Battle of Little Bighorn

Are These The Worst Military Mistakes In History?

Blunders in battle tactics can cost dearly as some military moments in history can attest

Battle of Little Bighorn

Battle tactics and war are complex, and warfare is therefore an enterprise in which it is easy to make mistakes.

It is also easy to see things in hindsight that leaders of even very costly errors might not be reasonably expected to have known at the time - so if there is any judgement, perhaps it should be left to the greatest minds of military strategy.

It is no wonder, however, that the historical record is full of examples of military miscalculations and blunders, that this is a popular subject online, and that there will always be some level of disagreement about whether certain command decisions and tactics in battle were foolish or not.

Bearing all that in mind, here is a, by no means comprehensive, list of some noteworthy military mistakes, and the lessons that might be learned from them.

Lesson 1: Don’t Score An Own Goal

Of all the military mistakes on this list, the 1788 Battle Of Karansebes is possibly one of the most ridiculous.

It is perhaps one of the most bizarre incidents of friendly fire ever recorded - and essentially began as what might be described as a drunken brawl.

The backdrop was the 1787 to 1791 Austro-Turkish War in which the forces of Archduke of Austria Joseph II faced off against those of the Ottoman Turks, in this case over the town of Karansebes. 

In a nutshell, the trouble started over bottles of the drink, Schnapps. Austrian hussar scouts crossed the Danube at night looking for the enemy, where they were then offered Schnapps, a strong distilled spirit, by local people.

The infantry following up behind them soon decided they wanted a drink or two themselves. 

An argument, then a fistfight, then a gunshot, then a gunfight all then apparently followed, with hussars and infantry shooting at each other until someone shouted “Turks, Turks!” 

In a panic, hussars and infantry fled back over the river to their camp, but by now the hysteria had spread to the camp itself, and chaos was erupting at the expectation of an imminent Turkish attack. 

Joseph II was not only Archduke of Austria but also Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary and Croatia and King of Bohemia, and so he had a vast realm and a polyglot military force composed of Austrians, Germans, Croats, Lombardy Italians, Czechs, Serbs and Poles. So when German-speaking officers tried to calm the panic in the camp by yelling “Halt! Halt!”, the non-German speakers mistook it for Turkish and, in the darkness, a giant gunfight erupted.

Then an Austrian corps commander, mistaking the confused melee for a Turkish cavalry attack, fired artillery on the camp.

Having decimated themselves, Joseph II’s forces were completely unable to defend the town of Karansebes, which the Ottoman Turks took over easily when they showed up for real a few days later.

Lesson 2: Don’t Break Your Promises

All wars are hard to fight, but the First World War must have been one of the hardest.

Therefore it is no surprise that when French Commander-in-Chief General Robert Nivelle promised in Spring 1917 to either advance rapidly into the German lines at Chemin des Dames or call off the attack after two days, his troops had high hopes. 

After two years of war and hundreds of thousands of casualties, the average French soldier had no appetite for further unnecessary costly assaults.

The campaign not only failed but the French army were left shattered by the experience of yet another defeat, igniting calls for mutiny.

So when Neville’s plan failed and he did not call off the attack, as promised, approximately half of his army mutinied - or at least, they said they would defend but not attack.

With such widespread reluctance to fight, it was fortunate for French and Allied military leaders that the Germans never learnt of this widespread breakdown in discipline, or they likely would have exploited the opportunity and attacked. 

Instead, the French the line, fought on to the end of the war, but not under Neville, who was replaced by General Petain.


First World War Nivelle Offensive
The Chemin des Dames, the area where Nivelle’s offensive took place (image: Rémih)

Lesson 3: Don’t Forget To Pay Your Fighting Men

In 1667, as part of an on-going maritime and trade war with the English, the Dutch committed what must be one of the most audacious acts in naval history.

They sailed their fleet of warships into the Thames, then down the Medway to where the English fleet was anchored at Chatham and began obliterating it.

As bad as this was, quite possibly the most ridiculous thing about the whole episode is that the English Crown indirectly helped them. By living a decadent lifestyle himself, whilst at the same time presiding over financial mismanagement, King Charles II helped plant the seeds for his own defeat.

His sailors, many of whom were struggling to obtain even basic food since they had only been paid for a long time in IOUs, were unable or unwilling to show up to help defend the fleet. Some even apparently defected to the waiting Dutch ships, hoping to at least be paid for a change.

The English would eventually learn to imitate the Dutch financial discipline and eventually outcompeted them imperially and militarily. Yet in the meantime, the loss at Medway had been a hard lesson in the importance of not neglecting the rank and file.

Lesson 4: Learn To Count

On June 25, 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led his 600 troopers of 7th United States Cavalry into Little Bighorn Valley in Southern Montana.

He was searching for a giant moving village of different Indian tribes that had coalesced and were determined to resist his him and American government efforts to move them further west. 

Custer knew roughly where they were, which was near Little Bighorn river, but he did not know how many of them there were. 

Yet he apparently had been given reports suggesting this force, lead by Sitting Bull, was enormous. Custer divided his cavalry force into three separate detachments so he could attack it from different places simultaneously.

That was the plan anyway. What actually happened was that Sitting Bull and the Native Americans with him knew the terrain far more intimately than Custer and his men. They were able to remain concealed, and then their 2,000-man force werew able to surround and obliterate Custer’s 210-man detachment. 

The place where Custer and his men died became forever known as Last Stand Hill.

Battle of Little Bighorn
‘Custer's Last Stand’ by Edgar Samuel Paxson (image: Alamy)

Lesson 6: Always Look Behind The Next Hill

The 1879 Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 essentially started because the British wanted to expand their empire in South Africa. Resistance by local people made this impossible, so the British aimed to pick a fight with the local Zulus to intimidate them, and anybody else, into vacating the area they coveted. 

Their field commander also split his forces. He was Lieutenant-General Sir Frederic Augustus Thesiger, 2nd Baron Chelmsford, and he split his men into three columns that he sent into Zulu territory to track down and bait the African tribesmen to fight.

After an initial small victory, Chelmsford then split his own column further and set off in search of more Zulus. It was, however, the 1,800 men he had left behind at a hill named Isandlwana who found them – below the brow of a hill nearby.

When a force of some 25,000 Zulus poured over it, the British at Isandlwana were poorly prepared to meet them and were soon completely overwhelmed. There were almost no British survivors, although in a sequel to this, a small garrison of British soldiers did manage to hold off more Zulu attacks at an outpost called Rorke’s Drift - made famous by the 1964 epic war film Zulu staring Michael Caine.

Lesson 7: Don’t Make Yourself An Easy Target 

For many people, their image of the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War involved gallant but stupid British cavalrymen charging headlong into a valley lined with Russian guns.

The truth is a little more prosaic: personality clashes, panic, a sense of urgency and confusion all contributed to the miscommunication, errors, and bad luck that was the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade.

Yet, whatever its causes, the result certainly was scores of men on horseback charging right at elevated Russian gun positions, and the inevitable hundreds of casualties, including hundreds of horses.

Charging headlong into cannon fire with no defence is probably not the best battle tactic.

Lesson 8: Don’t Fight In The Mud, Especially Not In Heavy Armour

In 1415, the French thought they had England’s Henry V on the run. He had come to France with a huge army to fight for lands the claimed were his, and by October of that year his small force ended up facing off against a much larger French one.

The place was known as Agincourt, and the ground was of the Englishmen’s choosing. 

They had worked out that, essentially, the farmland before them sloped in such a way that the flat portion formed a triangle. They stood at the narrow end of this triangle whilst the far-more-numerous French knights advanced towards them.

It was a trap. The French men-at-arms were walking over boggy, muddy farmland, almost a soapy bowl with the English waiting on the dry, hard rim. As the French approached, they slowed, tired, stumbled and bunched up. Hails of arrows from English longbows and even their own careening, retreating horses flew into them, then they pressed into each other – a giant mass of bodies as the English knights viciously defended their dry patch of land.

The result was an utter devastation for the French knights, who were stabbed and crushed to death, contributing to their own defeat as much as the English had by playing right into their hands.