Some say that history is written by the victors. And sometimes the victors get to brag about just how badly their enemies screwed up. For whatever reason, these 25 battles and campaigns turned into legendary disasters that are forever etched in stone by the winning side.
25. Fool Me Once
Although Hannibal had won incredible victories against Rome, he was unable to conquer them completely. And Rome learned from its mistakes. In 202 BC, an army under Publius Scipio sailed to northern Africa to attack Carthage directly. Hannibal was quickly brought in to stop the Romans, meeting them at Zama. Hannibal relied on his elephants and cavalry to once again defeat the Romans, but Scipio used several tricks to render the elephants useless. He’d also recruited Numidian cavalry, meaning that Hannibal’s advantages vanished. Scipio earned much praise for defeating this hated enemy of Rome, earning the title “Africanus” for his efforts.
24. Not Enough Wiggle Room
By 480 BC, the Persians had invaded Greece, and their fleet had the Greeks on the run after the Battle of Artemisium. So it seemed like the war was won, even as the Persian fleet was lured into the narrow straits of Salamis by Themistocles and an outnumbered Greek fleet. However, the large number of Persian ships got in the way of each other, while the Greek ships formed up and took advantage of the confusion to destroy their enemies. It was the turning point of the second Persian invasion and saved Greece from being completely overrun.
23. Band of Brothers
It’s the ultimate story of immortalized British heroism. The French have fewer reasons to remember 1415’s Battle of Agincourt. While numbers are disputed to this day, all agree that the French outnumbered Henry V’s small army (which was mostly made of longbowmen). The nobles and knights in the French Army considered themselves far superior fighters, only to find themselves charging uphill into a cloud of arrows. Henry’s use of a defensive high ground and long-range missiles toppled the French from their place as masters of the medieval battlefield.
22. One for the Record Books
In August, 216 BC, a Roman army of 80,000 confronted 50,000 Carthaginians and their allies on the field of Cannae. Numbers and history would have given the favor to the Romans, but Hannibal isn’t known as one of the greatest military commanders of history for nothing. Using clever tactics, superior cavalry, and benefiting from the two quarreling Roman commanders, Hannibal managed to slaughter or capture more than 50,000 Romans that day, which included a third of Rome’s Senate. This was one of the worst defeats Rome ever suffered, annihilating the bulk of its army in a single day.
21. Murphy’s Law
In 1979, a crisis arose in Iran when the ruling monarch (who owed his throne to the US) was kicked out by a revolution, and more than 50 Americans were held hostage for over a year. President Jimmy Carter was desperate to save the hostages, and so he authorized Operation Eagle Claw to get them out. Nearly everything that could have gone wrong turned out to go wrong on this mission. Helicopters were unable to be used for various reasons, weather conditions required more fuel than was on hand, and at one point, a helicopter collided with a transport plane, killing eight Americans in the process. It was the perfect storm of failure, leading to the defeat of Carter in the 1980 election.
20. The Maltese Falcon Triumphant
The island of Malta was the home base for a Christian order of knights known as Knights Hospitaller. They defied the Ottoman Empire, which led to a more than three-month siege of their fortress and the island itself in 1565. Despite being heavily outnumbered, the Knights and the Maltese population worked together to defend themselves from the Ottoman forces. While the jury has long been out on the number of casualties, the surprising victory by the Christian forces helped destroy the Ottoman’s reputation for invincibility, and Ottoman plans to conquer more of Europe were halted.
19. Surrendering Singapore
For years, Singapore was the capital of British interests in southern Asia. Naturally, when Japan declared war on Britain, it made sense for them to take control of it in 1942. After a two-month campaign, an army of around 35,000 Japanese marched on Singapore and held it under siege by land and air. The British lasted a week before lack of supplies and low morale caused them to call it quits. More than 80,000 British and Allied troops became prisoners. It’s still the single largest British-led surrender in history.
18. What a Waste
During World War I, British and French forces launched a campaign to capture Constantinople, the capital city of the Ottoman Empire. What followed was nearly a year of miscommunication, diseases, and wholesale slaughter that helped define the entire First World War. It was an utter disaster for the British, and while the Ottomans collapsed during the war, the stalemate was turned into a propaganda victory for the emerging nation of Turkey.
17. March to the Sea
After the First World War, when the Ottoman Empire had fallen, a movement was made by the allies to sponsor a Greek campaign to expand the Greek borders. This was a huge slap in the face to the Turks, who had strong ideas about what counted as Turkey. The Greeks tried to appeal to their allies, but everyone was so exhausted from the First World War that they didn’t have the ability to help. The Turkish army rolled the Greek expedition back, driving them almost literally into the Mediterranean Sea. In their triumph, the Turks burned the city of Smyrna and committed many atrocities against the defeated Greek population. We’ll refrain from making a joke about the Turks being sore winners as it would be in poor taste.
16. Crowd Control
Queen Boudicca of the Iceni tribe was nearly responsible for driving the Roman Empire out of Britain. According to the ancient sources, she’d managed to rally hundreds of thousands of Celtic warriors to kick out the foreign invaders, and she won several victories in the process. Unfortunately, in 60 AD, a Roman army of 10,000 under Gaius Paulinus found the perfect battlefield to stop the Celts. They positioned themselves in the narrow end of a gorge, facing a huge field. When Boudicca’s Celts filled the field, she must have thought the Romans were done for. When all those Celts tried to attack, though, they were stuffed tighter than sardines in a can, unable to surround the Romans. Roman sources say the Romans massacred nearly 100,000 Celts that day, including Boudicca herself.
15. Bring Your Friends
In 331 BC, the Persian king Darius was faced with a serious threat to his kingdom; Alexander the Great was campaigning into the Persian Empire with a highly trained and efficient army. Darius had already lost the battle of Issus and barely escaped with his life, so he summoned a truly grand army (allegedly over 100,000 strong) to destroy Alexander once and for all. No doubt he was shocked when Alexander’s genius intellect for battle and his incredible charisma inspired his troops to not only survive but triumph against the Persian army.
14. A Game of Chicken
Unfortunately, Alexander the Great’s many successes went to his head just a bit. By 326 BC, he was leading his army back from India. The infamous Gedrosian Desert was on their path back to Babylon. Alexander (some say) had heard that the legendary Persian King Cyrus had failed to cross the desert. After presumably asking someone to hold his beer, Alexander led some 30,000 men into the desert, planning to be refreshed by the navy along the way. However, miscommunication and weather undid all his plans, leading to thousands of soldiers and even more camp followers losing their lives to satisfy Alexander’s ego.
13. Let’s Go to the Beach
No matter how hard people like Christopher Nolan try to promote the moral and human victory of the Dunkirk evacuation, there is no denying that it was a military disaster for the British and the French. Even though hundreds of thousands of men were successfully evacuated from the beach, they left behind more than 84,000 vehicles and 657,000 tons of ammunition and supplies. Britain has been desperately promoting the silver lining of this disaster ever since.
12. Land War in Asia
Emperor Napoleon was a brilliant leader who won many victories, and this success, unfortunately, went to his head. In 1812, he decided he could invade and conquer Russia, leading an army of more than 600,000 men to the east of Europe. The Russians fell back before him, even burning their own city of Moscow. Napoleon eventually realized that the Russians were waiting for winter to strike, though by that point it was too late. Hundreds of thousands died, either in battle or else frozen to death on the long journey home. It turned Russia into a punchline for would-be conquerors, though some people still needed to see the joke play out first-hand.
11. Out Sailing
When Spain attempted to invade England in 1588 to overthrow the Protestant ruler, Elizabeth I, they must have been convinced they were making history. Make it they did, but not in the way they expected. Thanks in part to a rigorous defense by the English navy and their Dutch allies, but mostly due to a series of storms that scattered their 130 ships, only two-thirds of the feared Armada ever made it back to Spain. England would not only survive, but also immortalize their victory over the Armada as proof that someone up there liked them.
10. Who’s Winning and Who’s Losing?
The entire Vietnam War could be considered a disaster for the US, but one of the biggest turning points of the war was actually a disaster for the North Vietnamese forces and their allies. In January 1968, tens of thousands of Viet Cong launched simultaneous assaults throughout South Vietnam. The shocking wave of violence caused a shift in public opinion in the US on whether that war could even be won. However, what people seem to forget is the fact that the Tet Offensive was a huge failure for North Vietnam. The loss in manpower was crippling for them, but the fact that they could even launch such a huge attack led the American public to question their country’s own resolve, which turned a military defeat into a triumph for morale.
9. Spears to a Gun Fight
There’s no denying that superior technology counts for a lot in warfare. Unfortunately, fortune was against the 1,800 British soldiers holding breech-loading firearms against over 20,000 spear-and-shield-carrying Zulu warriors in southern Africa in 1879. Technology was the only thing the Zulus didn’t have in their favor that day, and they proved it by overwhelming and annihilating the panicked and confused British. It was a slap in the face to Britain, warning them that a technologically superior force could still be easily defeated, inspiring both George Lucas and James Cameron in the process.
8. Charge of the Pickett Brigade
The American Civil War’s most famous battle was Gettysburg, in 1863, where it truly became clear that the North was going to win the war. During this long and brutal battle, Confederate General Robert E. Lee sent George Pickett’s division to break the Union line. Not for the first time in history, infantry charged straight into artillery fire and came out worse for wear. The casualties were around 50% for the Confederates, and legend has it that when Lee told Pickett to rally the surviving members of his division, Pickett replied, “General, I have no division.”
7. We Needed a Nap
In 1836, after capturing the Alamo, General Santa Anna was convinced that the Texas Revolution was over, and Mexico would keep control of the region. However, he underestimated his opponents. Santa Anna set camp between a marsh and a thick forest, hindering his position. After spending most of the night either marching or setting camp, his 1,200 troops needed rest. When the morning offered no attacking enemy, Santa Anna gave permission for his army to sleep. Naturally, they were completely caught unawares when a vengeful army of Texans stormed the camp and slaughtered more than half of the Mexican soldiers. Santa Anna was captured and had no choice but to sign documents that led to the independence of Texas.
6. Don’t Shoot the Messenger
During Athens’ wars with Sparta, someone got a bright idea to send an expedition to Sicily in 415 BCE to win them more allies against the Spartans. What followed was an utter mess of communication and complete disorganization. Leadership changed repeatedly, while the response from back home was to send more and more ships and soldiers to Sicily. After series of crushing defeats, the entire expedition of more than 10,000 was lost, for nothing. The defeat was so horrifying that the Athenians initially refused to believe the first messenger who delivered the news.
5. Who Put Him in Charge?
When it was time for 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 civilians to retreat from the city of Kabul in 1842, it’s safe to say that nearly anyone would have been a better commander than Sir William Elphinstone. The elderly, ailing man proved utterly helpless in the face of disaster when the British were caught in ambush after ambush by Afghan forces in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, slowed down by terrain and weather. During the retreat, nearly all of those on the British side were killed or captured.
4. Bravery Counts
In 1854, it was the British who were knocking on Russia’s door as part of the Crimean War. At the Battle of Balaclava, a unit of Light Cavalry was ordered to charge the Russian lines to stop them from capturing abandoned artillery. Of course, the moment is controversial; miscommunication at the time means we’ll never truly know who’s to blame. Either way, more than 600 horsemen charged right into Russian gunfire. The event was immortalized in a poem by Alfred Tennyson, with the silver lining being the cavalry’s almost suicidal courage under fire.
3. Those Canadians, Eh?
When the Americans declared war on British North America (later Canada), in 1812, their leaders insisted their victory would just be “a matter of marching.” When General Hull marched his 2,000-man army to Detroit, he wasn’t expecting resistance of any kind. Instead, he faced thousands of redcoats and Aboriginal allies led by Isaac Brock and Tecumseh. After a terrifying display of their numbers, Hull panicked and surrendered Detroit. What he didn’t learn until later was that he’d actually outnumbered his enemies; Brock and Tecumseh had fooled him with psychological warfare and illusions. We can only wish we were a fly on the wall to see Hull’s reaction to that truth bomb.
2. Walk in the Woods
The Roman Empire stretched from the tip of Europe to the Middle East, but its border never went past the Germanic territories of the Rhine. One reason for that was a disastrous expedition through the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD led by Publius Varus. He was intending to conquer the German tribes east of the Rhine, but one of his allies, a Germanic warrior named Hermann (Arminius to his Roman friends), betrayed Varus by rallying thousands of tribesmen to ambush the Romans in the deep forest. Three whole legions were massacred, while the head of Varus was sent back to Rome.
1. Riches to Rags
Marcus Licinius Crassus was the wealthiest man in Rome, but his desire for glory led him to raise 40,000 soldiers for an expedition to conquer the kingdom of Parthia in 53 BCE. One sun-baked campaign later, they met 10,000 Parthians in the desert, only to suffer one of the biggest defeats in Roman history. Crassus’s severed head was allegedly used as a prop in a play being performed for the Parthian king.
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