Napoleon’s ‘Battle’ with Bunnies, 1807
History tells us that Napoleon Bonaparte’s worst ever defeat occurred at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, yet perhaps his most humiliating one was eight years earlier. It was the summer of 1807 and Napoleon Bonaparte was in high spirits as he sauntered across a meadow accompanied by beaters and gun-bearers.
He was at the zenith of his powers having subdued, and made peace with, France’s two arch enemies, Prussia and Russia by signing the Treaties of Tilsit. Now was the time to relax and bask in his glory and so a rabbit shoot and outdoor luncheon was arranged with France’s top brass invited. Around the meadow a ring of rabbit cages had been laid out and hundreds, perhaps up to 3000 rabbits, were released. The hunt was on.
But something strange happened; instead of bounding away, the horde of fluffy ears charged at Napoleon. He and his men laughed it up at first but the onslaught continued and they swarmed over the man and began to climb up his leg.
Napoleon tried shooing them with his riding crop; his men grabbed sticks and tried chasing them away; This was quickly degenerating into a demeaning farce for a great emperor such as himself, and so Napoleon retreated to his coach. But the rabbit horde divided into two wings and poured around the flanks of the party to surround the imperial coach, some even leaping into the carriage.
The attack ceased only as the coach rolled away. The man who was dominating Europe was no match for an army of bunnies.
London Beer Flood, 1814
If we’ve all got to meet the reaper some day or other, some folks might say that drowning in beer isn’t the worst way to go. It was 1814 and the Meux Brewery was one of the largest in London, UK, and its owner, Henry Meux Jr, had built a huge wooden vessel at the Horse Shoe Brewery 6.7m (22 feet) tall in order to store porter, a dark beer that was London’s most popular drink.
This giant vat was held together by no less than eighty tonnes of iron hoops but on the afternoon of 17 October it was noticed that one of these hoops had slipped. This happened occasionally and when the storehouse clerk reported it, he was told “that no harm whatever would ensue” and that it would be fixed later. Yet the vat was almost full and, an hour after the hoop slipped down, the vessel burst asunder without warning.
The force of the liquid’s release damaged a neighbouring vat and several hogsheads of porter were also destroyed, and their contents all added to a terrific flood. Between 3600 and 9000 imperial barrels (600,000l to 1,500,000l or 150,000 to 390,000 US Gallons) were released.
The resultant tsunami of beer 4.6m (15 feet) high destroyed the rear wall of the brewery and swept into a street in St Giles Rookery. Slum-dwellers were crushed or smashed by a violent mass of liquid and masonry. Others were drowned as the wave destroyed two houses and badly damaged others.
In the second destroyed house, a wake was being held by an Irish family for a two-year-old boy; Anne Saville, the boy’s mother, and four other mourners were tragically killed. Furthermore the land around the brewery, being low-lying and flat and with insufficient drainage, the beer flowed into many inhabited cellars. A total of eight adults and children sadly perished.
Several hundred spectators came to view the scene, and stories later arose of hundreds of people collecting the beer and getting so drunk that one person died from alcohol poisoning.
HMS Curacoa Tragedy, 1942
It was late 1942 and the Battle of the Atlantic - the struggle to ferry millions of tonnes of equipment, war materials and men through a gauntlet of deadly U-Boat submarines - was in full flow. When 10,000 men of the US 29th Division were needed across the Atlantic it was the RMS Queen Mary (QM) that was chosen for the task - a huge ship but also the fastest passenger liner of its age, holding the record for fastest Atlantic crossing from 1946 to 1952.
If that ship were to be torpedoed and sunk, the loss of all those men would be an absolute catastrophe, so the Queen Mary’s orders were to sail full speed ahead and in a ‘Zig-Zag’ formation to make it extremely hard for any submarine to sink her. This wasn’t just an operating procedure, naval regulations forbade her to slow down under any circumstances.
On the 2nd of October, she rendezvoused with an escort, HMS Curacoa, off the Irish coast and there a calamitous misunderstanding occurred. Each captain had different interpretations of ‘The Rule of the Road’, believing his ship had the right of way.
As the QM continued to ziz-zag her officer of the watch saw that she and the Curacoa were getting too close for comfort and took evasive action. Yet the QM’s captain then intervened; disasterously he told his officer to: “Carry on with the zig-zag. These chaps are used to escorting; they will keep out of your way and won’t interfere with you.”
At 14:04, QM started the starboard turn; Curacoa’s captain saw what was happening but by then it was too late; QM struck Curacoa amidships at full speed and sliced the cruiser in two “like a piece of butter, straight through the six-inch armoured plating”.
The rear end sank almost immediately, but the rest of the ship stayed on the surface a few minutes longer. One can try to imagine the mood on the QM’s bridge in the minutes after; the captain’s dismay and taut figures at station. Acting under orders not to stop due to the risk of U-boat attacks, QM steamed onward with a damaged bow. She radioed the other warships of her escort, and reported the collision. 101 survivors, including the captain were eventually picked up yet 239 officers and men went down with their ship.
Andorra Signs WWI Peace Treaty, 1958
For its main belligerents, World War 1 lasted from 1914 until 1918, yet bizarrely, Germany, et al. remained at war, technically, with one country for another forty years; Andorra is a European minnow state of 468 km (181 sq mi) and just 76,000 call it home.
It was also one of the first nations to declare war on the Germans and Austro-Hungarians yet, in the unfettered hurly burly of mass war, the fact it didn’t possess an army meant Andorra’s govt. weren’t exactly central players in the peace talks of WWI’s end.
For this mountain enclave, the ‘Great War’ continued unabated until 1958, according to this report in the New York Times on September the 24th: “World War I is over for this 191 square mile Pyrenees Republic. Andorra, a participant, was not invited to the Versailles Peace Conference ending World War I. The decree, ending the state of war was signed yesterday”
Finally these great nations could breathe a sigh of relief and begin to look to the future once again.
Woman Survives 10,000m Freefall, 1972
It was 2:30pm on the 26 of January, 1972 and Serbian flight attendant Vesna Vulovic was at Copenhagen Airport waiting to board a DC 9 aircraft of JAT Flight 367 “I saw all the passengers and crew deplane.” She remembered “One man seemed terribly annoyed. It was not only me that noticed him either. I think that was the man who put the bomb in the baggage.”
Airborne ninety minutes later Vesna’s life would be turned upside down and she’d enter the record books in the process.
Vesna was in the back of the aircraft with a food cart when the aforementioned bomb, planted by Croatian Nationalists, went off. It tore through the luggage compartment 10,000m (33,000ft) mid-air, ripping away the tail section. Sadly, the other 27 passengers and crew perished as the plane disintegrated.
Surely the massive plunge to earth was a fatal one, yet Vesna’s fate wasn’t for her to join her late colleagues. Vesna was incredibly fortunate in that, whereas the others on the plane were sucked out of the fuselage, she was pinned inside the tail by the heavy food cart.
The tail piece plummeted to earth and landed at an angle in a heavily wooded and snow-covered mountainside in Czechoslovakia, which cushioned the impact. Vulović’s physicians later concluded that her history of low blood pressure caused her to pass out quickly after the cabin depressurised and kept her heart from bursting on impact.
Vesna probably didn’t feel incredibly fortunate when she regained consciousness; she had sustained two broken legs, three broken vertebrae, a fractured pelvis, broken ribs, and a fractured skull. She couldn’t recall the event at all but eventually went on to make a good recovery. Vesna’s 10,000m free-fall without a parachute is a world record.