The Best, The Worst, And The Weirdest Historical Alliances We Learned About In 2021

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Vote up the best stories of historical alliances.

Throughout history, countries have found ways to discover a common cause with one another. Some work out pretty well, while other partnerships are complete disasters that led to the ruin of one or even both halves of the alliance. There have also been some truly odd pairings of otherwise sworn ideological or religious enemies forced to team up to meet an even greater threat, or for the lure of great prizes.

This collection looks at the best of the best, worst, and downright strange historical team-ups we uncovered in the last year.

  • The Anglo-Portuguese Alliance Is Still Going Strong After 650 Years
    Photo: Jean de Wavrin; Seignur de Forestel / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    15 VOTES

    The Anglo-Portuguese Alliance Is Still Going Strong After 650 Years

    When the English and Portuguese signed a treaty of "perpetual friendship" in 1373, they really meant it. Aside from the period where the crowns of Portugal and Spain were unified and the alliance was inactive, the English (later British) and Portuguese have been allies ever since. This has the distinction of being the world's oldest alliance.

    As shifting rivalries with France, Spain, and the Netherlands made Anglo-Portuguese cooperation favorable, the alliance was invoked occasionally over the years. During the Napoleonic Wars, Portugal defied the French to continue trade with Britain, prompting an invasion by Napoleon's forces. In response, an army led by Arthur Wellesley (better known as the Duke of Wellington) was dispatched to Portugal. The Peninsular War of 1808-14 siphoned off French troops and resources from other fronts and helped to bring about Napoleon's first downfall.

    The alliance continued into the 20th century. In World War I, Portugal sent troops to fight on the Western Front from 1917-18, although the fighting qualities of the "Pork and Beans" (as the British called them) were lightly regarded. The alliance wasn't formally involved during World War II, but the Portuguese did provide material assistance to the British by leasing the strategically useful Azores Islands to the Allies in 1943. The Portuguese once again offered the Azores to the British during the Falklands War of 1982.

    The alliance continues to the present day, with both nations currently active members of NATO.

    15 votes
  • The Crusaders And The Mongols Tried To Find Common Cause
    Photo: Sayf al-vâhidî et al / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    8 VOTES

    The Crusaders And The Mongols Tried To Find Common Cause

    In the battle for the Holy Land, the Crusaders weren’t actually all that picky when it came to finding allies. France repeatedly reached out to the Mongols in the 13th and 14th centuries seeking cooperation against shared foes in the Holy Land. But it was the formidable English monarch, Edward I, who came the closest to sealing an alliance between Christendom and the pagan Mongols. 

    Edward, then a prince, arrived in the Levant in 1271 with only a small number of knights and retainers. He sent out envoys to the Mongol leader Abaqa to seek aid against the Mamluks. Abaqa was receptive to the idea and agreed to an offensive in Syria while Edward’s forces struck elsewhere. The coordination proved to be unsuccessful, as Edward’s small force couldn’t achieve much, and the Mongols withdrew without a major battle. 

    Although further attempts to work together were tried by the French, Edward’s failed mission would be the only real shared venture between the Mongols and Christendom. As the Mongol empire fractured in the 13th century between different khanates, some converted to Islam and effectively closed the door on any further treaties with the Crusaders.

    8 votes
  • The Eight-Nation Alliance Was A Mess Of Bitter Rivals Trying To Outdo Each Other
    Photo: Captain C.F. O’Keefe (colorized by Julius Jääskeläinen) / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.0
    8 VOTES

    The Eight-Nation Alliance Was A Mess Of Bitter Rivals Trying To Outdo Each Other

    At the turn of the 20th century, China was in the midst of a terrible drought that was just the latest in a series of catastrophes that befell it in the 19th and 20th centuries. In response, peasant groups calling themselves the Righteous Fists of Fury rose up across the country to direct their ire against hated foreign influences, especially Christians. The bemused foreigners took to calling the malcontents Boxers, and the name stuck. By June 1900, the situation had escalated to the point that foreign embassies in China were under siege by the Boxers.

    A coalition force of the world’s foremost imperial powers was thrown together to relieve the embassies and punish the ruling Qing dynasty for its suspected support of the rebels. From the beginning, the expedition was beset by internal disputes stemming from the rivalries between members of the so-called alliance. The choice of the leader came down to machinations between Germany and Russia to stop the British from taking control. Alfred von Waldersee was appointed to oversee the venture but was still in Berlin at the time.

    While Waldersee was on his way to China, the ragtag group of troops set out. The soldiers moved as eight separate forces rather than as one unified group. Each wanted to beat the other to the prestige of taking the capital first. After a few skirmishes in August, the Boxers completely disappeared from the conflict, leaving the Qing to fight the combined forces alone. All that was left for the allies was to take Beijing itself.

    The Russian and Japanese detachments raced out in front to be the first into the city. The assault on the capital was an uncoordinated mess that saw each member of the alliance try to beat the other over the walls. In the end, Welsh and Indian troops slipped past lightly defended sections of the city to claim the glory. The forces of "civilization" then brutally sacked the city.

    The German commander appointed to oversee the whole thing didn’t arrive until the conflict was already over. He still tried to pick a fight, which only served to worsen Germany’s international standing. Within five years of the intervention, Russia and Japan would be at war. Within 15, every member of the alliance would be drawn into World War I.

    8 votes
  • 4
    13 VOTES

    Sparta And Persia Formed An Alliance To Beat Athens

    The Spartan legend was forged in the hot gates of Thermopylae where the brave 300 led by Leonidas laid down their lives against the innumerable Persian forces during the failed invasion of Greece. The story has been told and retold numerous times over the ages, with varying degrees of accuracy. Neither the accord between the city-states nor the animosity with the Persians would last, however. Within a generation, the city-states of Athens and Sparta were locked in a deadly conflict, and the Persians were only too happy to lend the latter a hand.

    With Athens ascendant in the Aegean, the Persian King Darius II ordered his satraps in Asia Minor to seek an alliance with Sparta. The king’s son Cyrus was sent to oversee the campaign in person. Thanks to substantial financial and naval support, Sparta gained the upper hand in the conflict, and briefly became the dominant force in Greece.

    The Spartans would later support Cyrus in his bid to oust his brother from power. An impressive force of 10,000 marched into the Persian Empire but was forced to turn back after the Persian prince fell in battle. The long and treacherous march through hostile territory was recorded by Xenophon in the Anabasis. The story also served as the inspiration for the 1979 cult classic, The Warriors.

    13 votes
  • 5
    12 VOTES

    The US And The Wehrmacht Teamed Up For A Mission In World War II

    Itter Castle in Austria was the site of a highly unusual operation in the very last days of the European theater of World War II. The Nazis used the castle to hold high-profile French prisoners of war. By May 1945, the prison’s guards had fled and a unit of Waffen-SS came in to wipe out the French prisoners and carry out reprisals against the local population for any hints of surrender. 

    A German officer who opposed the Nazis, Josef Gangl, and a small group of men loyal to him intervened to protect the prisoners and locals. Heavily outnumbered, Gangl sent word to the American forces in the area seeking aid. His call for help was answered by Capt. John C. "Jack" Lee, Jr., who arrived with a band of volunteers and a single Sherman tank. The motley crew of French prisoners, American troops, and Wehrmacht soldiers bravely defended the castle against the SS. The tank was blown up, but the SS weren’t able to breach the castle. 

    An American relief force arrived in the late afternoon and captured the SS unit. There was only one casualty on the defending side: Gangl was slain by a sniper while trying to spot the position of the anti-tank gun from an observation post.

    Many years after the battle, Lee was asked by a reporter in 1973 what he made of the whole endeavor. His short answer summed it all up perfectly: "Well, it was just the damnedest thing."

    12 votes
  • 6
    5 VOTES

    Romans And Barbarians Were Forced To Work Against A Greater Threat

    In the 4th century CE, it was fair to say the Roman Empire had seen better days. But the ailing empire could still muster a formidable army when crisis loomed. Few were equal in magnitude to the threat posed by Attila and the Huns. As they ravaged through Gaul (now France), a coalition of Goths, Franks, and assorted tribes came together under the Roman leader Flavius Aetius to take on the Huns.

    Relations between the coalition members weren’t exactly harmonious (the Visigoths had sacked Rome in 410 CE), but the even greater threat of the Huns saw those differences put aside at the climactic Battle of the Catalaunian Plains (also called fields) in 451. The Visigothic king Theodoric fell in the conflict alongside thousands of others in an exceptionally brutal encounter. A heavy price was paid to put an end to the Hunnic invasion, and the uneasy truce between the coalition soon dissolved.

    Rome was sacked again in 455 as the Western half of the empire entered a terminal decline that saw the once-mighty empire fall. 

    5 votes