12 Historical Combat Techniques That Sound Made Up But Aren't
The 16th-century English poet John Lyly once wrote, "The rules of fair play do not apply in love and warfare." This has since become the more familiar proverb, "All is fair in love and war."
As the contents of this list show, when it comes to victory, nothing is off limits. Some methods demonstrate remarkable imagination and adaptation on the part of the people using them, while others simply reflect the brutal reality of fighting for your very survival.
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The Ancient Greek Fighting Style With No LimitsPhoto: Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 2.0
Pankration was a Greek fighting style that roughly translates to "all of the power," which gives a pretty good idea of the principles behind it. It was something of a precursor to modern mixed martial arts, except in pankration, just about anything goes, short of biting or eye-gouging.
The brutality of the discipline - attacking an opponent's genitals and strangulation were both entirely legal and expected - meant it was seen as an ideal way to train soldiers. The formidable troops of Sparta and the all-conquering army of Alexander practiced pankration.
Allegedly, when cornered and fighting desperately at Thermopylae, the final surviving Spartan warriors resorted to pankration to bring down as many Persians with them as possible.
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Getting Medieval In World War I
WWI saw a terrifying array of new weapons used for the first time, but when it came to trench raids, rifles with bayonets were too long to wield effectively. Close-quarter weapons such as the trench knife were used, while many simply made do with their entrenching tools.
Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front is a work of fiction, but is based upon the author's firsthand experiences of the war. The terrifying spectacle of a trench raid is described in chilling detail:
But the bayonet has practically lost its importance. It is usually the fashion now to charge with bombs and spades only.
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Using Boulders Against TanksPhoto: NJR ZA / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
In the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (1935-1937), the modern Italian army ground out a hard-fought victory against the Ethiopian army. Armed with modern aircraft and tanks such as the L3 (pictured), the Italians expected an easy triumph.
Resistance to the invasion was fierce; the poorly equipped Ethiopian forces used whatever means possible to slow down the Italian advance. Interestingly, the future Axis powers of Germany and Japan provided material support to the Ethiopian forces. During the Christmas Offensive, boulders were rolled from elevated positions to immobilize the lightly armored L3s and allow them to be swarmed by infantry.
Ultimately, Italian firepower won out, but not without enduring losses far heavier than initially reported.
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Dressing Up As Cows To Take A CastlePhoto: Geddie Haslehurst / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
During the First Scottish War of Independence against England, one of the last castles still in English hands was the key strategic fortress of Roxburgh. Its highly defensible position meant a conventional siege would take years. Robert the Bruce's key lieutenant, James Douglas, planned an audacious scheme to take the castle back in a single night.
Choosing to attack on Shrovetide, the night before Lent began, he calculated the castle's garrison would be too drunk to notice that the cows in the surrounding fields were not, in fact, cows. Sixty of Douglas's men were on their hands and knees disguised as cows and unnoticed until it was too late.
They crept up to the castle undetected and scaled the walls with rope ladders fastened to spears; they then opened the gates for the rest of the army to overwhelm the English garrison.
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Countering Elephants With Loud NoisesPhoto: Cornelis Cort / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
The fate of the ancient Mediterrean world was decided at the climactic Battle of Zama in 202 BCE. Legendary Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca lined up with war elephants, hoping to smash through the Roman legions.
To meet this threat, the Roman general Publius Scipio arranged for his men to create lanes for the elephants to simply pass through. At the same time, a coordinated blast from the horns of his cavalry startled the elephants and sent many of them back through their own lines. The Romans ground out a hard-fought victory to win the battle and the Second Punic War.
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Creating An Artificial Lake To Siege A CastlePhoto: Utagawa Kuniyoshi / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Ships were often used historically to subdue coastal fortresses through blockades. What makes the site of Takamatsu Castle unique is that it wasn't actually on the coast at all, but a few miles inland.
The attacking commander, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, had a knack for thinking up unusual ways to take seemingly impregnable castles. His schemes ranged from scaling mountains in the night to buying up all the rice of a province, but the Takamatsu Castle attack was arguably the most audacious of all. Hideyoshi diverted a nearby river to flood the land surrounding the castle and erected siege towers on barges to rain fire upon the castle walls.