Over the centuries, many have died during war. We have all been touched by the death of someone we knew personally, whether a brave soldier in battle, or a civilian caught in unfortunate circumstances. While these deaths strike us the hardest, they fade into statistics in history books, but are kept alive and appreciated through the stories we share with our families, and occasionally stories we read in a newspaper or book that gives their life due meaning.
In the US Civil War, of the six hundred twenty thousand combined Union and Confederate active military, three hundred fifty-eight thousand died of disease—almost sixty thousand of those with dysentery. The scope of the World Wars was so grand that statistics are estimates at best. In World War I, out of sixty-five million combined mobilized troops, one and a half million troops and almost five million civilians died of disease, two million more civilians died from military actions or crimes. In World War II, civilian casualties rose to over twenty-four million by disease and thirty million by military actions or crimes against humanity.
So what fills our history books? They highlight the lives—and sometimes deaths—of more prominent figures through the ages, and occasionally a death so bizarre that it gains recognition for the method.
Pyrrhus of Epirus was one of the most successful opponents of early Rome. His ability to win battles, even at the cost of heavy casualties, coined the term Pyrrhic victory. During retreat of a misgauged attach on Sparta, Pyrrhus was trapped in an alley and an old woman watching from a rooftop tossed a tile on his head. While he was stunned, an Argive soldier seized the moment and beheaded him.
One of the most famous botched executions was that of Mary Queen of Scots. The executioner denied her audience with a priest, then roughly grabbed her arm and pulled off her doublet. After she bravely laid her head, the axeman’s first blow did not hit home, her head was not severed, and some in the audience thought they heard her speak. After a two more blows, her head was finally severed. Then when her head was raised, it fell from the wig the man held it by, completing the embarrassing event.
Mata Hari was the stage name for exotic dancer Margaretha Zelle, who was sentenced to death by firing squad in France after she was suspected of double spy activity during World War I. When the guards came to take her to her demise, she made a request to write two letters, which was granted, then she calmly dressed in her silk stockings, high-heeled slippers, and cape, as if preparing for a final show, then said, “I am ready.” She faced the firing squad without blindfold and did not flinch during the execution.
Sadam Hussein, aka the Butcher of Baghdad, was tried and sentenced to death for executing close to one hundred and fifty Iraqis in 1982. He was notorious for his use of military force and chemical weaponry against his own people. He requested death by firing squad, apparently to preserve his dignity. The request was denied and he was hung. Video of the hanging quickly went viral on the internet, which sparked international debate. There have been reports that he was stabbed several times even after his death had been confirmed.
While these stories are often told in history books, our greatest losses frequently do not meet with the notoriety they deserve. The contributions of many of our brave soldiers, both on and off the battlefield, are frequently never recorded. Do you have a story to share about someone you knew who perished during war? Please share their memory with us.