List of military disasters
A military disaster, for this list, is the unexpected and sound defeat of one side in a battle or war, which sometimes changes the course of history.
Military disasters in this list can be a strong army losing a major battle against a clearly-inferior force, an army being surprised and defeated by a clearly-superior force, and a seemingly evenly-matched conflict with an extremely one-sided result. A military disaster could be caused by bad planning, bad execution, bad weather, a general lack of skill or ability, the failure of a new piece of military technology, a major blunder, a brilliant move on the part of the enemy, or simply the unexpected presence of an overwhelming enemy force.
One definition of military disaster describes the presence of two or three factors:
- chronic mission failure (the key factor)
- successful enemy action,
- (less significant) total degeneration of a force's command and control structure.
According to that definition, two particular characteristics are not necessary for an event to be classified as a military disaster:
- enormous loss of life
- having more casualties than the enemy.
- The Battle of Marathon in 490 BC, when a large Persian force was destroyed and routed by a smaller Athenian force.
- The Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, where a huge Persian fleet was defeated by a united Greek force.
- The Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC, in which Alexander the Great annihilated a much larger Persian army, thus ultimately conquering the Middle-east.
- The Battle of Cannae in 216 BC, where Hannibal destroyed the 16 Roman and Allied legions led by Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro. In all, perhaps more than 80 percent of the entire Roman army was dead or captured (including Paullus himself).
- The Battle of Zama in 202 BC, when a Roman army of 34,000 under Scipio Africanus annihilated the Carthaginian army of 50,000 under Hannibal, thus bringing an end to the Second Punic War.
- The Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, when Crassus with 40,000 soldiers marched into Parthia, expecting to be victorious, chose to march a direct route through the desert instead of the mountains of the north. He and his army was entirely annihilated by 9,000 Parthian soldiers.
- The Battle of Actium in 31 BC, where the navy of Octavianus defeated the navy of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Octavian, left in sole control of Rome, would later become Augustus, Rome's first Emperor.
- The Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD, where Germanic warriors destroyed three Roman legions.
- Julian's Persian War in 363 AD, in which the Roman Emperor Julian invaded the Sassanian Empire under Shapur II, gaining initial tactical victories, but soon being lured into the interior of the Empire, leaving his army trapped and unable to escape. Julian himself perished and his successor, Emperor Jovian, was forced to sign one of the most humiliating peace treaties in Roman history in order to save the remnants of the Roman army.
- The Battle of Adrianople in 378 AD, in which the Emperor Valens was killed while Gothic heavy cavalry ambushed and decimated his Roman heavy infantry.
- The Battle of Vouillé in 507 AD, in which Clovis I killed Alaric II and eliminated the core of Visigothic forces, leading to disarray, thus allowing the Franks to seize Aquitania (minus Narbonne).
- The Battle of Tours in 732. The Muslim Moors marched into southern France meeting no foes, until encountering the Christian Frankish forces led by Charles Martel at Tours. Despite the Moorish advantage over the Franks militarily, they were defeated decisively by the Franks.
- The Battle of Didgori in 1121. David IV of Georgia, with 55,600 soldiers, routs the massive (100,000 minimum, more likely 250,000) army of the Great Seljuk Empire. As a result, the Kingdom of Georgia obtains large swaths of Seljuk territory, including Tbilisi.
- The Battle of Hattin in 1187, where overconfident Crusader forces from Jerusalem became trapped in a waterless desert area, and thus became easy prey for the Muslim forces of Salah-ud-din (Saladin)
- The Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. English Earl John de Warenne's well-equipped army were trapped on a narrow bridge by William Wallace's 15,000 unarmored, lightly armed Scots, bearing the traditional long spears of lowland Scotland. The bridge had been chosen as the point of engagement by Warenne, even though the river could easily have been forded just a few miles upstream.
- The Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. A Scottish army of around 7000 men under King Robert I defeats a roughly 20,000-strong English army near Stirling Castle. The English knights fail to penetrate the schiltrons of Scottish spearmen on the first day, and are routed completely the next day when Robert decides to counter-attack. King Edward II of England only narrowly escapes capture, and some of England's most important nobles are killed or captured.
- The Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 was the rout of an allied army of Hungarian, Wallachian, French, Burgundian, German and assorted troops at the hands of an Ottoman force in modern-day Bulgaria. It is often referred to as the Crusade of Nicopolis and was the last large-scale crusade of the Middle Ages.
- The Battle of Agincourt in 1415. A large French army, with a large contingent of knights, was defeated by Henry V's much smaller army, which included the famed English longbowmen.
- The Battle of Flodden Field in 1513. A Scottish invasion of England is defeated, resulting in the death of the popular King James IV of Scotland, as well as most of Scotland's nobles.
- The Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The Holy League's fleet defeated the Ottoman fleet in one of the largest naval battles of human history. The Ottomans lost 240 ships (out of about 300), while the League lost 12 of their 210 ships.
- The Spanish Armada in 1588. An English fleet sends fire ships into the Spanish invasion fleet destroying some and scattering the rest effectively ending the invasion threat. The Armada would later run into storms and almost half the ships never returned to Spain, as well as more than half the troops.
- The Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598. An English force of 4000 is attacked by Irish defenders under Hugh O'Neill and defeated. This temporarily put Ireland out of English control, allowing the rebellion to spread throughout Ireland.
- The Third Battle of Panipat on January 14, 1761, between the two indigenous South Asian military powers of the time, the Afghan Durrani Empire and the Hindu Maratha Empire. The Durrani forces were able to achieve decisive victory. The battle is considered one of the largest fought in the 18th century, and has perhaps the largest number of fatalities in a single day reported in a classic formation battle between two armies. The extent of the losses on both sides is heavily disputed by historians, but it is believed that between 60,000–70,000 were killed in fighting from both sides, and another 40,000-70,000 Maratha non-combatants massacred following the battle.
- The Battle of Saratoga in September–October 1777. John Burgoyne's British Army is captured after the battle by the Continental Army under Horatio Gates.
- Ulm Campaign 1805: Napoleon marches over 200,000 men across the Rhine and encircles an isolated 72,000-strong Austrian army. Austrian losses in the campaign number 60,000 compared to French losses of 2,000.
- Battle of Jena-Auerstedt 1806: A 26,000-strong French army under Marshal Davout routs a 64,000-strong Prussian army, suffering some 7,000 losses to 15,000. Napoleon simultaneously wins a lopsided victory at Jena, where the French suffer 5,000 casualties compared to 26,000 Prussian casualties.
- Battle of Blood River (16 December 1838) was fought on the bank of the Ncome River, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa between 464 Voortrekkers ("Pioneers"), led by Andries Pretorius, and an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 Zulu. Casualties amounted to over 3,000 of King Dingane's soldiers dead, including two Zulu princes competing with Prince Mpande for the Zulu throne. Three Voortrekker commando members were lightly wounded, including Pretorius.
- Battle of the Little Bighorn. June 1876 – Montana Territory. Lieutenant Colonel George Custer attacks a superior force of armed Lakota Sioux warriors, gets himself killed and five of the twelve companies of 7th Cavalry Regiment were annihilated. 268 U.S. troopers were killed and 55 were wounded.
- Battle of Isandlwana, January 22, 1879. In the first major battle of the Anglo-Zulu War, a Zulu impi overwhelmed and defeated two battalions armed with modern rifles and artillery. The battle was a major victory for the Zulus during the opening stages of the war.
- Both the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of Cold Harbor become horrible one-sided battles in which Union Army advances on entrenched Confederate Army units result in horrendous casualties during the American Civil War.
- The Battle of Omdurman (2 September 1898), an army commanded by the British General Sir Herbert Kitchener defeated the army of Abdullah al-Taashi, the successor to the self-proclaimed Mahdi, Muhammad Ahmad. 8,200 British, 17,600 Sudanese and Egyptian soldiers defeated Muhammad's 52,000 warriors, killing 12,000, wounding 13,000 and capturing 5,000, while only suffering less than 50 deaths and less than 400 wounded, making it one of the most one sided battles in history.
First World War
- The Gallipoli Campaign – April 1915 to January 1916. A combined British, Commonwealth and French attempt to capture Istanbul becomes a stalemate on the Gallipoli Peninsula and is abandoned.
Second World War
- The Battle of Singapore in February 1942 to two Japanese divisions was the largest surrender of Commonwealth troops in history and destroyed the linchpin of the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command. Although the Japanese invasion force was ⅓ of the size of the defending force, Japanese air attacks on the city and lack of water proved decisive. Prime Minister Winston Churchill considered it to be the worst defeat in British military history.
- The Battle of Midway was one of the turning points of World War II. Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto of the Imperial Japanese Navy planned to invade the American navy base at Midway Island. U.S. Navy intelligence had broken Japan's main naval code and anticipated the attack. Japan lost four fleet carriers in three days, due to ill timing of fuelling and arming of aircraft, American fortitude and good fortune, and, ultimately, poor planning by Yamamoto.
- The Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942–43 was one of the turning points of World War II. German General Friedrich Paulus failed to keep a mobile strategic reserve and the Sixth Army was surrounded by a rapid Soviet flanking attack. Rubble caused by German bombing and artillery fire left their tanks unable to enter the city. The 250,000+ German troops in Stalingrad surrendered even though Adolf Hitler had promised they would never leave the city.
- Operation Bagration (1944). The Soviet summer offensive sliced through the German line and reached Poland within two weeks, and also destroyed Army Group Center with a loss of well over 400,000 men, the backbone of German forces on the Eastern Front.
- Battle of the Falaise pocket in August 1944, during which the German Army Group B in Normandy, having been forbidden to withdraw by Hitler, was encircled and destroyed by US, British and Canadian forces, leaving the route to Paris open.
Cold War era
- The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which the French Far East Expeditionary Corps advanced deep into northwestern Vietnam near Điện Biên Phủ to cut off the Viet Minh's supply lines from Laos and force it into a confrontation. The Viet Minh besieged the French and smuggled heavy artillery through mountain terrain, preventing resupply by air with anti-aircraft guns. The defeat forced the French Armed Forces to withdraw from North Vietnam in 1954.
- In the Six-Day War, in response to Arab threats of invasion and low-level attacks, Israel launched surprise air attacks which almost completely destroyed the Air Forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, followed by a series of ground, air, and naval attacks which saw the capture of the Sinai from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria, victories which lead to heavy Arab losses in personnel and material.
- The Battle of Longewala – during the western theater of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Pakistan launched a large-scale offensive (involving 2,800 soldiers, 65 tanks and more than 130 other military vehicles) to capture a small Indian Army post at Longewala manned by 120 personnel and one jeep-mounted recoilless rifle. Despite numerical inferiority, the Indian Army successfully held on to the post during the night. In the morning Indian Air Force aircraft were launched at first light. This air offensive halted the progress of the Pakistani regiment. The ensuing battle resulted in destruction and capture of more than 100 Pakistani tanks and military vehicles, with only two soldier's death from Indian side.
- Operation Eagle Claw, a U.S. attempt to rescue hostages in Iran in April 1980 during the Iran Hostage Crisis. This operation was marked by a series of planning, mechanical and communication failures that led to the deaths of eight American servicemen, and failed to rescue the hostages and humiliated the administration of President Jimmy Carter.
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- Pyrrhic victory
- Friendly fire
- Last stand
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