Military Disasters and Their Impact on History
Overconfidence, miscommunication and poor judgment have had a major impact on the course of history. Shaped by political, cultural and ideological warfare, the map of the world has been drawn and redrawn by the blunders of both the weak and the strong.
A military disaster is characterized by an unexpected defeat with historical repercussions.
It comes about due to bad planning, execution, weather, general lack of skill or ability, a major miscalculation or a brilliant or unexpected move on the part of an enemy.
Millions of lives have been lost — generations decimated — largely due to miscalculations and arrogance by both inexperienced and highly decorated military leaders.
What: Battle of Mobei (Mongolia)
Where: Northern part of the Gobi Desert
Combatants: Xiongnu vs. Han Dynasty
Casualties: 100,000+ of the Xiongnu Army
Part of a major strategic offensive launched by the Chinese Han Dynasty into the heartland of the nomadic Xiongnu.
Successfully using the sandstorms of the Gobi desert to enact surprise attacks, the Han Dynasty destroyed the entire Xiongnu army.
Result: Decisive battle ensuring the supremacy of the Chinese over the northern barbarian tribes for hundreds of years.
What: Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
Where: Osnabrück County, Lower Saxony
Combatants: Germanic tribes vs. Roman army
Casualties: 15,000-20,000 Roman soldiers killed
Three Roman legions marched in an indefensible line when Germanic tribes ambushed them.
Barely escaping with huge losses, the Romans then retreated straight into a second fortified ambush.
All three legions were lost, and their numbers were retired from service, a gesture of grief never repeated.
Result: Germania remained independent and was never included in the Roman Empire.
What: The Battle of Red Cliffs
Where: Near Yangtze River, China
Combatants: Southern warlords Liu Bei (Kingdom of Shu) and Sun Quan (Kingdom of Wu) vs. northern warlord Cao Cao (Kingdom of Wei)
The classic battle is famous in China because the fewer and weaker defeated the greater and stronger.
Cao Cao, although holding the favorable position, underestimated his enemy and to the detriment of his army, chained his entire fleet together.
Sun and Liu repelled the stronger Cao Cao army by becoming allies, leveraging their advantage in the water and attacking with fire ships.
Result: This battle in which the weaker defeated the stronger laid the foundation for the confrontation of the later three kingdoms – Wei, Shu and Wu.
What: The Battle of al-Qādisiyyah (Iraq)
Where: Along the Euphrates river
Combatants: Arab Muslim army vs. Sassanian army
Casualties: 20,000 Persian soldiers; 8,500 Arab soldiers
This was a decisive engagement between the Arab Muslim army and the Sassanian army during the first period of Muslim expansion.
The Sassanian army and their allies outnumbered the Muslim Arabs by a sizable margin.
The area was a main entry point to the Sassanian State from the southwest, it held an important arsenal and served as a center of supply. This made it a natural target for the Arabs who were known for their attacks for booty and supplies.
Result: The Islamic conquest of Persia, as well as a key to the conquest of Iraq.
What: Battle of Bannockburn
Where: Central Scotland
Combatants: England vs. Scotland
Casualties: English casualties: Thousands of infantry, 100 knights, 1 earl; unknown Scottish casualties
English army was largest ever to invade Scotland.
Scot King Robert Bruce strategically funneled the larger English army into marshy land by the river to draw it across the river and make it vulnerable to attack.
The Scots capitalized on a disorganized river crossing by the English.
Result: Robert Bruce politically won Scotland’s de facto independence and consolidated his kingship with this victory.
What: The Battle of Waterloo (France)
Where: South of present-day Brussels
Combatants: French army vs. Allied armies
Casualties: 25,000 French soldiers killed or wounded, 9,000 captured; 23,000 allied soldiers killed
Though it was closely fought battle, mistakes in communication, leadership and judgment led the French to defeat.
Napoleon did not have any system in place to ensure that orders were being received and given the numbers of troops and the distances involved, there were fatal results when communication failed.
Napoleon was criticized for being too confident and arrogant.
Result: Brought 23 years of war to a close and ended Napoleon’s empirical reign. Duke of Wellington became a hero throughout Europe and became the British Prime Minister in 1828.
What: The Battle of San Jacinto, Texas Revolution
Where: Near present-day La Porte, Texas
Combatants: Mexican army vs. Texas soldiers
Casualties: 630 Mexican soldiers killed, 208 Mexican soldiers wounded, 730 Mexican soldiers taken prisoner; 9 Texan soldiers killed or mortally wounded, 30 Texan soldiers wounded
Reported that Texan’s ambushed yelling, “Remember the Alamo!” “Remember Goliad!”
Texan troops surprised the Mexican army at about 3:30 p.m. as the Mexicans took their traditional siesta.
Result: Treaties were signed at Velasco as a result of this triumph, ending the revolution of 1836 and recognizing Texas as an independent free republic, thus opening the way for the United States to extend its boundaries southwest to the Rio Grande and west all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
What: Battle of Little Bighorn
Combatants: Native American Indians vs. United States of America
Casualties: 200+ U.S. soldiers killed (the entire 7th Calvary)
More than a territorial dispute, the Indians fought furiously to preserve their way of life, which was being disrupted by floods of European settlers.
After completing a 30-mile march and against advice to wait to engage until reinforcements arrived, Custer led his troops in an attack from higher ground.
Surprisingly, the Indians attacked uphill and Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the entire 7th Calvary were killed by 2,000 Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors.
Result: Little Bighorn marked the pinnacle of the Indians’ power, however, and within a year the Sioux Nation was defeated and broken.
What: Battle of Adwa
Combatants: Ethiopian army vs. Italian army
Casualties: 27,000 troops killed, wounded or missing (both sides)
Italy had previously gifted King Menelik thousands of sophisticated rifles and fieldpieces, as well as tons of ammunition and artillery rounds, as an attempt to befriend him and annex Ethiopia.
The king understood the Italian’s true intention and purchased more weapons and began quietly training a small army.
With an army four times smaller than the king’s and inadequate equipment, the Italians were unable to navigate the rocky Ethiopian landscape.
Result: Its victory established Ethiopia as a modern nation; this was the worst European defeat ever at the hands of Africans.
What: Invasion of Gallipoli (World War I)
Where: Dardanelles Strait and Gallipoli Peninsula
Combatants: British, French and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) vs. Turkey
Casualties: 500,000 killed (combined)
The British intended to take Turkey (a German ally) out of the war.
The British grossly underestimated the number of troops needed, the terrain and the ability of Turkish machine gunners to pick off troopers as they landed on the beach.
Result: Ended in a standoff, Turkey remained a German ally.
What: Battle of the Somme (WWI)
Combatants: British and French armies vs. German army
Casualties: 420,000 British casualties (60,000 on the first day alone); 200,000 French casualties; 500,000 German casualties
Attempting to relieve French troops at Verdun by drawing German troops away.
Allied forces advanced along a 30-mile strip that was seven miles deep at its deepest.
Battle symbolized the horrors of warfare in World War I and the futility of trench warfare.
Result: 88,000 allied men were lost for every one mile gained in the advance, a human cost with dire political and social consequences in Britain that had an impact on how future wars were fought.
What: Operation Barbarossa – World War II
Where: European part of then-U.S.S.R.
Combatants: Hitler’s German army vs. Soviet Union
Casualties: 775,000 German soldiers killed; 800,000 Soviets killed, 6 million Soviet soldiers wounded or captured
The largest military attack of World War II was based on massive “blitzkrieg” attacks (light tank units supported by planes and infantry).
Hitler made the tactical decision to split his army and begin an invasion of the Soviet Union, which was effective, but it delayed the attack and German troops lost time before the onset of a harsh Russian winter.
In the first week Hitler’s army had advanced 200 miles into Soviet territory, but failed to conquer the Soviet Union before winter, which proved devastating to the German army and became a turning point in the war.
Result: Lead to Germany’s eventual defeat and some of the bloodiest and most violent fighting of the war.
What: Korean War
Where: North Korea and South Korea
Combatants: North Korea, China and Russia vs. South Korea and U.S.
Casualties: 3 million killed (both sides)
The war arose from the division of Korea at the end of World War II and from the global tensions of the Cold War that developed immediately afterwards.
The U.S. underestimated the intentions and capabilities of China.
War lasted from June 25, 1950, to July 27, 1953, ending with the signing of an armistice.
Result: Neither side gained control; a Korean demilitarized zone was established and is maintained still; U.S.-Chinese relations were poisoned for a generation.
What: Battle of Dien Bien Phu
Combatants: Viet Minh peasant army v.s. French army
Casualties: 7,900 Viet Minh killed and 15,500 Viet Minh wounded; 1,600 French soldiers missing and 8,000 French prisoners of war
Henri Navarre’s 16,000 elite French troops vastly underestimated the courage, capability and skill of General Vo Nguyen Giap’s Viet Minh forces.
The French required air support and Viet Minh attacked cargo crafts by sneaking on to French air bases and destroying countless planes on the ground.
Result: The shock of the defeat contributed to the French government’s formal acknowledgement of the independence of Vietnam at the Geneva Conference in 1954.
What: The Bay of Pigs
Combatants: CIA-trained paramilitary group vs. Cuban armed forces
Casualties: 100+ killed
The invasion failed and most of the troops were interrogated before being shipped off to the United States.
The goal of the U.S.-Cuban coalition was to oust Fidel Castro and the Fidelistas, however within three days more than three-quarters had been captured.
Planners in Washington underestimated the difficulties facing a counter-coup to overthrow Castro and his 250,000 militia members and a highly trained and politically conscious army of more than 30,000.
Result: Deterioration of U.S.-Cuban relations; used throughout Latin America as an example of the failure of American imperialism; actions ended up increasing support for Castro both in Cuba and throughout Latin America; set the scene for Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.
What: The Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan
Combatants: U.S.S.R. vs. Afghanistan
Casualties: 1 million civilians killed; 90,000 Mujahideen fighters killed; 18,000 Afghan troops killed; 14,500 Soviet soldiers killed
The U.S.S.R. attempts to shore up the newly established pro-Soviet regime in Kabul by sending 100,000 soldiers to take control of major cities and highways.
The uprising by Mujahideen rebels (an Islamic group composed of tribal and urban insurgency groups) and their supporters was swift and broad. It was dealt with harshly by the Soviets, leveling entire villages to deny safe havens to the rebels.
Foreign support pours in from Iran, Pakistan, China and U.S.
Result: After the Soviets’ final withdraw of troops a decade after invasion, civil war raged, setting the stage for the Taliban’s takeover of the country in 1996.
What: Iraq War
Combatants: U.S., coalition soldiers and Iraqi army vs. insurgent groups and terrorists
Casualties: 4,000+ U.S. soldiers killed; unknown number of insurgents killed; hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians killed
President George W. Bush authorized military action in Iraq and received harsh criticisms due to inconclusive evidence of Iraq’s capabilities to produce weapons of mass destruction. The war does result in the trial and execution of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Result: The war lingered on until U.S. forces officially withdrew from Iraq in 2011. Today, violence continues mostly unabated in Iraq.