Disabled, Hell! — Don’t Call These Commanders “Handicapped”

A debilitating injury is usually something that renders a soldier un-fit for combat, while a pre-existing disability is often enough to excuse one from even having to serve. Yet throughout history there have been a number of military figures who have excelled despite both crippling injuries are physical disabilities. Consider British naval hero Horatio Nelson who repeatedly led fleets to victory despite the loss of his right arm and eye. Then there were commanders like Hannibal, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. All three are believed to have suffered from epilepsy. In addition to these examples, there are still more armless, legless and even sightless commanders who went on to make history despite their considerable physical impairments. Let’s meet a few of them.

Don Blas Lezo Olaverrieta lost an arm, a leg and an eye in the service of Spain, yet time after time defeated his country’s enemies in the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Mediterranean throughout the early 1700s.

Don Blas de Lezo y Olavarrieta
The 18th Century Spanish navy hero Don Blas Lezo Olaverrieta suffered so many injuries in the line of duty he earned the grim nickname of medihombre, which means “half a man”. In 1704, while serving as 15-year-old midshipman with the French navy during the War of Spanish Succession, Lezo lost his left leg to a cannonball at the Battle of Velez Malaga. According to legend, the doctors amputated what was left of the teenaged Spaniard’s leg, during which he never uttered a sound despite having been given no anesthesia. In a subsequent engagement Lezo (now a lieutenant) sustained wounds that cost him his sight in his left eye. As a captain, he lost his right arm at the 1714 Siege of Barcelona. Yet none of this seemed to stop the 25-year-old commander from capturing 11 English ships. By the end of the War of Spanish Succession, Lezo had risen to command the South Seas Fleet driving the British and Dutch from the Eastern Pacific. No one would have blamed the injured warrior for retiring at the age of 41 after his body had taken so much physical punishment. Yet Lezo went on to helpe command a 54-ship, 30,000-man force of Spaniards to take Oran from the Ottomans. Finally in 1734, the crown gave him control of Spain’s forces in Cartagena. Seven years later, he defeated an expedition by British admiral Edward Vernon aimed at capturing the colony. The campaign lasted 67 days, but Lezo’s victory assured that Spain would keep much of its holdings in the New World for the next century. He died at 52 after contracting the plague.

Ivar Ragnarsson
Also known as Ivar the Boneless, this Viking Leader led a Norse invasion of East Anglia in 865 AD and then captured the York the following year. After terrorizing England, Ivar reportedly settled in Ireland. While historians dispute the meaning of his sobriquet “Boneless”, some speculate that the name refers to either a disability that prevented the warrior leader from walking or possibly the fact that he was without legs entirely. Others have theorized that Ivar was afflicted with a disease known today asOsteogenesis Imperfect or “brittle bone disease”. There is some evidence to support this; sources from the era described Ivar as having legs as soft as cartilage. On the other hand, many have suggested that the name Boneless might simply suggest that Ivar was a nimble or agile warrior or even impotent. Historical records have reported Ivar being carried into battle by his fellow warriors on a shield – remarkable considering that Viking commanders likely led from the front and would have probably been in the thick of the fighting.

Jan Zizka -- The blind leading the sighted.

Jan Zizka — The blind leading the sighted.

Jan Zizka
When the Czech religious sect known as the Hussites stood up to the power of the Catholic Church in 1415, they chose the one-eyed general Jan Zizka to lead their forces. Already famous for defeating the Teutonic Knights in 1410 at the Battle of Grunwald, over the next 19 years, Jan Zizka would fight off the armies of the Holy Roman Empire and other invaders in two separate crusades. In 1421, the one-eyed general was wounded in battle while besieging an enemy castle. The injury left him totally blind. Despite this, Zizka went on to command his armies for years to come, defeating not only the Catholic forces arrayed against him but even subduing an internal rebellion within the Hussite sect itself. In all this time, he never lost a single battle. Despite his inability to see, Zizka envisioned the use of artillery and small arms on armoured wagons. Realized that emerging gunpowder units were at the mercy of enemy cavalry while reloading, Zizka experimented with placing his musketeers and gunners on mobile armoured carts called “wagon forts”, thus pioneering the tank 500 years before the First World War. In fact, the Czech’s use of gunpowder weapons was so revolutionary, they actually coined the words pistol and howitzer. The stubborn defiance of the Hussites, which was due in no small part to Zizka’s mastery of battlefield tactics, helped pave the way for the Protestant reformation.

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5 comments for “Disabled, Hell! — Don’t Call These Commanders “Handicapped”

  1. 19 June, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Good one! Quiet an interesting read. I always found it strange that society sees people with disablities as something inferior, when they might very well have other abilities that are far above average. These men are fine examples!

    • 19 June, 2012 at 1:01 pm

      True enough. Thanks for the feedback.

  2. J from Texas
    17 January, 2013 at 10:05 am

    I think Zizka is can rightfully be called the Czech Hannibal, not only because both were half-blind (or completely in Zizka’s last years). What Zizka did at Vitkov (fooling the more numerous attacker with a thin defensive line, in Zizka’s case, a wooden palisade, and flanking them without warning) is very similar to what Hannibal did at Cannae. Zizka knew that the knights storming Vitkov would be so eager to kill the Taborite “heretics” on the hill that they would be essentially blind (note the irony) to anything else going on on the field. Hubris played a large role in both defeats for the Roman and Holy Roman Empires. It was the physically blind beating the mentally blind.

    • 17 January, 2013 at 11:22 am

      Hi J:
      Thanks for that. Drop me a line sometime, I’d like to talk more.

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