11 Of The Worst Military Blunders

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Vote up the most devastating errors.

The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz once wrote: "Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult." In other words, even the best-laid plans can go awry due to a combination of bad luck and the unforeseen. But often the source of a military disaster can be pinpointed to one specific strategic or tactical decision, be it the choice to begin a campaign in the winter without adequate preparation or overconfidence in the face of an inferior foe.

From the hapless Habsburgs in the Carpathian mountains to the suicidal courage of the light brigade at Balaclava, this collection looks at some of military history's most baffling mistakes and their wider impact. 

  • Lord Cardigan’s Recklessness Saw A Light Cavalry Charge Unravel At Balaclava 
    Photo: William Simpson / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    When can their glory fade?

    O wild the charge they made!

    The charge of the Light Brigade during the Battle of Balaclava was forever immortalized in a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The courage of the horsemen was never in doubt, but the wisdom of a cavalry charge over open terrain against an entrenched opponent with modern firepower was. The famous charge was the result of a breakdown in communication between the commander of the British army and the officers in charge of the cavalry. 

    A Russian attack on the British position at Balaclava on October 25, 1854, was beaten back by the British and French. The cavalry officers received orders to advance to stop the Russians from taking allied artillery. The infantry was supposed to follow in support, but the confusion over the location and the nature of the orders became muddled. 

    Another complication was the fraught relationship between the commander of the Heavy Brigade, the Earl of Lucan, and the Light Brigade’s leader, Lord Cardigan. Ultimately, Lord Cardigan and his men were sent to attack the wrong position. Some 600 members of the Light Brigade charged into a hail of bullets and explosives. Seeing the carnage unfold, Lucan’s Heavy Brigade aborted their supporting attack, as Lucan cynically observed:

    Why add to the casualty list?

    The doomed Light Bridge somehow made it to the Russian lines and made some headway before the Russian troops regrouped and moved to block their escape. The desperate survivors of the Light Brigade broke through to escape. Almost half of the entire force had been lost in the brave but utterly futile action.

    43 votes
  • 2
    28 VOTES

    Won Gyun Lost Almost An Entire Korean Fleet After Plotting Against A Successful Rival

    The Japanese invasion of Korea was kept a bay thanks to the heroic efforts of Yi Sun-shin at sea. Despite having no previous naval experience, the newly appointed admiral won a series of spectacular victories against much larger Japanese fleets. However, the Korean admiral’s successes sparked jealousy amongst his peers. When Yi refused to send his ships into an attack based on the words of a spy, the generals had him removed and replaced with Won Gyun (also written as Kyun), another naval novice with a great fondness for wine and women (at least according to Yi's war diary).

    Yi was arrested and tortured and only narrowly escaped the death penalty thanks to his past service. He was demoted to the ranks, a fate considered worse than death, but Yi carried out his orders nonetheless.

    Meanwhile, his replacement was set on undoing all of his good work in a single disastrous engagement with the Japanese fleet at Chilcheollyang. Won Gyun arrived to discover the transport fleet was in fact a fully armed fleet twice the size of his own. He ordered a direct assault that ultimately played right into the hands of the Japanese, allowing them to get close enough to board the ships.

    With the breakdown of the first assault, Wong Gyun ordered a retreat to a nearby island to regroup and gather supplies. Unbeknownst to the Koreans, the island had Japanese soldiers waiting in ambush to inflict further losses on the already beleaguered Koreans. After a few days of inaction, the Japanese fleet attacked and destroyed all but 12 Korean ships. All of the turtle ships (pictured) were lost in the disaster. Won Gyun escaped to the Korean mainland and was slain by a Japanese soldier who discovered him under a pine tree. 

    Yi would later be reinstated to his old position and would win his greatest victory with the few ships that got away at Myeongnyang

    28 votes
  • Enver Pasha Led An Ottoman Army To Disaster In World War I 
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Enver Pasha was the Ottoman Minister of War and one of the leading proponents for the Ottoman entry into World War I in October 1914. He believed Ottoman involvement would be the catalyst to reviving the ailing empire’s fortunes and a chance to right past wrongs. Instead, it proved to be the final nail in the empire’s coffin.

    With the Russian army already stretched thin by the Germans and Austro-Hungarians, Pasha believed an attack through the Caucasus would succeed easily. In his rather naive calculations, the oppressive rule of the Romanovs would see the local populace welcome the Ottoman forces as liberators. While the people had no love for the Russians, they had even less desire to submit to Ottoman rule.

    The region’s solitary railway made for a logistical nightmare that Pasha compounded by beginning the campaign in the dead of winter. The Ottoman army was poorly equipped for the bleak conditions and thousands of troops froze to death long before actually reaching the front lines at Sarıkamış. The Ottoman attacks were repeatedly repulsed by the Russians, but Pasha continued to pour troops in, even as the Russians reinforced the position. 

    By the turn of the year, the Ottoman army was devastated by losses and the Russians were poised to attack the vulnerable flanks. Ottoman commanders pleaded for a withdrawal, but Pasha threw away yet more men in another futile assault. The remnants of the exhausted army finally pulled out two days later. Six out of seven troops in the 120,000-strong army perished in the disastrous campaign. Pasha would never take command in the field again, but somehow held onto his position for the rest of the conflict.

    72 votes
  • Boudicca Blew A Huge Advantage And Trapped Her Army
    Photo: John Opie / William Sharp / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    66 VOTES

    Boudicca Blew A Huge Advantage And Trapped Her Army

    The Celtic warrior queen’s rebellion came to an abrupt end with a decisive defeat at the hands of the Romans in 60/61 CE. The exact location is still the subject of some dispute but was somewhere along the Roman road known as Watling Street. Numbers in ancient battles are always difficult to pin down; sources tend to be prone to wild exaggeration, so a pinch of salt should be taken with the numbers offered by Tacitus and Cassius Dio. The Britons may have had as many as 100,000 men arrayed against the small but professional army led by Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, numbered at around 10,000.

    Dio describes Boudicca (sometimes spelled Buduica or Boadicea) as “in stature, she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh.” In her harsh voice, the warrior queen is supposed to have given a rousing speech to her vast army while the outnumbered Suetonius kept his instructions to a minimum. Even if the 10:1 ratio is off, the Britons held a gigantic numerical advantage over the Romans and felt confident of victory - so much so that the accompanying baggage train arrayed the wagons at the edge of the battlefield so the accompanying families could watch the inevitable victory. 

    As Tacitus records:

    The British forces, on the other hand, disposed in bands of foot and horse were moving jubilantly in every direction. They were in unprecedented numbers, and confidence ran so high that they brought even their wives to witness the victory and installed them in wagons, which they had stationed just over the extreme fringe of the plain.

    The Romans knew there would be no quarter, so Suetonius ordered the men to close ranks and keep their discipline. Both sources contrast the quiet order of the Roman troops with the wild savagery of the Britons. The cold steel of Roman arms cut through the tribesman with brutal efficiency. The warriors broke but found their escape route blocked.

    The wagons that had been arrayed to watch the victory now condemned the Britons to slaughter. Tacitus claimed that 80,000 Britons fell, compared with the cost of just 400 Romans. 

    66 votes
  • Benjamin Butler Withdrew His Army At Fort Fisher Despite Having An Overwhelming Advantage
    Photo: O'Sullivan, Timothy H. / US Army / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    With a standing army of just 16,000 troops posted to the frontiers, there was a desperate shortage of trained officers in the US when the American Civil War broke out. The fact the two sides were essentially drawing from the same shallow well meant the lack of military personnel was even more acute. Previously unfathomable numbers of troops were levied in 1861, and the task of leading these newly raised armies fell upon unqualified shoulders. The conflict saw the rise of the so-called "political generals": men who owed their rank to little more than their political connections. 

    The record of the political generals was mixed. Some were actually quite successful; some were mediocre; and others were unmitigated disasters. Benjamin Butler belonged to the latter category. A lawyer by trade, he was tasked with taking one of the last Confederate coastal forts in December 1864: Fort Fisher. It protected Wilmington, one of the last ports still in Confederate hands, and its capture would have been a major blow to the South. 

    A combined operation was planned with the navy but mired by the usual inter-service rivalries that had plagued other such ventures in the conflict. Admiral David Dixon Porter had actually bucked this trend by cooperating very well with Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman during the Vicksburg Campaign. However, Grant and Sherman were trained generals with an inherent understanding of combat and knew how to bring out the best in Porter. Butler did not. The first move of the operation was, however, supported by Porter - the use of a dummy ship rigged with explosives to create a breach for the attack.

    After the ruse failed to work, the navy attempted to pound the Confederate fort into submission, without success. The Union troops landed on the beaches to begin a siege the following day. When Butler received word a relieving Confederate army was on the way, he lost his nerve and aborted the operation. He was convinced the fort was undamaged and an assault would fail and, against the opinion of the men on the ground, deemed the fort impregnable and ordered a withdrawal.

    In his postwar memoirs, Butler drew on his legal experience to defend his decision in the style of a court case. His contention that the decision to withdraw his men was “the best and bravest act of my life” was a tough sell even for the most benevolent of readers.

    A second operation launched just two weeks later, with Porter teaming up with Alfred Howe Terry, another military novice, managed to take the fort in two days.

    21 votes
  • Franz Conrad Von Hotzendorf Lost About A Third Of The Austro-Hungarian Army In Three Months
    Photo: Hermann Torggler / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The first few months of World War I had been disastrous for Austria-Hungary. The invasion of Serbia was repulsed and a Russian army threatened to break through the Carpathian mountains into Hungary. At Przemyśl an Austrian army of more than 100,000 men was surrounded by the Russians. For the spectacularly incompetent chief of staff Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf, rescuing the trapped army became an obsession. Little account was made for the conditions facing the Austro-Hungarian army.

    The region's imposing landscape and complete lack of infrastructure would have posed a serious challenge for an army even with competent leadership. As well as problems at the top, the Austro-Hungarian army also had serious issues in the ranks. As a multi-ethnic entity, the empire's army struggled with the language barrier and the antipathy some groups felt toward one another.

    Von Hotzendorf was desperate for a victory, not just for the army’s morale but also to dissuade the (at the time) neutral Italy and Romania from getting involved. So the Austro-Hungarian army launched an offensive over the Carpathian mountains - in the middle of winter. The only thing the plan seemed to have going for it was the element of surprise. The Russians didn’t anticipate their enemy would be foolish enough to try. 

    The initial gains were soon reversed at extremely high cost, but the hapless Habsburgs kept trying. By March 1915, some 800,000 Austro-Hungarians had been killed or wounded in the freezing mountains - all to save a little more than 100,000 troops who surrendered on March 23, 1915, after holding out for almost six months. Unaware of this development, yet another wave of Austro-Hungarian troops were thrown away to lift a siege that was already over. 

    98 votes