Mankind has always been inventive in making plans for war. After all, absent decisive numerical advantage the chances of overcoming your foe is dependent upon tactical or technological edge.
The big game changer in the 16th century was the adoption of gunpowder as a means of enhancing the power and range of your artillery. Gunpowder was invented by the Chinese, perhaps as early as the Tang dynasty in the 9th century CE and certainly by the Song Dynasty (11th century CE). It is listed as one of the Four Great Inventions of the Chinese – the compass, paper making and printing being the others. Courtesy of the invading hordes of Mongols in the 13th century CE knowledge of and appreciation of its power percolated into the West but it was only in the 15th century that the development of effective artillery enabled the Occidentals to utilise the black stuff – a mixture of sulphur, charcoal; and saltpeter – effectively.
Of course, being the first on the block to have gunpowder and the means to effectively send it in the vague direction of the enemy gave you an initial advantage but soon the general availability of gunpowder went a long way to nullify that advantage. Naturally, this prompted the more inventive souls to exercise their grey cells to develop ways of deploying gunpowder more effectively to gain competitive edge.
One such person was Franz Helm who came from Cologne and who is thought to have fought in a few skirmishes against the Turks in south-central Europe when gunpowder was beginning to transform warfare. He published a manual in the 1530s which is filled with wonderfully illustrated descriptions of bizarre weaponry including bombs packed with shrapnel and explosive devices studded with spikes. Helm also thought that animals could be usefully deployed in the cause, particularly in delivering incendiaries to the enemy. “Create a small sack like a fire-arrow. If you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place. And bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town, and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited”. Simple really – capture a cat from the enemy, strap an incendiary device to it and set it free. Of course, cats have a mind of their own and so there could be no guarantee that it would go straight home and not be diverted by the sight of a mouse or a bird en route with devastating effect.
There may be something in it though. A couple of weeks ago I read of an incendiary attack perpetrated by a pigeon on a block of flats in south London. The roof was damaged but all nine occupants escaped. The cause, according to the London Fire Brigade, was a pigeon, picking up a smouldering cigarette butt and dropping it into its nest, which then ignited and set the roof on fire.
With a bit more training, this could be an effective weapon and a damn sight cheaper than a Trident missile.