Was the true story about Romeo and Juliet different from the one told in the play by William Shakespeare?

Was the true story about Romeo and Juliet different from the one told in the play by William Shakespeare?

Romeo and Juliet. The true story.

Romeo and Juliet is a play by the extraordinary English author William Shakespeare. Written probably in 1595 (we don’t know the exact year…), it is, together with Hamlet, maybe the most famous text in all of Shakespeare’s production. And it has reached an audience far beyond book readers, and theater public. The title, Romeo and Juliet, has become a sign of deep and true love, so strong and passionate that living without the other becomes unbearable. 

It was an immediate success when it came out and has been played from its birth date until modern days all over the world, probably hundreds of thousands of times. Romeo and Juliet has been filmed more than 150 times for TV as well as for the big screen, it’s been turned into ballets, operas, modernized plays, and musicals, of which the most famous is of course West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein.

romeo and juliet the true storyA short synopsis.

Verona, Italy. The two families Montague and Capulet are at “war”. The young girl Juliet from the Capulet clan falls in love with Romeo from the Mantague-clan. Juliet is supposed to marry another Capulet guy but she marries Romeo secretly.

Romeo, together with two other Montague buddies, meets Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin. They start to fight and Tybalt and one of Romeo’s friends die. Tybalt by the hand of Romeo

Romeo becomes the main target for the Capulet family and The feud ignites. And now we reach the famous ending…

Juliet gets a poisonous potion from a monk, but one that will only make her seem dead. Instead, she will sleep for several days, before waking up again, as good as new. She sends a message to Romeo, but he receives only half of it and thinks she’s really dead. 

Overcome by grief he runs to her tomb, sees her lifeless body, and kills himself, he too with poison, but real, strong, killing-10-men-kinda-poison. Then Juliet wakes up, sees her lover dead, and ends her life with Romeo’s dagger. 

The context in which the play was written.

Shakespeare was reasonably young when he wrote it, around 30. The play was designed to be performed in daylight on a simple thrust stage, a very economic and minimalistic setup. One balcony and one tomb. Apart from that, there should be no or very little scenery. The costumes and the skill of the actors together with the text should be enough to grasp the concentration of the audience.

Romeo and Juliet. The true story.

romeo and juliet the true story

Romeo and Juliet was in no way an invention by Shakespeare. The sad love-story frame was popular throughout Europe, and not only in western renaissance literature but since the beginning of writing itself. People have always loved to cry over innocent, true, and deep love that goes wrong. It’s in our DNA. 

The story about Pyramus and Thisbe in Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid, tells a story about two young lovers who run away together, since their parents don’t consent to their love. Pyramus mistakes a bloody veil for the death of Thisbe, and kills himself. When the girl comes back, she too puts an end to her life.

The story is interestingly included in A Midsummer Night’s dream, by Shakespeare 

Ephesiaca by the Greek 3rd-century writer Xenophon of Ephesus is often mentioned as another source. 

Matteo Bandello was a very famous Italian novelist, as well as churchman. He rewrote the novel of Luigi da Porto (more about him in a while…) and published it in French in mid 16th century. He lived his last years in Agen in France, where he was appointed Bishop. This is how the names changed into the French Juliet, Montague , and Capulet, from the Italian Giulietta, Montecchi, and Capelletti. Romeo got to keep his name.

Arthur Brooke wrote The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet, published in 1562, based on Bandello’s work. Shakespeare probably got quite a bit of his material from that novel. 

But let’s go back to Italy and try to find the origins of Romeo and Juliet there.

Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti

Il Novellino is a book with 50 short stories, probably written by Masuccio from Salerno in mid 15th century. It tells the story, number 33, of a love couple in Siena, Toscana. Mariotto och Ganozza is the youngster’s name. They’re involved in a much lighter, happier, and more erotically charged affair. Mariotto doesn’t kill himself, but he’s decapitated, and Ganozza doesn’t die but seeks solitude in a convent after her lover’s death.

And here we return to the text by Luigi da Porto. He wrote the novel Historia novellamente ritrovata di due nobili amanti, Newly found story of two noble lovers at the beginning of 1500. He was definitely inspired by Masuccio’s story but changed the location to Verona. Da Porto was born in Vicenza and both cities were important metropolis of the very powerful Republic of Venice. (Venice was at the time fighting The League of Cambrai; the Papal states, Maximilian I of Habsburg, Spain, France, and the Dukes of Mantova and Ferrara… Most of Europe all by themselves.) 

The names of the two feuding clans, Montecchi and Capelletti as well as Romeo, could have come from Dante Alighieri and his Divina Comedia written already in the beginning of 1300.

Fighting for Venice.

Saint Mark's Square, Venice, ItalyIt is highly probable that Da Porto at the time of writing the book just had experienced a love affair, with his 16 years old cousin, Lucina Sarvognan in Udine, north of Venice. He is supposed to have entered a Carnival Masquerade Ball in Udine, with a false invitation. Maybe so that he could be with his love for just one evening. The novel is dedicated to her.

The Sarvognans was an extremely important noble house in Friuli. They controlled politics and business and they were respected among the highest authorities in Venice. So powerful that the different branches of the big family tree had feud-like disagreements for lengthy periods of time.

Lucina Sarvognan and Luigi da Porto were cousins, but Luigi on his mother’s side. Unfortunately, they were on different sides of the Family tree and they couldn’t show their love openly. They were supposed to have been married secretly, but we have no evidence for that. Da Porto was 26 years and Lucina was 16. It could have been more of Da Porto falling in love and Lucina being flattered, but as said, we don’t know. Anyway, this could have been the origin of Romeo and Juliet the true story. 

Romeo and Juliet, the true story. Time of War.

Juliet's balcony, Verona, Italy
A balcony in Verona said to be the one where Juliet stood when approached by Romeo. In reality, it’s just a balcony.

When Da Porto wrote his book, there was a multitude of disorder in Udine and Friuli. Two political movements fought over the territory, the Strumieri, who included Nobles like the Castellani, and on the other side, the Zambarlani, who were more or less the big part of the Sarvognan family, Burgers, and farmers. Da Porto’s uncle Antonio Sarvognans was the leader of the latter. 

To this came the wars with the French and with the Habsburgs (Austria), which also divided the loyalties of the Friulians. Not everybody was in favor of Venice

Da Porto participated in the battles against the Habsburgs at the northern borders, and he was badly wounded. He retired to his Villa outside of Vicenza. From his bedroom window, he had a spectacular view of the hillside city of Montecchio Maggiore with its two hilltop castles. That is what he was looking at outside when he wrote the novel and it surely had an impact on his choice of names as well as subject. 

san trovaso church
San Trovaso

So, at the end of our journey, let’s go back to Venice…

Even in Venice, there were feuds. The true story of Romeo and Juliet could also be found in the feud between the Castellani and the Nicolotti in Venice. 

Venice was practically divided between these two families with their allies. The Castellani controlled the southern and eastern parts, while the Nicolotti held the northern parts. They kept their territories and fought against any kind of connection between the fractions for many hundreds of years. So fierce were the hate and distrust that controlled fist-fights were arranged at the bridges. Two teams lined up from each side, and the object was to simply throw the guy from the other side into the canal. 

The San Trovaso-church was situated exactly where their territories met. And it’s maybe the only church in the world that has two main entrances… So that the two clans couldn’t start arguing while entering the holy temple.

Da Porto was familiar with the situation, being a citizen of the Republic. He could very well have included the everyday situation in Venice in his writing. 

Romeo and Juliet, summing it up.

romeo and juliet the true story

William Shakespeare got his story from Arthur Brooke, who got it from Matteo Bandello, who got it from Luigi da Porto, who got the story from Masuccio Salernitano, who at least got a lot of fragments to his story from older writers. Stories about tragic love affairs have always been popular. Especially in the middle ages, stories of family feuds, poison, murders, suicides, and young love were highly profitable. 

I believe Da Porto wrote about what he knew, and just like any good writer should, he borrowed from what he had around him. 

There is no evidence of his marriage to Lucina. We don’t even know if their love was real or just imaginative from Da Porto’s side. 

William Shakespeare then took the story and turned it into a universal masterpiece. 

But it doesn’t end there. From the beginning of time, it had continued to grow and it continued to grow even after Shakespeare… And one of the best versions up to date is, without any doubt, West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein. 

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No, Romeo and Juliet in Da Porto’s world, or in the world of any other of the many authors, wasn’t very different from the play by Shakespeare. That’s simply because there is no true story. There are no real-life Romeo and Juliet, apart from the story about every young lover out there who suffers.

Romeo and Juliet is a story… A very good one, but still just a story.



Did the crew of the Santa Maria, the Niña, and the Pinta know that Earth is a sphere long before they crossed the Atlantic?

Did the crew of the Santa Maria, the Niña, and the Pinta know that Earth is a sphere long before they crossed the Atlantic?

Cristoforo Colombo

Columbus’ financing of the trip to America.

Cristoforo Colombo was an Italian adventurer and discoverer. Born in Genua probably in 1451. We don’t know exactly what happened to him before he showed up in Portugal to cross the Atlantic. Probably he went to sea very young and became knowledgeable in seamanship and cartography from his many travels. From 1477 he lived in Lissabon.

Portugal was at the time the center for travel, trade, and exploration of the world. For centuries, Venice had been the epicenter for East Asia trading, but the rise of the Ottoman Empire and before them the Mongols had made the trade routes eastwards on land less profitable, and more dangerous.

The Portuguese had explored the African coast towards the south already from the beginning of the 15th century, The goal was obviously to find a way to China, by sea.   

EratosthenesColumbus and his strange and controversial ideas.

Columbus made thorough calculations and decided to propose an expedition towards the west to reach China from the other side. He figured that instead of going all the way around Africa to the south, then having to go up the east side, and further east to reach China… He would simply sail straight towards the west and reach China from the backdoor. 

So, this was no secret or very strange at the time… The fact that the earth was a sphere was common knowledge, and sailing in whatever direction, you would eventually return from where you set out. 

What was controversial was his calculations. Although he was rather good at writing maps, he probably didn’t have any formal degree or exam from any university… And maybe he wasn’t very good at geometry. This could have been the reason why he missed the width of Europe, he missed the distance from Japan to China, and he missed the circumference of the globe. 

All this made him totally miss the distance between Portugal and China. And these calculations prevented him from gain support for his expedition from the majority of the European leaders. 

He tried the Portuguese King, the Spanish regents, back to Portugal, then to France and England, before Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, the Spanish regents, finally agreed to finance his enterprise. 

The old Greeks already knew.


If Columbus had known what the old Greeks knew already 2000 years earlier, he would have agreed with his opponents. He would have understood that to reach China he would have to travel 10.000 nautical miles (12.000 miles, 20.000km) to get there. And that is a very long way. And if he had known that, he probably never would have discovered America. 

The stories about the sailors on Columbus’ ship who protested and rebelled because they were afraid they would fall off the edge are possibly not true. Any sailor would know that a ship that sails over the horizon disappears hull first and top last. They were surely much more scared of the vastity of the ocean, sea monsters, mermaids, and the perfectly correct assumption that it was too far to sail. 

The idea that Columbus set out to prove the world was round, was a fictional construction from the 19th century. 

Pythagoras and Eratosthenes.

Pythagoras, one of the early Greek philosophers and mathematicians, is thought to have discovered the roundness of the earth. We know very little about him or what he discovered or not. But the old Greeks generally thought that the world was a sphere.


Eratosthenes was a mathematician and astronomer. He was born in 276 BC. in the city of Cyrene in Libya, Cyrene was a Greek town and when Eratosthenes was old enough, he went to Athene to complete his studies. He was then offered to become the librarian of the Library of Alexandria, at that time the biggest collection of scriptures in the world and a center for academic knowledge.  

Eratosthenes’ experiment.

Once in Alexandria, Eratosthenes heard about the city of Syene (Aswan) in southern Egypt. What interested him about Syene was the fact that a vertical pillar on the day of the summer solstice, doesn’t leave a shadow. The sun is straight up. 


So, he simply calculated the shadow of a vertical rod, in Alexandria on that same day. Using simple geometry, he found that the angle of the sunlight was 7°. As the angle in Syene was 0° and the distance between the two cities was 5000 stadia (a Greek length unit. The circumference of a sports arena, a stadium), he could decide the size of the earth. 

And he did so with exceptional precision. He calculated the circumference of the earth to be 250.000 stadia, 50 times the distance from Alexandria to  Syene. That equals 39.375 km (24466 miles). The real circumference is 39.941 km (24.818 miles).

He then continued to divide the earth into climate zones, of which the two around the poles were frozen. He placed a grid of parallels and meridians over the surface. 

After that, he went out and calculated the diameter of the sun and the distance to it. Here he was a bit short and a little too small about the size. He also calculated the size and distance to the moon. He described the 365-day year with an extra day every fourth year… And he formulated the Sieve of Eratosthenes, a method for finding prime numbers. 

Columbus’ miscalculations.

It makes you wonder where all the Greek knowledge became lost, doesn’t it? If Columbus had read the classical Greek literature maybe he wouldn’t have sailed away. But then someone else would have set out to find America because there were many hints of a big continent somewhere to the west.

The Azores were already well known from the 14th century and it was colonized by the Portuguese from the beginning of 1400. 

earth is round

The legendary Atlantic island group of Antillias was first charted on the Pizzigano map of 1424. But these islands, far to the west of the Azores were known to many cultures already in the ancient world.

And finally, we all know that the Viking, Leif Eriksson, went to Newfoundland in eastern Canada 500 years before Columbus.

It is possible that Columbus knew what he would find. It is possible that the common knowledge about the size and shape of the world, already proven by the Greeks, had reached the mazes of the explorer’s mind. He did study the maps and the charts and planned for his trip for ten years before setting out, and it is possible that his insistence on finding China was a way to attract interest from investors, rather than scientists.  

But we don’t know for sure.

What we do know is that he never officially accepted that he had ended up nowhere near China… That his mission was a failure, but a failure that with time would be a much greater success than he could ever imagine.

Columbus misscalculations
The chart of the famous Florentine Cartographer Toscanelli on top of the real world map. This image could have been a major source of inspiration for Columbus.

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Yes, Eratosthenes proved the world was round by calculating its diameter in the 3rd century BC. This was around the year 1500 AD common knowledge among scientists, sailors, and anyone with a minimum of education. 



Is the Great Wall of China the only man-made building detectable with the naked eye from the moon?

Is the Great Wall of China the only man-made building detectable with the naked eye from the moon?

Great Wall of China from space

The Great Wall of China from space.

The Wall that separated imperial China from the barbarians of the north, is not one, but many. And it wasn’t built in one moment but in the arc of thousands of years. 

The beginning of the Wall-building started as far back as in the Spring and Autumn period (770–476 BC). At that time China wasn’t united but various Chinese KIngdoms fought one another for the sovereignty. The simple walls from stone or stamping earth were more to divide the different dynasties from east to west than to defend from attacks outside the Chinese territory. 

When Qin Shi Huang unified China in 206 BC, he started to tear down the parts of the wall within his united Empire. And he reinforced and connected the parts facing north. 

The danger to the newborn Chinese Empire was coming from the steppe in the form of invasions or raids from the one or more of the nomadic tribes.

Great Wall of China from space
Courtesy of Keith Roper

Later, the following Dynasties all repaired, rebuilt, and expanded sections of the Great Wall. As the borders of China changed during the centuries, the stretch of the wall changed. Some Dynasties who were closer to today’s Mongolia built walls. The Khitan- and Jurchen (Manchu-) Dynasties built walls as far north as inside Russia. These parts do not connect to the Great Wall we see today. 

There’s even a wall to the south, close to the ancient town of Huangsiqiao,

The Ming Dynasty

In 1279, the Mongols and Kublai Kahn conquered all of Chine and brought it under control of the Yuan Dynasty. When the Mongols were defeated in 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang, the first Emperor of the Ming Dynasty came to power. He and all the Emperors after him reinforced and enlarged the Wall. They felt the need to defend China against the Mongols, against whom they had failed to get a definitive military upper hand. The parts of the Wall that are from the Ming Dynasty, are stronger, and better defended. These are the best-preserved parts. And these are where tourists come in thousands every day to visit and take pictures. 

The Ming Dynasty Wall alone is 8850 kilometers (5500 miles). And it is not only a wall, but transportation routes, barracks, fortifications, toll stations as well. It is a huge defense construction.

great wall of china from space
Courtesy of Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) / CC BY-SA

The numbers

The Great Wall of China from space, or from walking on top of it, is this big:

  • The total length is 21.196 kilometers (13.170 miles). The Ming Dynasty-part (The widest, highest, most intact, and best-preserved part of the Wall) is 8,850 kilometers (5,500 miles) long.
  • The average height is 6 to 7 meters (20 to 23 feet). The tallest parts are 14 meters (46 feet). The lowest part is only 1 meter (3,3 feet)
  • The average width is 4 to 5 meters (13 to 16 feet). The widest part is 16.7m (54.8ft) and the narrowest is only 70 centimeters (2,3 feet). That’s the same part of the Juyongguan Great Wall that has a height of 1 meter. The width is greater at the base.

The human eye

great wall of china from space

The human eye is a wonderful tool. It can function in bright sunlight, and it can see in almost complete darkness. It can focus on a tiny insect, or it can watch the stars, It can determine distance, and it can see all the colors of the rainbow. But can it see the Great Wall of China from space?

A human eye has a maximum angular resolution of approximately 280 microradians. From 10.000 meters a pixel would be big as a bus. But there’s more to it than just the eye. The brain can compensate for the lack of pixels by moving the eye slightly. Then we have two eyes, and both of them face the same direction. Together they can determine distance, although that only works up close. But they can compensate for each other and increase the details further on objects far away.

fold a paper
Courtesy of Ana Sofia Guerreirinho

So, maybe you can see not only a bus from 10.000 meters but even a small car. But that would probably be the smallest detectable object, and you would have to have 20/20 vision. 

Great Wall of China from space and beyond

So, can you see the Chinese Wall from the moon? A very unscientific way to test it could be to go out at night and look at the full moon. If there was a Great Wall of China up there, would you be able to see it? No, it would be impossible. Most people would agree to that.

How small objects can you see on the Earth’s surface from the moon? The theoretical calculation gives a minimum size of about 800 kilometers (500 miles) width. Adjusted for the brain’s excellent way of handling the multiple information from the two eyes, gives a minimum size of about 350 kilometers (200 miles) in two directions. Given the viewing angle, the atmosphere with clouds, and the fact that most people don’t have 20/20 vision, it could very well be difficult to detect Florida. Let alone a stone wall that is less than 10 meters (30 feet) wide.

Earth from Space
The Hubble Space Telescope. Altitude 60 km (37 miles)

Great Wall of China from space

Let’s get a bit closer. The International Space Station has a target altitude of 40 km (25 miles). At that level, a theoretical minimum detectable object of over 100 meters, could possibly become 50 with the arguments mentioned above. But that’s still more than 5 times the width of the Great Wall of China from space. 

Another unscientific experiment you could try is to look at the Wall with Google Earth. There you notice that at a height of around 25 kilometers you lose it. In fact, astronauts from the ISS claim that you can’t see it with the naked eye. It’s simply too far away, and it’s too small.

From the ISS you can see the Palm islands of Dubai, the Pyramids, the Kennecott Copper Mine in the US,  the Greenhouses at Almería in Spain, some very big roads, and bridges, and dams… And a whole lot of other stuff.

From the moon… Well, it’s just too far away to see anything man-made. Man is just too insignificant.

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No, you can’t see the Great Wall of China from the moon. You can’t see it even from the International Space Station. You could probably detect it from an airplane at 10.000 meters (33.000 feet), on a clear day.



Did Newton get the idea of the law of gravity, when, sitting under a tree, he was hit on the head by a falling apple?

Did Newton get the idea of the law of gravity, when, sitting under a tree, he was hit on the head by a falling apple?

newton's law of gravity

Isaac Newton’s apple story

Sir Isaac Newton was born in Lincolnshire in east England on January 4, 1643. He was a mathematician, a physicist, an astronomer, and a theologian. He was one of the most famous researchers of his time and is regarded as one of the most influential scientists of all time.

In 1687 he came out with his book Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). In it, he used mathematic formulas to explain the motions of objects in space. He showed how to apply the same mathematical principles on various bodies on earth, he calculated trajectories of comets, the rise, and fall of the tide, and he formulated the Law of Gravity. He laid the foundation of Classical Mechanics.  

Newton’s law of gravity

Newton’s law of gravity explained the force of attraction between two objects. He did not, however, discover gravity. The fact that bodies attract each other had been discussed among scientists before Newton. What Newton did was demonstrate the exactness of the inverse-square law of attraction through mathematical calculations. 

This is how it works:

Newton's law of gravity

Every point mass attracts every single other point mass by a force acting along the line intersecting both points. The force is proportional to the product of the two masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

Newton’s apple story

The Newton’s-apple story originates from when he was already a well-established scientist, and it exists in many versions. The occasion should have been when Newton, due to an outbreak of the Bubonic plague in 1666, had to leave Cambridge (where he was studying at Trinity College) and return to his mother’s house in Lincolnshire. 

It’s obvious that Newton liked the story and told it often to entertain and amuse his friends. The fact that it contains a falling fruit that is round, explains very well the idea of attraction between bodies. The earth attracts the apple and the apple attracts the earth.

newton's law of gravity

The Apple is also a mythical and religious symbol. As Newton had a very intimate relationship with the Holy Bible, he would use an object that refers to originality and maybe even wisdom… The forbidden fruit in Eden. 

What we know is that Isaac Newton told the story to his friends, but we have no idea if it is true.

And Newton’s apple story never actually included an apple bonking him on the dome. He mostly told that he saw it falling. As in the book “Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton” by William Stukeley… 

After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some apple trees… he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself; occasioned by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood

Newton’s law of gravity, was it really such a revolutionary discovery?

As mentioned before, it was probably not a Eureka experience. It was not like Isaac Newton is sitting under the tree and suddenly he understands that we don’t fall off the earth because there was such a thing as gravity. He was a scientist and he did scientific calculations about things around him. 

newton's law of gravity

When Newton’s book, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (or “the Principia” in short), was published on July 5, 1687, Robert Hook, a fellow English scientist and member of the council at Royal Society, claimed that it was he who had given Newton the idea of the inverse-square law. But this is highly unlikely.

Surely the inverse-square law had been discussed. But not only with Hook. Newton acknowledged the works of quite a few other scientists in the foreword to the book. 

Robert Hook was also known as a rather unpleasant man. Arthur Berry writes about him in his book, A short History of Astronomy...Hooke claimed credit for most of the scientific discoveries of the time.”

Still, Newton’s principles of gravity were without parallels in science at the time. He became one of the most important scientists ever. And together with a few others like Einstein, Galilei, da Vince, Tesla, one of the most famous.

What remains is that it was Newton who mathematically described and explained the one single natural law that keeps us all together. The law of attraction between bodies. 

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Yes and no. We can not know if he was hit on the head or if he just saw the apple. We do not know if it was an apple or another fruit, or something else altogether… Or if nothing fell at all. But it’s a very good story. 

Stars in the universe
Courtesy of Jônatas Cunha



The Independent / Newton’s apple

History channel / Did an apple really fall on Isaac Newton’s head?

Wikipedia / Newton’s law of universal gravitation

Did the German, French, and British troops on the western front in 1914 join in a spontaneous ceasefire directly on the battlefield to celebrate Christmas?

Did the German, French, and British troops on the western front in 1914 join in a spontaneous ceasefire directly on the battlefield to celebrate Christmas?

christmas truce of 1914

World War I

The truce at Christmas 1914

The first World War lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. It was one of the largest and deadliest conflicts in human history. Almost 70.000.000 soldiers were engaged. At the end of the war, more than 19 countries were directly involved in military action, but many more were affected. 

Around 10 million soldiers died. To that is added the death of around 8 million civilians. At the end of the war and immediately after, the Spanish flu caused millions of casualties around the globe. The worldwide spreading of the disease could largely be blamed on the war. Soldiers living close together, under unhealthy conditions, staying in field hospitals, and then being transferred home or back to the front. The Spanish flu caused between 17 and 100 million deaths worldwide. 

The War of the Trenches

World War I was in many locations a war of the trenches. In continental Europe. especially on the western front, in northern France, the battles were fought dug in. At the beginning of the 20th century, the firepower of the artillery had reached modern warfare capacity. But the mobility of the military units had not. They had cannons, but no tanks. Because of this, the defense was much more efficient than the attack. 

The trenches between the German, French and British armed forces were heavily armed, dug deep, and reinforced by concrete and barbed wire. 

World War 1 war of the trenches

The area between two such trench lines was exposed and full of mines. This made warfare extremely static. The fronts were fixed and the battles went on for months, even years, without any side gaining terrain.

In the trenches, the conditions were often disastrous. It was wet, cold, and otherwise very unhealthy with diseases and malnutrition. In fact, in the first months in many regiments, there were more deaths caused by gangrene, trench foot, and frost than from enemy fire.  

Chemical warfare

The war was also a breeding ground for new ways to kill. Chemical warfare was developed and in the very static positions in the trenches, gas was something many military leaders put great hope in. But for various reasons, it never changed the way war was fought.

Launching sufficient quantities and gaining a concentration at enemy lines enough for it to be lethal, was all very difficult. In fact, the gas was not at all as efficient as first believed, and it wasn’t until the infamous Mustard-gas was introduced in late 1915, that it started to be of any concern at all. In 1914 no gas attacks had yet been successful. 

The truce at Christmas 1914 – The background.

  • In the first period of the war, the hostility between the Germans and the Allies hadn’t yet become as bitter as it would develop, later on in the war. 
  • The soldiers were to a large degree volunteers who had been promised that the war should be over by Christmas. 
  • At the end of 1914, it was evident that it would last much longer, and that this was just the beginning. There could have been second thoughts about why they had enrolled in the first place.
  • Although the superiors tried to maintain the morale, the men often got reluctant to see the enemy as evil. The desperate situation provoked resignation rather than aggression. 
  • Many British soldiers didn’t regard the Germans with as much aversion as did the French. The truce was more frequent between the Germans and the British than between the Germans and the French. 
  • The war in the trenches slowly turned into a job-like activity. No man can fight 24/7, so the fighting needed a schedule, start and stop times, pauses, etc

How was it possible?

christmas truce of 1914

Already in November, there had been occasions where the soldiers stopped fighting. F.ex. in some locations the soldiers stopped shooting for a period after nightfall. This was the time when food rations were distributed and it was a mutual agreement that everybody should be able to at least eat in peace. Sometimes they agreed on letting the soldiers get out of the trenches to pick up their dead and bring them back for a short funeral. 

These accords happened every now and then. Between the French and the Germans, the tension was stronger but even they sometimes tried to get along in these matters. And not only in the west but also between the Russians and the Hungary-Austrians there were spontaneous truces. 

As the army lines were reasonably close. Being defended by the trench and heavily dug in, the soldiers could speak to one another. News, sports-results, and even singing were shared across the front line.  

Where and when did it happen?

In fact, in some locations, the truce at Christmas 1914 started out as a concert. Allied soldiers heard the Germans singing their Christmas songs. The Christmas trees were lit. This was at the time a tradition that was not widely spread in Britain and the British soldiers ventured out of the trenches to get a look and to hear the singing. 

The Truce at Christmas 1914 was a mutual, spontaneous ceasefire. The soldiers traded cigarettes, food, alcohol, and souvenirs. British soldiers narrated that they cut off buttons from the German uniforms as a token. They sang together and talked about their homes and their loved ones. There are even stories about football games between the Germans and the British. In many locations, it was also a possibility for bringing back the dead from the battlefields. 

In some places, it was just a ceasefire but without encountering. The soldiers just stopped shooting during the holiday. 

What happened was a phenomenon of 1914 and only 1914. Already in 1915 the bitterness and hostility between the armies didn’t permit ceasefires to the same extent. In some locations at the front tentatives were made to do something similar. The officers on both sides had gotten strict orders to prevent any repeat of the previous Christmas’ event, though.

Around 100.000 soldiers participated in the truce at Christmas 1914. 

What can we learn from spontaneous peace like the one in 1914?

The truce at Christmas 1914 wasn’t unique. All through the war agreements were made here and there between fighting soldiers. Often just to be able to bury the dead or to rest for an hour or two from the obscenities of the war. In spring 1915 a spontaneous truce was held between Bulgarians and Greeks, as well as between Australians and Turks. 

And in many other wars, these very small windows of fraternization have occurred. It’s as if we in front of the really big issues in life, the questions about life and death, learn something, and can see the very existence for what it is. The too young men in the trenches understood the issue, that we often have such difficulty grasping… That the real enemy is War itself.

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Yes, At Christmas 1914 many soldiers on the western front, joined in a spontaneous ceasefire and celebrated Christmas together, trading souvenirs, tobacco, alcohol, and singing songs.

christmas truce of 1914



Did the Polish cavalry attack German tanks at the beginning of WW2? Was the Polish army so outdated, unprepared, and misinformed?

Did the Polish cavalry attack German tanks at the beginning of WW2? 

Was the Polish army so outdated, unprepared, and misinformed?

polish cavalry charge german tanks

Polish Cavalry WW2.

World War II started on September 1, 1939, at 4.40 am. The German Airforce, Luftwaffe, attacked the city of Wieluń, southwest of Warsaw, Poland. Five minutes later the German Battleship, Schleswig-Holstein, started firing at Westerplatte in Gdansk. Immediately after that, the Germans initiated a full-scale invasion. 1,5 million soldiers matched across the border together with 2859 tanks, 1107 airplanes, and 5805 artillery pieces. 

The Polish had a reasonably big army of 700.000 men. But just like every other European country in the late 30s, they were poorly equipped. Europe was not prepared for the German aggression in 1939. As an example, the US army could mobilize 187.000 men at the beginning of the war.

Still, the Polish army inflicted strategic losses on the German army. And they had anti-tank guns that could penetrate the armor of the lightweight German Panzer tanks. The Polish airforce, though out of date, and outnumbered, still managed to add large losses to the Luftwaffe.

As if fighting the German Wehrmacht wasn’t enough…

When the Soviet Union attacked Poland from the east, on September 17, the battle was definitely lost. The Polish commander Edward Rydz-Igmigły ordered his troops to not fight the Soviets but to retreat to Hungary and Romania. The day after the Government left the country. The resistance continued though, and it took the Germans considerable force to defeat the defenses of Warsaw. The German-Polish war didn’t end until October 5, after the battle of Kock

polish cavalry charge german tanks
Major Kazimierz Mastalerz
Photo: Narcyz Witczak Witaczyński

Poland was attacked on both sides by powerful neighbors. Then they were betrayed by the allied forces in Europe who had promised to assist them if Germany would attack. Great Britain and France did not honor that commitment.

Krojanty Cavalry charge

On the first day of the war, September 1, outside the village of Krojanty southwest of Gdansk, the 18th regiment of the Pomorska Cavalry Brigade spotted a battalion of german foot-soldiers. The Polish commander, Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz, decided to charge the Germans with a surprise attack.

At 19 pm, Squadron-commander Eugeniusz Świeściak led two cavalry squadrons, about 250 soldiers, in an attack with a saber charge. The attack was successful and the Germans were overrun and defeated. 

Immediately after that, a German motorized infantry unit closed in from the nearby road and attacked the Poles. These were not Tanks but heavy machine gun vehicles, and they swiftly changed the outcome. 

The Poles were exposed and tried to take refuge behind a nearby small hill. About one-third of the Polish soldiers died, including the two commanders.

How it became a news story all over the world.

polish cavalry cgarge german tanks
German Panzer III

Later German correspondents together with two Italian journalists arrived. At that point, German Panzer Tanks were on site and the journalists got the impression that the Polish cavalry had charged against the tanks. One of them, Indro Montanelli, wrote an article describing the heroic Polish horse-riders attacking the impenetrable German tanks with sabers. The story, with the photos of the dead soldiers, horses, sabers, and tank tracks was frequently used in German and Soviet propaganda.  

This myth about the Polish cavalry attacking German tanks lingered on and, incredible as it may seem, is still told today in all sorts of literature in various parts of the world.

The truth is that the Polish army took the very first blow alone, and they had to single-handedly fight both Germany and the Soviet Union without any help from anybody. The exiled Polish army took part in the defense of France, the battle of Britain and the battle of the Atlantic, the invasion of Italy, and the counter-offensive in Normandie, Operation Overlord. In Poland, the Polish put up resistance during the full duration of the war and thus pinning down a significant amount of german soldiers that could have been used elsewhere. 

Ben MacIntyre, Historian, and correspondent for The Times: 

“The Polish contribution to Allied victory in the Second World War was extraordinary, perhaps even decisive, but for many years it was disgracefully played down, obscured by the politics of the Cold War.”

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No, the Polish cavalry never attacked German tanks with sabers. It would have been utterly foolish.



The Marshall Plan was an economical aid from the US to help rebuild Europe after World War II. But was it aimed at Germany?

The Marshall Plan was an economical aid from the US to help rebuild Europe after World War II. But was it aimed at Germany?

What was the Marshall Plan for
George Marshall
Courtesy of the U.S. Embassy, Den Haag

World War II

What was the Marshall Plan for?

After the second world war, most of Europe lay in ruins. Much of the industrial capacity was destroyed, and the factories that still stood up often had turned to produce material for the military. The infrastructure; streets, bridges, and railroads weren’t practicable in many places or simply didn’t exist anymore. In Germany, the destruction was bigger than elsewhere, for obvious reasons. 

To all this came a desperate lack of men, especially in Germany. Calculating casualty is a difficult task, but some historians estimate that Germany lost 40 – 50% of its male population in deaths and prisoners of war. These men were in productive age, and the ones left behind, still living were mostly youngsters and elderly. 

What was the Marshall Plan for
Courtesy of Robert Sullivan

All this together made the post-war recovery slower and weaker in Germany than in other European countries. In the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and France, by the end of 1947 production had already been restored to pre-war levels. Italy and Belgium reached pre-war levels by the end of 1948, while Germany had to wait until the end of 1949. 

The Marshall Plan was an American initiative for foreign aid to Western Europe. 

On the planning- and negotiation stage, it was supposed to be offered also to the Soviet Union, Poland, Tchekoslovakia, and other east-European countries, but after uncertainty about how much influence the US would gain over east-Europe by financially assisting them, the Soviets refused and convinced their allies to refuse as well. The Soviet Union then introduced the Molotov plan as compensation to help out their allies.  

The United States transferred over $12 billion in economic recovery programs to Western European economies. The sum equals around $125 billion in today’s value. The aim was to promote economic recovery programs in Western European economies. It operated for four years beginning on April 3, 1948.

But who was George Marshall?

George Marshall was the Army Chief of Staff of the USA from 1939 to 1945. He was the main organizer of Operation Overlord; the embarking in Normandie and the counter-offensive of the allied forces against Germany. When Marshall returned to the U.S.after the war, President Truman appointed him Secretary of State. As such he became essential for the restoration of Europe, as the suffering countries depended much on aid from allies outside of Europe. And the only powerful ally that still had its economy and industrial capacity city in reasonable order, was the USA. George C. Marshall Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.

But, the money went mostly to Germany, right?

Actually, it didn’t. The beneficiaries were all of the west-European countries. Even Sweden and Switzerland, which had most of their industry intact, were aided. 

Here’s a list of the countries and how much they got: 

the marshall plan

As you can see, the biggest payout went to the United Kingdom, then to France with Germany in third place. Obviously, Germany was in great need and the reasons for holding back on the country could be found in a general caution, especially from France and other European allies, in German industrial capacity and if it once again possibly could result in a military build-up.

The “level of industry” plan, signed by the Allies in 1946 put a cap on German steel production to 25% of pre-war production, on Car production to 10% of the pre-war levels, and all other heavy industry to 50% of pre-war capacity. 

So did the Marchall plan work?

It’s not easy to say what would have happened if it hadn’t been implemented. One strong reason why the USA wanted to aid their European allies, was the influence of the, geographically close by, Soviet Union. The Marshall plan was something of a shield against the communist threat, and this could be one motive why the republican controlled Congress finally voted in favor. From this point of view, it definitely worked.

Munchen 1945

Europe as a whole had incredible growth in the 50s and the 60s. There are many reasons for this, and the Marshall plan could at least have been one contributing factor. It was a crucial help in a very dark period and without it, people in many countries would have had a much harder time at the beginning of the post-war era. 

Did it help Germany?

Many think that the major motive behind the plan was to rebuild Germany specifically and make Germany the engine that could pull the whole continent towards the post-war industrial boom. The fact is, though, that Germany was strongly penalized for mainly two reasons, 

  1. The Germans were responsible for the destruction of half the world, they had killed 6 million Jews as well as Roma, Homosexuals, Communists, POWs, and more or less anyone who had a different idea about the German Reign, than them.   
  2. To the victors, Germany was a deadly threat. It had more or less single-handedly started and fought two world wars in a little more than 20 years, and it was of great importance that it would not happen again. 

Germany got less aid per capita than other European countries. In addition, the Allies continued the exploitation of German production capacity and intellectual property during the years following the end of the war. The German exportation was in the hands of the allies, and they promoted a complete change in direction from heavy industry to light industry and agriculture. The occupying countries gained huge trading advantages by selling underpriced German merchandise to themselves. 

In 1948, Germany replaced the Reichsmark with the Deutsche Mark. This reform halted rampant inflation. Together with tax reforms that same year, the German economy finally started to take off. 

All remaining restrictions were only lifted when the Allied occupation of West Germany ended on May 5, 1955.


All this boils down to the Marshall plan as an important step to rebuild Europe. But it was not aimed at Germany. Instead, the Allied victory penalized Germany in many ways during the years immediately after the war, and the part of the Marshall plan that went to Germany was inferior to that of the other countries. The reasons for the economical boom of West Germany have to be found elsewhere.  

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No, the Marshall Plan was not aimed to rebuild Germany after World War II. But it was a big help for all the western European countries, and it was thought of as a shield against the Soviet Union. It sustained the world economy after one of the greatest military conflicts, the world has ever seen.

Crime against Humanity
Courtesy of Ignaz Wald



Was the Achaemenid- or Persian Empire the biggest Empire the world has ever seen?

The biggest empire ever.

The Achaemenid, or Persian Empire, was the biggest empire in history in terms of population at its time. It stretched across three continents and included territories in Asia, Africa, and Europe. At its peak, the Achaemenid Empire ruled over 44% of the world’s population, making it the largest empire ever to exist.

biggest empire in historyThe biggest empire ever.

Human civilization arose in the Euphrat/Tigris valley. These two rivers along with a stable and healthy sun made the territory ideal for agriculture. Some of the earliest state structures and some of the biggest empires in history are from this region… Sumer, the Assyrians, the Babylonians. This was the center of the universe 5000 years ago.  

The Persians were an ancient people that migrated into the Mesopotamian region around 1000 BC, probably from the north through Kaukasus, but we do not know for certain. They formed a civilization in a part of what is today’s Iran but soon extended their borders. At the beginning of the first millennia BC, the dominant power in the region was the Assyrians. When they were defeated in 609 BC, they left space and possibilities for others to take their place. After a few decades of Median domination, in 550 BC, the Persian King Cyrus defeated them and started a territorial expansion that had, until then, never been seen. 

When the Persians ruled the world.

King Darius the great

The biggest Empire ever was the Achaemenid/Persian Empire under the rule of King Darius (550–486). It included territories of modern-day Iran, the Republic of Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey, much of the Black Sea coastal regions, northeastern Greece and southern Bulgaria, northern Greece and North Macedonia, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, all significant population centers of ancient Egypt as far west as Libya, Kuwait, northern Saudi Arabia, parts of the United Arab Emirates and Oman, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and much of Central Asia. It was huge.

But how do you measure greatness? 

Talking about countries and empires, there could be many ways to define what’s the greatest. The two most common are: Biggest in population, and biggest as surface. Then there’s the question of relativity… You could count in absolute numbers or you could put the numbers in context. 

As an example. The roman empire was in its time a world superpower. The Romans ruled everything, and outside of their hemisphere, there were only the outskirts, the periphery, and barbarians… At least from a European/African perspective. It held somewhere between ¼ and ⅙ of the world’s population. Still, the Roman population at its peak was smaller than that of today’s Italy.

Measuring the total population of an empire doesn’t permit a comparison between ages, between now and then, but if you put the numbers in relation to the total number of people who lived in the world at that time. In that case, the Achaemenid- or Persian Empire was the biggest Empire that ever existed.

King Darius the great

biggest empire in history
Alexander the Great

At its peak, under King Darius, it had a population of about 50 million. It was actually smaller than the Roman Empire in absolute figures. And it was even smaller than today’s Iran. But since the total world population in 500 BC was about 113 million, 50 million made up 44% of them. That is by far the highest percentage of all the world’s people that any country or empire has ever had. 

If we ask which was the biggest Empire ever, but define big in other ways, we get other results:

  • The biggest Empire ever as the total surface was the British Empire.
  • The biggest Empire ever as the total contiguous surface was the Mongol Empire.
  • The biggest Empire ever in the total population is the People’s Republic of China.

So what happened to the Persians?

A Macedonian general by the name of Alexander the Great, maybe the greatest military strategist that ever lived, conquered the biggest empire in history in 330 BC. He then never returned to Greece but stayed as the ruler of the Persians until his death in 323 BC. The once so glorious empire was then divided among his generals, his half-brother Philip Arrhidaeus, and those who promoted Alexander’s unborn child to become the next heir. Wars between the various factions emerged and so, the Achaemenid central power was shattered, and the biggest empire the world has ever seen was no more.

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There are many ways to count greatness, but the Achaemenid- or the first Persian Empire was the biggest Empire that ever existed… In terms of percentage of the world population at its time.


biggest empire in history
Apadana Palace, Persepolis. Courtesy of Orly Orlyson



Was King Richard III of England a limping hunchback?

Was King Richard III of England a limping hunchback?

the hunchback king
Courtesy of Ann Longmore-Etheridge

King Richard III of England, of the house of York, was born on October 2, 1452, and died on August 22, 1485. He was the Regent from 1483 till 1485, Duke of Gloucester, and the last Yorkist king in England. From his death, the Tudors held the crown until the death of Queen Elisabeth I in 1603.

richard II of england
William Shakespeare

Richard’s reign could have been much more insignificant from a historical point of view if it hadn’t been for the play by William Shakespeare. The famous artist probably wrote his masterpiece somewhere around 1592 or 1593, more than a hundred years after the death of the King.

In his play, Shakespeare describes Richard as a hunchback with a limp and a withered arm. And from this point on, the King has always been described as someone with a deformed stature, small, and maybe with difficulty moving.

Shakespeare probably based his play on other literature from the 16th century, f.ex. History of King Richard III by Thomas More, Chronicles of England, Scottland, and Ireland by Raphael Holinshed, and others. 

What all these books have in common is that they are all very pro-Tudor. Shakespeare was depending on patronage, and one of his patrons was Ferdinando Stanley, also known as Lord Strange. Ferdinando was a direct descendant of Thomas Stanley, who played an important role in defeating Richard and putting the crown on Henry VII’s head. Apart from Shakespears obvious reasons to portray Richard in a way that pleased his employer, the general rule of history is that it is written by the winners, not by the losers. 

Richard III of England died in the battle of Bosworth in 1485. His death signified the end of the Wars of the Roses and marked the start of the Tudor age. He was also the last English King to die in battle in England. His successor was his opponent, Henry VII Tudor.

But was he a hunchback or not?

richard III of england
The skeleton of Richard III

In 2012 during excavations under a parking lot in Leicester, England, a skeleton was found that later was confirmed through DNA-tests to be that of the King. The curve of the KIng’s spine was immediately obvious to the researchers. It had a right-sided, spiral-shaped curve that peaked at thoracic vertebrae 8 and 9. The curve was well balanced, meaning that it got back in line by the time it hit his pelvis. As a result, his hips were even, and he should have had no problems breathing or moving.

He would have been of average length by that time, 5 feet, 8 inches (1.7 meters), but the curved spine would have taken a few inches off, thus making him shorter than average, but not much so. 

He would also have had his shoulders uneven so that his right scapula was slightly higher than the left one. The trunk was short in comparison to the length of his legs. 

The King probably didn’t have a limp and didn’t have a withered arm. The only thing you would have noticed was the uneven shoulder part, as the shorter trunk could easily have been disguised by clothing style and good tailors. He shouldn’t have been significantly obstructed in living an active life, something his participation in battles, as well as what we know about his biography, suggests.  

For once, the great Maestro, William Shakespear was completely wrong. Still, the play is a masterpiece, and it doesn’t necessarily picture the last York-King, but any political predator ready to sacrifice anything for his personal winning. It’s an important play today more than ever.

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No, King Richard III was not a limping hunchback, although he had a curved spine.