13 February 1258: Baghdad falls to the Mongols
The jewel of the Abbasid caliphate burns while its population suffers unspeakable horrors
In February 1258, smoke rose over Baghdad. The capital of the Abbasid caliphate, the city was one of the largest and most beautiful on the planet. Its population numbered about a million; its libraries, mosques and palaces, its teeming streets, its packed bazaars, even its great irrigation canals, were famous across the world.
A year earlier, the Great Khan of the Mongols, Möngke, had decided to bring the Abbasids to heel. The caliph had been paying tribute to the Mongols for years. But now, after the Mongols increased their demands, the caliph al-Musta’sim chose not to buy them off, but to let them exhaust themselves in a long and fruitless siege. Baghdad, he was assured, would never fall.
At the end of January, a vast army under the Great Khan’s brother Hulagu arrived outside the city and began a siege. It took the Mongols barely a week to penetrate the outer defences, and when the terrified al-Musta’sim sent a group of local bigwigs to discuss terms, Hulagu simply had them executed. On 10 February, al-Musta’sim surrendered. Three days went by; three long, terrible days of waiting.
And then, on 13 February, the Mongols marched into the city. They burned the Great Library to the ground, threw its books into the Tigris and slaughtered its scholars. They burned and looted every mosque, palace and hospital in the city. They murdered al-Musta’sim’s sons before his eyes, wrapped him in a carpet and trampled him to death. Above all, they threw themselves on the local populace in an orgy of rape and murder. Some estimates put the death toll at 100,000; others go much higher. The stench was such that Hulagu had to move his camp upwind. Baghdad survived, somehow. But its golden age was over. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook
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13 February 1692: Men, women and children massacred in Glencoe
Clan Campbell wreaks bloody revenge on the MacDonalds
In the early hours of 13 February 1692, a snowstorm swept through the narrow Highland valley of Glen Coe. In the bleak villages along the side of the glen, the members of Clan MacDonald were asleep. But while their hosts snored, more than a hundred men of the Earl of Argyll’s Regiment of Foot, who had been billeted on the villagers for the previous fortnight or so, were already awake.
Many of the soldiers belonged to the rival Campbell clan, enemies of the MacDonalds for generations. They had their orders: now was the moment to strike. At five that morning, the soldiers began their bloody work. Within hours, 38 local people were dead.
Even by the standards of the time, the Glencoe massacre shocked Scottish opinion. In turning on their own hosts, the Campbells were seen to have violated every principle of decency. When more details of the massacre emerged – the soldiers had pursued their enemies across the glen; they had burned the villagers’ houses to the ground, ensuring that a further 40 women and children would die of exposure – most observers were horrified.
Yet behind the Glencoe massacre was not just an age-old feud between rival clans, but the murky complexity of British politics only a few years after the Glorious Revolution. Most Highland clans had backed James II and VII, rather than William of Orange, and Scotland’s secretary of state, the fiercely pro-William John Dalrymple, was keen to punish them for their defiance. As a subsequent inquiry discovered, it was Dalrymple who had effectively ordered the extermination of the MacDonalds.
Later immortalised as “blood and treachery” in a poem by Sir Walter Scott, Glencoe became one of the most infamous chapters in Scottish history. Even today the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe has a brass sign on the door: “No Hawkers or Campbells.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook
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13 February 1945: Dresden flattened by firebombing
Allies unleash ‘nightmare’ raid that kills 25,000
Dusk was falling when the first British aircraft took off for Dresden. It was the evening of 13 February 1945, and the Allies were poised to strike at Germany’s seventh largest city, the only major industrial centre that had so far escaped a serious bombing raid.
Just before 10pm, the air-raid sirens sounded. Many of Dresden’s residents were still running when the first bombs crashed down around them. Since the city had few public shelters, most people headed for their cellars. But there was no escape from the horror.
“It is not possible to describe,” recalled one boy, Lothar Metzger. “Explosion after explosion. It was beyond belief, worse than the blackest nightmare. So many people were horribly burnt and injured. It became more and more difficult to breathe.” Pushed out of the cellar by his mother, he saw the “burning street, the falling ruins and the terrible firestorm... We saw terrible things: cremated adults shrunk to the size of small children, pieces of arms and legs, dead people, whole families burnt to death... and fire everywhere, everywhere fire.” He would never forget those things, he said, never.
The British and American raids lasted for three days, during which more than 1,000 planes dropped almost 4,000 tonnes of high explosive and incendiary bombs. Formerly one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, with a magnificent baroque townscape, Dresden became a vision of hell. Almost every major building was destroyed, while about 25,000 people were killed, many of them burned alive.
Afterwards, the Nazis tried to turn the bombing into a propaganda coup, falsely claiming that as many as 200,000 people had died – a lie that endured for decades. In London, Winston Churchill urged the RAF to concentrate on purely military objectives. But the head of Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, had no regrets. “I do not personally regard the whole of the remaining cities of Germany,” he wrote, “as worth the bones of one British grenadier.” | Written by Dominic Sandbrook