In February and March of 2002, an awful religious riot between Hindus and Muslims took place in Gujarat India. 58 Hindus died in a train fire that was quickly blamed on local Muslims, causing retaliatory riots against them by angry Hindu mobs reportedly armed with swords; gas canisters, explosives, and cell phones (to coordinate their actions). Over 1,000 people were killed – mostly Muslims. Police were reportedly looking the other way during the early stages of the riots, and took a long time to bring it under control.
In 2012-13, similar riots between Buddhists and Muslims took place in Burma, where once again Muslims were the main victims. Arson was a major weapon, but people reportedly were armed with machetes; bamboo poles, and bricks. The casualties in these riots were less extreme than in India, but a stonger government response early on helped with this. Even so, tens of thousands from the Muslim minority in Burma have been displaced. Many have fled the country, causing in large part the boat-migrant crisis that Thailand and Malaysia are currently involved with.
If one examines these terrible urban melees closely, a direct link can often be found between the amount of lives lost, and the time it takes armed police or soldiers to seriously intervene. Even in well policed countries like the UK and China, knife violence is a serious problem. The problem can be much worse when well-armed authorities are slow to act, or the riot is planned in advance with the involvement of thousands.
Calcutta and Rwanda:
In 1946, when India was on the fast track to independence, the country was splitting apart along Hindu and Muslim lines in anticipation of the British rulers leaving. On the morning of August 16th, intense brawls and murderous rampages broke out between the two religious factions in the city of Calcutta. Blades; iron bars, brick bats, and bamboo poles were the weapons of choice. Over 4,000 people were killed within 72 hours in the city. It was only the beginning, as riots spread throughout the Bengal province in India. Thousands more died, though there is great variation of the estimates of the lives lost. The worst of the violence lasted a week in what is called The Week of the Long Knives. Eventually; British, Indian and Gurkha troops brought the violence under control.
In Rwanda in 1994, the situation was far more dire. At the time of the awful Rwandan genocide, the country was already divided along tribal lines. The Tutsi minority had once ruled the country; were considered the elite, and were on good terms with the Belgian colonists. The Hutus were underprivileged, and generally mistreated by both the Belgians and Tutsi. They were the backbone of the independence movement though; eventually became the preferred group by a changing Belgium, and by 1962 the Hutu were in power and running an independent republic.
Many Tutsis fled to neighboring countries to escape frequent violence against their minority, and many served as soldiers in the armies of neighboring states like Uganda. In 1987, they established the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and a low intensity state of civil war was waged from 1990 until 1993, with the Tutsi rebels attempting to retake Rwanda from positions outside the country. Troops from France and Zaire helped prevent this from happening. In 1993, a power sharing agreement was signed, which enraged many radical Hutus. Hutu extremists who were connected to President Juvénal Habyarimana and his wife Agathe openly talked of killing all the Tutsis on the radio, and cheap Chinese made machetes were being hoarded in the country. Some of these extremists called their own president a traitor though for being too soft with the Tutsis.
When President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over Kigali on June 6th 1994, killing him along with the Hutu President of Burundi Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Tutsi rebels were quickly blamed. It did make sense, as Tutsi army officers assassinated the first Hutu president of Burundi Melchior Ndadaye in October 1993. Whoever was responsible, the hysteria of the Hutu extremists took sudden control of the country the next day. The Rwandan police, military and mobs of enraged Hutus took to slaughtering all the Tutsis and moderate Hutus they could find. A well planned genocide was suddenly thrust into reality. Most of the killings were committed with weapons like machetes; sharpened reed spears, knives or clubs, though firearms were at times used by soldiers or police who took part.
The generally accepted figure given by the U.N. as to the amount of dead in the genocide is 800,000 killed in 100 days. It’s also regarded as the most rapid and efficient genocide in world history. While U.N. peacekeepers and other Western forces did little to stop the terror due largely to strict engagement rules, the Tutsi rebels of the RPF initiated an effort to take control of Rwanda to prevent their own people’s extermination. Incredibly, they accomplished a goal they had for years in a short amount of time. The Tutsis were once again in power in Rwanda, but three quarters of their people in Rwanda were dead. Today; Paul Kagume, the leader of the RPF army that stopped the 1994 genocide, sits as President of Rwanda.
Kagume leading his men in taking control of a country where so many hated his people, and driving the maniacs from the streets was an awesome feat, but help for his people proved dreadfully late in its arrival.
It makes me wonder what a world might look like without guns at all.
Cannae; Arausio, and the Catalounian Plains:
One of the greatest common misunderstandings of ancient history is regarding the worst defeat ever suffered by a Roman army. Whether the issue is broached on one of the so-called history channels on Cable TV; discussions on the internet, or even a Google search, usually it is the 216 BC Battle of Cannae that is mentioned.
In that year; at the start of the Second Punic War, the Carthaginian warlord Hannibal had invaded Italy with a mixed army of North Africans; Spaniards, and Gauls. He had brought the army against the Roman Republic from Carthaginian held Spain, crossing the Pyrenees, and then the Alps. His army numbered about 50,000.
While Rome had already been beaten twice by Hannibal in Italy, it still put together a massive army of over 80,000 and met Hannibal at Cannae. The Romans put their strongest units in the center and attacked, but Hannibal intentionally pulled back his center and formed his army into an arc around the Romans and attacked their flanks in what is called a double-envelopment. The Roman formation broke.
The dead on the battlefield have been estimated at between 56,000 – 78,000 for the Romans and their allies that marched with them. Hannibal’s losses were much lighter with about 5,900 deaths. Incredibly, the entire battle took place on a single day.
Despite these daunting losses on the field, it still isn’t the worst loss ever recorded by the Romans. That distinction goes to the 105 BC Battle of Arausio fought in southern Gaul (France) between the Roman Republic and the Teuton and Cimbri tribes. Some sources suggest that both the tribes had previously lived in the Jutland (Denmark), and were displaced by a great flood tide that salinated the soil of their homeland. In their migrations to find a new home, they picked up allies along the way, and eventually came into conflict with the Romans as they intruded on their territory.
In the prelude to the great battle, the enormous army of a dozen Roman legions was controlled by two quarreling Roman consuls. The year’s battle experienced senior consul Publius Rutillius Rufus had stayed in Rome, allowing his junior consul Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, and the proconsul Quintus Servillius Caepio to lead the army. Each general led a half of the massive force, and kept their armies in separate camps. King Biorix of the Cimbri, although already having fought a skirmish with the Romans, and had burned alive one of their senior legates in a wicker cage, was hesitant about taking on such a tremendous force. He entered into negotiations with Maximus.
Caepio heard rumors of the negotiations, and was worried about Maximus stealing all the glory of the expedition. He attacked the Cimbri camp with his part of the army and was obliterated by the defending Cimbri. Angry barbarians then sallied forth and destroyed the camp of Maximus.
By the time this one-day battle was finished, over 80,000 Roman legionaries were killed. When you add auxiliary troops and camp followers, the Roman dead may have been as high as 120,000. The number of slain barbarian warriors has been estimated at 15,000. If this is all accurate, the number of dead would reach 135,000.
Centuries later, Attila became king of the Huns in 434 AD ruling with his brother Bleda until 445. By then his people had already been terrorizing Europe since about 370. The Huns had come west out of Scythia, causing many Goths and other peoples to invade Roman territory as they fled at such an alarming rate that the Romans in time were forced to accept the settlement of some of the barbarians on their territory. The Huns were horsemen, raiders and nomadic herders who excelled at mounted archery. They eventually settled on the Great Hungarian Plain that still bears their name. There they could raid the rich Roman lands, and still have much of the grass their people needed for livestock and mounts. Most of those Germanic and other people’s who didn’t flee the Huns became their subjects. When Attila and Bleda began to rule, the scattered Huns were largely united by then and at the center of an empire. This empire grew under the brothers largely at the expense of the Eastern Romans who paid them tribute to avoid conflict. In time they began to seize the East Roman Empire’s wealth and territory on an unprecedented scale with the aid of siege engines. Things had taken a terrible turn for the Romans, but at least the awesome walls of Constantinople were too great even for Attila to overcome. In 445, Bleda was dead (possibly at Attila’s hands), and Attila ruled alone.
In 451 Attila changed course, and invaded the West Roman Empire with a massive army that numbered a half-million men according to the 6th century Roman historian Jordanes in his Origin and deeds of the Goths. The Roman army that was sent to stop him was led by Flavius Aëtius. In those waning days of the West Roman Empire, his army was small compared to some of the great armies of the past, but the Romans added to this by joining with the Visigoths, who had set up a kingdom in Western Gaul. So a massive force of Romans, Goths and other tribes went to stop the terrible, invading horde of Huns, themselves leading a force of Goths and other tribes. In the end, the great battle to come was more Germanic than it was Roman or Hun.
After forcing Attila to end his siege of the city of Aurelianum (Orléans), Aëtius pursued Attila northeast to the site of the battle. On the night before the great battle Roman allied Franks fought a skirmish with Hun allied Gepids. According to Jordanes, 15,000 died in a precursor to the main engagement on the Catalaunian Plains.
The main battle itself involved the Roman and Hun led armies fighting over a ridge that rose over the plain. The Huns attempted to take the entire ridge, and routed the Roman allied Alans, but failed and were driven back by Visigoth and Roman counter attacks. The Visigothic king Theodoric was killed in a charge, but the Hun army retreated leaving Attila in his fortified camp of encircled wagons. Attila was so determined not to be taken by his enemies, that he piled up saddles and horse trappings and prepared to light himself on fire.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, but could have simply been the confusion that came after nightfall, Aëtius didn’t give the order to move in to finish off Attila, but instead allowed him to retreat back to his domain in Pannonia (Hungary).
According to Jordanes, 165,000 dead lay on another one-day battlefield. This doesn’t even include the 15,000 dead from the skirmish the night before, which would bring the dead in the confrontation to a mind boggling 180,000. The problem with these statistics though is that they are rejected as outlandish by practically all modern historians. Wikipedia lists the armies of each side in the conflict as comprising of between 50 to 80 thousand warriors, with the loss of life listed as being unknown.
My problem with this diminished battle is contemporaries in the 5th century all seemed to agree that it was the greatest battle to have ever taken place up until that time. The historian Hydatius, who lived during Attila’s invasion claimed 300,000 died in the battle. While I certainly understand outrageous figures like this being dismissed, it will never make sense to me how the 135,000 dead of Arausio can be generally accepted when it involved a battle between the Roman Republic and a handful of Germanic tribes that mainly came from the small land mass of Jutland, while the Jordanes cited 165,000 dead in a pivotal battle between two massive empires in a Europe with a much larger population can be so easily doubted. The West Roman Army was much smaller than that of the late Republic in 105 BC, but Visigoths, Alans, Franks and others rushed to the defense of the Empire when called. It is also clear that both sides in the battle took terrible casualties, unlike with the Roman routs at Cannae and Arausio.
Of course, I’m not a professional historian, and may never completely understand the reasons the Battle of the Catalounian Plains has been reduced in its importance in modern eyes.
The statistics of the sword:
If we do the painfully proper thing, and cite Arausio as being the deadliest pre-gun battle of Western history, we are still left with that awesome figure of 135,000 dead in a single day. The dead of the battle are nearly three times the total casualties (dead, wounded, etc.) of the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg which lasted three days. The Roman allied dead of 120,000 amount to slightly more than the total amount of American war dead from World War 1, and over twice that of the Vietnam War.
Guns certainly do kill people, but in modern wars, it is accompanied by artillery, air power and other weapons not included in the realm of small arms. In fact, the small arms at times can be reduced to a role of lesser importance to the more powerful weapons. The deadliest battle in history is usually cited as the Battle of Stalingrad that was fought between August 1942 and February of 1943. Well over a million people were killed in the battle, but it lasted five months, and included areas outside of the city itself. Many of the axis deaths even took place after the end of the battle while in Soviet captivity. While it may be the greatest battle of all time, the rate of death still doesn’t compare to that awful day in Southern Gaul in 105 BC. This slower rate of lethality can partially be explained by the nature of a firefight. Once the shooting starts, people normally take cover, which reduces the potential of the guns.
World War One provided some of the most remarkable exceptions to this rule. Massive forces of men were often forced to charge across No Man’s Land and attempt to overrun enemy fortified lines. Often the battle would be joined across many miles of the frontline. They were usually immediately exposed to enemy fire from rifles and machine guns once they had left their own trenches. The first months of the war were perhaps worse still, as massive French, British and German armies were moving quickly and having at each other before the existence of proper fortified lines. It is in these early months of World War One that the deadliest day for guns can most likely be found. I think the best candidate is August 22nd 1914. From the frontier of Alsace and Lorraine to the Belgian border, the French army was coming under attack from the invading Germans. The French were poorly led, and overly courageous, when they should have withdrawn. 27,000 of them died in that single day shortly after the war’s beginning. This is worse even than the terrible casualties suffered by the British during the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Since the larger Battle of Lorraine as a whole was considered such a victory for the Germans, and such a disaster for the French, it can easily be assumed the German’s losses on that one day were much less. The dead on that August 22nd would be much less than half that of Arausio.
Even the near 20,000 British soldiers who died on the infamous first day of the Battle of the Somme don’t represent the bloodiest day in their nation’s history. That distinction falls to the 1461 AD Battle of Towton, where 28,000 men were hacked to death during a freak spring snowstorm while the Lancaster and York factions fought over the English throne. Simple gunpowder weapons existed at this time, but weren’t a major factor on the battlefield.
So whether you are talking about Arausio in 105 BC, or the 800,000 killed in 100 days in Rwanda in 1994, there is no historical comparison to the rate of death that can be brought about by violent melees except for weapons of mass destruction. You need to start talking about the A-bombs dropped in WW2, or the incendiary bombings over Dresden or Toyko that were able to generate horrific firestorms to beat the speed at which the blade kills on its very worst of days.