The popular imagination often sees the history of warfare as a series of epic confrontations decided by physical courage, inspired leadership and exotic weapons. These factors all play a role in great victories and terrible losses. However, like all human endeavors, war is subject to more mundane factors like bad luck, mistaken assumptions, overconfidence and even bad weather. The chaos and uncertainty that is an inevitable part of battle is often referred to as the fog of war and has been the bane of military commanders who found themselves on the wrong end of a crushing defeat. Here’s a look back at five battles in which a calamity of errors ended in massive death, destruction and failure for one side.
5. Persians Tricked, Trapped at Battle of Salamis (480 BC)
Ten years after the Persian king Darius suffered an epic loss to the Greeks at Marathon, his son Xerxes attempted to return the favor. Xerxes was confident his force of 100,000 men and as many as 1,200 ships was more than enough to wipe out the Greek troublemakers holed up in their tiny city-states. The Persians were dependent on supply ships for their lifeline so the navy stayed close to the coast. The Persians exacerbated this dangerous situation by allowing their fleet to get bottled up in a narrow strait between the Greek mainland and the island of Salamis. The Athenian commander Themistocles then tricked Xerxes by making the Persian king think he was about to abandon his Greek allies and switch sides. Instead, Themistocles attacked the Persians, whose numerical advantage was negated by the close quarters. The bigger, heavier Greek triremes took full advantage of the confusion and deteriorating weather by ramming and scattering the Persian fleet. As many as half the Persian fleet was either destroyed in the confrontation or lost to the weather as once again the Greeks inflicted a stinging blow to the Persians.
4. Romans March to Their Destruction at Battle of Cannae (216 BC)
In one of history’s best-known and most daring wartime maneuvers, the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca ordered his army, war elephants and all, to trek over the Alps and into northern Italy to take the Romans by surprise during the Second Punic War. It worked, and Hannibal quickly won two engagements against the unprepared Romans. But the Roman army was the best in the world; its soldiers were well trained, well armed and usually well led. Hannibal’s 40,000-strong army met a Roman force roughly twice that size near the town of Cannae in Southeast Italy. The Roman commanders deployed their forces in a typical straight-ahead formation with the infantry advancing in the middle and the cavalry at the wings. Hannibal formed his infantry in crescent with the bulge facing the Romans. As the Roman infantry advanced, the Carthaginians gave ground as the cavalry forces skirmished. When Hannibal’s cavalry pushed the Roman cavalry back, a gap was created that Hannibal exploited. He ordered his cavalry to flank the Roman line, getting behind them and closing a trap that left the Roman infantry surrounded. As few as 2,000 Roman soldiers survived this debacle. In the end, the Roman massacre led many Roman allies to defect to Carthage.
3. Almost 20,000 British Die in One Day at Battle of the Somme (1916)
In the third year of the First World War, France and Britain were desperate for a breakthrough against the Germans. With French forces bogged down at Verdun, French commander Joseph “Papa” Joffre and British commander Douglas Haig agreed to launch a massive offensive near the Somme River to relieve the pressure on the French. Eight days of artillery barrages preceded the start of the attack on July 1, 1916. The commanders assumed the barrage would destroy the German trenches and bunkers at the front lines, making it easy to cross the so-called “No Man’s Land.” However, the bunkers were not destroyed, so when the shelling stopped the Germans manned their machine guns and mowed down the advancing troops. More than 19,000 British soldiers were killed the first day. For some perspective, that’s almost three times the number of Americans killed in the Battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War. The Battle of the Somme saw the first use of tanks in warfare as the British thrust a few dozen of them into the breach. They had some impact, mostly psychological, but did not change the outcome. When the onset of bad weather halted the attack in November, 146,000 British and French soldiers lay dead, and the Allies had advanced only six miles into German territory — a staggering number of casualties for such a minor advance.
2. Spanish Armada Destroyed By English, Mistakes (1588)
Near the end of the 16th century, Spain and England were preparing for war. The Catholic King Phillip II of Spain was determined to topple the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. King Phillip II selected a general named Medina Sidonia to lead the cross-channel invasion, rather than an admiral. In retrospect, not the best idea. Spain controlled Belgium and Holland and intended to use these lands to launch the attack, but the ill-conceived plan doomed them to failure. It called for picking up thousands of troops before crossing to England. Harbors deep enough to accommodate the Spanish galleons were well south at Gravelines near modern-day Calais. While the ships sat waiting for the troops to arrive, Sir Francis Drake, commander of the British fleet, launched a surprise attack. He caught the vulnerable Spanish fleet sitting in the confined space of the harbor. Drake took advantage of this, setting fire to some ships and sending them into the midst of the Spanish fleet. Chaos ensued as the galleons scattered to avoid the flames. Bad weather allowed most of them to escape, but the English fleet blocked the escape route back to Spain. The Spanish were forced to go the long way around Scotland and Ireland. The Spanish fleet made some terrible navigation errors, and a horrible storm struck the fleet off the coast of Scotland, sinking nearly half of the 130 galleons with 20,000 men aboard. By contrast, only 100 Englishmen were killed and England was spared another invasion.
1. Germany Invades Russia in World War II (1941)
On the eve of the biggest invasion in history, Adolf Hitler said of the Soviet Union: “We have only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten Russia edifice will come tumbling down.” This incredible overconfidence quickly came back to haunt him. Nazi Germany threw 3 million soldiers and 3,500 tanks at Stalin’s “rotting edifice” between 1941 and 1943 in a blitzkrieg of nearly apocalyptic proportions. German motorized and panzer units raced 200 miles the first week in Operation Barbarossa, and just three weeks in the Red Army seemed at the point of collapse. Germany’s objectives included the capital, Moscow, as well as Leningrad, plus the oil fields in the south. Yet Hitler could not resist the temptation to tinker with his forces and sent tank units back and forth along the front lines burning fuel and precious time as he kept shifting priorities. As summer turned to fall, German generals consulted their calendars and grew concerned that with all the territory gained and all the Russian casualties inflicted they still had not taken Moscow. Supply lines were overextended; morale was falling. Time and resources had been squandered so when winter arrived early the generals knew they had lost their chance to destroy the Russian Army as a coherent force. The winter of 1941 gave the Russians the chance to regroup and rearm when they needed it most. Years of terrible urban combat and huge tank battles bled the German war machine of as many as 4 million soldiers as the Soviet Army grew stronger and began an unstoppable push west to Berlin.