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9 Military Units That Marched To The Beat Of Their Own Drummer

List Rules
Vote up the military units that most stand out from the pack.

Throughout history, militaries have usually been organized with the goal of uniformity. While the specific uniforms, codes of conduct, and customs have all varied depending on time and culture, the goal is the same: to create a strong sense of shared identity. This creates camaraderie among soldiers while also making them easier to control. But occasionally, certain military units have emerged that stood out from their comrades.

Often, these have been small units made up of elite soldiers, tasked with protecting their ruler in combat. These were common both in ancient armies in places like Persia, Greece, and Macedon, as well as in more recent militaries like Napoleon's Grande Armée. But there have also been a handful of units that were known for having a certain distinctive style, or a specific purpose that set them apart. These units remind us that even in the military, the deeply human desire to stand out from the crowd makes itself felt.

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  • Polish Heavy Cavalry Rode Into Battle With Wings On Their Backs
    Photo: Aleksander Orłowski / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    211 VOTES

    Polish Heavy Cavalry Rode Into Battle With Wings On Their Backs

    The Polish hussars are still one of the most legendary units in Poland's military history, dominating European battlefields from the late 16th century into the early 18th. In a time when firearms and heavy pikes discouraged European armies from using cavalry, the Polish hussars were successful because they were able to innovate around their constraints.

    Regular cavalry units couldn't charge infantry armed with long pikes. The Polish hussars countered this with their signature weapon: a hollow lance that could extend up to nearly 20 feet long, outreaching most pikes of the day. 

    The Polish hussars' most distinctive feature was most definitely the wings they wore on their backs. Mounted on wooden harnesses, the hussars' wings had a psychological effect, scaring enemy horses and intimidating soldiers as well. 

    However, just as the Polish hussars succeeded by innovation, enemy armies ultimately defeated them with adaptive techniques, like using spiky battlefield obstacles that made the hussars' charges impractical. They began to decline in the early 18th century and were formally dissolved in 1776, by which time the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was already being subsumed into the burgeoning Russian Empire.

    211 votes
  • The WWII ‘Ghost Army’ Used Smoke And Mirrors To Trick Germans Into Thinking It Was A Real Division
    Photo: US Dept of Defense - Dept of the Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    213 VOTES

    The WWII ‘Ghost Army’ Used Smoke And Mirrors To Trick Germans Into Thinking It Was A Real Division

    Deception has always been part of warfare, but the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops of WWII, AKA the "Ghost Army," took this to new heights. Consisting of just 82 officers and 1,023 enlisted men, the 23rd Headquarters was capable of simulating two entire divisions of about 30,000 soldiers each. They did this with a variety of visual and audio techniques, like inflatable tanks, falsified radio signals, and uniforms with insignias for various other army units. 

    Their goal was to convince German forces that they were facing much larger forces than they actually were. Altogether, the unit participated in 22 operations across Europe, beginning right before D-Day in June 1944 and ending with the American forces' capture of the Rhine River in March 1945. The activities of the 23rd Headquarters remained classified until 1996.

    213 votes
  • Napoleon’s Elite Old Guard Were Called ‘The Grumblers’ Because That’s What They Did
    Photo: Édouard Detaille / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    155 VOTES

    Napoleon’s Elite Old Guard Were Called ‘The Grumblers’ Because That’s What They Did

    Napoleon Bonaparte was always inspired by ancient Roman rulers, and at the beginning of his tenure as First Consul in 1799, he created the Old Guard, a Praetorian Guard-like unit made up of the most elite soldiers in the Grande Armée

    The Old Guard was composed of soldiers with at least 10 years of service, all of whom had proven their abilities on the battlefield. Like Frederick William's Potsdam Giants, they were required to be above six feet in height, but they were also expected to be in peak physical condition. They were given the best housing and rations, and in exchange, they protected Napoleon on the battlefield. They were also given all kinds of special privileges, like sleeping late, being allowed to socialize with their superior officers, and famously, being allowed to complain. This earned them the nickname Les Grognards, or "The Grumblers," although presumably, they had a lot less to complain about than ordinary soldiers in the Grande Armée.  

    The Old Guard was usually only used in combat either in the final minutes to deliver a coup de grace, or when Napoleon needed them to turn the fight in his favor. They served under him from 1799 until his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, which was also the first time the Old Guard retreated.

    155 votes
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    118 VOTES

    Alexander The Great’s Companions May Have Been The First Shock Cavalry In History

    In ancient warfare, the expense of horses meant that cavalry was usually reserved for society's elites. And in Alexander the Great's armies, the Companion Cavalry were considered not just the top of the social hierarchy but the most elite cavalry unit in the world.

    This was partly due to their origin, the plains of Thessaly, which at the time were home to the most robust horse breeds in ancient Greece. They were also highly disciplined and well-trained. 

    In combat, Alexander fought at the head of his Companions. He usually deployed them in a hammer-and-anvil strategy, engaging the enemy with his powerful infantry phalanx and then using a cavalry charge to slam into the enemy line. The Companions were an integral element in Alexander's spectacularly successful campaigns.

    118 votes
  • The Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Has Members Who Are Dolphins
    Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 1st Class Brien Aho. / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    97 VOTES

    The Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Group Has Members Who Are Dolphins

    In combat, technological innovation can often mean the difference between winning and losing. But the need to innovate can sometimes take military technology in strange directions – like the US Navy's marine mammal program

    Since 1959, the US Navy has been training bottlenose dolphins and California sea lions for military purposes, using their advantageous physical attributes to do jobs that humans can't.

    Dolphins possess natural sonar that makes them adept at locating underwater objects, and both dolphins and sea lions are capable of diving hundreds of feet below the surface without equipment. This allows them to perform all kinds of tasks, from locating deepwater mines to retrieving underwater objects to intercepting enemy divers.

    97 votes
  • The Flamboyantly Dressed ‘Fire Zouaves’ Were New York Firefighters Who Put On Gymnastic Displays
    Photo: Matthew Brady / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
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    108 VOTES

    The Flamboyantly Dressed ‘Fire Zouaves’ Were New York Firefighters Who Put On Gymnastic Displays

    Throughout the American Civil War (1861-1865), the armies of the Union and the Confederacy were made up of hundreds of small units that were organized locally in different states. But few units were as colorful as the 11th New York Infantry Regiment, also known as the Fire Zouaves. Their first leader was a New York law clerk named Elmer Efraim Ellsworth, who modeled his unit after the North African Zouaves that had been serving in the French military since 1830. Ellsworth borrowed the original Zouaves' colorful uniforms, gymnastics-like routines, and infantry tactics, which usually included rapid movement and agility. 

    Ellsworth created his first Zouave unit in Chicago in 1859 and toured with them across 19 East Coast cities, making both Zouaves and himself popular with the American public, and befriending Abraham Lincoln along the way. In May 1861, as post-Sumter mania had regiments forming all over the Union, Ellsworth created the 1,200-person 11th Infantry Regiment, AKA the Fire Zouaves, which partly consisted of New York City firefighters.

    In case anyone thought the "firefighting" thing was just a schtick, the Fire Zouaves aided the Washington, DC, Fire Brigade in putting out a fire that threatened to destroy Willard's Hotel (now a historic Washington landmark) and some adjacent businesses. They even had a chance to show off their signature gymnastics, as Adam Goodheart describes in his book 1861: Civil War Awakening:

    The New Yorkers called for ladders and, discovering that there were none, promptly formed a human pyramid and clambered six stories to the top of the hotel. Some hauled up a hose, while others grabbed washbasins, tubs, and chamber pots from the guest rooms and filled them with water to soak the roof. One particularly agile and fearless Zouave hung upside down from the cornice, as a comrade held him by the ankles, to hose the burning liquor store from the best possible angle.

    Soon afterward, Ellsworth was shot and killed in Alexandria, VA, while attempting to remove a large Confederate flag that had been flown from a house in defiance of occupying Union troops. He became the first Union officer casualty in the war and arguably the Union's first martyr as well.

    Later, when a number of the Fire Zouaves were taken prisoner by Confederates at the First Battle of Bull Run, they became POWs at Castle Pinckney in South Carolina. While there, they posed for a photo, standing in front of a brick structure on which they had cheekily painted the sign, "Hotel de Zouave." The Fire Zouaves remained in active duty until June 1862.

    108 votes