“What is the dumbest way a huge turning point in history began?” was a question historian Peter Manseau recently posed on Twitter. What resulted was a flood of user comments that ranged from the inane (some noted their own births) to world altering.
We here at HistoryNet have compiled some of the more notable answers and added a few of our own to the list!
1. The Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
While the story of Gavrilo Princip stopping to get a sandwich after the first failed assassination attempt on the lives of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie may be apocryphal, what is true is the couple’s driver took an unexpected new route (or a wrong turn) which led the pair to cross paths with Princip. The subsequent deaths of the Ferdinands plunged the world into the Great War, the Second World War, the Cold War and on and on the ramifications go.
2. The Death of Glyndwr Michael
The idea itself was very simple: find a dead body, plant false papers on the corpse, and then drop it where the Germans would inevitably find it. Yet to pull off the ruse would require ingenuity to overcome a complicated series of hurdles, namely finding the appropriate body that looked like it had died in an air crash at sea and floated ashore.
The British eventually found their man in Glyndwr Michael, a vagrant who had recently died in London after swallowing rat poison. With no family to claim him, Michael’s body was put on ice as Charles Cholmondeley and Ewen Montagu set about creating “Captain (Acting Major) William Martin of the Royal Marines.”
Attached to Michael’s body was a briefcase that contained a series subterfuge documents designed to draw the Germans away from the Allies’ main target, Sicily.
On April 30, 1943, “Captain Martin” was launched into the ocean from the British submarine HMS Seraph and left to drift. From then on it was a wait-and-see game. Macintyre told The New Yorker that the Germans had to “believe that they had gained access to the documents undetected; they should be made to assume that the British believed the Spaniards had returned the documents unopened and unread.”
Indeed, they did. After taking the bait, the Germans rapidly doubled the number of troops being sent to Sardinia, while Hitler sent an additional panzer division from France to Greece. British code breakers sent the telegram, “MINCEMEAT SWALLOWED ROD, LINE, AND SINKER” to Winston Churchill in mid-May of 1943.
And as 160,000 Allied troops stormed Sicily on July 10 it became clear from the scanty German resistance that the British dupe was effective. The successful six-week campaign to retake Sicily brought Mussolini to his knees, helped to initiate the Italian land campaign, and forced Hitler to divert nearly a fifth of the entire German army fighting on the Eastern Front to help prop up Italy. Countless Allied lives were saved due to this one cadaver.
3. Ben Butler and the Bermuda Hundred Campaign
By fate, Benjamin Butler and P.G.T Beauregard found themselves at the head of opposing armies on the Virginia Peninsula in 1864: Butler in command of the Army of the James, Beauregard the Department of North Carolina and Southern Virginia.
Their showdown in the Bermuda Hundred Campaign, lasting May 5 through June 7, 1864, remains one of the war’s most overlooked military ventures despite the fact that it could have possibly ended the American Civil War a year earlier, according to historian Sean Michael Chick.
That spring, Butler’s army was handed the critical role as “Left Hook” in Ulysses Grant’s massive three-pronged advance on Richmond, and even though Butler seemed to have the parts in place to succeed, he was instead left to rue lost opportunities and to cast blame on his subordinates.
Although there had been missed Confederate openings too, one thing was certain by June 7: Beauregard had managed to turn back Butler’s onslaught and Grant had been stopped on the outskirts of Richmond. He would not claim the coveted Confederate capital for another 10 months.
4. James Madison and the Bill of Rights
According to the National Archives, “James Madison, once the most vocal opponent of the Bill of Rights, introduced a list of amendments to the Constitution on June 8, 1789, and ‘hounded his colleagues relentlessly’ to secure its passage.”
Although no draft in his hand survives, there is good reason to believe that JM composed Washington’s first inaugural address. Even before he was officially elected president, Washington had turned to JM for his opinion of a seventy-three-page draft address that Washington’s secretary, David Humphreys, had drawn up for the occasion. Washington copied this draft with the intention of sending it to JM, but owing to the uncertainty of the communications between Mount Vernon and Montpelier, he decided to wait until JM stopped over at Mount Vernon late in February. The Humphreys draft clearly embarrassed Washington, and JM later referred to it as a “strange production.” No doubt for this reason Jared Sparks felt justified in cutting up Washington’s copy of the proposed address and sending pieces of it to his friends as examples of the great man’s autograph (PJM, XI, 446, 446–47 n. 1).
At their Mount Vernon meeting Washington and JM agreed that the Humphreys draft, which contained numerous legislative proposals, should be discarded in favor of a brief address that deliberately omitted specific recommendations to Congress. The one recommendation which the president made in his inaugural, that Congress consider amendments to the Constitution, was one that JM had much at heart. If the passage on amendments suggests the pen of JM, a remark by Washington in his note of 5 May 1789 clearly points to him as the author of the address: “Notwithstanding the conviction I am under of the labour which is imposed upon you by Public Individuals as well as public bodies—Yet, as you have began, so I would wish you to finish, the good work in a short reply to the Address of the House of Representatives.” Thus in the opening series of formal exchanges between the president and Congress, JM was in dialogue with himself. Having composed the inaugural, he drew up in turn the address of the House of Representatives in reply to the president (5 May), the president’s reply to the House address (8 May), and for good measure the president’s reply to the Senate address (18 May).
5. George Washington and the French and Indian War
Yes, you read that correctly. The then 22-year-old George Washington managed to spark a global war.
According to the Smithsonian, George and “his Virginia Regiment of a little over 100 effective soldiers were the tip of His Majesty’s spear in North America. Their assignment: to finish building a fort that would anchor Britain’s control over the Ohio Valley.”
Although Washington wasn’t instructed to start a war, he had the authority to restrain any French interlopers in the contested region of Ohio, if necessary, “kill & destroy” them. The scuffle that ensued — with many noting that it was Washington who fired the first shot — and the subsequent death of French Ensign Joseph Coulon de Jumonville, would spark the French and Indian War and help lead to the American Revolution (which was led by none other than George Washington).
HistoryNet’s honorable mentions:
1. The Discovery of Penicillin
Regarded as a true turning point in human history, penicillin, one of the world’s first antibiotics is discovered by Dr. Alexander Fleming — and by mistake no less. Fleming, a Professor of Bacteriology at St. Mary’s Hospital in London was returning to his lab after a holiday and was beginning to sort through his petri dishes that contained colonies of Staphylococcus aureaus when he noticed that a mold, penicillium notatum, had prevented the growth of the staphylococci. What he discovered that day was a means to kill bacteria, and thereby treat infectious diseases. However, Dr. Fleming did not have the resources nor the chemistry background to isolate the penicillium mold juice, purify it and mass produce it.
After publishing his findings in a 1929 journal, his report languished until 1938 when Howard Florey and Ernst Chain at Oxford University began in earnest their work on purifying penicillin. Their testing on mice showed that penicillin appeared nontoxic and could combat a variety of pathogens, including the bacteria that caused gangrene. Their work became so precious and closely guarded during the war that the researchers rubbed Penicillium notatum spores into the fabric of their jackets in case an imminent German invasion forced them to destroy their work. Despite initial successes, however, the issue became developing a means of mass producing the penicillin.
This would not come until the summer of 1941, when British scientific ingenuity paired with American production abilities. And from January to May of 1942, 400 units of pure penicillin were manufactured and by 1945, American pharmaceutical companies were producing 650 billion units a month. During World War II penicillin is credited for not only curing rampant outbreaks of venereal disease, but for saving hundreds of thousands of Allied lives. The “wonder drug” cut incidences of gangrene to 1.5 cases per thousand and bacterial pneumonia from 18% in World War I to less than 1% in World War II.
As Dr. Fleming famously wrote: “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”
2. The Death of Rear Admiral Keiji Shibakazi During the Battle of Tarawa
The attack on Betio, the largest and southernmost island in the Tarawa atoll, required a direct assault on the beachheads by U.S. Marines. Protected by coral reefs, the flat, small island was one of the most heavily fortified in the Pacific, and because of the island’s geography, the nearly 5,000 Marines would have no immediate room to maneuver. Landing on November 20, 1943, the Marines were met with withering fire, poured out by elite troops of the Imperial Navy’s Special Naval Landing Force, sometimes called “Japanese Marines.” The lethal hailstorm of mortars, machine gun and rifle fire threatened to halt the advance of the Marines. From this precarious position, General Smith radioed General Holland Smith midafternoon stating: “Successful landings on Beaches Red 2 and 3. Toehold on Red 1. The situation is in doubt.” By the end of the first day, the Marines had a tenuous hold on all three landing zones – designated Red 1, Red 2, and Red 3. Corralled onto the narrow beaches, no units had penetrated more than 70 yards inshore and by nightfall, being driven back into the sea was a legitimate threat.
However, by some stroke of luck, the commander of the Japanese garrison, Rear Admiral Keiji Shibakazi, frustrated with his inability to contact his men in the field, ordered his command post to move to the south side of the island. By a twist of fate, a fluke, or skill one of the U.S. destroyers managed to lob a 5-inch shell directly in the commander’s path as he left his concrete blockhouse — instantly killing him and several other senior officers. The death of Shibakazi essentially cut off the head of the Japanese command structure, which is seemingly why the Japanese could not coordinate an early banzai charge. If they had, it is likely that the Americans would have lost their fragile toehold on the beachheads.
Aware of their perilous position as a new day dawned, the Marines fought with extraordinary courage, many fighting despite being wounded several times. The fighting on day two is considered to be one of the toughest battles in Marine Corps history. However, by day three, Japanese resistance had largely collapsed, leaving only rogue snipers and small pockets of fanatical fighters. The Japanese had boasted that it would take a million men and 100 years to take the island. The Marines took it in three days.
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