MADCAP MILITARY MAYHEM
by Benedict le Vay (amazon.co.uk, £10.10)
If you ever need reminding how stupid the human race is, just read the story of the Pastry War. Even its name gives you a clue: yes, the war really did start over pastry.
In 1832, a small bakery in Tacubaya, near Mexico City, was damaged during some civil unrest. Its owner, a Frenchman, wrote to Louis Philippe, the King of France, calling for action.
The King duly demanded reparations of 600,000 pesos from the Mexican government (the daily wage of a workman in the country at this time being one peso).
The Pastry War began in 1832 when a small bakery near Mexico City was damaged during civil unrest
When no reply was forthcoming, Louis Philippe sent a war fleet to blockade the coast of Mexico and bombard a fortress. The Mexicans tried to get round the blockade by smuggling in supplies from the Republic of Texas.
Authorities there tried to prevent this, and in one raid seized 100 barrels of flour. To this day, that part of Texas is known as Flour Bluff. No fewer than six nations were involved at various points, and the war cost 127 lives and left 189 wounded.
One of these was Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón (really), whose leg fell victim to French grapeshot and had to be amputated.
He kept fighting after having several false legs made, one of which was captured by the Americans and used as a baseball bat.
War is the ultimate example of tragedy and comedy being opposite sides of the same coin. Benedict le Vay has chosen to highlight the absurdity in this very entertaining book.
Some of the tales are all too physical. During World War I a British sniper had just fired a shot at a German when he felt an enormous force push him backwards.
The German had shot at him a fraction of a second earlier, and the bullet (of a slightly smaller calibre) had gone up the British rifle’s barrel. The two bullets met and fused together, blowing the barrel open and leaving the sniper knocked over but unharmed.
MADCAP MILITARY MAYHEM by Benedict le Vay (amazon.co.uk, £10.10)
A lot of war is about the message you give off. The elite French parachute unit couldn’t understand why they weren’t being shown respect by foreign forces, until they realised their uniforms bore the initials of their name, the Commando de Renseignement et d’Action en Profondeur. (They’ve since retitled themselves the Groupement de Commandos Parachutistes.)
And Winston Churchill’s famous speech praising the RAF during the Battle of Britain might have been slightly different.
Travelling in a car with General Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay, Churchill recited the sentence: ‘Never in the history of mankind has so much been owed by so many to so few.’
Ismay said: ‘What about Jesus and his disciples?’ ‘Good old Pug,’ replied Churchill, before changing the wording to: ‘Never in the field of human conflict . . .’
Bringing the story of warfare up to date, le Vay mentions the British soldiers travelling through an Iraqi town in 2003.
‘This place is a dump,’ said an officer. ‘There’s nothing to drink and the women are bloody ugly.’
‘Just like Southampton, sir,’ came the reply.
‘And now they’re bloody shooting at us.’
‘Portsmouth, then, sir.’