This form of warfare, however, has had many incarnations dating back to near the beginning of time. Arrows have been tipped in everything from dung to fungus to poisons. These can be viewed as biological or chemical warfare.
Let’s take a look a bit deeper into the medieval and predating era on biological warfare and how it shaped today’s world:
It is believed that the Romans were the first to launch dead animals over castle walls. This was a strategically brilliant idea for several reasons; the first being that during sieges, the army that is besieging the castle/town/city would, under normal circumstances, burn the outlaying farmlands in an effort to starve the dwellers within. By launching putrid meat over the walls to starving men, the men would inevitably eat the spoiled meat and spread disease throughout.
Another reason that this was tactically ingenious was this: imagine yourself, geared up and ready for battle against an army that was probably much larger in number than your own. Your nerves are on edge. Your muscles ache in anticipation. Your mind is never far from the thought of death, either for you or an opponent. Then, out of nowhere, a pig comes flying over the walls to splatter a few feet from you. It would be demoralizing in a major way to you and your fellow comrades.
A third, and most interesting reason for this being ingenious, was that, in several cases throughout history, the besieging army did not want to destroy the castle, rather to overtake it and set up a new base of operations there. By launching stones at the wall, that would just mean that once overtaken, the new occupants would then have to turn around and repair their newly acquired base. By launching pigs and cows, it was a matter of cleanup, not rebuilding an entire outer defense.
Hannibal of Carthage
Hannibal is credited, along with a long list of other accreditations, gets my vote for most unique form of biological warfare.
In 184 BC, Hannibal ordered his Carthaginian troops to fill large clay pots with some of the most venomous snakes that they could find. In the ensuing naval battle against the Pergamenes, the clay pots were then launched onto the enemies ships. The clay would shatter and now the Pergamene ships were now filled with angry venomous snakes amidst the chaos that was already ensuing.
In 198 AD, the Parthian city of Hatra, which is now in Iraq, beat back a Roman onslaught by much similar means. Instead of snakes, however, the clay pots were filled with live scorpions.
The Gold Standard leader of Medieval Biological Warfare, Khan
In 1346 AD, Khan Janibeg, believed to be descendant of Genghis Khan, led the Golden Horde against the city of Caffa, or Kaffa. Stories differ, but the gist is that Khan used plague infected bodies as catapult ammo to hurl over the enemy walls.
One story says that his own men had become infected with the plague and he was using his own men to throw over the walls and thus helped to introduce the plague to the European world.
While that may very well be the case, the other story that has been told is that Khan led his men in conquest of smaller outlaying towns first; taking many occupants as slaves as he went. It is unknown whether his own men first became infected with the plague or if these towns already had cases of the plague in this version. Regardless of which side began with the plague, Khan used his newly captured slaves of war to handle the dead plague victims and load them into the catapults to then launch over Caffa’s walls. In using his captured slaves of war, Khan did not continue to infect his own men.
The latter story is the one that strategically is sounder, and why Khan is credited with the firsttrue version of biological warfare.
This tactic was duplicated time and time again throughout the middle ages.
A little known fact: The song “Ring around the Rosie” is about burning the plague victims.
Biological warfare continues
The 15th century saw the new world introduced to biological warfare as Spanish Pizarro “gifted” clothing to South American natives. The clothing was contaminated with smallpox. This was duplicated in the 18th century by Lord Jeffery Amherst during the French-Indian War unto the American Indians.
In today’s world, the use of biological warfare has been outlawed by the Geneva Convention, but it is known that countries such as Russia and Iraq have developed and used these tactics. The U.S. supposedly ended its special military program on biological warfare investigations in 1969, but with the rest of the world not abiding by the rules, who can be sure?
I leave this article with one last line: There are no rules in true war, only winners and losers, regardless of how the end goal is reached.
- Wheelis M. (2002) "Biological warfare at the 1346 siege of Caffa"
- The History Channel