In the comfy, technologically advanced Western world we take survival for granted. I mean, when’s the last time you were in doubt whether you’ll have enough water not to die of thirst? Or whether drinking the water you do have might kill you with its advanced civilization of bacteria thriving within?
Or when’s the last time that you slept out doors and twitched at every noise in the darkness and panicked at a distant gleam of predatory eyes reflecting your dying camp fire?
If the answer to all of the above is never, you will probably have a deep appreciation for the following 5 historical despite the odds survival stories and their protagonists.
And they weren’t that far in the past, either. Within a 100 – 200 year time-frame give or take. Sit back and admire. The will was strong in these ones.
1. The Massacre
Or the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army as the full title for this military event is, was a full retreat of the 4500 strong British garrison from Kabul (Afghanistan) in 1842, along with 12,000 civilians.
Believing that safe passage was accorded, general Elphinstone started on the 140 km journey towards the nearest British fort at Jalalabad. Only to discover to his bewilderment and the horror of his followers that soon after leaving Kabul, his group started being mercilessly attacked by Afghan tribes.
After 7 days most of the force was killed or captured (a lucky few) and only 45 British soldiers along with 20 of their officers remained to make a last stand.
Of these, 6 managed to escape on horseback and make a run for Jalalabad.
In turn, out of these 6, only 1 made it to Jalalabad on a wounded pony after rushed through 20 tribesmen that ambushed him on the road flailing his sword to scare them as they threw rocks at him, then later confronting other 5 sword-wielding riders of whom one managed to slash his head and make him lose his sword.
All in mountainous terrain and January cold.
His name was William Bryden, he was a doctor, and a famous painting was made after his ordeal named “Remnants of an Army”, by Lady Elizabeth Butler.
2. Walk It Off
Born in Iowa, James Landon was a Sergeant in the Union Army during the American Civil War. Like many other soldiers in that conflagration, he got shot during a skirmish with the enemy.
But unlike many other soldiers, he quickly pulled out his knife and cut the bullet out of his thigh, thereby proceeding to casually run away from the soldiers chasing him for about five days. You know, as anyone having trouble standing while experiencing intense pain would do…
Sadly, and in a nod to overwhelming odds actually mattering most of the time, the Confederate forces did capture him and sent him to possibly the worst hell-hole of a detention facility in the US at the time, the Andersonville military prison.
To put things into perspective, 13,000 prisoners died in Andersonville during the war.
So, those overwhelming odds seemed to have a profound liking for James Landon, as they kept to his side.
But he soon tired of them and ended their relationship. Because he survived 6 weeks in there and two months in another prison camp, without any medical attention to his injuries (which he only received only upon his release and return home).
He died at 83 years old.
3. Food Delivery
What do you do if you’re the President and you find out that 8 whaling ships with 265 crew on board have been caught by the ice just off the coast of Alaska (Point Barrow)? In 1897? And the ice will melt enough to make sailing possible again in oh, about six months?
Why you send supplies until a rescue ship can come there, of course. Which is the decent thing to do.
But doing the decent thing probably didn’t make it easier for the three guys who got the honor of actually delivering said supplies across 2,400 km of land and ice in temperatures sometimes going below -40 degrees Celsius. A journey that took three months to complete.
Talk about a tough delivery job. And I thought delivering pizza in a crowded urban center is a feat in itself.
Anyway, First Lieutenant David H. Jarvis, second lieutenant Ellsworth P. Bertholf and surgeon Samuel J. Call managed to deliver the supplies until their ship The Bear caught up with them when the ice broke.
They rescued the stranded sailors of which most survived.
Their mission is known as the Overland Relief Expedition and is admired by Coast Guard officers to this day.
4. Going Native
Scottish Jack Renton was 27 years old when, due to some unfortunate circumstances, he found himself stranded on the shores of one of the Solomon Islands along with 4 companions, after spending 40 days on the ocean in a little boat.
Three of them died from the effects of these 40 days upon their bodies, while the other one was clubbed to death. Not by Renton, of course. Did I forget to mention the vicious headhunters that inhabited those parts and made the islands be feared and avoided by all sailors of the time?
Well, it was they who killed Renton’s companion. And Renton himself was lucky to get captured by a rival tribe who had held a white prisoner before and saw him as an interesting distraction and curiosity.
What comes next is nothing short of amazing. Jack Renton, stripped naked, with no tools, alone and not speaking their language, not only managed to not die.
He slowly learned their language and taught them his gardening, fishing and net-building skills. Then proved his strength as a man and became a warrior in the tribe, ultimately being adopted by the chief as his son. He went so native to survive that he headhunted rival tribes himself and became renowned for his strengths in battle.
And he did this for 8 years!
After which, he saw a slave ship moored far off from one of the islands and convinced the chief to let him contact it. Which he did, and asked to be taken aboard and to England. Yes, a SLAVE ship. He was that audacious.
After a long detour and time spent in Australia, when finally he arrived back in his hometown of Stromness in Scotland (which his father always told people he would do and that he was still alive, by the way), he stayed for 6 months and then returned with materials and tools to improve the life of the Malaitian tribes-people which had accepted him for 8 years.
5. Children, Women And Politicians First
The Medusa was a French ship that was sent on a diplomatic mission to Senegal in 1816. Diplomatic mission naturally implies influential figures of the political scene of the time among the 400 passengers that the ship was carrying in total.
Enter an inexperienced captain and the stage is set for disaster. The ship ran aground a reef and it had to be abandoned.
Enter a lack of sufficient lifeboats and the disaster becomes a solid tragedy.
The big-shots were of course guaranteed a place on the lifeboats while the rest were given a pat on the shoulder and a “Good luck”. The rest meaning 150 people.
They made an improvised raft out of beams and masts on which they, incredibly, managed to survive for 15 days, despite having had to throw off some food and supplies right at the start in order not to sink. Which led to their food running out by day 4.
When I say survive, sadly, I don’t mean all of them. Because 20 committed suicide or were killed in the first day. And after the fourth, people had to resort to cannibalism to survive.
All in all, after the 15 days, just 15 survivors were found by the ship that came to the rescue.