For the longest time that humans had been battling each other, we already know by now that it was not just about physical strength. More than just bringing with you the strongest men in the team, proper planning and strategizing are more important in winning these battles and wars. Sometimes, strategizing involved bluffing the enemies and tricking them into thinking that they already knew your next move, only to find out later that you played them. The next thing they knew, they were on the losing side. That’s exactly what happened in these three instances of military bluffs:

The Road Not Taken

Way long before Robert Frost wrote his poem of that same title in 1915, “The Road Not Taken” best describes Pharaoh Thutmose’s strategy that led to the Battle of Megiddo in 1457 BC, which was probably the earliest recorded battle with reliable details. Here’s what happened.

Model of Tel Megiddo
Model of Tel Megiddo (Drahnier (Diskussion), Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons)

A coalition of rebellious Canaanites(aren’t they always?) wanted to free themselves from the vassalage of Egypt, and they occupied the city of Tel Megiddo, an essential area at the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley, a portion of the main trade route from Mesopotamia to Egypt. It was a walled city with considerable fortifications. And so Pharaoh Thutmose III marched with his army from Egypt to Yaham to show them who was still boss

From Yaham, they had three routes choices that they could take: via Taanach in the south, north via Yoqneam, and Aruna, which was the central one. Both southern and northern routes would take them longer to reach Megiddo but were safer. The central one, however, was quicker, like a short cut but risky in the sense that the route was full of narrow ravines, and his army would have to march this route in narrow columns, which would make them very vulnerable to ambush and make it hard to get them into formation for battle if attacked. The middle path would be suicide to the rest of us, but to Thutmose, it was the ideal choice, and for counter-intuitive reasons. He guessed that the rebels would not expect him to take the obviously more risky route thus, would leave it unguarded. Thutmose’s forces took the gamble on the central one, and he was proved right, it was unguarded. Because he took the shorter route it also meant that when the Canaanites figured out their error their forces would be delayed in returning along the longer route back to Tel Megiddo.  The Egyptians arrived at Megiddo sooner than expected, and they caught the Canaanites off guard resulting in their victory.

The Battle of Megiddo, September 1918: Turkish carts and gun carriages destroyed by British aircraft on the Nablus-Beisan road in Wadi Fara. (George Westmoreland, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Interestingly, after 3375 years, the same thing happened during World War I. General Allenby led a British army against Ottomans and Germans entrenched in the Jezreel Valley, and so they took the central route via Aruna themselves.  History repeated itself, he also caught the Turks watching the wrong road.

The Red Moon Prophecy

It was 1503 when Christopher Columbus’ damaged fleet forced them to the beach in Jamaica. The native Arawaks welcomed them with open arms and provided them with food and shelter. However, Columbus’ force seemed to overstay their welcome, and the natives grew tired and less friendly to them, as they’ve been there for months. After six months, Columbus’ crews did the unimaginable: they attacked the Arawaks and robbed and murdered some of them. So it was no surprise that the natives stopped giving them anything, which was still not as bad as they could’ve retaliated and massacred their ungrateful visitors.

C. Colomb’s Eclipse. (Camille Flammarion, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Desperate for help, Columbus thought of a plan to make the Arawaks believe that the Christian God was angry with them for not feeding Columbus’ force. He called a meeting with the Arawaks’ chieftain and told them that God would show his anger by turning the moon blood red, followed by calamities. In reality, he just saw in his almanac that there would be a total lunar eclipse on February 29, 1504.

When the Moon indeed turned blood red, the Arawaks were terrified and asked Columbus to tell his god that they would cooperate with him and to please return the moon to its original state. Supplies from every direction also started coming from the distressed people.

Columbus was pretty pleased with himself but really hadn’t considered what to do if the plan worked. Now he had to make the Moon return to normal or the whole scheme would fall apart. Columbus told the Arawaks that he would tell God they were being supplied again and ask him(nicely) to restore the Moon, but it would all depend on God’s mood. What he did was carefully time when the next eclipse would be using his hourglass. At its peak, he went back to the nervous Arawaks and told them that God agreed to forgive them just this once and that the Moon would return to normal, and as if by a miracle the veil began to pass away from the Moon.

The natives kept Columbus’ crew well-fed until rescue ships arrived to rescue them a few more months later.

This one story would be reason enough to celebrate Columbus Day.  It’s one of the greatest head-fakes of all time.

Powerful Landmines

During the Boer War from 1899 to 1902, then-Colonel Robert Baden-Powell(youngest man of that rank in the British Army), was the commander of small garrison in the besieged town of Mafeking in South Africa, was able to hold out against a Boer siege through an inventive variety of tricks and fakery. As the siege began at the town Baden-Powell found himself surrounded by a Boer force five times the size of his own, so he buried mysterious boxes around the town and told civilians in the town that they were powerful new landmines made from a new British technology. He even demonstrated by blowing up some to convince Boer sympathizers that the town was rigged with remotely detonated landmines everywhere. Spies inside the town then dutifully got word to Boers outside the city. In reality, these boxes had nothing but sand inside, and those he used for the demo had dynamite inside, but the trick worked.  The Boers were afraid to enter the town for fear of being blown to smithereens at every corner and intersection.

He also made a show of stringing out signal wire to appear as barbed wire.

He made cannons out of wood to convince the Boers he had artillery.

He would march his limited number of men around to simulate them relieving other units of their positions in such as way as to convince the Boers he had at least twice as many men as he actually did.

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He also raided the Boer lines constantly to keep them up at night and keep them in their hot trenches during the day.

He bluffed his way through all of it.

A Boer trench. (Skeoch Cumming W, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Baden-Powell was able to hold out for an incredible 217 days until the British army was able to lift the siege and chased the Boers off.  Colonel Baden-Powell returned home a national hero and retired as a Knight and a Lieutenant General.  He could have rested on those laurels but he went on to even more lasting fame.

Robert Baden-Powell went on to found the Boy Scouts organization.