Throughout history, battles have been lost to bad weather, insufficient weaponry and bad luck. But what about those for which poor judgment and shoddy planning are to blame? From the French troops led to their death at Agincourt, to Hitler’s lost army of 330,000 men at Stalingrad, historian Rupert Matthews rounds up 10 of the worst military mistakes in history…
Any fool can lose a battle. All you need to have is a weaker army than your opponent. What takes a special talent is to lose a battle when you start off with all the advantages in your own hands.
Some commanders have managed to throw away the power of greater numbers, strong positions and superior weaponry with blunders of such awesome scale that they have ended up losing a battle that, logically, they should have won with ease. Here are the most impressive military blunders in history…
By July 260 BC the Chinese state of Qin had been besieging the strategic Zhao fortress of Shangdang for three years. Determined to break the deadlock, Zhao Kuo led an army of 450,000 men to break the siege. The Qin army of Bai Qi was smaller than expected and began to retreat. Eager to crush the enemy, Zhao Kuo raced ahead, leaving his supply train behind. That allowed Bai Qi’s cavalry to fall upon the Zhao supplies and destroy them.
Short on food, Zhao Kuo retreated to Shangdang, but there was no food there either. Zhao Kuo was killed 46 days later leading a doomed break out attempt, whereupon his entire army surrendered as they were at starvation point. Bai Qi ordered all the emaciated prisoners – up to 400,000 according to contemporary accounts – to be executed. By losing his supplies, Zhao Kuo had lost his entire army.
In June 217 BC the Carthaginian commander Hannibal (pictured below) was marching his army through northern Italy during a war against Rome. The Roman commander Gaius Flaminius Nepos sought to bring Hannibal to battle, but the Carthaginian eluded pursuit.
On the morning of 24 June, Flaminius was pursuing Hannibal along the shores of Lake Trasimene when his advance guard caught up with Hannibal’s rear guard – this was a trap set up by Hannibal in order to ambush Flaminius.
Flaminius ordered his entire army to race forwards to join the fighting. It would have taken only a few minutes to send horsemen to scout the wooded hills, but Flaminius did not do so. As his army raced forward they lost formation, at which point Hannibal led his main army down from the hills where they had been hiding to crash into the disordered Roman flank.
It was a massacre. Flaminius was killed and of his 30,000 men, half were killed, a third captured and only 5,000 got out alive (although some sources suggest 15,000 were captured and 6,000 managed to flee). By failing to scout his flank, Flaminius lost the battle.
In 53 BC the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus invaded the Parthian empire with an army of between 35,000 and 45,000 legionaries (and 4000 cavalry) and around 12,000 allies. Learning that the main Parthian army was attacking Armenia, Crassus marched his army directly across the desert hoping to capture the rich cities of Mesopotamia.
Arriving at Carrhae, Crassus found a force of around 10,000 Parthian cavalry under Surenas blocking his path. Crassus led his men into an immediate attack, not allowing them to camp overnight beside a river in case Surenas escaped. Tired, thirsty and hungry, the Roman soldiers failed to fight well, and soon Crassus was surrounded.
Surenas offered to negotiate peace terms, but when Crassus went to parley he was murdered. The Roman army fled back into the desert, where half of them were killed and 10,000 captured to be sold into slavery. By making a series of mistakes – including a failure to allow his men to rest or refresh their water supplies – Crassus lost at Carrhae.
In AD 636 an army of 40,000 Muslim Arabs led by Khalid ibn al-Walid was raiding the southern provinces of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines sent an army of 100,000 men under Vahan to crush the invasion. On 15 August Vahan found the Arabs at Yarmuok and attacked. However, Vahan’s second-in-command, Trithyrius, had been lobbying to be given command of the campaign. The two men distrusted each other, so neither was willing to commit their forces to the attack for fear of betrayal.
After five days of failed assaults and heavy casualties, the Byzantines were attacked by the Arabs. The Byzantine forces again failed to co-operate and were slaughtered piecemeal. By distrusting his subordinates, Vahan lost his army.
In 1187 the Muslim leader Saladin lay siege to the Crusader fortress of Tiberias. Meanwhile, King Guy of Jerusalem mustered a large Crusader army at Acre. Some nobles wanted to march to the fortress of La Saphorie, from where they could raid Saladin’s supply lines. Guy scorned this advice as a cowardly way to fight a war and beneath his dignity as a king.
He began to march across the desert direct to Tiberias. Saladin harassed the advance with light cavalry, blocked access to fresh water and set fire to the dry grass and scrub. When the Crusaders were sufficiently weakened, Saladin attacked, killing or capturing almost the entire Crusader army. By allowing pride to take precedence over reality, Guy ensured defeat.
In 1415 an English army under Henry V was marching across northern France when it was confronted by a larger force of Frenchmen under Charles d’Albret.
The English were short of food and were suffering from having to camp outside in autumn weather. All d’Albret needed to do was block the route to English-held territory. But when Henry advanced with flags flying and men chanting, d’Albret took this as an insulting challenge and attacked. He chose to lead his armoured men across a field of sticky clay mud, turned to a quagmire by heavy rain.
The French soldiers slid, slipped and fell, making their advance painfully slow. This gave the English archers sitting targets. By the time the French got to hand to hand combat, they were tired and disordered. Several thousand Frenchmen (including d’Albret) were killed and many more were taken prisoner, while the English may have lost as few as 100 men (the exact number is unknown). By attacking over unsuitable ground, d’Albret doomed his army.
Retreat from Moscow
In 1812 the French Emperor Napoleon led an army of 680,000 men drawn from France and her allies on an invasion of Russia. For three months the Russians staged a fighting withdrawal. Finally Napoleon captured Moscow, but the Russians refused to make peace.
Short on supplies, Napoleon retreated. He chose to go back the same way he had come, but there was no food and no shelter to be found. The bitter winter weather found the French army without adequate clothing, and sickness and frostbite increased casualties caused by Russian raids.
By the time Napoleon left Russia, 380,000 of his men were dead; 100,000 were prisoners; and more than 50,000 were unfit for further service. By advancing too far and choosing the wrong route for retreat, Napoleon lost his army.
Charge of the Light Brigade
In 1854 a British-Franco-Turkish force was laying siege to the great Russian port of Sevastopol in the Crimea. On 25 October a large Russian army attacked the allies’ supply base at Balaklava. Turkish soldiers abandoned forward artillery redoubts on the Causeway Heights, leaving the valuable artillery to the Russians.
British commander Lord Raglan sent an order to his light cavalry commander Lord Cardigan to charge to “prevent the Russians carrying off the guns”. From his position, Cardigan could not see the redoubts, but could see Russian artillery in the valley ahead of him, so he charged them instead. Of the 670 men in the Light Brigade, 270 were killed or wounded and nearly all the horses suffered a similar fate. By giving unclear orders, Raglan lost his light cavalry.
Little Big Horn
In 1876, US Lieutenant Colonel George Custer led the 647 men of the 7th Cavalry Regiment against an alliance of Sioux, Cheyenne and other tribes camped on the Little Big Horn River. Custer decided to launch an attack from several different directions to catch the tribesmen by surprise, disorient them, and stop them forming up properly. In fact the tribes knew Custer was approaching and were waiting. The attack was launched at midday.
Custer’s detachment of 210 men was first isolated, then overwhelmed. The detachments led by Major Reno and Captain Benteen were forced back but managed to link up on a defensive position where they held out for the next 24 hours until relieved. By dividing his force, Custer lost both his life and the battle.
In the summer of 1942 the Germans and their allies attacked in the southern part of the Eastern Front in the Soviet Union, aiming to seize the oil fields of the Caucasus and the rich mining areas around the Don and Volga Rivers. They intended to capture the city of Stalingrad to secure the left flank of this advance.
The advance began well, so Hitler diverted the 4th Panzer Army to help the 6th Army take Stalingrad and surrounding areas. Without the 4th Panzers, the main advance slowed. Determined Soviet resistance in Stalingrad caused Hitler to pour reinforcements into the city. A subsequent Russian counteroffensive surrounded the 6th Army and forced its surrender.
By concentrating on a secondary objective and reinforcing failure, Hitler failed to take his primary objective and lost an entire army of 330,000 men.
This article was first published by History Extra in December 2015