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Epic Military Blunders

From faulty intelligence, fatal miscommunications and friendly fire, to criminally wasteful expenditures, incompetent leadership and shameful tactical errors made by commanders on the ground, military blunders come in all shapes and sizes.

Most of us have heard about the tragic charge of Britain’s Light Brigade in the Crimean War, The Battle of the Little Bighorn that saw Custer’s cavalry troops slaughtered in droves, and America’s $1 trillion disaster in Vietnam.

That said, now let’s take a look at some of history’s other epic military disasters. 

Battle of Cannae

When it was fought in early August of 216 BC, the Battle of Cannae marked a turning point in the Punic War between the Roman Empire and the Republic of Carthage. 

The year before Hannibal had led a ragtag army of nearly 50,000 troops across the Alps and Pyrenees into southeastern Italy near the village of Cannae. 

Along the way he and his forces won a number of resounding victories over their better armed and more numerous Roman enemies, most notably at battles near Trebia and Lake Trasimene, both of which were embarrassing to Rome and costly in terms of men and material. 

To deal with the growing threat to colonial stability in the region, Rome appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus to deal with Hannibal once and for all, but instead of confronting his savvy nemesis head-on, Fabius opted for a guerilla campaign aimed at interrupting his overstretched supply lines. 

His gambut worked, but it didn’t produce the dramatic and newsworthy results his superiors were after, and some detractors claimed that the lack of pitched battles gave Hannibal’s forces ample time to regroup, recover and rearm. 

At the time many Roman citizens, politicians and military officers were eager for a quick conclusion to the hostilities, largely because they were spending tons of money with little to show for it, and with each defeat the likelihood of allies defecting increased.  

By the time the two forces met at Cannae the Roman legions numbered nearly 90,000 strong – twice as large as Hannibal’s army. 

Whereas Roman soldiers were often better trained and had more standardized equipment including heavy javelins, long lances and bronze body armor, helmets and shields, by contrast Hannibal’s forces were more diverse and less professional, and many had no armor and were only equipped with swords, spears, slings and small knives. 

Relying on tried and true battle tactics and confident in their superior numbers, the Romans formed deeper phalanxes than usual, and instead of going on the offensive, they waited patiently for Hannibal to make the first move. 

Capitalizing on his smaller force’s mobility Hannibal did just that, first encircling the Romans with two distinct rings and eventually ordering them to squeeze their prey like the coils of a constrictor.  

The ensuing melee began with barrages from archers on both sides, but quickly evolved into brutal hand to hand combat akin to the fight scenes from Braveheart. 

The result was one of the deadliest single days in military history, even by today’s standards.  

It’s estimated that nearly 75,000 Romans were killed, and of the approximately 15,000 that survived most had been reserve troops, which meant that the death rate for those actually in the battle approached 100%. 

Following the defeat, Capua and several other Italian city-states defected to Carthage’s side.  

As news reached Rome the city was gripped in panic and authorities resorted to extraordinary measures including consulting ancient mystical texts, burying a number of Roman citizens alive as appeasement to the obviously unpleased gods, and sending a delegation to consult the Delphic Oracle in neighboring Greece. 

With such staggering losses and no end to hostilities in sight, Rome also took the unprecedented steps of lowering the military draft age, and even began accepting criminals, debtors and slaves. 

Yet despite the astounding debacle, shortly thereafter Rome suffered another epic defeat at Silva Litana, though they refused to surrender. 

The war raged on for another 15 years until Rome soundly defeated Carthage at the Battle of Zama. 

First Day of the Somme Offensive 1916

On the first day of the Somme Offensive in 1916 the British Army lost nearly 20,000 troops and saw another 40,000 injured, all to gain a few square miles of relatively meaningless ground. 

By all accounts the first day was among the bloodiest and most infamous in all of World War I, and never again would the Brits suffer such heavy losses so quickly, but the battle raged on nearly unabated until the following November. 

The first two weeks were called the Battle of Albert, in which multiple French and British corps and armies attacked German forces under the command of General Fritz von Below dug into multiple defensive positions along a 2-mile (3 km) front adjacent to the River Somme. 

Riding a wave of fervor, adrenaline and patriotism after a number of early successes that saw German defenses crumble on both sides of the river, the French and English doubled down on their efforts to win the day. 

Not only did they reach a number of key objectives that’d seemed unlikely to fall in the early going, but they managed to overtake many of them, including a number of heavily defended earthwork fortifications called the Leipzig, Schwaben and Stuff redoubts.

However, as the day dragged on and troops fell victim to everything from hunger and thirst to exhaustion and lack of ammunition, brash German counter attacks retook much of the lost ground and some of the forts, especially in the area north of the now famous Albert–Bapaume Road. 

In fact both sides were trapped in a constantly swinging pendulum of successes and failures that often resulted in the same ground being surrendered, taken and retaken multiple times within the span of just a few hours. 

As evening and then night time approached, many British commanders were loathe to settle for ceding ground they’d taken in fierce fighting earlier on, and they often ordered their troops to perform nearly suicidal frontal assaults against entrenched Germans backed up by artillery, barbed wire barricades and multiple machine gun nests. 

The areas between the lines were collectively known as “no man’s land,” and they became so strewn with the dead and dying that they resembled scenes from Dante’s Inferno.

Conditions became so bad and the screams of the wounded so unbearable, that a number of short-term truces were called during which combatants from both sides laid down their arms and wandered into the wasteland to collect their fallen comrades. 

At the Battle of the Somme the Germans suffered heavily as well, but on the first day the majority of casualties were British infantrymen.

The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of World War I, and among the bloodiest in all of human history. 

The deadly combination of a close-quarters battlefield, destructive modern weaponry and several failures by British military leaders led to the unprecedented slaughter of waves of young men.

All told in the Battle of the Somme, casualties topped 1 million.

British forces sustained 420,000 casualties, and when it was all said and done the Germans lost nearly half a million.  

Dien Bien Phu 

Though things began promisingly just after World War II, by 1953 France’s occupation of Indochina was in its proverbial death throes. 

A succession of well-known commanders including Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque and Roger Blaizot were appointed to set things right, but each proved incapable of putting down the so-called Viet Minh “insurrection” intent on driving out the foreign invaders. 

Between 1952 and ‘53 the Viet Minh took large tracts of Laos and the Plain of Jars in the north-central highlands, and unable to slow the advance, French forces began a series of strategic withdraws largely dictated by inadequate troop strength, minimal equipment and tenuously long supply lines. 

But despite the setback, in mid-1953 they began strengthening numerous positions in the region around the Hanoi delta, after which a number of offensives were planned against the Viet Minh in the northwest. 

Establishing a string of fortified outposts, one of which was Dien Bien Phu, French Premier René Mayer appointed trusted colleague Henri Navarre to take command of French forces.

Though it appeared that things were looking up thanks to new plans and new leadership, behind the scenes Mayer ordered Navarre to create the conditions necessary for an “honorable political solution”.

In other words, the writing was on the wall, and it was time to make as graceful an exit as possible. 

But a climactic confrontation loomed that would take place from mid-March of 1953 to May of 1954 between France’s Far East Expeditionary Corps and their clandestine American soldiers and CIA mercenaries on one side, and the Viet Minh communist revolutionaries on the other. 

The United States wasn’t officially party to the war, but the CIA had been providing advisors, soldiers, weapons and funding for years, and by some estimates the US federal government was paying for nearly 80% of France’s war effort. 

By that time Dien Bien Phu was already well stocked and heavily fortified, and the plan was to draw the Viet Minh into a major confrontation and essentially wipe them out using what the French thought were their strongpoints – namely superior tactics and more advanced weaponry. 

French commanders felt sure that the Viet Minh couldn’t get their heavy artillery pieces into the mountains surrounding the firebase, but to their horror, they did just that. 

Taking them apart piece by piece and lugging them thousands of feet into the mountains using rudimentary skids, slings and pulleys, the Viet Minh painstakingly moved and reassembled dozens of howitzers and began raining artillery shells down on the beleaguered French defenders with impunity.

Dien Bien Phu was continuously resupplied by air, but as the Viet Minh forces closed in under the command of General Võ Nguyên Giáp, surrounded and besieged the French retreated ever farther into their bunkers and toward the end most of the air dropped supplies fell into enemy hands.  

Tenacious ground fighting on the ground ensued, in which combatants were often just a few dozen yards apart, and though the French repelled many assaults, eventually all key positions were overrun.

A few soldiers escaped during the night and made their way to neighboring Laos, but most surrendered weak, emaciated and out of ammunition.  

Shortly thereafter the French government officially relinquished their claims in the region by signing the Geneva Accords in 1954, and troops were subsequently withdrawn from Indochina. 

However despite having nearly no bargaining power, the French stipulated that Vietnam be temporarily divided along the 17th parallel, giving the land north to Ho Chi Minh and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and the south to the newly formed State of Vietnam under Emperor Bảo Đại, setting the state for an even larger military blunder in the following decade at the hands of the Americans. 

The Battle of Karánsebes 

The Battle of Karánsebesi purportedly took place during the Austro-Turkish War on the night of September 21, 1788, but in most respects it wasn’t really a battle at all. 

In fact, if not for the hundreds or thousands of deaths resulting from a friendly fire incident that started over some soldiers unwillingness to share booze with their compatriots, it might be among the most laughable of all military blunders. 

Friendly fire incidents are relatively frequent in combat, and they’re usually the result of misidentification and miscommunication, but in this instance the events surrounding the incident were even more bizarre.  

battle of karansebes
Battle of Karánsebes. By Craciun Cristiana, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

As the story goes, on that night a number of units within the Austrian Army were actively looking for Ottoman forces suspected of being nearby.

But unlike most armies today, Austrian Army regiments then were largely made up of soldiers of different ethnicities and nationalities who spoke different languages.

At least one firsthand account claims that different units stumbled upon one another in the dark, and unable to communicate due to language barriers they assumed the other was the enemy, after which they panicked and began firing at anything that moved. 

Some commanders apparently recognized what was happening and ordered their respective troops to stand down, but in the clamor their pleading fell on deaf ears. 

However after exhaustive research many historians claim that this version of events was a shameless whitewash meant to obscure the embarrassing nature of what really happened, lest the sheer lunacy and incompetence bolster their enemy’s confidence. 

In fact it’s now commonly believed that a contingent of Hussars scouting potential river crossing sites didn’t find any Ottomans, but instead ran into a band of local gypsies who sold them a few barrels of schnapps, which they immediately began drinking. 

Soon after other soldiers from different units encountered the Hussars and asked if they could join the party, but they were vehemently rebuffed, and already tipsy the Hussars began setting up makeshift barricades around their hooch, albeit jokingly at first, but things took a nefarious turn. 

As is often the case when alcohol, firearms, and long-simmering cultural prejudices collide, a heated argument ensued, and multiple shots were fired. 

Since it was the middle of the night it was difficult to tell friend from foe, and as more and more shots rang out Austrian soldiers of all stripes unloaded their weapons and fled into the night while others fell where they were either wounded or dead. 

To make matters even worse, at least one corps commander became convinced that his position was being overrun and ordered nearby artillery batteries to open fire killing hordes more than may have died otherwise. 

Ironically, it would be another two full days before the Ottoman’s actually arrived on the scene, and when they did they discovered a mysterious scene of carnage that they couldn’t initially figure out. 

Needless to say, they easily took the Romanian city of Karánsebes without firing a shot. 

Accounts of the number of soldiers killed and wounded vary from 150 dead and just over 1,000 wounded to more than 500 dead and 2,000 wounded, making it one of the deadliest engagements of the entire war. 

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