Napoleon's piles: How footnotes changed history

We all know about great heroes and epic battles, but the course of history often hinges on small accidents of chance. Phil Mason selects the slip-ups and lucky escapes that changed the world
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The Independent Culture

Ronnie of the Commies?

Ronald Reagan, the slayer of the "Evil Empire", might have been ruined before his political career began had his attempt to join the American Communist Party succeeded. He was rejected because the Communists thought him too dim. It emerged in a 1999 authorised biography that he had tried to join in 1938. Some of his closest friends were members. One, scriptwriter Howard Fast, revealed that he had felt "passionate" about it. But the Party refused him. "They thought he was a feather brain... a flake who couldn't be trusted with a political opinion for more than 20 minutes." As the anti-Communist blacklisting in Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s destroyed many careers, Reagan flourished as an actor, then as President of the Screen Actors Guild, the actors' union. And, most importantly, his political credentials remained all-American.

The key to this disaster

The Titanic disaster might have been prevented had a member of the crew not forgotten to hand over the key to his locker. Second Officer David Blair was removed from the ship's roster at the last minute before the Titanic's departure in April 1912. In the haste of being replaced, Blair failed to pass to his replacement the key to the crow's nest locker, which held the binoculars. After the disaster, one of the surviving lookouts, Fred Fleet, giving evidence to the US inquiry, confirmed that they did not have any binoculars. Had they done so, he testified, they could have seen the iceberg earlier. When the inquiry chairman asked, "How much earlier?" the lookout replied, "Well, enough to get out of the way."

She had balls

For more than 200 years after the birth of cricket, the standard form of delivering the ball was exactly as the term "bowling" suggests – underarm as in the game of bowls. The shift along the road to the modern overarm technique was Kent's John Willes. He picked up the idea from his sister, whom he roped in to help him practise his batting in 1822. The inspiration came from Christina Willes's poor dress sense. She wore her full-hooped skirt, found she could not deliver the ball underarm so tossed it round armed instead. Willes found that the way the ball pitched made it much harder to play. By 1828 the game's governing body had allowed round-armed bowling.

Hitler's Lucky Loo

One authority estimates that Hitler survived at least 15 assassination attempts between 1938 and 1944, most with uncanny luck The first documented attempt, before Hitler became Chancellor, was by a disgruntled SS guard who in 1929 planted a remotecontrolled bomb under the podium in the Berlin Sportsplast where Hitler was speaking. The plot failed when the guard felt the urge to go to the toilet during the speech and accidentally got locked in. He was unable to detonate his device.

When Steptoe put Wilson in No. 10

The rescheduling of BBC's most popular television sitcom may have settled the outcome of the 1964 General Election. With opinion polls showing the leading parties neck and neck, Labour's Harold Wilson, who was trying to oust the Conservatives after 13 years in office, was deeply worried by the fact that Steptoe and Son was due to be shown at 8 o'clock on election night, just an hour before the polls closed. He felt this would adversely affect Labour's turnout as the majority of the show's audience was likely to be their supporters. He protested to the Corporation's director general, Sir Hugh Greene, who eventually agreed to postpone the show until nine. Wilson thanked Greene saying, "That will be worth a dozen... seats to me." Labour won by just four. Greene later said that he had always wondered "whether I should have a bad conscience".

How low fuel saved us all

The 1962 Cuban missile crisis is acknowledged by historians to have been the closest the world has come to nuclear war. On 22 October, the US had nuclear-armed B-52s ready to launch attacks on the Soviet Union. Any misjudgment was potentially catastrophic. It was revealed 30 years later that on that day over the Kamchatka peninsula in Siberia, a B-52 strayed into Soviet airspace. Two MiG-17 fighters were sent up to destroy it. General Boris Surikov, a defence ministry official, recalled how the encounter was tracked on screens in Moscow. "I could see two green dots – the MiGs – and one red dot – the B-52 – converging. No one ... doubted that if the red dot disappeared off the screen, then it would be the beginning of an atomic war. When the dots were only about 50kms [30 miles] apart, the two green ones suddenly reversed course." It turned out that they did not have sufficient fuel. They had been just two-and-a-half minutes from their target.

Too obvious to be an Enigma code

Britain unknowingly had the secret of the famed German Enigma code 15 years before it realised it. Had it, in fact, known it had the secret, the entire 1930s, when Nazism rose to spark the Second World War, could well have turned out so differently. British success in breaking the code that was used by Germany for its military movements was one of the central reasons for the Allied success in World War Two. From as early as the Nazi invasion of Denmark and Norway in April 1940, code breakers at British Intelligence's secret location at Bletchley Park, were reading the secret signals and knew of every major move the enemy planned. Britain, however, could have broken the system as early as 1924 had they not assumed that the Germans could not be stupid. Since the German armed forces began using the system from the mid-1920s, that capability in the hands of the British authorities could have monumentally altered the disastrous appeasement policy. The opportunity to crack the machine two decades earlier came as it was first used commercially in Germany in the early1920s, and the company which made it filed a full patent registration with the London Patent Office in 1924. This described exactly how the machine worked. When the intelligence services obtained the first military version of Enigma in 1939, they found that the device was wired alphabetically, A to the first contact, B to the second etc. This was the same pattern described in the original patent. In 2001, when the story emerged from released official files, Peter Twinn, the analyst credited with being the first Briton to break an Enigma cipher, reflected, "It was such an obvious thing to do, rather a silly thing, that nobody ever thought it worthwhile trying."

A radio mast that lasted

The Eiffel Tower in Paris was originally built for the 1889 Universal Exposition held to mark the centenary of the French Revolution. The city authorities granted the builders of the tower licence to occupy the site for just 20 years, after which the tower would be demolished. (One of the rules of the original competition was that the resulting tower could be easily taken down.) When 1909 came, the city was still intent on demolition. The presence of a single radio antenna at the summit saved the tower. The city was persuaded by French telegraphic officials and the army that the tower was serving as a useful transmitting beacon. It was on those grounds that the Eiffel Tower was allowed to remain.

The real cause of Napoleon's defeat

Napoleon possibly lost the Battle of Waterloo because on the day of the denouement he suffered an acute attack of haemorrhoids that stopped him riding his horse and keeping up his usual mobile supervision of troop movements. Two days earlier, his doctors had lost the leeches used to relieve the pain of his piles and accidentally overdosed him with laudanum, from whose ill-effects he was still suffering on the morning of the battle. According to some analysts, Napoleon's delays in launching his assault had much to do with his indispositions: originally planned for 6am, then 9am, it did not start until nearly midday.

Accidental death of a heroine?

Emily Davison, the suffragette who died when she ran in front of the royal horse during the 1913 Epsom Derby may have achieved fame by sheer accident. An episode that has been portrayed as a deliberate suicide in the cause of women's votes may actually have been a ghastly error of judgement. Evidence surfaced in 1986 in the form of possessions kept by the family's solicitor. Among the papers was a telling item which casts doubt on the suicide theory: she was carrying a return rail ticket from Epsom to Victoria, suggesting she had intended to go home that night. The royal jockey, Herbert Jones, always doubted that Davison intended to bring his horse down. He is said to have been haunted by her look of surprise seconds before the collision. He was sure that she had misjudged the situation, and assumed that all the field had passed her at Tattenham Corner, but the deceptive rising ground obscured a bunch of stragglers, including his mount. What may have been intended simply as a walk-on demonstration secured for Davison, a place in history.

Captain Scott's fatal specimens

A letter that surfaced in 2000, written by the second-in-command of Captain Scott's ill-fated Antarctic expedition in 1912, added an intriguing twist to Scott's disastrous end. Lt Edward Evans, who led a support group for part of the outward leg to the Pole before turning back, deplored Scott's decision to insist on dragging 150lbs of scientific finds and geological records even when the party was short of provisions and clearly in life-threatening trouble. "We dumped ours at the first check. I must say I considered the safety of my party before the value of the records ... Apparently, Scott did not. ... he ought to have left it, pushed on and recovered the specimens and records [later]."

How Dostoevsky cheated death

Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of Russian literature's greatest figures, was nearly executed when he was 28 after he had written just two, now forgotten, novels. The author of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, which he produced between 1861 and 1880, was a political activist in St Petersburg in his younger days and was arrested with five others in 1849. They were all sentenced to death by firing squad.

On 22 December, the execution was under way – the first three, not including Dostoevsky, had already been tied to pillars in readiness – when a royal reprieve arrived. They were instead despatched to Siberia for four years hard labour. Accounts disagree whether in fact it was simply a mock execution laid on to scare the young minds. Whichever it was, the trauma of the episode had a lasting creative effect on Dostoevsky, which emerged later in his mature novels whose dark themes were commonly built around intense human suffering and despair. We are left with the conclusion that either way, this narrowly avoided event was pivotal for Dostoevsky. If the execution was real, he was lucky to have escaped; if it was a set-up, it seems that it left on him a vital and lasting impression that guided the best of his writings.

Tea breaks made a nation

A Cambridge professor put forward a theory in 2000 that the Industrial Revolution took off in Britain, rather than anywhere else, because of the unique influence of tea. While many other countries shared Britain's levels of technology and skills, it was the Britons' affection for the drink that tipped the balance in providing a steadily increasing and healthy population. For the increase in activity associated with industrialisation, it was essential to gather people together in towns and cities in proportions quite unlike anything seen before. But when populations conglomerated on this scale, they tended to succumb to disease. Curiously, in Britain there were steady reductions in child mortality and in common diseases, especially the water-borne infection, dysentery. Professor Alan Macfarlane discovered an association between these trends and the increase in tea-drinking. His theory was founded on the fact that tea was drunk with boiled water, which killed off disease-carrying bacteria. Tea also possesses, in tannin, an antiseptic which made mothers' breast milk the healthiest it had ever been. No other nation drank tea on the same scale as the British.

So boring that Russia revolted

Karl Marx's Das Kapital, which lays out the principles of communism, was so convolutedly written that the official censor allowed it for translation into Russian on the grounds that it was a "difficult and hardly comprehensible" work that "few would read and still fewer understand. It is unlikely to find many readers among the general public."

Hiroshima's fate hung on one word

The impetus towards the world's first atomic attack, on Hiroshima in August 1945, may have been unduly spurred on by a translator's interpretation of a single word in a Japanese press statement. At the end of the Big Three conference at Potsdam in July, Allied leaders issued a declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of Japan. Japan, which had begun to put out feelers for a negotiated peace, replied with a holding statement to the world's press that intended to offer "no comment" on the demand. The Japanese word used – mokusatsu – has several shades of meaning: to ignore or to refrain from comment. The American interpreter used "ignore". Had a different slant been used, the moral pressure not to inflict the terrifying weapon on civilians might have been too strong to resist.

Napoleon’s Haemorrhoids, by Phil Mason (£10.99), is published by JR Books. To order a copy for the special price of£9.89 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897, or visit