Midget Ninja & Tactical Laxatives

Posted on Tuesday 6th November 2012

I became fascinated with all things military when I was just a small boy but, unlike many, I never grew out of it. In recent years I have been fortunate enough to make a living out of military history as a book editor, so warfare occupies my thoughts for a large proportion of my waking life. The word ’geek’ has been used on more than one occasion. I know family and friends sometimes find this preoccupation with man’s efforts to kill or conquer his fellow man a little morbid. I suppose it could get a little grim or ’heavy’, if it wasn’t for the fact that the annals of human conflict are liberally scattered with plenty of lighter moments; quirky characters, bizarre incidents and tragi-comic mishaps that make me shake my head in wonder as I read, giggle or even laugh out loud. It is surprising how often I relate these bits to those same family and friends who find my interests odd or who are just ’not into’ military history, only to find they, too, are amused or amazed. Midget Ninja and Tactical Laxatives is basically a collection of some of those bits.
If you have a favourite strange stratagem or weird weapon or similar, why not contact me via the Pen and Sword website and share it with me? Maybe I’ll be able to include it in a future volume.

ignominious deaths
Throughout military history, professional warriors have dreamed that, if they cannot survive, they might at least be granted a heroic death in battle, worthy of song and remembrance. Military literature is liberally sprinkled with eloquent statements of intent to meet death in manly fashion. A Spartan once said that for a man neither life nor death should be ends in themselves, but to accomplish both nobly was a worthy aim. The Gurkhas pledged themselves to death before dishonour. Some warriors, however, are cruelly (but often amusingly with hindsight) denied such glory.

cambyses, persian slipper
Cambyses, the Great King of Persia, was on his way home after conquering Egypt and making a nuisance of himself there for several years (just little things like killing the Apis bull which the Egyptians revered as a living god, that sort of thing). He was passing through Syria when he learnt that a coup had undermined his power back home. Being a man of action and intending to set off without delay to challenge the usurper, Cambyses immediately went to vault onto his horse. Unfortunately he made a bit of a mess of it and got entangled with his sword. The chape of his sword’s sheath (the cap that closes the end) chose this moment to fall off and the point of the blade pierced Cambyses’ thigh. He died some twenty days later from the effects of gangrene, a ghastly death he thoroughly deserved since he was a nasty little chap. He left no heirs since he had murdered most of his relatives, including his brother and one of the two sisters he had incestuously married, who was pregnant with his heir at the time.

the death of uesugi kenshin - short and to the point
No culture had a greater sense of the idea of a fitting death than the samurai of feudal Japan. One samurai encapsulated the way of the warrior, bushido, when he wrote:
As long as it is my duty towards my lord, I would like to die in battle in front of his eyes. If I die in my home, it will be a death without significance. [Okuba Tadataka, 1622]
Such was the culture into which Uesugi Kenshin was born in Echigo province in 1530 though his given name was Nagao Kagetora. After
Kenshin was a samurai’s samurai. His swords, the most famous of which is preserved with great reverence in Japan, had no hand-guard, so that nobody might accuse him of being afraid of injury. His courage in battle is exemplified by his conduct at the Fourth Battle of Kawanakajima (18 October 1561). There were five battles of Kawanakajima, all of them fought between Kenshin and his arch- enemy, Takeda Shingen, ruler of the province of Kai. On this occasion, Kenshin personally charged on horseback into Shingen’s curtained command enclosure in an effort to settle the matter man- to-man (incidentally his horse was wearing cloth slippers to muffle the sound of its approach). Shingen, another Buddhist monk, defended himself with an iron war fan (yes, that is a fan that doubled as a weapon of last resort) until Kenshin’s horse bolted and carried him back to his own lines.
Having proved himself a paragon of warrior virtue by such exploits, Kenshin would have hoped and expected to die sword in hand, facing a worthy enemy. Sadly, as it turned out, he never got to look his nemesis in the eye. Not only was his killer a midget, reputedly less than 3 feet tall, but he struck Kenshin from a wholly unexpected direction. On 12 April 1578, Ukifune Jinnai was one of a group of ninja that infiltrated Kenshin’s headquarters, killing most of his guards (themselves ninja) with poisonous darts fired from blowguns. While Jinnai’s accomplices were hunted down and killed by the heroic efforts of the one surviving guard, the half-pint assassin hid himself in the cesspit below Kenshin’s personal latrine. His blowpipe probably came in handy as a snorkel as he settled in for the night. This may have been the plan all along, the rest a mere diversion. Either that or he just got lucky (sic!). In either case, when Kenshin came next morning to empty his bowels, Jinnai filled them again with an upward thrust of his spear. Kenshin died of his wounds four days later.
In case you are wondering, the ninja was probably sent by the ruthless and ambitious Oda Nobunaga. It was certainly not down to Kenshin’s old rival, Takeda Shingen, as he had already been killed by a drunken sniper at the siege of Noda in 1573 while peering over the battlements to better appreciate some pretty flute music emanating from the enemy camp.

the grand exit of gautier d'autreche
The knights of Western Europe lived by a very similar set of ideals to the Japanese samurai. Their biggest preoccupation was in demonstrating their skill at arms and gaining a reputation as a brave and honourable warrior. In particular, although a knight might fight on foot when tactics demanded it, it was at mounted combat that excellence was most sought. In every major European language apart from English, the word for a knight actually means ‘horseman’ (French chevalier, Spanish caballero, German Ritter etc.) and the oft-misunderstood code of ‘chivalry’ really just means acting in the manner befitting an aristocratic horseman. This warrior ethic did tend to exist in tension with the parallel demands that a knight also be a good Christian. For many, the Crusades offered the ideal solution to this dilemma, since a knight could, by chopping up the heathen ‘Saracens’, simultaneously demonstrate his martial prowess and do the Lord’s work, showing what a nice, pure Christian he was. The chance to grab some land and loot didn’t discourage the Crusading spirit either.
One such paragon of Christian chivalry was Gautier d’Autreche, lord of Castillon in central France. He joined the Seventh Crusade under King Louis IX (St Louis as he was to become – killing Saracens being no bar to sainthood). Louis’ expedition was aimed at Egypt and his forces made an opposed landing at Damietta in the Nile delta. They fought their way ashore but were pretty soon bogged down and virtually besieged in their encampment by surrounding Saracen forces. Louis gave orders for his knights to stay in their pavilions, remain patient and not do anything rash until a proper response could be devised. (Actually Louis spent a lot of his time in his tent anyway as he, like many of his unfortunate army, was beset with dysentery so bad that ‘it became necessary to cut away the lower part of his drawers’.) Gautier, however, decided that honour and pride demanded otherwise.
Determined to make a name for himself, he had his war horse brought into his pavilion and decked out in its trappings bearing his family coat of arms. He had his squires help him into his full armour, his surcoat similarly declaring his identity for all to see, then mounted his horse. When all was ready he had the flaps to his pavilion thrown back and his assembled servants, to ensure every- one was watching, gave a rousing cheer. So far, so good for bold, brave Sir Gautier as he rode out resplendent under the eyes of his peers, put spur to horse and set off on his single-handed dash towards the Saracen lines.
Unfortunately, before he reached the enemy lines he lost control of his horse and fell off. According to Jean of Joinville, whose eye- witness account in his Life of St Louis is the key source for this Crusade, this ‘was because the Saracens, for the most part, were mounted on mares, and the stallion was consequently attracted to their side’. Gautier’s randy steed ‘leapt over his body and went careering forward, still covered with its master’s arms, right into the midst of our enemies’. To add injury to insult, ‘four Turks came rushing towards my lord Gautier as he lay on the ground, and aimed great blows with their maces at his body as they went by’.
The constable of France and some men-at-arms came to the rescue and managed to carry poor Gautier back to the relative safety of the camp, but his troubles were not yet over. He was now at the mercy of the notoriously inept Western medicine of this period (better for him if he had been taken prisoner by the Turks). Joinville recounts:
Several of the army surgeons and physicians went to see him, and because he did not seem to them to be in danger of dying, they bled him in both arms.
Joinville himself visited his stricken comrade in his tent later that day but found him dead. He does not record whether Gautier died from his initial injuries, the inept efforts of the quacks or sheer embarrassment.
So Gautier did not reach Jerusalem, but at least he got closer than some others who ‘took the cross’. Joinville records how one unfortunate missed the boat to military glory during the army’s earlier beach assault at Damietta. Knights were crossing from their ships to shallower-draught galleys which would then be run aground on the beach to deliver them ashore. One fellow stepped over the side, only to find the galley had already pulled away. Encased in full armour he plunged straight to the bottom. Not that funny in its own right, maybe, but I simply had to include it as the knight had the delightful name of Plonquet. We might also spare a thought for a group of warriors who followed Richard I (the Lionheart) on the Third Crusade. Their quest for spiritual salvation, fighting and loot got no further than Cyprus, where they were crushed beneath a toppling pile of grain stockpiled to feed the army – proving that wholemeal is not always good for your health.

bitten to death by a dead foe - the bizarre end of sigurd the mighty
If Uesugi Kenshin’s death was squalid and Gautier d’Autreche’s farcical, Sigurd Eysteinsson’s was simply bizarre. Sigurd, also known as Sigurd the Mighty, was of good Viking stock and was Earl of Orkney from 875–892 or thereabouts, with lands also in Caithness on the Scottish mainland. Here his borders were the source of friction with his Pictish neighbour, Máel Brigte, or Máel the Buck-toothed, who held lands in Moray to the south.
To settle their long-running dispute once and for all, Sigurd challenged Máel to a formal massed duel, both agreeing to meet at the appointed place (probably near Dornoch) with forty men each. Ritualized, judicial combat in various forms was common in many Northern European societies. The general idea seems to have been that the fight placed the dispute under the eyes of the gods (or God once those societies were Christianized), who would not let the wrong side prevail. Sigurd clearly didn’t feel too sure of divine sympathy for his cause as he decided on a little insurance policy in the form of an extra forty men. To his credit, Máel did not flee when he discovered this treachery, instead resolving to go down fighting (or perhaps hoping to kill Sigurd in any case). Unsurprisingly, he and his men were swiftly overwhelmed. The triumphant Sigurd cut off Máel’s head and hung it from his saddle to take it home as a trophy and proof of his victory.
Sigurd seemed to have got the verdict he wanted but the true justice was about to be done. As he rode, he accidentally kicked his leg against the buck teeth of Máel’s severed head, breaking the skin. The wound became infected and he died some time after, probably from tetanus or septicaemia, either one of which would have been a nasty way to go.

'hi homey, i'm a hun'
Attila, who became sole leader of the Huns in the 430s after (probably) murdering his brother Bleda, is one of the most infamous warlords of the ancient period. For two decades, the ‘scourge of God’ and his army of Huns and assorted other barbarians bullied the Romans into paying them annual tribute to leave them alone, but invaded anyway. His last great invasion of the Western Empire in 451 briefly extended his empire from its powerbase on the Hungarian plain, to within a day’s ride of the Atlantic Ocean. His death in 453 came, however, not from wounds suffered in one of his many battles, but in his marital bed on his wedding night. Having drunk excessive amounts of alcohol he choked on his own blood, traditionally explained as a nose bleed, but possibly from rupture of oesophageal varices, essentially a condition like haemorrhoids but at the lower end of the throat. This is apparently the top cause of death for chronic alcoholics.

the sad death of charles wooden vc
Charles Wooden earned immortality when he won the Victoria Cross for his actions in the famous charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaklava in 1854. Having had his horse shot from under him in the early stages of the charge and trudged back to the relative safety of the British lines, Sergeant Major Wooden ventured back into ‘the valley of death’ to help Surgeon James Mouat rescue the wounded Captain William Morris. Never mind that he had to wait four years to get his VC, and then only got it because he complained that Mouat had got one and he hadn’t, Wooden was a hero and had the medal to prove it. By then he had also served through the Indian Mutiny and did not return to England until posted to Dover in 1871, settling into garrison life with his wife and children.
There was, however, to be no peaceful end for this hero. In late April 1875 Lieutenant Wooden, as he now was, began complaining of severe headaches but carried on with his duties. On 25 April the regimental medical officer was summoned to Wooden’s quarters where his batman (a soldier who acts as personal valet to an officer, not a caped crime-fighter) informed the doctor that the lieutenant was bleeding profusely from the nose and mouth and complaining that he had a tooth that needed extracting. Entering the room, the doctor found that Lieutenant Wooden had clearly been drinking heavily and had severe damage to the roof of his mouth. Two spent cartridges were lying on the floor and Mrs Wooden admitted to having removed a pistol before the doctor arrived. Lieutenant Wooden died some twelve hours later, the subsequent inquest recording a verdict of ‘temporary insanity’.

you canute be serious! the inglorious end of edmund ironsides
Sources record two traditions regarding the death of Edmund ‘Iron- sides’. Neither was quite the end hoped for by this warrior king of Wessex who thrice defeated the Danish Canute only to be defeated through treachery in a fourth battle at Ashingdon in AD 1016. Defeat at that battle forced Edmund to agree to a partition of England in which he retained Wessex but Canute (he who famously tried to command the tide to turn back) got the rest. A short while later, Edmund was assassinated, either hacked to death as he sat on a latrine or killed by a booby-trapped statue sent to him as a gift, which released a small, spring-loaded and poisoned sword. Either way, agents of King Canute are suspected and the devious Dane soon became king of all England.

trophy emperor
For the Roman Emperor Valentinian, it was not so much the actual moment of death that was inglorious as his circumstances immediately before and after it. It was shameful enough for a Roman emperor to be taken alive by the enemy, as Valentinian was by the Persian King Shapur I in 260, but to then be forced to serve as his mounting block must have been unimaginably hard to bear. Thereafter, whenever Shapur wanted to mount his horse, he would first step on the neck of the crouching Valentinian. Even death, when it finally came two long years later, was not the end of the shame since Shapur had his flayed skin stuffed with straw and displayed in a temple as a trophy. Apparently it was brought out and gloatingly shown to visiting Roman diplomats for centuries after.

dive, dive... oh, no, wait a minute!
U-boat skipper, Kapitänleutnant Rolf Mützelburg was one of the star commanders of Germany’s 1st U-boat Flotilla. A very experienced submariner by September 1942, he had survived seven patrols in which his boat, U-203 had sunk nineteen ships and damaged three others, for which feats he had been awarded the Knight’s Cross and Oak Leaves. On 11 September 1942, while his U-203 was surfaced, he decided to take the opportunity to get some exercise by going for a swim. Diving from the conning tower he managed to miss all of the surrounding Atlantic ocean and instead hit the deck of the U-boat head-first and was killed.

Further Reading

Midget Ninja and Tactical Laxatives
(Paperback - 176 pages)
ISBN: 9781848843318

by Philip Sidnell
Only £8.99

Which army used camels disguised as war elephants? Which illustrious warlord was killed by a midget ninja hidden in his latrine? How was a Japanese vessel sunk by live cows dropped by the Soviet air force? And just what kind of weapon was the Bohemian Ear Spoon? These are just a few of the important questions of military history answered in this book.

Midget Ninja and Tactical Laxatives is a light-hearted look at some of the most bizarre incidents, weirdest weapons and strangest stratagems to be…
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