War’s a nasty business. And not just because of the things we do to the enemy, with our tanks and our bombs and our bombs and our guns — sorry, we accidentally started singing the lyrics to “Zombie” by The Cranberries for a second there.
No, during a war, we can even be extraordinarily dickish to our own guys. Throughout history, governments have tricked, tormented, and otherwise trolled their own populations during various conflicts. Here are six of the most extreme examples.
#6. Random Women Heckled Men (To Fight In World War I)
Our modern, professional armies have more or less moved past the need for conscription, relying on recruitment programs that promise opportunity, travel, and brotherhood to potential recruits. But in the days of our great-grandparents, when the need for men to shoot and get shot was greater, they had to do things the old-fashioned way — with a good, hard shaming.
In England in 1914, not long after World War I began, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald formed a group for ladies called the Order of the White Feather, whose sole purpose was to humiliate every man of fighting age who wasn’t in uniform. The ladies of the Order would pass out white feathers to civilian men, not to provoke the tickle fight you’d get if you tried this stunt today, but to instead remind these men that they were giant chickens. If that was too subtle, nasty notes also often accompanied the feathers, to further drive the message home.
“Bawk bawk bawk bawk!”
Surprisingly for a system based entirely on mockery, it didn’t always get things right. One documented receiver of a feather and letter, William Weller, wasn’t even eligible for military service, and he was actively helping the war effort as a city architect.
“Dear sir, do not build our town out of eggs and the stink lines of your own flop sweat.”
Even worse was the case of a 15-year-old who lied about his age to get into the army, then almost died in said army, then was sent home, and only then was slapped with a feather by four girls while out walking and not dying one day. He reenlisted the next day.
So, hey, wow, the system works.
Thousands of white feathers were passed out in this way, badgering an untold number of men to go die in a war that still doesn’t rank too highly on the big list o’ Great Human Accomplishments.
#5. Canada Encouraged People To Sign Up “Cowards” For War
Meanwhile, in Canada, enlistment at the start of the first World War initially was quite high, but as the war began to drag on, and casualties mounted, and everyone realized how shitty war is, recruitment rates dropped.
Again, this is bullshit.
Military recruiters responded by changing the tone of their campaigns. Whereas before recruitment drives had promised an opportunity for adventure and the chance to be a hero, they now began calling civilian men cowards and urged women to pressure them into joining. But simple chicken feathers weren’t going to cut it in Canada. So the government turned to doxxing instead.
“Please also write his three greatest fears on the back.”
The idea was that you could take a card from the recruitment offices and wander the streets looking for still-living men. Once you put a person’s name and address on the card, recruiters would go to his house or place of business and make him join up, no doubt using only the politest and least morally troubling methods at their disposal.
What the hell? Was Dr. Doom the prime minister of Canada?
#4. Irish Immigrants Were Tricked Into Fighting In The Civil War
During the Civil War, the American government used promises of employment for engineers and laborers to lure many Irishmen across the ocean, only to wait for them to arrive then leap out from behind some crates and force them to fight in the Union army instead.
Only a slight exaggeration.
The main scheme involved making these immigrants sign contracts for civilian work that turned out to be legal forms locking them into military service. Worse, Irish immigrants who already had jobs were always at risk of being drugged and abducted at any time by federal agents and made to fight — and sometimes drugged so heavily that they died. Many of these immigrants ended up stuck in the army, writing home to warn their friends and family to stop coming.
The Lincoln administration did nothing whatsoever to acknowledge or combat this epidemic of recruiting snatch-and-grabs, because they had a war to fight, and casual discrimination against the Irish was still a pretty acceptable thing back then. Eventually the problem got so bad that the lord lieutenant of Ireland issued a formal warning “against the risk and danger” of “accepting offers of Employment as Laborers in the … United States of America, whereby they may be entangled in Military Service contrary to their original intention.”
The lord lieutenant was a British position, though, so his suggestions generally
just made the Irish do the exact opposite.
The practice wasn’t really ended until an actual Irishman, this one working for the Confederacy, finally tackled it. Father John Bannon, who’d settled in St. Louis before the war, actively served in the Confederacy as a chaplain until 1863 when he went back to Ireland to slow the number of Irish immigrants entering the Union ranks. His efforts appear to have cut Irish recruits for the Union by two-thirds, meaning he single-handedly won the war for the Confederacy.
“Huh. You’d think I would have heard about that.”
#3. A Happy Cartoon Mascot Screwed Over German Soldiers
Every country uses a pretty generous definition of the truth when depicting the soldiering life, and during World War I, Germany was no different. Landsturm man Gottlieb Schulze was a cheerful cartoon character meant to entertain men enlisted in the Landsturm, Germany’s rearguard troops. The Landsturm were originally intended to be situated far from the front lines and face minimal risk of violence, and indeed, these cartoons depict a pretty idyllic soldiering life. Gottlieb is shown eating barley soup and dreaming of his mother and frolicking on the grass, just like you’d always assumed the military life was like.
We would have hoped for more shirtless volleyball, but this still looks pretty good.
But, unfortunately for Gottlieb and the rest of the nonfictional Landsturm recruits, the war didn’t quite work out that way. Germany suffered massive losses in the ranks of its regular army, and the soldiers of the Landsturm regularly received call-ups to serve on the front lines.
The front lines being a famously not great place to be during World War I.
Consequently, many Landsturm men did not find the idyllic life these books promised them and were instead killed or badly injured in combat. These comics ended up being a real slap in the face to the poor bastards they were meant to be cheering up. And, somewhat ironically, profits from the sale of these things ended up being funneled into a fund to support the few who survived, in sort of an early-20th-century version of “Ha ha, we’re cool now though, right?”
#2. That One Time 3,500 Fake Nazis Captured Winnipeg
War bonds are how governments finance their military efforts via their own citizens’ savings, allowing them to borrow at below-market rates while controlling inflation. Normally war bonds are advertised to their citizens through some combination of patriotism, loyalty, or old-timey racism.
But sometimes that isn’t enough. Sometimes if you really want to raise some frickin’ money, you need to invade Winnipeg, Canada.
In American terms, it’s sort of like Omaha, but without all the glamour.
In 1942, 3,500 fake Nazis stormed Winnipeg in an extreme but effective fundraising technique. These particular Nazis were Canadian military volunteers dressed with the help of Hollywood costumes and no sense of shame, and after a short, staged conflict, captured the city, which being situated 4,000 miles from the front lines, was somewhat under-defended.
“Ach! Diese Karte ist echt Scheisse.“
Our dastardly fake Nazis arrested the mayor, lieutenant governor, and other high-ranking officials, raised a few Nazi flags, and even took over the local news, releasing a now-fascist paper to the public. Some books were burnt and some coats stolen, and, hilariously, a few Nazis busted into a cafeteria and stole some poor guys’ lunches.
In the end, the people of Winnipeg got a taste of Nazi Canada and the Canadian government sold even more war bonds than they anticipated. The “invasion” was so thorough and realistic that it came to be known as If Day, and journalists from all over North America came to cover it. Which had some sadly fatal repercussions only a few years later …
#1. A Fake Communist Invasion Accidentally Killed A Town’s Mayor
Because during the height of the Cold War, the U.S. tried to have its own sort of If Day to drive home the possibility of an imminent communist invasion … in Wisconsin.
“Cheese from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.”
Staged in the town of Mosinee by the Wisconsin Department of the American Legion, the event was intended to simulate a communist takeover for two days. Which is how on May 1, 1950, it began as these things so often do, with pretend soldiers dragging the mayor out of his bed while shouting in clumsy Russian accents.
“Ewe arr cahming weef usss.”
The mayor was taken to a mass meeting to proclaim, with a gun to his head, that Mosinee was now a part of the Soviet regime. Road blocks were set up, restaurants were allowed to serve only black bread and potato soup, objectionable books and movies were removed from circulation, churches were locked, private businesses were seized by the nation, and all political organizations were dissolved. A concentration camp with barbed wire was set up in “Red Square,” where dissidents would be sent if they complained about their potato soup.
“Give us our cheese back, we beg you!”
The plan worked perfectly, until it didn’t — most notably when the poor mayor, who after having spent most of the day with a gun in his face, had a stroke during the invasion and died a few days later, along with the town’s 72-year-old minister, who suffered a coronary days after play-acting the process of getting thrown into a concentration camp.
Still, these were willing participants and, you know, fake war is hell and all. And boy you sure can’t argue with the results! Which … well there was no fundraising involved. Or anything the people of Mosinee could really do about Communism. Or anything else, really. We guess everyone learned a lesson about heart and cardiovascular health? That’s not nothing.
For more spectacular moments in trolling history, check out The 6 Greatest Acts Of Trolling In The History Of Science and The 5 Most Clever Ways People Made Hate Groups Look Stupid.
Read more: www.cracked.com