was outmatched and vastly outnumbered by the Pergamene navy, Hannibal devised a brilliant war tactic. After locating the ship that carried the king, he commanded his forces to launch clay pots filled with venomous snakes directly at the ship. The clay pots shattered upon impact and released the snakes on the king’s ship. The plan worked successfully. As a result, Hannibal achieved a resounding victory, and in the end, his strategic genius played a decisive role in the Punic Wars.
2. Papier-mâché Horses (World War I, 1914-18)
During World War I, horses were vital to the war effort. Aside from advancing troops across enemy lines, they were also vital in transporting weapons, soldiers, food, ambulances and important supplies. But did you know the French forces also used hollow papier-mâché horses to confuse and deceive the Germans? While it may sound ridiculous, it’s actually true. Searching for ways to surprise and deceive their enemy, the French grew desperate and built a hollow papier-mâché replica of a dead horse (large enough for a sniper to crawl inside) with a gun port conveniently located in its anus. Interestingly, the sniper also had a telephone wire that allowed him to monitor and report German movements. Though the war tactic was eventually discovered by the Germans, the use of “dummy horses” continued throughout Europe for the remainder of the war.
3. Opium-Laced Cigarettes (World War I, 1917)
During World War I, a British officer named Richard Meinertzhagen devised a unique military tactic (disguised as a propaganda operation) for use against the Ottoman Empire in 1917. After learning there was an acute shortage of tobacco in the Ottoman units, Meinertzhagen concocted a plan for British airplanes to drop cigarettes and leaflets to Ottoman soldiers in hopes they would surrender. Once the Ottoman units had grown accustomed to the cigarettes, Meinertzhagen decided to lace them with large doses of opium. The tactic worked, and the British successfully took Jerusalem. After being captured on November 6, many of the Turks reportedly appeared “befuddled” and “barely coherent.”
4. The War Pigs of Megara (Siege of Megara, 266 BCE)
During the siege of Megara in 266 BCE, the Megarians became increasingly desperate for a creative, more successful war tactic. Realizing that Antigonus II Gonatas (the King of Macedon) had brought two dozen Indian war elephants to besiege the city, the Megarians devised a bizarre plan. After dousing pigs with a combustible substance containing tar (and crude oil), they lit the pigs on fire and drove them toward the enemy’s advancing elephants. The creative tactic proved successful. As squealing pigs approached, the elephants shrieked and trampled their own soldiers. Though sufficient evidence exists to suggest the event occurred, some historians believe the story is a misinterpretation of a tale involving flaming pig carcasses being catapulted over the city walls at invading soldiers.
5. Swallows & Cats (The Siege of Volohai, 1209)
During the siege of Volohai, Genghis Khan found himself unable to breach the enemy’s walls. Motivated to capture the fortress-city, Khan devised a bizarre and wildly creative war tactic, which began with a strange request. Khan claimed he would abandon the siege in exchange for 1,000 cats and 10,000 swallows. Bewildered by the request, the city commanders quickly complied, rounding up all the cats and birds within the city limits and offering them to the Mongols as a gift. When Khan received the cats and swallows, however, he ordered his men to tie a tuft of cotton to each of the animals and set them on fire. Volohai was quickly overcome by thousands of fires that completely overwhelmed its population. As a result, the Mongols conquered the city.
6. British Hammers (World War I, 1914-18)
During World War I, the ill-equipped British fleet found itself desperate to defend itself against German submarines. In an attempt to combat the German U-boat threat, British forces devised an extremely unconventional, but extraordinarily practical, war tactic. Blacksmiths and gunners were sent out in small patrol boats and commanded to locate German U-boats. When they spotted a U-boat, they were ordered to sail alongside the submarine and smash the periscope with a hammer. While seemingly simple, the tactic successfully blinded the captain and forced the submarine to surface. In fact, the method was so successful that they hammered 16 German U-boats, playing a vital role in the British victory.
7. Zopyrus’s Deception (Capture of Babylon, 539 BC)
Faced with the task of capturing Babylon, Zopyrus devised a bizarre military tactic to infiltrate the enemy. Convinced he could deceive the Babylonians by making them think he’d been punished and exiled, he allowed himself to be whipped and mutilated to such an extreme that his ears and nose were cut off. The plan worked, and because Zopyrus had been a high-ranking soldier, the Babylonians perceived him as a valuable asset and even offered Zopyrus the opportunity to lead their army. Zopyrus quickly gained the trust of Babylonians by accumulating a number of victories against his former forces (who had previously been instructed to retreat). The ruse was revealed when Zopyrus eventually opened the gates and allowed Darius’s army to conquer Babylon.
8. The Trojan Horse (Trojan War, 1250 BC)
Perhaps the most famous military deception involves a story of Greeks constructing a huge wooden Trojan horse and placing it at the entrance of Troy. Assuming the horse was a gift (or peace offering), the Trojans wheeled the horse into the fortified city, whereupon Greek soldiers hidden inside the horse quickly swarmed from the hollowed-out belly of the horse and laid siege to the entire city, essentially ending the Trojan War. However, while the classic story has earned a place in Western culture, modern historians speculate that the Trojan horse story may in fact be a myth. Though Homer suggests such an occurrence in The Iliad, many researchers believe the horse may in fact have simply been a battering ram that resembled a horse, or even a “siege machine” (battering machines which were often assigned animal names). Yet, while there is insufficient proof the Greeks actually constructed such a device, the story nevertheless is an interesting one and remains forever a fixture in the Western imagination.