The pig war and other weirdly named battles in history

Pigs on a farm
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Battles and wars can have some funny names, can’t they? While most conflicts can be easily identified by their location or year, some can leave you scratching your head as to how they got such a bizarre moniker. Worse still are those fights whose names are just as confusing and ludicrous as the skirmish itself. Here are three battles whose story is just as unorthodox as its name.

The Bucket War

Also known as the ‘War of the Oaken Bucket’, the ‘Bucket War’ took place in Italy in 1325. Fought between the two rival city-states of Modena and Bologna, the war was a small episode in a near 300-year stint of border disputes and political clashes.

In the months leading up to the war, tensions were continually rising. As Bologna continued to push boundaries and lay claim to Modenese land, each city declared its loyalties: Bologna to the Pope and Modena to the Holy Roman Emperor.

The war culminated with its only battle - the Battle of Zappolino. Bologna’s army of approximately 32,000 marched on Modena, clashing with rival forces in the Bolognese territory of Zappolino. However, despite having the home advantage, the Bolognese suffered catastrophic losses and fled to the safety of their city walls. All told, around 2,000 lives were lost, with the majority of casualties falling on the Bolognese side.

So how did this war win its title? As the Bolognese soldiers retreated, the victorious Modenese soldiers stole a bucket from a well at the city gate as a trophy.


The Whisky War

The ‘Whisky War’ (also known as the ‘Aquavit War’ or ‘Liquor Wars’) is a pseudo conflict between Denmark and Canada over the ownership of Hans Island. The border war began in 1930 and was fought fiercely up until 2005 when a peace agreement was reached.

Hans Island sits in the middle of the Kennedy Channel between the Danish territory of Greenland and the Canadian Ellesmere Island. Since the 1930s, the two countries have butted heads as to where the borders for each nation (which, in theory, should run through the centre of the island) actually fall.

In 1973, a light at the end of the tunnel appeared when Canada and Denmark negotiated and signed a border treaty. However, there was one slight problem: the treaty left a gap in the border description, leaving it open for interpretation. All seemed well between the two nations, and Hans Island saw peace for 11 blissful years. However, all that was about to change when Canada made an aggressive play for the border.

In 1984, Canada planted their flag with a sign stating “Welcome to Canada” and left a bottle of Canadian Club Whisky at the contested part of the border. This provoked a response from Denmark, whose Minister for Greenland chartered a helicopter to the island, removed the Canadian items, and replaced them with a sign that read “Velkommen til den danske ø” (Welcome to the Danish Island) and a bottle of Schnapps.

Over the course of the next 20 years, new flags were planted, bigger and more impressive signs were erected, and a new bottle of booze was left. Each side took turns dismantling the monuments of the other and leaving a bottle of their country’s finest for the next group to find. All things must come to an end, however, and in 2005 the two nations agreed to the ownership of Hans Island, though exactly what that agreement was remains unclear to the wider public.

So what is it about Hans Island that made it so desirable to both nations? Nothing. The half-mile square rocky island is completely barren and uninhabitable.


Pig War

On 15th June 1859, farmer Lyman Cutlar stepped out into the fresh morning air to embrace a new day. What he didn’t expect to embrace was the sight of a large invader carving a destructive path through his livelihood: there was a pig in his potato patch.

Cutlar had moved to the island of San Juan between Seattle and Vancouver and claimed his right to live there as an American, following the adoption of the Oregon Treaty 13 years earlier. This wasn’t the first time he’d had to deal with wildlife invading his crop, but for this particular swine, it would be the last. Promptly shooting the animal, Cutlar went about his day thinking little more of the incident. That is until he discovered that the pig belonged to Charles Griffin, an Irishman employed to keep livestock on the island by the Hudson Bay Shipping Company. Griffin allowed his pigs to roam freely, as they were his personal property and not owned by his employers.

The neighbours had lived peacefully, but for Griffin, the shooting of his property was the final straw. Cutlar offered Griffin compensation of $10 (around $300 today), but Griffin demanded ten times that amount. Obstinate, Cutlar rescinded his offer of compensation, stating that the pig was trespassing and it was Griffin’s responsibility to control his livestock. Griffin, not backing down, allegedly replied that it was Cutlar’s responsibility to keep his potatoes out of Griffin’s pigs. It was at this point that things began to snowball out of control.

The island had been in a state of limbo over who owned it since the signing of the Oregon Treaty on 15th June 1846. With both the United States and Great Britain claiming sovereignty of the land, it had since become home to approximately 30 Americans and was utilised by the British Hudson Bay Shipping Company as a sheep ranch. When the British authorities were called in to help settle the dispute between the two farmers, the American residents called for military protection.

66 American troops under the command of Captain George Pickett arrived in San Juan to prevent the British authorities from landing. At the same time, concerned that more American squatters would lay claim to British land, three British warships under the command of Captain Geoffry Hornby were dispatched to keep the American settlers in line. Each army set up respective camps at opposing ends of the island, and the situation continued to escalate. By mid-August, the American troops encamped in the south of the island had grown their numbers to over 460 men with 14 cannons. Meanwhile, the British based in the north of the island had amassed 2,140 Royal Marines and five warships boasting 70 mounted guns between them.

With the threat of continued escalations looming, Captain Hornby was ordered to remove the American army, avoiding any possible conflict. Captain Hornby, however, refused to make the first move against the Americans and risk reigniting the war between the two nations until Rear Admiral Robert L. Baynes - the man in charge of all British naval movements in the Pacific, arrived to assess the situation himself.

Upon his arrival and assessment, Baynes concluded that they would not escalate the situation into a war “over a squabble about a pig”. It didn’t take long for news about the standoff to reach both respective nations' capitals, and they both leapt into action negotiating how tensions on the island could be resolved peacefully. While the matter was being settled, both armies agreed to a token representation on the island with no more than 100 men apiece.

Over the next 12 years, while their governments resolved the issue politically, the British and American troops lived in relative harmony. They would often socialise, inviting each other onto their own respective bases for celebrations. Despite fierce deliberation and arbitration, the border issue was resolved in favour of the United States, and the British troops withdrew, followed by the American troops less than a year later. The conflict was resolved, with the only loss of life being that of the hungry pig that started it all.