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King Charles II in coronation robes

6 major historical anniversaries from leap years

Leap years come but once every four years, but that doesn't mean some of history's most significant anniversaries haven't happened during them

Image: The British monarchy was restored in 1660 when Charles II became king | Public Domain

It takes our planet 365.25 days to travel around the sun. So, in order to compensate for this astronomical untidiness, an extra day – 29th February – is added to the Gregorian Calendar every four years. These are known as leap years, and that extra bit of February is dubbed the leap day.

With 2024 being the latest leap year, here’s a look back at some major historical events to have taken place on leap days and leap years across the centuries.

Leap Day Anniversaries

29th February 1996: The Siege of Sarajevo ends

The breakup of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s plunged a vast swathe of Europe into the kind of brutal, bitter, hate-fuelled violence not seen since World War II. Ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity became rife as rival ethnic, religious and political groups fought for independence and supremacy.

Some of the worst fighting unfolded in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which declared independence from Yugoslavia in March 1992. Serb forces were vehemently opposed to this turn of events, blockading the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo and subjecting it to mortar, shell and sniper attacks.

Defended by the ill-equipped Bosnian army, Sarajevo became a place of horror and bloodshed for its citizens, who consisted of Croats, Bosniaks and Serbs. Thousands were killed over four long years of relentless bombardment, with ordinary men, women and children being picked off by snipers or murdered en masse while going about their daily lives.

A peace agreement was finally thrashed out in December 1995, and the siege was officially lifted on Leap Day 1996, by which time it had stretched on for 1,425 days, making it one of the longest military sieges in history.

29th February 1940: Hattie McDaniel becomes the first Black actor to win an Oscar

When Hattie McDaniel stepped up to receive the Best Supporting Actress Oscar on Leap Day 1940, she became the first Black performer to receive such a plaudit. It was a true turning point in film history, with one journalist observing how the crowd delivered ‘an ovation never paralleled in Academy history’.

Yet, despite this rapturous recognition of her iconic performance as house slave Mammy in the US Civil War epic Gone with the Wind, McDaniel almost wasn’t allowed to be in the room at all.

The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where that year’s Oscars were held, didn’t allow Black patrons, and McDaniel was only permitted entry as a special favour to movie producer David O. Selznick. Even then, she was forced to sit at a table at the back of the room, well away from Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh and her other Gone with the Wind colleagues.

McDaniel hadn’t even been allowed to attend the film’s premiere the previous year in Atlanta, prompting Gone with the Wind author Margaret Mitchell to write her a poignant telegram saying, ‘Wish you could have heard the applause'.

McDaniel was also met with criticism from many in the Black community, with Civil Rights activists criticising stars like her for playing subservient characters on film. However, she passionately defended her career as a trailblazer who helped break barriers for people of colour in Hollywood, famously saying, ‘Hell, I’d rather play a maid than be one'.

Leap Year Anniversaries

1660: The British monarchy is restored

Few leap years in British history have been as pivotal as 1660, which saw the monarchy resurrected following a dramatic experiment with republican rule. This era had commenced in bloody fashion with the execution of Charles I in 1649, but the growing political instability led to the triumphant return of his son, Charles II, from exile in Europe.

Although Charles II was known as the ‘merry monarch’ because of his friendly, fun-loving nature, he wasted no time in avenging his father, with many of the officials who’d signed Charles I’s death warrant ordered to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

1896: The first modern Olympic Games take place

For many athletes, 1896 proved to be quite literally a leap year thanks to the resurrection of the Olympic Games. Fittingly for a competition which has its origins in Ancient Greece, the Games of the I Olympiad took place in Athens, where events like sprints, hurdles, tennis, swimming and wrestling were part of the line-up.

But, while these were the first official Games since the 4th century AD, special mention should be made of the quaint market town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire, England, which started hosting its own Olympic Games in 1850. These were a direct influence on the creation of the Olympics as we know them today.

1912: The Titanic sinks on her maiden voyage

By far the most infamous event to take place in the leap year of 1912 was the sinking of the RMS Titanic, which happened while the lavish ocean liner was sailing from Southampton to New York City.

Almost every aspect of the disaster has been thoroughly mythologised, from the fateful impact with an iceberg which tore the ship open, to the plight of its passengers, many of whom were among the wealthiest and most influential figures of their day. Around 1,500 died in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic on that dark night in April.

1944: The D-Day landings

One of the most consequential leap year events in world history was D-Day: the gigantic Allied invasion of Normandy which unfolded on 6th June 1944, turning the course of the Second World War.

The dominance of Nazi forces in mainland Europe prompted British, US and Canadian forces to launch the largest amphibious assault ever attempted, with an armada of 7,000 ships and around 156,000 troops arriving at five beaches in Normandy. Over 4,400 sacrificed their lives that day, helping to pave the way for the eventual Nazi defeat.