Ten of the World’s Worst Military Blunders

Throughout human history, countless armies have fought countless battles. And it goes without saying that when two fight to the end, one is bound to lose. 

When we take a look at our history, we see that some armies lost because of unavoidable circumstances. Some lost because of inadequate armaments. However, there are a few who lost because of the catastrophic blunders made by over-ambitious and ignorant commanders.

Today, we will take a look at just that.

Dating from all the way back to 216 BC to battles as recent as World War Two, here are the ten worst military blunders of all time:

Battle of Cannae (Aug 2, 216 BC)

The Battle of Cannae was a significant engagement of the second Punic War fought between the Romans and Carthage. In 216 BC, the Carthaginian army and its allies practically annihilated a vast Roman army almost twice its size in numbers. Now how on Earth did that happen?

The Battle of Cannae
The Battle of Cannae was a significant engagement of the second Punic War.

It happened when two Roman consuls’ underestimated their enemy.

Putting faith in their much bigger infantry force, the Roman generals relied on an ancient style of warfare. They planned to advance and smash through the centre of the Carthaginian army’s thin battle line. The decision backfired. Carthaginian army commander Hannibal Barca discerned that the Romans had fought battles like this, and thus, he devised a complex strategy.

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Hannibal strategically structured his army in a crescent-shaped battle line formation. In addition, he ordered his infantry to feign withdrawals in the centre. The Romans –  thinking they had the upper hand – drove deep into the crescent-shaped formation. They fell right into the trap.

Hannibal’s comrades closed in on the Romans, surrounding them from the rear end. As many as 60,000 Romans were killed in the conflict – all because Roman generals underestimated their enemy. As a result, the Battle of Cannae is regarded as one of the worst defeats in Roman military history.

Battle of Carrhae (53 BC)

The Battle of Carrhae dates back to 53 BC. It was a conflict between the Roman Republic and the Parthian Empire. The Romans were brutally crushed in this battle as well. Not only did the Roman commander Marcus Licinius Crassus overlook the significance of the battle terrain, but he also underestimated the skilled Parthian horse archers and cataphracts. 

Crassus’ strategy depended on engaging the Parthian army in close combat. However, the Parthian horse archers seemed to avoid close-quarter combat. Considering this, Crassus changed his strategy. He ordered his son Publius to pursue the enemy – a grave mistake.

Heat and the arid atmosphere weakened the Roman troops. Soon, Parthian heavy cavalry cornered and killed them. Crassus’ slipup led to the death of almost 20,000 Roman soldiers, his own, and that of his son.

Battle of Teutoburg Forest (Sep, 9 AD)

The Battle of Teutoburg Forest was fought between the Romans and Germanic insurgents. Yet again, the match ended in Roman defeat. The loss is often attributed to the poor judgment of Publius Quinctilius Varus. His first mistake was trusting his advisor, Arminius, who also happened to be a Germanic tribal leader. 

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Before the battle, Arminius informed Varus that a rebellion had begun in the northwest of Germania. Without confirmation, Varus acted and withdrew his legions from defensive posts and marched through the Teutoberg Forest.

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest
A romanticised version of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest Germanic warriors defeat the Romans.

Varus’s second mistake was underestimating the Germanic tribes and their capacity to use the local terrain to their benefit. As the Roman legions marched through the dense, muddy forest, the Germanic army led by Arminius ensnared them. The well-hidden tribespeople behind the hills ambushed the Roman legions. In the end, most of the Roman soldiers were killed. Varus committed suicide.

French Invasion of Russia (Jun 24, 1812 – Dec 14, 1812)

There is no doubt that Napoleon is one of the greatest ever military generals. The French commander conquered nearly half a million square miles of land. However, he was not infallible. His overconfidence led him to make one of history’s most notorious blunders.

In June 1812, Napoleon led his Grand Armié – comprising 680,000 men – to invade the Russian empire. He expected a swift victory. However, the Russians showed no sign of engaging in a battle. Instead, they took on a strategic retreat. The Russians burned their bridges, military supplies, and crops to prevent them from falling into French hands.

On the other hand, upon entering Moscow, Napoleon waited for the peace treaty. Months passed with no sign of submission from the Russians.

With the arrival of the cold, unforgiving Russian winters, the French soldiers found survival increasingly difficult. The army experienced a food shortage, and Napoleon was forced to retreat. By the time he left Russia, he had lost 380,000 of his men.

Though a humiliating defeat, perhaps the biggest loss was Napoleon’s reputation of invincibility.

The Charge of the Light Brigade (Oct 25, 1854)

This suicidal blunder occurred during the Battle of Balaklava during the Crimean War. Misreading orders from the chief commander, a British officer Lord Cardigan gave a disastrous command. He ordered the charge of his light cavalry force on a frontal assault against the heavily gunned Russian artillery. However, the order was actually meant for a different position to prevent the Russian soldiers from taking away the captured guns.

Battle of Balaclava
Battle of Balaclava: Map of the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade.

As the British light brigade charged gallantly toward the enemy, they were greeted by gunfire from all three sides. Hundreds of Englishmen were killed in minutes. 

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Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson later immortalized this event with his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” An excerpt from the poem is as follows:

“Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them

 Volleyed and thundered;

Stormed at with shot and shell,

Boldly they rode and well,

Into the jaws of Death,

Into the mouth of hell

 Rode the six hundred.”

Charge of the Light Brigade
Heroic deed or absolute disaster? The Charge of the Light Brigade (Painting by Richard Caton Woodville Jr.)

Battle of Tsushima (May 27, 1905 – May 28, 1905)

The battle of Tsushima was a military engagement in the Russo-Japanese war. It is considered as the final blow that led to the defeat of the Russian navy.

Early in May 1905, Russia sent a massive fleet under Admiral Zinovy Rozhestvensky to the China Sea to defend its claims. However, the Japanese fleet was already waiting for them on the South Korean coast. On May 27, the two faced each other.

Battle of Tsushima
Admiral Tōgō Heihachirō on the bridge of the Battleship Mikasa at the Battle of Tsushima

The Russians relied on traditional communication using lights and flags. Unluckily, the heavy fog made it almost impossible to communicate. With telegraphic communication, the Japanese navy seized the upper hand. Consequently, the Japanese ships performed better and responded faster. 

The battle continued for two days. In the end, two-thirds of the Russian fleet was demolished. The Japanese captured six of the Russian vessels while the rest fled the scene. The defeat shattered the last ounce of Russian hope of gaining mastery over the sea.

Battle of Midway (Jun 4, 1942 – Jun 7, 1942)

The Battle of Midway was a massive naval combat between the Japanese and the Americans to claim dominance over the Pacific.

The Japanese plan was to bait the American air fleet into a battle. An aerial response would have cleared the sea for them to attack. Instead, the Americans captured Japanese communications traffic and sent incorrect Morse code from the American base at Midway.

The false signal lured the Japanese fleet to the base. Unbeknownst to the Japanese sailors, the American cryptographers had already determined the exact date of the attack. The strategy allowed the American naval fleet to make superior preparations. They were ready.

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The two fleets engaged on June 4, 1942. During the fight, the US aircraft outnumbered the Japanese aircraft. In the end, Japan lost four carriers, almost 250 aircraft, and 3000 men. 

The failed Japanese tactic tipped power into the American hands in the Pacific War.

Custer’s Last Stand (Jun 25–26, 1876)

In the Battle of Little Bighorn, also known as Custer’s Last Stand, Lt. Colonel George Custer led the U.S. Army’s 7th Cavalry Unit against Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors. It was an armed conflict fought to gain dominance over the Western territory during the Sioux Wars.

General George Armstrong Custer. His last battlefield decision was to be fatal.

The plan was to subdue the consolidated Lakota groups who were holding out under the influence of Sitting Bull. Three U.S. Army units were to converge on the Native Americans, but a distance of hundreds of miles between them made effective communication nearly impossible.

Still, Custer was supremely confident he could overpower the tribes. At midday on June 25, Custer entered the Little Bighorn Valley. The units were under the impression that they were up against no more than 800 to 1,000 warriors. Little did they know they were in for a surprise. Word of the impending attack quickly spread out among the Native Americans. As a result, Sitting Bull saw to the safety of women and children while Crazy Horse rallied an army of 3,000 to meet the attackers head on. Within an hour, Custer along with 210 of his men were all killed. The short-lived engagement is often regarded as the worst U.S. Army defeat in the long Plains Indian War.

The battle is always referred to as Custer’s Last Stand – but the truth is, Custer never stood a chance.

Battle of Agincourt (Oct 25, 1415)

The Battle of Agincourt ended a conflict that lasted a hundred years between the English and the French kingdoms. Under Henry V’s command, the English army met the gigantic French force under Charles d’Albert.

Though the terrain favoured the English and Welsh, they were unable to fight initially. Moreover, shortage of food and suffering from diseases plagued the army. Still, when Henry V advanced their flag and commanded his men to move forward, d’Albret took it as an insult to his ego.

The French commander ordered his men to attack.

King Henry V
Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt. The English knights fought on foot. The French knights wore full armour. It was their demise.

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Due to weeks of autumn rains, the heavily armoured French troops found it difficult to ride through the muddy terrain. Taking advantage of the situation, the English and Welsh longbow archers attacked them from all sides. As a result, d’Albret and hundreds of his knights and soldiers were killed. The rest were imprisoned or put to the sword.

By fighting an unneeded battle, d’Albret doomed his entire army, handing victory to Henry V.

Battle of Stalingrad (23 Aug, 1942 – 2 Feb, 1943)

The Battle of Stalingrad is considered one of the most significant battles of the Soviet-German conflicts. Just like Operation Barbarossa, it is also regarded as a turning point in World War Two.

German soldiers in the streets of Stalingrad. The death toll was horrific.

In August 1942, Nazi Germany and its allies attacked Stalingrad. Their aim was to access the Caucasus oil fields and capture the Volga. But taking over Stalingrad proved to be a deadly decision.

Over 1 Million German soldiers went to the city where almost 800,000 were killed, injured, or incarcerated. The Soviets suffered significant losses as well. However, they overthrew the German military. The Battle continued for five months. During that time, the Germans faced both food and ammunition shortages. 

On February 2, 1943, having exhausted their ammo and food, Hitler’s force finally surrendered.  Without strategic planning, defeat is inevitable.