9 of the Most Bizarre Wars in History
In school, we study the major wars. There are hundreds of books dedicated to them. They are made into movies, and stories of triumph and tragedy abound. Many articles have been written on World Wars and Civil Wars. But what of the lesser-known wars that abound in history?
I thought it would be worthwhile to look at the more amusing side of war and delve into nine of the most bizarre wars in history. From fighting over pastries to a chimpanzee civil war, this is a more light-hearted look at the serious issue of war.
1. United Kingdom vs. Zanzibar — the Shortest War
When a war doesn't last as long as a Netflix episode, then it’s short. That was the case in the war between the United Kingdom and Zanzibar that started (and ended) on 27 August 1896 and only lasted 40 minutes.
The war was caused by the death of the pro-British Sultan Hamad bin Thuwaini who was succeeded by Sultan Khalid bin Barghash. Under the rules of the treaty signed in 1886, the British Consul had to approve the candidate and Khalid had not met this requirement.
The British demanded that Khalid order his forces to stand down and leave the palace. The newly minted sultan refused and barricaded himself inside the palace. At 09:00 a.m. on August 27th, the British gathered three cruisers, two gunships, 150 marines and sailors, and 900 Zanzibaris in the harbour area. They bombarded the palace, setting it on fire at 09:02 a.m. At 09:40 a.m., the flag at the palace was shot down, and the war ended.
Although it only lasted forty minutes, the Sultan’s forces sustained 500 casualties, while the British suffered only one injury.
2. Moldova vs. Transnistria — the Drunken War
In 1989, Moldova broke away from the Soviet Union (USSR) and declared its independence. The new nation wanted closer ties to Romania and its other western neighbours. However, a small territory, Transnistria, on the far eastern side of Moldova, was largely ethnically-Russian and wanted to keep its close ties to Russia. Transnistria declared its own independence from the new republic and sought protection from Moscow. Throughout 1990 and 1991, Moldovan troops clashed with Transnistrian rebels.
Full-scale war broke out in 1992 when the Russian Army began training and arming the rebels. It was a war unlike any other, the two sides would fight during the day, but at night they would gather together to drink. They became friends with their opponents, and some would even make agreements not to shoot each other the next day.
One combatant was quoted as saying, “the war is like a grotesque party. During the day we kill our enemy, during the night we drink with them. What a bizarre thing war is.”
3. El Salvador vs. Honduras — the Football War
Many people take football very seriously and describe it as a war. This was the case for the Football War (La Guerra del Fútbol), also known as the 100 Hour War.
This war took place in July 1969 between El Salvador and Honduras and lasted for five days. Underlying tension had been mounting between the two nations over immigration from El Salvador to Honduras. The tension boiled over during a North American qualifying round for the 1970 FIFA World Cup.
In the first match between the two nations in Honduras, there was fighting between fans. After the match an eighteen-year-old Salvadoran girl, Amelia Bolaños shot herself in the heart. She became a martyr in her home country with the Salvadoran president and entire national football team walking behind her coffin at her funeral.
The second game, this time played in El Salvador, was followed by even greater violence. A third playoff match was required and took place on June 26. El Salvador won and immediately broke off all ties with Honduras.
On 14 July 1969, the Salvadoran army launched an attack against Honduras. A ceasefire was negotiated on July 20, and the Salvadoran troops withdrew in early August.
El Salvador did end up qualifying for the 1970 FIFA World Cup.
4. Netherlands vs. the Isles of Scilly — the Longest War
At the other end of the scale to the British/Zanzibar War is the world’s longest war. This war technically lasted 335 years, until a peace treaty was signed in 1986.
The war commenced in 1651 between the Netherlands and the Isles of Scilly, a small archipelago off the southwest coast of Great Britain. Initially, this was a domestic clash between the Parliamentarians and the Royalists in the United Kingdom’s civil war. The Dutch decided to back the Parliamentarians which angered the Royalists who were long time allies of the Dutch. Because of this, the Royalists decided to raid Dutch shipping lanes in the English Channel.
By 1651 however, the Royalist navy had lost its authority and had been forced to retreat to the small Isles of Scilly. The Dutch sent twelve warships to Scilly and demanded compensation for the losses they incurred during the earlier raids. When this didn't happen, they declared war on the Isles of Scilly on the 30th of March 1651.
After three months, the Royalists surrendered the Isle to the Parliamentarians and the Dutch, satisfied, sailed home. They did, however, forget to declare peace and so for the next 335 years, they were technically still at war. It was only in 1985 when a Scilly historian contacted the Dutch Embassy and asked them to sign a peace treaty that they officially ended the world’s longest war.
5. Mexico vs. France — the Pastry War
During a military coup in Mexico City in 1828, a cafe owned by an expatriate French pastry chef named Remontel was ransacked and looted. Remontel complained to Mexican officials who duly ignored him, so he petitioned the French government for compensation.
The story could have ended there, but ten years later, his request was seen by King Louis-Philippe. Already angry at Mexico for failing to repay millions in loans, the King saw this as an opportunity to demand 600,000 pesos to be paid to Remontel. When the Mexicans predictably turned down the demand, the king declared war on Mexico.
A French fleet arrived in Mexico in October 1838 blockading the city of Veracruz. The ships began shelling the San Juan de Ulua citadel, and the battle had commenced. Mexico coaxed perhaps its most famous general, General Santa Anna, out of retirement to lead the Mexican army against the French. Santa Anna ended up losing a leg in the war, so maybe he should have stayed retired!
The British government brokered a peace deal in March 1839, which included the Mexicans paying 600,000 pesos to Remontel. That sure is a high price to pay for croissants!
6. Kasakela vs. Kahama — the Gombe Chimpanzee War
Wars aren't confined only to humans. Take this example from our primate friends that occurred in the Gombe region in Tanzania.
In the 1970s the death of an alpha male leader of a pack of chimpanzees led to a Chimpanzee Civil War. The group was divided into two, the Kasakela and the Kahama. The war lasted for four years and was observed by famous primatologist and anthropologist, Jane Goodall. In the end, it was the Kasakela Chimps who prevailed, eventually killing all of the Kahama Chimps, using sharp stones.
“For several years I struggled to come to terms with this new knowledge. Often when I woke in the night, horrific pictures sprang unbidden to my mind — Satan [one of the apes], cupping his hand below Sniff’s chin to drink the blood that welled from a great wound on his face; old Rodolf, usually so benign, standing upright to hurl a four-pound rock at Godi’s prostrate body; Jomeo tearing a strip of skin from Dé’s thigh; Figan, charging and hitting, again and again, the stricken, quivering body of Goliath, one of his childhood heroes.” — Jane Goodall
7. Great Britain vs. the USA — the War of the Pig
These two nations have engaged in war, but none their quarrels was as strange as the War of the Pig fought on the San Juan islands near the northwest coast of the United States (US).
The islands were shared between the US and Great Britain, and the conflict started when a British pig wandered into property owned by an American farmer and was shot. As seems to be the case in many of these wars, compensation was demanded for the incident, but the farmer refused.
He was captured by the British and imprisoned in a locked barn. This kicked off the war. The Americans sent 500 men to attempt to rescue the farmer while the British had 1500 of their men protecting the barn.
A standoff ensued until a deal was broken by the Germans who freed the farmer and then awarded the island to the US.
The only casualty of the war was the pig.
8. Canada vs. Denmark — the Whisky War
Another war involving alcohol — although this one is far more lighthearted. It involves a dispute over Hans Island but with a sense of humor not usually associated in the battle over land.
Admittedly, the land is an uninhabited half square mile island in the Kennedy Channel in the Arctic. When a border treaty was signed in 1973 between the two nations they couldn't agree on the borders each would own.
In 1984, the Canadians planted a flag in the disputed area along with a bottle of Canadian whisky. Later that year, the Danish returned the favour by removing the flag and replacing it with a Danish one. They also took the whisky and left a bottle of Danish schnapps in its place. Along with the note, “Velkommen til den Danske ø” (English: Welcome to the Danish Island).”
This continued for twenty years, with the two sides continually swapping alcohol and replacing flags. In 2005, both sides agreed to start a process to resolve the issue, and despite ongoing talks the exact border still has not been determined. While discussions continue, the flag and alcohol exchange still continues.
9. Greece vs. Bulgaria- the War of the Stray Dog
Rather than a pig, this time it was a dog that started a war.
Relations between Greece and Bulgaria had been strained for some time when a Greek soldier chasing his dog strayed across the border into Bulgaria on October 18, 1925. The Bulgarian border guards spotted the Greek soldier running through their territory and shot him.
When an apology from the Bulgarians was not forthcoming, the Greeks began an invasion of Bulgaria, occupying the Bulgarian city of Petrich. Fifty people were killed before the League of Nations negotiated a cease-fire.
There were many other instances that could be included on this list, and it was an interesting exercise to see some of the crazy reasons that led to war. One of them, I have covered in more detail here:
Thankfully, most of these bizarre wars had few casualties but did provide an insight into the sometimes small incidents that can bring about war.