“Military history is replete with amusing (and concise) responses to ultimatums.”
CAUGHT BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE. That would be an apt description of the Zaporozhian Cossacks of southern Ukraine. Originally a band of serfs who rebelled against Polish and Lithuanian domination in the 15th century, the wandering clans eventually settled in a vast territory or Sich on the lower Dnieper River region. With enemies on all sides, the Zaporozhians spent the next two centuries honing their military skills in a series of wars against Russians, Poles and even Ottomans. In 1676, a massive Turkish army invaded the region, but was repeatedly thwarted by the indomitable Zaporozhians. According to legend, the frustrated Turkish sultan Mehmed IV, sent the Cossacks an elaborately-worded ultimatum. The letter established the conqueror’s credentials as “brother of the sun and moon”, “viceroy of god”, and “emperor of emperors”, among other things, before eventually getting to the point. “I command you to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance,” the letter concluded menacingly. The 199-word Zaporozhian reply was nothing if not cavalier. “O sultan,” it began. “What kind of knight are you, that can’t slay a hedgehog with your naked ass? We have no fear of your army. By land and by sea we will battle you… goat-fucker of Alexandria. Kiss out asses!”* The episode had been immortalized in an 1891 painting by Illya Repin. Dubbed the Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, it shows a collection of the Ukrainian warriors laughing uproariously as they help a comrade compose their scathing response to the Ottomans who are camped nearby. The painting took 11 years to complete and was eventually bought by Tsar Alexander III for the then unheard-of sum of 35,000 rubles. It hangs today in a gallery in St. Petersburg. While the Zaporozhians’ response was certainly memorable, military history is replete with other amusing (and concise) responses to similar ultimatums. Consider these:
The Spartans of Ancient Greece were as famous for their simplistic and disciplined lifestyle as they were for their martial prowess. Not surprisingly, their penchant for austerity also extended into their use of language. In fact, to this day brief statements, observations or particularly dry or biting rejoinders are known as Laconic phrases – this in reference to the Spartan homeland of Laconia. Case in point: At the outset of the three-day Battle of Thermopylae, the Persian emperor Xerxes ordered the vastly outnumbered Spartan and Greek armies guarding the strategic mountain pass to surrender their weapons to him. King Leonidas’ response was classically Spartan: Molon labe or “Come and take them!” Since then, the phrase, both in English and the original Greek, has been used and reused throughout history. It was frequently invoked by Continentals during the American War of Independence. Greece’s 1st army corps still uses the words as its motto. And more recently, firearms enthusiasts in the United States have appropriated the expression as a sort of rallying cry against any and all perceived gun control measure
More Classical Funnies
A century and a half later, the Spartans would offer an even more succinct reply to an enemy’s call to surrender. In the 4th Century BCE, Phillip II of Macedon set about to conquer the whole of Greece. Laconia was one of the few holdouts. As the Macedonians marched towards the city, an emissary warned that Phillip’s hoplites would slay all the inhabitants if the Spartans were defeated. The response was the single word: “If”. Eventually, Phillip bypassed the city.
Bastogne Bon Mot
The Spartans would have been delighted by Gen. Anthony McAuliffe’s curt response to the German demands to give up Bastogne during Hitler’s December, 1944 Ardennes offensive. When the U.S. 101st Airborne division was surrounded and threatened with “total annihilation” unless it surrendered within two hours, McAuliffe’s response was one word: “Nuts!” Talk about ballsy! The regiment held, the city was relived and “Nuts” became the general’s nickname from that moment on. Even the exhibition hall in Bastogne that commemorates the battle is known as the “Nuts! Museum”.
Short and Sweet
In 1809, when the French surrounded and cut off the Spanish city of Saragossa, Napoleon’s general on the scene offered an olive branch to the town’s commander, José Rebolledo de Palafox. The invaders sent a cordial message inviting “peace and surrender” to which Palafox shot back a hastily scrawled communiqué promising “war and the knife” instead.
Wisecracking at Waterloo
Six years later, it would be the French army, or more specifically Bonaparte’s Imperial Guard, that provided a memorable if not pithy reply to a British and Prussian demand for surrender in the final minutes of the Battle of Waterloo. Wellington’s men, having encircled the exhausted remnants of the emperor’s own elite battalion, extended the French one last chance to throw down their muskets. History records that General Pierre Cambronne responded with the famous: “The Guard dies. It does not surrender.” However some accounts have shortened the answer to the much more to-the-point: Merde! which of course is French for “shit”.
Finally, during the Second World War, the Hellenic leader Ioannis Metaxas famously rebuffed Hitler’s threats to allow the German military into Greece with the one syllable answer: “No” or Ohi in Greek. The moment is still commemorated in Greece during the annual Ohi Day celebrations.
Did we miss any? If so, please add additional snappy comebacks to the comments section below or tweet them to us at @milhistnow.
NOTE: While the Zaporozhians used the phrase “kiss our asses” in response to the Turkish ultimatum, supposedly, the first usage of the expression comes to us from the 16h Century German knight, Götz von Berlichingen who responded to an ultimatum during a civil war in his homeland with the famous phrase. Today, in Germany, the expression is known as the Swabian salute.
(Originally published Aug. 8, 2013)