“Even in wartime there can still be occasion for acts of chivalry and fair play.”
THE BOOK Deeds of Naval Daring was first published in 1877 by British admiral Edward Giffard.
Within its 300 or so pages are 43 of the liveliest tales of historic high seas adventure and daring-do this side of a Horatio Hornblower novel – and all of it taken straight from Royal Navy dispatches printed in The London Gazette during the age of sail.
From boarding actions and encounters with pirates to cutting-out expeditions and full on sea battles, nearly 140 years later, the book still manages to entertain and fascinate.
One brief yet captivating tale within entitled “A British Sailor Scorns An Advantage” tells of an unnamed English seaman taking part in a long-forgotten 1779 attack on a Spanish fortress of San Fernando de Omoa in present day Honduras. Giffard writes:
“It happened that during the assault on this fort, which was taken by a well-concerted night attack, a sailor who had scrambled over the walls had in the confusion become separated from the main body of the assailants. Like a true British tar, he had provided himself with two cutlasses, one in each hand. Thus armed, he met a Spanish officer who in the darkness and confusion, and suddenly roused from his sleep, had rushed out unarmed. Our brave countryman without hesitation presented his opponent with one of his cutlasses, observing that… now they were on equal terms. The Spaniard, amazed at this elevation of mind, yielded himself to such a gallant foe. This intrepid fellow was rewarded by promotion to the rank of boatswain by Admiral Sir Peter Parker, but a few years after, in a fit of madness caused by intoxication, he struck the lieutenant of his ship, was tried by court-martial, sentenced and executed.”
As the story illustrates, even in wartime there can still be occasion for acts of chivalry and fair play. But if nothing else, it got us thinking about other similar instances of gallantry from the pages of military history. Consider these compelling examples from conflicts past:
Not While We’re Dining
The War of 1812, a small but savage two-and-a-half year struggle between Britain and the nascent United States, opened with an uncanny act of courtesy. The evening that details of the declaration of hostilities between Washington and London arrived at British general Isaac Brock’s frontier headquarters on the Niagara River, the officers of the outpost just happened to be hosting their American counterparts from across the river for dinner. When a messenger burst in with the unsettling news, the visitors leapt to their feet fully expecting to be clamped in irons and hustled off to captivity. Instead, Brock graciously urged his guests to sit down insisting that all present finish the meal in friendship. After a pleasant evening of food, wine and conversation, the British officers escorted their opposite numbers to the waiting boats and wished them well in the coming contest. Three months later, when Brock was killed in battle at Queenston Heights, the commanders in the American fort on the opposite bank ordered their guns to fire a salute in honour of their fallen foe.
Never Shoot an Emperor
Speaking of cannons, during the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington was surveying the field from a hilltop in the British centre when an artillery officer galloped up to announce that Napoleon and his entourage had ridden within range of the English guns. Should they open fire, the gunner asked? “Certainly not,” snapped Wellington. Commanders of armies have better things to do than shoot at one another, he supposedly said.
A Very ‘Civil’ War
History’s most humanitarian warrior may very well be Switzerland’s Guillaume-Henri Dufour. During that country’s remarkably civil 1847 civil war, the 60-year-old veteran of Napoleon’s army refused to equip Swiss federal troops with Congreve rockets. He feared the weapons might cause too much harm to the enemy soldiers, who (after all) were still his countrymen. The very same general also openly passed his battle plans to rebel leaders holding the city of Fribourg. The bewildering gesture was intended to convince his opponents to surrender thus avoiding needless bloodshed. It worked — the town gave up without incident. As for the wounded, his standing order to national soldiers was to provide medical care to the injured prisoners. It’s no surprise that Dufour would later serve on the same committee that established the International Red Cross.
Plunder Returned; Faith Restored
Despite the legendary cruelty of Japanese soldiers during the Pacific War, some moments of compassion still stand out. Consider the tale of Mario Tonelli, a survivor of the 1942 Bataan Death March. While in Japanese captivity, the 26-year-old former running back from Notre Dame University was forced to hand over his prized game ring to an enemy guard who was keen to pocket it. Tonelli earned the coveted keepsake for scoring the winning touchdown in a 1937 championship game against the University of Southern California. Moments later a Japanese officer approached with the ring in hand. “One of my men took something from you,” he said in perfect English. “I know how much this means to you,” he added as he placed the ring in the dumbstruck soldier’s hand.  The enemy commander went on to explain that he had studied at SoCal before the war and was in the bleachers the day that Tonelli scored his famous TD. The Chicago native would later say the experience restored his faith in humanity giving him the strength to endure years of brutal captivity. 
A Promise Kept
Sometimes acts of benevolence in wartime can come from the very top. Such was the case for Robert Campbell, a British army captain captured in France during the early days of the First World War. Upon learning that his mother was on her deathbed back in England, Campbell wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II personally asking for a temporary leave so he could rush to her side. Touched by his enemy’s plight, the German emperor granted the request on the condition that the 29-year-old officer return to his POW camp once he’d seen his mother off. Campbell agreed and spent a week at home only to head back to Germany as promised by way of neutral Holland. He’d spend the rest of the war in captivity, although he did make at least one escape attempt before the Armistice. Campbell later said that his brief parole notwithstanding, he considered it his duty as an officer to try to break out of prison.
An Unlikely Escort
Messerschmitt ace Franz Stigler was already one of Germany’s most decorated pilots when on Dec. 20, 1943 he raced off in pursuit of a crippled American B-17 that was limping home alone after a bombing raid on Bremen. The shredded plane, its crew wounded by flak and machine gun fire, would be an easy kill for the Luftwaffe top gun. As Stigler roared past the holed and smoking Allied bomber, he caught a quick glimpse of the terrified young pilot at the controls. Unable to bring himself to fire on the man, Stigler flew alongside and gestured to the astonished American to formate on his wing tip. Instead of downing the enemy plane, he decided to guide it safely out of German airspace. The seasoned fighter pilot hoped that any anti-aircraft gunners or interceptors they might encounter along the way would assume he was bringing a captured bomber into a friendly air base and hold their fire. Once the Flying Fortress was safely out over the North Sea, Stigler gave the Americans a final wave and raced back to base. He never told a sole about his amazing act of mercy until after the war — to do otherwise, he’d have risked a firing squad. Amazingly, the B-17’s pilot, 21-year-old Charles Brown of West Virginia, would have to wait more than 40 years to thank the German flier for his act of humanity. In 1986, the two men were reunited and even became close friends. Both died in 2008. The entire story was the subject of the 2014 book A Higher Call.
DID WE MISS ANYTHING? Surely these aren’t the only stories of chivalry, gallantry and compassion from military history. Feel free to include any other anecdotes you can think of in the comments section below. We’d love to hear from you!
(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on May 15, 2015)