The Strangest Wars in History

In the long history of conflict and warfare, four stand out as some of the strangest; the shortest war in history lasted just 38 minutes; the longest war in history did not kill anyone; the Australian Army lost a campaign against a flock of emus; two Central American countries were provoked into war by a soccer game.


Ruins of the Sultan’s Palace during the Anglo-Zanzibar War

The Anglo-Zanzibar War: The Shortest War in history

On August 25, 1896, the Sultan of Zanzibar, Hamad Bin Thuwaini, unexpectedly died (some whispered that he had been poisoned). For many years, Zanzibar, an island off the east coast of Africa, had been fought over by European powers, particularly Germany and England, and Bin Thuwaini had been a consistent supporter of the British, granting London a number of land concessions and trade rights. The British were also given control of Zanzibar’s Army, which was now trained and commanded by English officers.

One of the provisions in the treaty between England and Zanzibar gave the British Consulate the right of prior approval for any new person who might ascend to the Sultan’s throne. However after Bin Thuwaini’s death, his nephew Khalid Bin Bargash, known for his anti-British views, claimed the throne, and refused to seek approval from the British Consulate. Bin Bargash barricaded himself in the Sultan’s Palace with 2,800 troops from the Palace Guard, two machine guns, and two 12-pounder artillery guns. In response, the British consul sent a warning–if Bin Bargash did not surrender by 9am on August 27, the British would declare war and attack.

At 9:02am, the British opened fire. They had surrounded the palace with 900 Zanzibari troops under English command, five Royal Navy ships in the nearby harbor, and 150 Royal Marines. After first sinking the only ship in the Zanzibar Navy, the old wooden schooner Glasgow, the British turned their naval guns onto the palace, quickly knocking out the Zanzibari artillery and reducing most of the harem building to rubble. At 9:40am, Bin Bagash fled to the nearby German Consulate and fire was ceased. About 500 Palace Guards were killed by the bombardment; no pro-British forces were killed. The war had lasted just 38 minutes.

The British appointed Hamud Bin Mohammed as Sultan, and ruled Zanzibar as a client state for the next 70 years.

The “Three Hundred and Thirty-Five Years War”

By 1650, during the English Civil War, the Parliamentarian forces under Oliver Cromwell had nearly conquered the last remaining stronghold of the Royalist forces supporting King Charles II. The last remnants of the Royalist Navy were forced to retreat to the tiny Scilly Islands, off the west coast of England, and only a few Royalist castles remained as holdouts.

Throughout the Civil War, the Dutch government had been unofficially sending weapons and supplies to Cromwell and the Parliamentarians, and as a result a number of Dutch merchant ships had been intercepted and destroyed by the Royalist Fleet. In 1651, the Dutch government approached the Royalist holdouts on Scilly Island and demanded payment from them as compensation for the loss of their ships. The Royalists flatly refused, and the Dutch Government responded by declaring war on the Royalists. (Because most of England was already under the control of the Parliamentarians, the Declaration of War specifically applied only to the Royalist mini-state in the Scilly Islands, not the rest of England.). Before any military actions could be taken by the Dutch, however, the Parliamentarians seized control of the Royalist fleet and the Scilly Islands. When the Civil War ended in 1652, the Dutch eventually gave up on their damage claims–after all, there was no longer any Royalist Government to pay them. However, in the aftermath, no one ever bothered to end the state of war that had been legally declared.

In 1985, an English historian discovered that a peace treaty had never been signed, and therefor a legal state of war still existed between the Netherlands and the Scilly Islands. In 1986, the Dutch and British governments finally signed a formal agreement, thereby diplomatically ending a war that had lasted 335 years without a shot being fired.

The “Emu War”

In contrast to the Dutch-Scilly War, the Australian “Emu War” had thousands of casualties–but none of them were humans. . . .

By the 1930’s, war was brewing in the Pacific. Japan had invaded China and was making aggressive naval moves in the Pacific.  Australia realized that it was a potential target for Japanese expansionism, and began beefing up its military forces. But in 1932, the Australian Army found itself fighting not the Japanese, but a flock of emus.

The summer of 1932 was a good time for the emus. The large flightless birds had a bumper crop of chicks that year, and with an expanded population, they began looking for new places to feed. And fortunately for them, there were thousands of newly-settled Australian farmsteads springing up all over western Australia, with clean water and plenty of food. The emus found them irresistible, and invaded. As many as 20,000 emus were soon reducing the new farms to wastelands. The farmers appealed to the government in Canberra for help, and Defense Minister George Pearce sent in the troops. The government saw it as a way to win favor with the western settlers; the Army saw it as a chance for some live-fire target practice.

In October 1932, a handful of members of two different regiments of the Australian Army, led by Major GPW Meredith and armed with two Lewis machine guns, arrived in the Campion area to do battle with the six-foot-tall birds. In their first skirmish, the Lewis guns opened up on a large flock of emus–who promptly scattered and disappeared. Fewer than 50 birds were killed.

Next, Meredith set up an ambush at a nearby watering hole, and when a large group of birds approached for a drink, opened fire again.  And again the birds quickly ran off and disappeared.

Now, one of the machine guns was mounted on a small truck. It didn’t help–the truck bounced around so much that the machine gunner couldn’t aim at anything, and anyway the birds could easily outrun the truck. Another victory for the emus.

By now, the press had caught wind of the story, and dubbed it “The Great Emu War”. It was reported in London and the US. The bad publicity, and the expenditure of almost 10,000 rounds of ammunition with hardly any dead emus to show for it, convinced Meredith to surrender.  He withdrew on November 8.

But it wasn’t over yet. When the emus returned to ravage the farms, new cries for help went up from the homesteaders, and on November 13, Meredith was sent back to try again. After a full month of combat against the birds, he was no more successful than the first time. On December 10, the Australian Army called it quits and withdrew for good. The emus had won.

Meredith later related his admiration for the toughness of the emus: “If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world. . . They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks.” But perhaps the most trenchant comment on the “conflict” was made by a member of the Australian House of Representatives: “Is a medal to be struck for this war?”

The “Soccer War”

By 1969, tensions were high between the Central American nations of Honduras and El Salvador. El Salvador was much smaller than Honduras, but had over twice the population. For years, Salvadoran refugees had been streaming across the border to Honduras to escape political repression and economic chaos. There was much resentment in Honduras about this, and Salvadoran immigrants were often beaten or killed. When Tegucigalpa passed a “land reform” law, it gave local authorities the right to take any land occupied by illegal Salvadoran immigrants and give it to native-born Hondurans instead. There was also a simmering dispute over the location of the border between the two countries, especially over a couple of islands in the Gulf of Fonseca.

In June 1969, nationalist sentiments on both sides reached the boiling point when the national soccer teams from the two countries faced each other in the qualifying rounds for the 1970 World Cup. The first match, on June 6, was won by Honduras. The second, on June 15, was won by El Salvador.  Both matches saw rioting and violent clashes between the two sets of fans. A 16-year old Salvadoran girl committed suicide after Honduras won, and the incident fanned the flames of patriotic fervor to absurd levels, with the President of El Salvador walking behind her coffin at the funeral procession. On June 26, the day the deciding match was to be held in Mexico City, El Salvador severed diplomatic ties with Honduras, citing Tegucigalpa’s refusal to return land to the Salvadoran immigrants and punish those who had inflicted violence on them.

On July 14, the Salvadoran Air Force, consisting largely of World War II-era aircraft (most of them bought from private owners), launched a pre-emptive strike against the equally outdated Honduran Air Force targets in Honduras, and Salvadoran troops crossed the border and seized several of the disputed islands in the Gulf of Fonseca. After four days of fighting, the Salvadoran Army had penetrated deep into Honduras. The Organization of American States called for a ceasefire and met with both parties. After threats of economic sanctions, El Salvador agreed to withdraw its troops, and the “Soccer War” ended on August 2. Over 3,000 people, mostly Honduran civilians, had been killed.

Decades of brutal civil war and military dictatorships followed for both countries, and it wasn’t until 1980 that they signed an agreement that submitted their border dispute to international arbitration and ended the tensions between them.

6 thoughts on “The Strangest Wars in History”

    1. As an aviation history fan, what fascinates me about the Soccer War are the aircraft they used. Who woulda thought that those old P-51s and F4U’s would ever actually be firing shots in anger again…?

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