The Mongol Subjugation of Novgorod (1238)

In 1238, a 40,000-man Mongol horde led by Genghiz Khan’s grandson, Batu Khan, embarked on a campaign of conquest against the Rus. By the end of 1238 they had taken 14 major cities and razed them for failing to heed Batu’s ultimatums. Only two major cities in the northern Rus territories were spared: Pskov and Novgorod, which pledged fealty to the Great Khan and agreed to annually pay a tax based on 10 percent of their produce. Novgorod, a vital fur-trading center, was surrounded by potential enemies, including not only the Mongols, but the Swedes and an order of German warrior-monks known as the Teutonic Knights.

Both western powers coveted the lands to the east, declaring their purpose to spread Catholicism while destroying the Eastern Orthodox Church. Appointed kniaz (prince) of Novgorod in 1236 at age 15, Alexsandr Yaroslavich was compelled to choose his friends and enemies carefully. He knew resisting the Mongols was suicide, but they tended to spare those who surrendered and left them to their own domestic affairs…whereas the Swedes would seize land and the Germans would kill nearly everybody.

prince-alexander-nevsky-mongol-subjugationPrince Alexsandr Nevsky negotiated with Batu Khan rather than risk open war with the Mongols.

As the Mongols marched on Novgorod in 1238, the spring thaws hampered their horses, halting the campaign 120 kilometers short of its objective. Seizing his opportunity, Alexsandr met the Mongols and accepted their terms. Pskov did the same. The Mongols moved on, establishing their western headquarters at Sarai under a yellow banner for which their force became known as the Golden Horde. Alexsandr made the right choice. He would later have to battle both his western enemies, defeating the Swedes on the Neva River on July 15, 1240 (for which he acquired the moniker Alexsandr Nevsky) and the Livonian Knights at Lake Peipus on April 5, 1242. Credited with preserving Russian civilization at a time of terrible duress, Alexsandr did so by knowing both when to fight and when not to.

The 335-Years War (1651-1986)

What if they gave a war and nobody came? Better still, what if they gave a war and nobody noticed? During the English Civil War, the United Provinces of the Netherlands sided with the English Parliament. As one consequence many Dutch ships were seized or sunk by the Royalist navy, which by 1651 was based in the Isles of Scilly, supporting the last diehards in Cornwall.

On March 30 Lt. Adm. Maarten Harpertsoon Tromp arrived at Scilly, demanding reparation for damages to Dutch ships. Receiving no satisfactory answer, Tromp declared war but then sailed away—and never returned. Critics of that so- called “war” have since noted that as an admiral, not a sovereign, Tromp was really in no position to formally declare war. The issue seemed moot in June 1651 when a Parliamentarian fleet under General at Sea Robert Blake arrived at Scilly to compel the last Royalists to surrender.

So things stood until 1986, when historian Roy Duncan chanced upon Tromp’s idle threat and in the course of investigation concluded that, the utter lack of hostilities notwithstanding, the Netherlands and Isles of Scilly had spent the past 335 years at war but had never gotten around to declaring peace. That oversight was finally remedied on April 17, 1986, when Dutch ambassador to Britain Jonkheer Rein Huydecoper formally declared one of history’s longest conflicts at an end—adding that it must have horrified the islands’ inhabitants “to know we could have attacked at any moment.”

The Kettle War (1784)

Along with winning independence, in 1585 the Republic of the Netherlands closed off the Scheldt River to trade from the Spanish Netherlands to the south, adversely affecting Antwerp’s and Ghent’s access to the North Sea while serving to Amsterdam’s advantage. Spain accepted that arrangement again in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, but in 1714 Spain ceded the southern Netherlands to Habsburg Austria. Between 1780 and 1784 the Netherlands allied with the fledgling United States of America in hopes of gaining an advantage over Britain but was defeated. Seeking to take advantage of that situation, on Oct. 9, 1784, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II sent three ships, headed by the large merchantman Le Louis , into the Scheldt.

Calling his bluff, the Dutch sent the warship Dolfijn to intercept the Austrians, firing a shot through a soup kettle aboard Le Louis. At this point the Austrian flagship surrendered. On Oct. 30 Emperor Joseph declared war and the Netherlands began mobilizing its forces. Austrian troops invaded the Netherlands, razing a custom house and occupying Fort Lillo, whose withdrawing garrison broke the dikes and inundated the region, drowning many locals but halting the Austrian advance. France mediated a settlement signed on Feb. 8, 1785, as the Treaty of Fontainebleau, upholding the Netherlands’ control over the Scheldt but recompensing the Austrian Netherlands with 10 million florins.

The Anglo-Swedish War (1810–1812)

With the signing of the Treaty of Paris on Jan. 6, 1810, Emperor Napoleon imposed his Continental System throughout Europe and placing a trade embargo on one of his remaining enemies, Great Britain. That included Sweden, Britain’s longtime trading partner. A booming smuggling trade led Napoleon to issue an ultimatum on Nov.13, 1810, giving his reluctant ally five days to declare war and confiscate all British shipping and goods found on Swedish soil, or itself face war from France and all its allies. Sweden duly declared war on Nov. 17, but there were no direct hostilities over the next year and a half—in fact, Sweden looked the other way while the Royal Navy occupied and used its isle of Hanö as a base.

Ironically, this delicate standoff was upset by a Frenchman, Marshal Jean- Baptiste Bernadotte, who with the death of Sweden’s Crown Prince Charles August on May 28, 1810, was elected crown prince on Aug. 21. Although King Charles XIII was Sweden’s official ruler, his illness and disinterest in national affairs caused him to leave Crown Prince Bernadotte as the de facto ruler—who put Swedish interests above France’s. Relations with Napoleon deteriorated until France occupied Swedish Pomerania and the isle of Rügen in 1812. Bernadotte’s response included the Treaty of Örebro on July 18, 1812, formally ending the bloodless war against Britain and thus declaring a soon- to-be bloodier war against Napoleon’s France.

The Aroostook War (1838–1839)

Both the American Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 ended with unfinished business regarding the boundaries between the United States and British North America. On several occasions both countries came to the brink of further conflicts. One such was the “Aroostook War” regarding unresolved land claims between Lower Canada and Massachusetts, exacerbated in 1820 when a new state, Maine, broke away from Massachusetts. By 1839 the U.S. had raised 6,000 militia and local posses to patrol the disputed territory while British troop strength rose to as high as 15,000.

There were no direct confrontations.

Two British militiamen were injured by bears. The decisive action came in 1842 in the form of negotiations between British Master of the Mint Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton and U.S. Secretary of State Daniel Webster. As was often the case, the resultant Webster-Ashburton Treaty was a compromise. Most land went to Maine, leaving a vital area northeast for the Halifax Road to connect Lower Canada with the Maritime provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In 1840 Maine created Aroostook County to administer civil authority in its expected territory, from which the incident got its name in the history books.

pig-warGreat Britain and the United States of America nearly fought a war which began with the shooting of a pig.

The Pig War (1859)

Since at least the 1844 American presidential election that got James K. Polk elected on a slogan of “Fifty-four-Forty or Fight,” the United States set its sights on raising the northern border of the “Oregon Territory” (including what is now Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia) to 54 degrees 40 minutes north latitude, rather than 49 degrees north as it had been in 1846. That border bisected San Juan Island, in the Straits of Juan de Fuca between Seattle and Vancouver, where on June 15, 1859, American resident Lyman Cutlar caught Charlie Griffin’s pig rooting in his garden and shot it dead.

Cutlar subsequently offered to compensate his British neighbor $10 for his loss. Griffin angrily demanded that local authorities arrest Cutlar. The U.S. authorities would not countenance Britain arresting an American citizen. Soon both sides were reinforcing the island with troops and offshore warships. Things came to a head when the governor of British Columbia ordered the commander of the British Pacific Fleet, Adm. Robert Baynes, to invade the island.

At that critical hour Baynes became the voice of reason when he disobeyed the order, declaring that he would “not involve two great nations in a war over a squabble about a pig!”

News of the standoff spurred Washington and London to negotiate while reducing troop strength on San Juan to 100 each. Finally in 1872, an international commission headed by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany settled the matter by ceding the entire island to the United States. Total casualties: one British pig.

The Pembina Raid (1871)

Following the American Civil War a committee of radical nationalists called the Irish Brotherhood, or Fenians, embarked on three attempts to capture large areas of British North America to ransom for an independent Irish republic. Although the participants were mostly hardened Civil War veterans—from both sides—their first attempt to seize the Niagara Falls peninsula in 1866 failed. A second attempt launched from New York and Vermont in 1870 was a greater failure—largely because the Fenians were facing better-prepared militiamen now defending their own sovereign state, the Dominion of Canada. Although the Irish Brotherhood itself had given up on the idea, Col. John O’Neill set out west for one more try, planning to invade Manitoba and form an alliance with the half-blood Métis, then rebelling against the Canadian authorities for land, ethnic and religious rights. By late 1871, however, Ottawa was acquiescing to Métis demands. Consequently the Métis had no intention of allying with the Fenians.

Undeterred, at 7:30 a.m. on the morning of Oct. 5, 1871, O’Neill led 37 followers to seize the Hudson’s Bay Company trading post and the nearby East Lynne Customs House in Pembina. Of 20 people taken prisoner, a young boy escaped and ran to the U.S. Army base at Fort Pembina. While about a thousand Canadian militia marched south to deal with the threat, Capt. Loyd Wheaton led 30 soldiers of Company I, 20th U.S. Infantry Regiment to the settlement. O’Neill later said he was loath to fight bluecoats alongside whom he had served during the Civil War.

The Fenians fled north, but O’Neill and 10 others were quickly captured. By 3 p.m. the crisis was over. Canada had seen off its last invasion threat without firing a shot. Taken to St. Paul, Minnesota, O’Neill was tried twice for violating the Neutrality Acts and twice acquitted on the grounds that he had not really done so. Unknown to O’Neill, in May 1870 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had straightened out the disputed Canadian border, resulting in Pembina no longer being a quarter mile north of the border, but three-quarters of a mile south in Dakota Territory. O’Neill gave up his invasion ambitions under an avalanche of public ridicule over not only failing to conquer Canada but failing to even find Canada!

The Lobster War (1961–1963)

There have been numerous conflicts over territory and others over the natural resources they produce. One example began in 1961 when French fishermen seeking spiny lobsters off Mauretania tried their luck on the other side of the Atlantic and discovered crustacean gold on underwater shelves 250 to 650 feet deep. Soon, however, the French vessels were intercepted and driven off by Brazilian corvettes upholding a government claim that that part of the Continental Shelf was their territory, as was any sea life that walked on it. On Jan. 1, 1962 Brazilian warships apprehended the French Cassiopée, but the next time two Brazilian corvettes went after French lobstermen they were in turn intercepted by the French destroyer Tartu.

France and Brazil in 1963 nearly waged a war over lobsters.

By April 1963 both sides were considering war. Fortunately, an international tribunal summarized the French claim as being that lobsters, like fish, were swimming in the sea, not walking on the shelf. This prompted Brazilian Admiral Paolo Moreira da Silva’s counterclaim that that argument was akin to saying that if a kangaroo hops through the air, that made it a bird.

The matter was finally settled by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea on Dec. 10, 1964. By it, Brazilian coastal waters were extended to 200 nautical miles but permitted 26 French ships to catch lobsters for five years in “designated areas,” paying a small percentage of their catch to Brazil. Otherwise the two nations might have warred for a pretender to the throne of the true lobster—spiny lobsters, a.k.a. langustas, don’t have claws like their North Atlantic cousins and are thus not considered true lobsters. Although often used for “lobster tails,” some might not find them tasty enough “to die for.”

The Sumdorong Chu Standoff (1986–1987)

While the United States and the Soviet Union were having a nuclear Cold War faceoff, in October 1962 border tensions in the Himalayas between India and the People’s Republic of China flared when Indian troops seized Thag La Ridge. The People’s Liberation Army reacted in force, inflicting a stinging defeat on the Indians at Namka Chu. Over the next 24 years both sides reformed and improved their military capabilities while still eying one another suspiciously. On Oct. 18-20, 1986, India staged Operation Falcon, an airlift that occupied Zemithang and several other high ground positions, including Hathung La ridge and Sumdorong Chu. The PLA responded by moving in reinforcements, calling on India for a flag meeting on Nov. 15. This was not forthcoming.

In the spring of 1987 the Indians conducted Operation Chequerboard, an aerial redeployment of troops involving 10 divisions and several warplane squadrons along the North East India border. China declared these activities a provocation, but India showed no intention of withdrawing from its positions. By May 1997 soldiers of both powers were staring down each other’s gun barrels while Western diplomats, recognizing similar language to that preceding the 1962 clash, braced for a major war.

Cooler heads seem to have prevailed, for on Aug. 5, 1987, Indian and Chinese officials held a flag meeting at Bum. Both sides agreed to discuss the situation and in 1988 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited Beijing, reciprocating for the first time Zhou Enlai’s April 1960 visit to India. The talks were accompanied by mutual reductions in forces from a Line of Actual Control that was agreed upon in 1993. With the crisis defused, there would be no major Sino-Indian border incidents again until 2020.

whisky-war-hans-islandHans Island became the focus of the informal “Whisky War” between NATO members Canada and Denmark, who respectively left bottles of liquor behind on the island as “claims.” The “conflict” was settled in 2022.

The Whisky War (1984–2022)

The disagreement over the exact national boundaries dividing little Hans Island involved two of the least likely adversaries, both members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: Canada and Denmark. Lying in the Kennedy Channel between Ellesmere and the autonomous Danish territory of Greenland, Hans was divided in half by a line that left a gap in its exact border descriptions. That gap went ignored until 1980, when the Canadian firm Dome Petroleum began four years of research on and around the island.

Matters took a more specific direction in 1984, however, when Canadian soldiers landed on Hans and left behind a Maple Leaf flag and a bottle of whisky. In that same year the Danish Minister for Greenland Affairs arrived to plant the Danish flag with a bottle of schnapps and a letter saying, “Welcome to the Danish Island.” These provocations heralded decades of escalating mutual visits and gestures that left all manner of souvenirs behind. Finally, on Aug. 8, 2005—following a particularly busy July—the Danish press announced that Canada wished to commence serious negotiations to settle the remaining boundary dispute once and for all.

Even so, it took the Russian “special military operation” against Ukraine to remind the world how serious war could be, resulting in the rivals unveiling a plan on June 14 for satisfactorily dividing the unresolved remnants of Hans Island between the Canadian territory of Nunavut and Danish Greenland.

this article first appeared in military history quarterly

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