2 August 216: BC Hannibal smashes the Romans at Cannae
Carthaginian troops inflict a devastating defeat on their Mediterranean rivals
In the heat of a southern Italian summer in 216 BC, the greatest armies in the Mediterranean world faced each other across the battlefield. Having completed a stunning march across the Alps, the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, had already defeated the Romans twice. Now, on the field of Cannae, he was going for the hat-trick.
At first, the larger Roman army seemed to be carrying the day, driving back the Carthaginian centre. But they had failed to notice that as Hannibal’s infantry fell back, his flanks were swinging round to encircle the oncoming attackers. Only when it was too late did the Romans realise that they had fought their way into a trap.
“Thousands of Roman soldiers lay there, infantry and cavalry scattered everywhere, united in a death which the blind chances of battle or flight had brought upon them,” lamented the Roman historian Livy. “A few, whose wounds had been staunched by the morning frosts, even rose from among the heaps of dead all covered in blood – only to be slaughtered there and then by their enemies.”
For the Romans, Cannae was an utter catastrophe. “Never when the city was in safety,” wrote Livy, “was there so great a panic and confusion within the walls of Rome.” But their commanders never forgot the lessons of Hannibal’s cunning. It was, wrote the American officer and military historian Theodore Ayrault Dodge, a “consummate piece of art, having no superior [and] few equal examples in the history of war”. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook
More like this
2 August 1100
King William Rufus was shot and killed while hunting in the New Forest, possibly by Walter Tirel, Count of Poix. Despite modern suggestions that this was a premeditated murder to secure the throne for the future Henry I in the absence of Robert Curthose, his elder brother, there is little evidence to suggest that the king’s death was anything other than a hunting accident. Contemporary commentators saw the incident as God’s judgement on a blasphemer and punishment for the suffering caused to the local population by the creation of the New Forest.
2 August 1222
Death of Raymond VI of Toulouse. The most powerful nobleman in languedoc at the time of the Albigensian Crusade, he had been forced into exile by de Montfort’s crusaders in 1215 but had returned to win back most of his lands.
2 August 1649
Parliamentarian Colonel Michael Jones defeated the Marquess of Ormond’s Royalists at Rathmines, near Dublin. Jones’s crushing victory prepared the way for Cromwell’s subjugation of Ireland.
2 August 1921
Italian tenor Enrico Caruso died aged 48. His embalmed body could be viewed in a glass sarcophagus in the Del pianto cemetery in Naples for nearly eight years before the chapel containing it was sealed.
2 August 1990: Kuwait falls to Iraqi forces
Saddam Hussein provokes the wrath of the west with an invasion that would ultimately prove to be his downfall
The invasion began at two in the morning on 2 August 1990. Without warning, four Iraqi Republican Guard divisions struck across the border with Kuwait, while Iraqi planes pounded targets in Kuwait City. Even as the Kuwaitis were struggling to respond, Iraqi helicopter gunships were landing in the capital, carrying commandos into the heart of the enemy city.
For hours the fighting raged. Hopelessly outnumbered, some Kuwaiti units fell back across the border with Saudi Arabia, while others simply surrendered where they stood. At the royal residence, Dasman Palace, the Emir’s half-brother, Sheikh Fahad, led a desperate defence against Iraqi marines, but it was no good. By 2pm, the palace had fallen. According to one Iraqi marine, the sheikh was shot in the head before his body was run over by a tank.
On paper, the invasion was a stunning military success. Iraq’s military dictator, Saddam Hussein, had taken his opponents completely by surprise.
At a stroke, he had not only solved the problem of his intolerable $14bn debt to the Kuwaitis, but had gained revenge for what he claimed was Kuwait’s policy of ‘slant-drilling’ into Iraq’s oil fields. Almost four weeks later, Kuwait was formally annexed as Iraq’s 19th province. But by then, Saddam’s gamble was already turning sour. Across the world, condemnation was virtually unanimous.
Within days the US had begun sending troops to Saudi Arabia; by the autumn the Americans had assembled an anti-Iraqi coalition, including troops from some 34 countries.
Saddam Hussein might have won the first battle. But in the long run, he had unwittingly set out on the road to his own destruction. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook