World War One, also called The Great War, is notorious for the horrors endured by soldiers and civilians during the four-year period. One of the horrors was trench warfare – a new type of battle where two armies would dig into trenches stand-off across a No Man’s Land. It was a particularly terrible experience due to constant PTSD-inducing artillery barrages, extremely unsanitary living conditions and the looming shadow of death that clouded the skies.
But even within these terrible times, the light of humanity shone through. In December 1914, the German army was facing off the French and British army along the Western Front. In the week leading up to Christmas, there were increasing reports of strange behaviour among troops from both sides: fraternisation.
It began with music and light. Many British soldiers reported seeing bright coloured lights from the German lines on Christmas Eve. They heard choruses of Germans singing carols, with not a gunshot to hear. The British and French forces joined in quickly and suddenly, the soldiers were all enjoying Christmas Eve. They were in an informal ceasefire.
Little by little, the two sides made contact on Christmas Day. Not with shots, but with greetings. They would compliment each other’s singing and make jokes across the ditch. Then, some fearless soldiers would cross No Man’s Land to meet their new friends face-to-face. It took a bit of time, but trust developed and soldiers would pop out of their holes without fear of being killed. The language barrier could not stop the fraternisation. Soldiers would make gestures at each other, exchange gifts such as smokes and chocolates and even challenged each other to a football match.
On Christmas Day, 1914, man’s love for each other won over the horrors of war, bringing the first period of peace since the Great War began. It was a Christmas miracle.
Of course, fraternisation with the enemy is far from desirable to a military commander. What man would want to shoot someone they just had a great game of soccer with? Killing only becomes possible when the victim has been dehumanised. This was the last Christmas Truce of the war, as commanders of both sides outlawed any fraternisation with the enemy.
Despite this, there are countless stories from the war where soldiers would show mercy to their enemies, reminding us how even during the darkest times of history, kindness and love exist.
One weakness with the English alphabet is that when they are spelt out aloud, some letters are too similar and end up being confused. For example, B sounds like D and M sounds like N. Although this is not too major an issue in normal life, it becomes very problematic when giving important information over the phone, such as an identification number. The same problem applies in the military where precise orders are required. To overcome the issue of similar-sounding letters, many systems have been developed to replace the letters with words when spelling words aloud over the phone or radio. For example, if the ID number EFS9201 has to be told to the other person, it can be read as “echo-foxtrot-sierra-nine-two-zero-one”. It is also used in the military to say abbreviations, such as “oscar mike” for “on the move”. As the spelling alphabet system is designed so that no two words sound similar, it is a very effective way of accurately transmitting information over the phone.
The spelling alphabet (NATO phonetic alphabet) is as follows:
Desperate Stratagems are last resort tactics that can be used when you are placed in a disadvantageous state or risk losing the war.
Stratagem 31: No weapon could beat seduction This is the strategy where you use a beautiful woman to tempt the enemy to extract information or undermine their will to fight. It is a deadly strategy that never fails.
Stratagem 32: Empty fort strategy Purposefully empty your fort to show the enemy that you are defenceless, causing them to think that it is a trap and retreat. It was effectively used by Zhuge Liang in The Three Kingdoms.
Stratagem 33: Countermine the enemy’s spy Use the enemy’s spy to spread false information or use them as a double agent that can extract the enemy’s intelligence. The “double spies” and “dead spies” from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War fit under this stratagem.
Stratagem 34: Sacrifice yourself to comfort the enemy Inflict injury on yourself to win the enemy’s trust. For victory, you may have to sacrifice even the dearest things such as your wife or most loyal servant.
Stratagem 35: Chain stratagems This is an elaborate strategy where you first restrict the enemy’s movement then make use of a series of tactics one by one to decimate the enemy. The most famous example is from The Three Kingdoms in the Battle of Red Cliffs. All of the ships of Wei were linked by chains and could not move freely, making them vulnerable to a fire and causing Cao Cao to lose the battle in an instant.
Stratagem 36: If all else fails, retreat It is often misquoted as “retreat is the best option”. The Thirty-Six Stratagems explain that retreating is not the most ideal option, but if there is no chance of winning and the cost will be too much, it is wiser to retreat then fight again after reinforcing your forces. Knowing to retreat when you are disadvantaged and the cost is too high is true wisdom.
By utilising these thirty-six stratagems wisely, you will be able to win no matter what situation strikes. Remember: life is a fierce battlefield and without effective strategies and tactics you cannot seize victory.
Proximate Stratagems are tactics that utilise something even more fearful than the enemy outside: the enemy inside.
Stratagem 25: Replace the beams with rotten timbers If you slowly remove the pillars of foundation beneath the enemy one by one, they will naturally fall. More specifically, if you buy off the enemy’s officials and subjects, you can make the country into a useless shell even before starting a war.
Stratagem 26: Point at the mulberry tree while cursing the locust tree This is a method where you publicly criticise someone’s actions while intending for someone else to indirectly get the message. If you criticise an ally or a subordinate, you run the risk of being betrayed. Thus, it is far more effective to indirectly criticise someone else in a way that the other person understands what you think.
Stratagem 27: Feign madness but keep your balance It is far better to act like a fool and refrain from misconducting than talking out loudly and committing a rash act. A true leader hides his ingenuity, meaning he may appear as a fool to others. This is the ideal look of a leader. Furthermore, if you keep up an act of foolishness while meticulously planning on the inside, the enemy will drop his guard.
Stratagem 28: Lure the enemy to the roof then remove the ladderMake your army look weak and defenceless to lure the enemy into a trap, then surround and destroy them. On the other hand, this can also mean to intentionally trap your forces to boost their ferocity.
Stratagem 29: Deck the tree with false blossoms Bluff to suppress the enemy psychologically. For example, if you make it look like your forces are far greater in number than they actually are, the enemy will be hesitant in attacking and you will have the lead. This is very effective when you are outnumbered.
Stratagem 30: Make the guest act as if he was the host This is the survival strategy cuckoos use where they push the original babies out of a nest and hog the food that the mother brings. It is a strategy where you patiently wait for the right moment when you can sneak in and seize the authority, taking someone else’s resources for your own. An example of this stratagem would be when the reinforcement that is supposed to protect the allied country turn into an invading an army to take over the country.
Chaos Stratagems are strategies that can be used to achieve victory when a war enters a chaotic state. Unlike the previous three chapters, the latter three chapters include tactics that can be used when the flow of war is against you.
Stratagem 19: Remove the firewood from under the pot
This tactic teaches that one should attack the foundation of the enemy’s confidence to shake them. Also, there is a second meaning that teaches to cut off their supplies. No matter how strong the enemy is, they will be crushed easily without any food.
Stratagem 20: Disturb the water and catch a fish
If you disorder the enemy so that they have no idea what is happening, you can easily attain victory.
Stratagem 21: Slough off the cicada’s golden shell Make a change yet make it look like to the enemy that you have not. It is a strategy where you keep up a strong defence on the surface and exhibit a state of readiness to intimidate the enemy, while moving your forces to a different location.
Stratagem 22: Shut the door to catch the thief If you block the enemy’s movement and surround them, you can easily decimate them. However, if they are strong enough this plan may have the opposite effect and cause them to retaliate with more ferocity, thus you should only employ it when the enemy is weak.
Stratagem 23: Befriend a distant state while attacking a neighbour Countries that are close to you are bound to have many troubles and friction with you, therefore it is far wiser to use an ally who is further away to deal with your enemy.
Stratagem 24: Borrow a passage to strike Guo This means that you should expand your territory when the opportunity is right by manipulating the weak. If you use the resources of a weak ally to strike the enemy, you can reduce the costs to your army while destroying the enemy, essentially killing two birds with one stone.
Attacking Stratagems are tactics that can utilised during a battle with the enemy.
Stratagem 13: Stomp the grass to scare the snake
Kill the startled snake as it leaps out of the grass. By taunting or provoking the enemy, you can lead them to give away their locations and create chaos.
Stratagem 14: Borrow a corpse to resurrect the soul
Bring back something from the past that is believed to have no value and alter it so they have value.
Stratagem 15: Entice the tiger to leave its mountain lair
If you lure the enemy out of their heavily guarded camp and then attack, your chances of victory increase.
Stratagem 16: In order to capture, one must let loose
When capturing an enemy, do not corner them completely but open a small exit for them. A cornered enemy with no escape can attack with even more ferocity. Thus, if you allow them to escape and chase them until they run out of energy and the will to fight, you can capture the enemy with little sacrifice. Furthermore, if you set an ambush or trap for the enemy, you can easily decimate them.
Stratagem 17: Tossing out a brick to get a jade gem
This means to toss out something useless to gain something valuable. It is a tactic that utilises baiting the enemy. The point of the tactic is to throw out bait that does not seem like bait. On the other hand, it is important to have a keen sense of judgement to ensure you do not take the enemy’s bait. The ability to look past the immediate gain and see the long-term cost is a valuable skill.
Stratagem 18: Defeat the enemy by capturing their chief
This is a principle that states that if you kill the enemy’s leader or their key units, the rest will fall apart naturally. A group without a leader will run around like headless chickens until they are destroyed.
Enemy Dealing Stratagems are tactics you can use when you and the enemy have equal amount of forces. They can be used to increase your chance of winning in a close battle.
Stratagem 7: Create something from nothing
Even if you do not have something, make it look like you have it. Bluff by pretending you have a massive force to disorient the enemy and launch a surprise attack when they are off guard to achieve certain victory.
Stratagem 8: Sneak through Chencang without anyone knowing
Pretend to attack one place and launch a surprise attack some place else. If you hide your intention and deceive the enemy to avoid them, it is far more effective than facing them head on.
Stratagem 9: Watch the fire burn across the river
If there is internal unrest or threat within the enemy, do not attack them. Instead, wait and watch as they destroy themselves.
Stratagem 10: Hide a knife behind a smile
While setting the enemy at ease with a kind exterior, plan meticulously on the inside and wait for the right moment to destroy the enemy.
Stratagem 11: Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree
This means to sacrifice the plum tree by letting it take the pests that usually attack the peach tree. If you utilise allies and surrounding countries well, you can deflect the damage you would receive to them.
Stratagem 12: Take the opportunity to pilfer a sheep
Do not look over even the smallest of an enemy’s flaws. Aggressively seize even the smallest opportunities.
Ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu dealt with the topic of spies extensively in his book The Art of War. He believed that information and intelligence determined the flow of war and spies were a vital element. Sun Tzu talked about five types of spies.
Local spies (鄕間): Use the enemy’s people
Internal spies (內間): Use the enemy’s officials (like a resident spy)
Double spies (反間): Use the enemy’s spies to feed the wrong information
Dead spies (死間): Has a possibility of betraying, so use them to spread misinformation, leading the enemy to persecute them
Living spies (生間): Use agents that can gather intelligence and return safely back to report their findings, the most useful type of spies
According to the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu, there are two ways to victory. The first is winning without fighting the enemy, the second is to win after battling the enemy. The former is the better, wiser option with the latter being the second best choice. Even if you win a hundred battles, it is not the idea victory. Achieving victory without a battle is the far better option. The best method is to predict the enemy’s movements and outwit them. The second best method is to sever the ties between the enemy nation and their close allies, isolating them. The third method is to engage in battle with the enemy and the worst method is to attack them using all means and resources.
To avoid a war and still achieve victory you must anticipate the enemy’s plans and to do this you must gather intelligence. Thus, whether you win or lose a war depends on whether you have the right intelligence. 지피지기 백전불태(知彼知己 百戰不殆, jipijigi baekjeonbultae): If you know the enemy and know yourself, even if you fight a hundred battles you are not in danger. If you fight only knowing your military capabilities and not the state of the enemy, the chances of victory is half-half. If you do not know the enemy’s or your own military’s capabilities, then you will lose every fight.
In 305 BC, Demetrius I of Macedon waged war with the island of Rhodes, now known as the siege of Rhodes. During this siege, Demetrius utilised a superweapon that is, to this day, the largest siege tower ever built – the Helepolis. Helepolis loosely translates to “destroyer of cities”, which is interesting as Demetrius’ nickname was Poliorcetes, or “The Besieger” in ancient Greek. In short, Demetrius was set to raze Rhodes or wipe it off the map.
The Helepolis lived up to its name: designed by Polyidus of Thessaly, it was 40m high (about 13 stories), 20m wide, weighed 160 tons and had a crew of 3400 people. It had eight wheels, each 3.7m high, and had compound wheels that allowed it to move side-to-side. The 3400 men both pushed the tower and worked a belt system that moved the wheels forward. The entire structure was clad in iron plates, making it completely arrowproof and fireproof.
Its armament was just as impressive. One face of the tower was covered in windows, with each concealing a catapult that could hurl heavy objects at the target. The first floor had a pair of catapults that could hurl 80kg projectiles (about the weight of a refrigerator) and one that launched 30kg projectiles. The second floor had three 30kg catapults and the third to eighth floor had ten 15kg catapults in total. Lastly, the roof had four dart throwers which could clear any defenders on the top of castle walls. Essentially, the tower had both the ultimate defensive and offensive capabilities.
Of course, there was no chance the Rhodians could stand a face-off with such a behemoth. So instead, they came up with a cunning plan that exploited the huge size of the Helepolis. The night before the siege began, the Rhodians channelled the water and sewage coming out of the city into the area they expected the attack to come from to create a vast area of mud and bog. When the Helepolis stormed in for the offensive, it immediately started sinking in the mire. Knowing that no amount of horses and men could pull the structure out of the mud, the soldiers abandoned the superweapon without even using it once.
Ultimately, the siege of Rhodes failed (largely due to the failure of Helepolis) and the Rhodians took apart the Helepolis, melted the iron plates and used it to build the Colossus of Rhodes (one of the Seven Ancient Wonders).