Bombin’ Bernie

Reader Carlo writes:

Here’s something I’ve wondered and I’ll bet you can tell me: why are bombs in cartoons always those round, black things with the fuse sticking out? If an ice cream bombe is supposed to look like one, somebody must have thrown those around at some point in history. Can you tell us when or where? This seems like your sort of question.

Carlo, it certainly is. To my understanding those rounded bombs with the lit fuse were not thrown by hand, at least not commonly. Hand grenades, which pre-date actual “bombs” I think, were what soldiers used on the battlefield. Those round bombs were shot out of cannons, thus their strong resemblance to cannon balls. Once upon a time aerial bombs like that had to be lit by hand before they were fired. Not a job I’d want.

As for when they were invented and by whom, that’s a grey area of history. However we do know that one of the greatest early advocates — and users — of the exploding cannon round was a Catholic Bishop by the name of Christoph Bernhard von Galen.

I’m sorry Joe, did you say a Catholic Bishop? Why yes I did. Though truth be told von Galen wasn’t only a Bishop, he was a member of the landed gentry in Westphalia (in modern-day Germany), a prince from the city of Münster, so he carried both those titles. Though I don’t know precisely how, he managed to lose his family inheritance as a young man, and evidently a job in the Church seemed like a good career move.

Von Galen was a fellow who took the Christian admonition to “do unto others” to a whole different level. He lived during the time of the Thirty Year’s War, which was technically a part of the Counter-Reformation, the sometimes violent Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation. What it was in reality was a hyper-violent free-for-all in which various Northern European potentates made almost continuous war on each other.

Von Galen thrived during this time. A true sadist and psychopath, he relished any opportunity to put his personal 25,000-man army to work. Initially he did so against Protestants on his home territory, where he was known for stacking the bodies of his victims in cages and leaving them to rot by the Münster city walls. However as his ambitions grew he also warred variously against the French, the Swedes and especially the Dutch, against whom he famously used the aerial exploding cannon round. “Bombing Bernd” they called him.

He was a true terror of his age and the only Bishop I’m aware of whose portrait places him not only in robes with a crucifix around his neck, but before a vista containing an artillery unit, a half dozen flying rounds and a city, off in the distance, in flames. As far as I’m aware none of that is in a Bishop’s job description, but then I’ve never read the fine print. Maybe the Catholic Church is a more interesting place to work than I thought.

6 thoughts on “Bombin’ Bernie”

  1. … but he still can’t beat St James, whose cross is in the shape of a dagger, and known in Spain as Santiago Matamoros, St James the Moorslayer.

  2. Funny you should mention him, my father-in-law is going to walk the Way of St. James this year! But as far as I know St. James never actually fought any Moors while he was alive. From what I remember he was called the “Moor Slayer” because he was supposed to have miraculously appeared at a battle between Iberian Christians and an army of Moors, but about 800 years or so after he died. Now I’m not saying he didn’t, I consider myself a good Catholic boy. Still I think there’s a difference between the bomb thing and the miraculous appearance thing. One looks a whole lot cooler in a portrait!

    Thanks for the great comment, Jo!

    – Joe

    1. I walked from Le Puy to Santiago in 2007, highly recommend it, although the living part is rough the walking is fine. Not really sure St James is buried there, but like all good stories…

      1. I’d love to do that, myself. I’d need to in order to walk off all the calories I’d take in eating in Spain!

        – Joe

  3. How funny! Around here (Groningen, northern part of the Netherlands) the 28th of august is a local free day/holiday to celebrate the victory of Groningen against “Bommen Berend” (as we know him over here). The city of Groningen always has a fair, a music festival, horse shows and of course fireworks on that day. But I never knew that Bommen Berend was such an ass!

    1. Hey Ena!

      Thanks for that. Yes, he was more than just an historical curiosity. He’s been called the “terror of children.” No wonder you’re still celebrating his defeat almost 400 years later! Cheers,

      – Joe

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