Some Great Military Blunders

415-413 BC The Athenian Expedition to Syracuse
This hapless expedition ended Athens as a great power. Of the 50,000 Athenians sent to take Syracuse nearly none returned. There were many reasons why the failure was total. It didn't help that the Athenians pottered around the coast of Sicily trying to drum up support, thereby giving the Syracusans time to reinforce. It wasn't terribly useful that the resourceful Athenian commander defected, after his own people had attempted to execute him for impiety.
When the Athenians laid siege to Syracuse, the Syracusan commander merely strengthened his defences, whilst Corinthian and Spartan ships came to their assistance. Many of the Athenians were wiped out by a fever caught from the marshland on which they were camping. Instead of getting out while he could, the Athenian commander decided to stay another month, which gave time for the enemy to prepare an ambush. When the Athenians eventually decided to go home, the Syracusans simply routed the entire Athenian force.
275 BC The Battle of Beneventum
We all know what a Pyrrhic victory is, but few know much about Pyrrhus himself. As king of the Greek city state Epirus, Pyrrhus was one of the most successful commanders of his day. He earned his reputation by defending the city states of Southern Italy from the emerging Romans. However, each victory got harder and harder - after the battle of Asculum he noted, "Another such victory and we shall be ruined." It was Beneventum that proved his ruin. Two major blunders contributed to his defeat. First, his crack troops got lost in the middle of the night, and got surprised by the Romans they were trying to surprise. A predictable slaughter ensued. Secondly, the Romans had grown savvy in dealing with Pyrrhus's elephants. They simply let the elephants through their lines, where the spearman at the rear jabbed them in their trunks. One of the young elephants then went on the rampage, virtually annihilating Pyrrhus's phalanx.
811 The Battle of Pliska
King Krum of Bulgaria had been a real pain to the Byzantine emperor, Nicephorus I. Krum had been raiding his territory for too long, so Nicephorus assembled 70,000 men and decided to deal with Krum permanently. For a while, he had Krum on the run, and even burned down Krum's palace. While Krum retreated to regroup, Nicephorus then arrogantly proceeded down a steep valley north of Pliska. Krum seized his moment, and, with vastly inferior numbers, surrounded the Byzantines. After a three-day stand-off, the Bulgars swept into the valley and massacred the demoralized Byzantines. Nicephorus's skull was mounted in silver and used by Krum as his favourite cup.
1187 The Battle of Hattin
Most military blunders are the result of a poor decision rather than bad luck. In this case, it was thanks to the foolishness of one man, King Guy of Lusignan, that Saladin was able to take Jerusalem. In 1187, Saladin was besieging the city of Tiberias, and devised a plot to tempt Guy to try to relieve the city. It was of course a trap, that would lure Guy and his troops into a waterless plateau. Despite the protests of his advisors, Guy's army marched on Tiberias. Many died of thirst, and many more were picked off by the Saracen bowmen. Saladin was then able to go on to victory.
1314 The Battle of Bannockburn
This was the most disastrous English defeat since the Battle of Hastings. Robert the Bruce's defeat of Edward II secured independence for Scotland, undoing Edward I's "hammering" of the Scots. Despite bringing a powerful force into Scotland, Edward II managed to position his army so that it could not move. He kept his bowmen at the rear, rendering them useless. He also left the battle before it was over, which caused his troops to panic and flee. Many drowned in the burn itself.
1788 The Battle of Karansebes
The Austrian Emperor, Joseph II, decided that his mission in life was to rid the world of barbarians. He started by attacking the Turks in Transylvania. After camping in some marshland, 172,000 of his troops caught malaria, of which 33,000 died. When he heard that the Turkish Grand Vizier was on his way, Joseph took half his army to meet him near the town of Karansebes. On the way, some infantrymen bought some local brew from some peasants, whereupon their officers reprimanded them.
The men took offence, and, in order to frighten the officers away, started shouting out that the Turks were upon them. The officers fell for it, and raised the false alarm too. Panic spread throughout the army and a stampede ensued. Austrians started fighting Austrians and many men were also drowned in the river or crushed. By daybreak, it became apparent that the Austrians had killed 10,000 of their own number. The Turks had still not even arrived.
1625 The Expedition to Cadiz
After capturing Fort Puntal from the Spanish, the leader of the English troops, Sir Edward Cecil ordered his men to camp in a field next to some deserted buildings. Unfortunately, the buildings housed gallons and gallons of wine. Within an hour, the army - nothing more than a collection of assorted lowlife - was plastered, with men shooting each other, and threatening any officer who tried to keep discipline. A rebellion was narrowly avoided, and on the march the next morning, the hungover army shed most of its equipment. The 100 men who had stayed behind to sleep off their hangovers were killed by the Spanish.
1824 Ashanti War
The Ashanti war held between the British and the Ashanti (now part of modern Ghana) was the stage for a performance of supreme incompetence by Charles Brandon, the British military stores manager. The British redcoats were surrounded by 10,000 warriors and, as their ammunition began to run low, they called on Brandon to break open the reserve ammunition he had brought from the coast. As the Ashanti warriors closed in, Brandon unscrewed the ammunition boxes only to find they were full of biscuits. He had brought the wrong supplies.
1854 The Charge of the Light Brigade, Crimean War
The infamous Charge of the Light Brigade was "a most brilliant but useless waste of life". At the height of the Battle of Balaclava, an order was sent to the British Light Cavalry to enter a valley lined with riflemen and take the heavy artillery batteries situated at its end. The Earl of Cardigan followed his orders to the letter, charging 20 yards ahead of his doomed cavalry regiment into certain death. 700 men were killed. "A hopeless gallant desperate thing" as a witness described.
1881 The Battle of Majuba Hill
In January 1881, General Sir George Colley decided to invade the Transvaal. His 1000 troops were outnumbered two to one by the Boers. After suffering an initial defeat, he reckoned that attacking the Boers from the 6000ft Majuba Hill would give him a much needed victory. Instead of digging in at the summit, the British started arrogantly jeering at the Boer garrison at the foot of the hill. Colley decided to take a nap. Soon, a ragtag squad of a few hundred Boers started climbing up the hill, while their comrades provided covering fire from the ground.
Unconcerned with this news, Colley returned to his sleep. Eventually, he got up, and after an unconvincing attempt to counter attack, a 12-year-old boy shot Colley through the head. Ninety three British were killed that day. The Boer losses were 1 dead, 5 wounded.
1896 Ethiopia
When Italy began its war with Ethiopia the two sides were incredibly ill matched - Italy with machine guns and armoured cars against an underequipped Ethiopian army. However it was Italy's reliance on technology that saw it suffer the worst defeat ever inflicted on a European power by an African army. Attacking an Ethiopian force at Adowa, one of General Baratieri's best fighting units was sent in the wrong direction. The reason - a garbled telegram. Six thousand Italians and allied natives were killed and their ears taken for trophies.
1915 First World War
A British troopship bound for Gallipoli was intercepted on its course by a Turkish torpedo boat. The Turks chivalrously signalled to the British captain, warning him that he should move his men to a nearby island before they sunk his ship. The captain, touched by the gesture, disembarked his troops and waited for the destruction of his berth. However, the torpedoes fired by the Turks at his empty ship failed to detonate, leaving the British free to disembark and accept the Turks surrender.
1916 Battle of the Somme
The First World War was a breeding ground for incompetence and ineptitude. The Somme offensive displayed these in abundance. It began with a week-long artillery bombardment to destroy the German defences and to cut the hedges of barbed wire. However, the British had been issued with unsuitable field guns and defective shells made by inexperienced munitions workers. These failed to explode on impact. The British troops were told that they would meet "nothing but dead and wounded Germans". The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry were told to light their pipes and cigarettes as they would meet no live Germans. Yet when they went over the top on July 1 the wire had not been destroyed by the barrage and the very much alive Germans were waiting with machine-guns at the ready.
1921 Morocco
Wounded 60 times during the 1898 Hispano-American war, Spanish Major-General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre was by no means a good soldier. When placed in command of a campaign against Moroccan tribesmen he found himself besieged at Annual. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, he decided to withdraw from the town. To ease the path of his escape he forgot to pass on the news of this stategic retreat to his own men who, discovering their leader gone, began to leave on their own. When he saw their retreat, Silvestre cried "Run, run, the bogeyman is coming," and fled. The garrison was massacred.
1939-1945 Second World War
The bombing of civilians in Bagdhad, the French embassy in Libya and of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by American planes merely reaffirmed the terrible record America has in its use of aerial warfare. This is by no means new. During the Normandy campaign of 1944 a joke was told amongst Allied troops, "When the Germans carry out a bombing raid the British duck and when the British carry out a bombing raid the Germans duck, but when the Americans start bombing everybody ducks". As well as the many instances of "friendly fire" casualties one blunder committed by the American air force saw them instigate a war between the United States and Switzerland in 1944 and 1945, resulting from American pilots bombing Switzerland by mistake.
1943 The Invasion of Sicily: Operation Husky
While American paratroops of the 504th Regiment were flying in to invade Sicily, their comrades on the ground assumed the incoming transports were enemy planes. American anti-aircraft fire was thus unleashed on American men. A killing rage ensued, as the Americans on the ground continued firing, even though they knew they were killing their own men. Paratroops were mown down as they left their transports, and naval gunners massacred some soldiers who had survived crashing into the sea. In the end, 1200 men were massacred by soldiers who had fallen victim to blood lust. Unable to find an explanation, Eisenhower ordered a cover-up.
1961 Bay of Pigs
John F Kennedy's plan to retake Cuba from the grips of its communist leader Fidel Castro met with disaster. Fourteen hundred Cuban exiles were trained and armed by the CIA. Unfortunately few of their operatives spoke Spanish. Despite the fact that the invasion looked improbable the CIA continued to press its legitimacy. When the force landed at Bahía de Cochinos (Bay of Pigs) their supply ships were destroyed by Cuban airplanes, 200 rebels were killed and 1000 taken prisoner by Castro's army.
1991 The Gulf War
The American Patriot missile was hyped as the perfect defence for civilians and army alike against the danger of Iraqi Scud missile. The Patriot missiles were designed to destroy Scud missiles in mid air and the nightly firework displays above Tel Aviv seemed to prove that they were working. Yet despite the almost overwhelming positive media cover, a US government enquiry commissioned after the war discovered that not a single Scud warhead had been destroyed by a Patriot during the entire conflict.
1999 Bras for the Danish Army
Last year, Major OP Soerensen of the Danish Army ordered 500 bras for his female comrades. However, he ordered them all in the same size - C cup. The manufacturer had assured him that 90 per cent of Danish women were of such size. The female soldiers were unimpressed: "But we are big and small, curvy and thin, all sizes," said Lance Corporal Ulla Bekker Madsen.


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