In a surprising number of conflicts, propagandists have accused enemy troops of very similar (and appalling) atrocities. Among the most common allegations are claims that babies had been impaled on swords, spears, pikes, or bayonets, and that fetuses had been sliced from the bellies of pregnant women.

Some examples of groups being accused of these activities throughout history:

Irish Catholic forces in the Rebellion of 1641:

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The Irish rebels were also accused of cutting fetuses from women's bodies, as a modern historian says here:

One of the iconic narratives that comes up in hearsay evidence is reports of atrocities against pregnant women who were said to have been ripped open, had their babies pulled out and beaten against rocks.
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Ottoman Turk troops in Bulgaria in 1876:

The number of children killed in these massacres is something enormous. They were often spitted on bayonets, and we have several stories from eye—witnesses who saw little babes carried about the streets, both here and at Otluk—kui, on the point of bayonets... Here in Batak the Bashi—Bazouks... ripped open pregnant women, and killed the unborn infants.
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German troops in Belgium at the beginning of World War I:

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Again, the allegations of bayoneted babies was accompanied by claims of pregnant women being cut open and their fetuses removed:

The Bavarians came into the village of Nomery, after chasing the French and the inhabitants away, they abducted a young pregnant woman, opened her belly and threw the child on the dung heap; since the mother was still living, they finished her off.
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I've found many other instances of atrocity propaganda making these claims, but the examples above are sufficient to illustrate what I'm talking about.

As far as I've been able to determine, none of the accusations above are considered to be accurate by modern scholars.

What is our earliest record of propaganda mentioning enemy forces impaling infants and cutting fetuses from women's wombs?

  • Are you looking only for mass-audience propaganda, or would book sources (written by a small literate elite for other literate elites to read years or decades later after the war ended) count? – SPavel Apr 17 '17 at 6:29
  • Either would do, but the former is preferable – Wad Cheber Apr 17 '17 at 20:19
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    One would guess that Ogg the cave man said something similar about the Neandertals in the next valley. And the Neandertals were saying (grunting?) much the same thing about Ogg's tribe. – jamesqf Apr 18 '17 at 4:59
  • Well, I know of a few cases where this was the practice, to kill children normally by burning or dashing the heads rather than impaling, and cases of pregnant women having their children ripped out of them. I suggest an edit to make it more clear if the OP is looking only for false accusations of such atrocities. The example most accurate to your examples being the Armenian genocide, where "A Game of Swords" was popular... involving throwing young girls onto swords. – Johnny Apr 18 '17 at 8:36
  • Remember the stories of Iraqis removing infants from incubators in Kuwait before the start of Desert Storm? – Matt Balent Apr 18 '17 at 14:24

There are a number of Biblical (Old Testament, so over 2000 years ago) mentions of such things, for instance Hosea 13:16, 2 Kings 15:16, Joshua 6:20-21, 1 Samuel 15:3, Psalms 137:8-9... The difference is that it's not accounts of one's enemies doing it to your people, but instructions for what your people should do to their enemies.

  • Yes, IIRC, the Old Testament has quite a bit about bashing the enemies' babies' heads against the wall! – TheHonRose Apr 19 '17 at 15:11
  • Most of these are not "instructions for what your people should do to their enemies." Hosea is predicting what will be done to Samaria by its conquerors, Kings relates what an Israelite king did, and Psalms is wishing that some conquering nation would do so to Babylon. As for Joshua and Samuel, neither of them is giving instructions to impale babies or cutting them out of the womb. So -1, and an answer this inaccurate ought to be deleted altogether. – Meir Feb 27 '19 at 21:43

One early (medieval) example is in Historia Anglorum by Henry of Huntington:

Scots: "cleft open pregnant women, and took out the unborn babes; they tossed children upon the spear-points, and beheaded priests on altars: they cut the head of crucifixes, and placed them on the trunks of the slain; and placed the heads of the dead upon the crucifixes. Thus wherever the Scots arrived, all was full of horror and full of savagery."

He wrote in the end of 11th century. Since then such accusations are often almost literally repeated.

In the earlier times, in Antiquity, when writers mentioned atrocities, they usually did not emphasize babies and pregnant women (except in the Bible). It is much more common to read that just all inhabitants, sometimes including animals, were slaughtered. It seems that people cared less about babies and women.

So it is possible that the idea comes from the Bible, and then spread together with Christianity and Islam. Can anyone find this kind of story in pagan writers?

EDIT. Here is a much earlier example:

"in their barbaric frenzy they even snatched children from their mother's breasts and dashed the guiltless infants to the ground. They held others by the feet,upside down, and cut them in two."

This is Victor of Vita, 429 a.d., describing Vandals invasion of Africa. Christian writer, of course.


Long story short: Most such stories are exaggerated or pure fiction. But some are true, and such practices no doubt go back before the beginning of the species Homo sapiens.

Nobody was ever accused of impaling children and babies or anyone else on swords, spears, pikes, or bayonets until swords, spears, pikes, or bayonets were invented.

The first known bayonets were used about 1600. That martinet, General Jean Martinet (killed 1672), introduced bayonets to the French army and they were used in most European armies by the 1660s.

The first sword-like weapons date to about 3300 BC while the first true swords date to about 1700 BC in Minoan Crete.

Nobody knows when spears were first invented or which species first invented them. Early primates may have observed proboscideans using their tusks to spear enemies and copied them.

Pre human primates including Homo heidelbergensis used sharpened wooden spears at least as early as 400,000 BC. Neanderthals made stone spearheads as early as 300,000 BC and fire hardened wooden spears were used as early as 250,000 BC.

Homo sapiens began to make spears with stone spearheads about 200,000 BC.

Both chimps and orangutans have been observed spearing prey with modified tree branches.

Since spears were among the first weapons ever used by humans to hunt they were among the first weapons ever used by humans to fight other humans in inter tribal wars and among the first weapons ever used by humans to massacre defenseless humans.

Thus I expect that allegations, both true and false, that people have impaled babies on spears go back to the invention of speech complex enough to express that idea.

As for cutting pregnant [w]omen open, no doubt people began slashing other people open with stone knives if they were sharp enough, or with metal daggers and swords as soon as they [w]ere invented. Thus stories about pregnant women being cut open and their babies removed no doubt go back a long, long time.

added 04-02-2018. For example, the teenage Japanese monarch Buretsu (reigned c. 498-508) is said to have cut open a pregnant woman to examine her fetus in a book written about 200 years later.

Long ago I read an article by Mark Twain in which he mentioned in passing an alleged atrocity during the Minnesota Sioux uprising in 1862, a girl crucified by being pinned to a barn door. Since there have been wooden barn doors for centuries and millennia, no doubt stories, both true and false, have been told about people being attached to barn doors for many centuries.

  • spelling omen -> women – axsvl77 Apr 18 '17 at 15:14
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    Chimps have also been observed killing females and children in other troupes. So propaganda aside, the actual activity depicted is likely older than humanity itself. – T.E.D. Apr 18 '17 at 20:20
  • axsv177 - and I also spelled were "ere". Both corrected. – MAGolding Apr 19 '17 at 18:12
  • @T.E.D.: Of course, chimps don't need or desire any weapons to commit murder. They simply pull the limbs off of opponents and eat the meat raw. – Pieter Geerkens Apr 4 '18 at 16:16

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