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The biggest missteps in military history

War is – more often than that – a numbers game. Unless the improbable happens, it is usually the side with the numerical advantage that goes home with victory, which has been particularly true in history. Many modern weapons – like nuclear weapons – can easily eliminate the need for brute force, although it has not for most of our history. When you’ve taken a larger and intimidating army into battle, you were almost always more likely to come back victorious.

That is, of course, unless you take the trouble to make a mistake (we look at you, Napoleon). Quite a few traditionally superior armies in history have been defeated due to unnecessary mistakes that could easily have been avoided. While many of these catastrophic military mistakes in history are unknown to most of us, almost all have been instrumental in determining the outcome of their respective wars.

8. The British Invasion of Afghanistan

If you look at Afghanistan’s history over the past three centuries, you will find that – just like Russia – it is next to impossible to successfully invade Afghanistan, regardless of the size of your army. Many vast empires have tried their hand at this, although the country’s difficult terrain makes it impossible to sustain their invasion efforts long.

One of these invading empires was the British Empire, whose invasion of Afghanistan in 1838 is still one of the greatest military mistakes in history. The aim of the invasion was to establish British influence in Afghanistan. A strategically important region for the British and Russian empires at the time. They overthrew Dost Mohammad and installed Shah Shujah Durrani, a leader who appears to be sympathetic to the British cause.

However, all of this changed when the local population started revoltand the British Army, now comfortably living with their families in the Afghan capital, had to withdraw. Durrani promised them a safe return to India, although – even if they didn’t know it then – he had no intention of letting them go. The British Army was harassed by swift fighters during its long and arduous journey, killing almost all of its force. In the end, only one British soldier made it back to their garrison.

7. The Battle of Dien Bien Phu

Whenever we talk about a war in Vietnam, always turn around the War in Vietnam, even if the country has seen more wars in its history than most other countries. By far the biggest – at least for them – was their war of independence against the French when it was known as Indochina. It was a long, drawn-out war that didn’t go particularly well for the rebels at first, although everything changed with the decisive battle of Dien Bien Phu.

If you look at the area on a map, you can easily see what went wrong. Dien Bien Phu is a remote region surrounded by mountains and hills that the French considered the perfect place to dig and defend. They had intended to end the war with superior firepower and supplies, although, like many others, they greatly underestimated the Viet Minh’s knowledge of their own terrain.

In one of the largest military mobilizations in history, the rebelling Vietnamese forces carried tons of artillery and other explosives into the surrounding mountains with a view of the French and began bombing. What looked like an impenetrable defensive position to the French turned out to be a trap. They significantly underestimated the Vietnamese air defense capabilities, as their air force was soon unable to supply them. This fight turned out to be the Negotiating chip Viet Minh was looking for. The French – unable to maintain their supply chain for long – soon surrenders.

The battle was a turning point in the French-Indochina conflict and directly paved the way for Vietnam’s full independence from France.

6. The attack of the light brigade

The story of the light brigade attack has been romanticized and translated into poetry and stories. You can even think of it as fiction. Unfortunately, this is not the case for the light brigade in question, as it is named after one of the greatest military mistakes in history.

This happened during the Battle of Balaclava in the greater Crimean War, which was just one of the many conflicts most European powers were preoccupied with in the 19th century. The indictment was an actual indictment by the British forces against a fortified Russian position that required about 670 men to maneuver. Unfortunately, due to misunderstandings between the ranks, the other parts of the armed forces could not join them, which resulted in their eventual slaughter.

The prosecution’s casualty rate was astounding 40%and the only people who survived were those who managed to get behind the Russian cannons. Witnesses describe a scene full of charred limbs, smoke, screams and splashes of blood. It’s no surprise it remains one of the bloodiest days in the history of the British Army, all because they didn’t shout their orders loud enough.

5. The Battle of Carrhae

The history of ancient Rome is littered with glorious victories that are difficult to repeat to this day, although there are also some major defeats. The Romans’ strength was in adopting the tactics of their more successful enemies, although they had to suffer a few defeats to get there.

One of them was their defeat by the Parthian Empire at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. BC, although this was due more to their own fault than to any Parthian military superiority.

Marcus Licinius Crassus – the commander of the Roman armed forces – made the mistake of leaving his garrison in Mesopotamia and approaching them Syria. That would have been fine too if he had only made the effort to meet with the other Roman forces in the area. Instead he – along with seven legions; about forty thousand men – decided to chase the Parthians into the desert.

The Parthians may not have been a great power like Rome or Persia, although they knew how to fight in the desert. While reports of numbers vary, they decimated the Roman army with their 10,000-strong cavalry made of heavy material Cataphracts to mobile archers. In the end, the decision cost Crassus the lives and that of around 20,000 other Romans – a loss that put them back decades.

4. The Gallipoli Campaign

The Gallipoli Peninsula was the site of a major battle in World War I and would have been remembered as one of many battles in the greater conflict had it not been for some disastrous decisions by the Allied side.

The aim of the battle was to exterminate the Ottoman forces from the region and give them a point of entry into Turkey. Unfortunately it was the Ottomans Really Buried when the Allied soldiers – almost 500,000 – could not even advance a few meters after landing on the beach, as they were constantly bombarded by the well-supplied Turkish troops. They had the advantage of a plateau and fortress, and ample ammunition and artillery that would have allowed them to defend their position for months.

All in all around 58,000 Allied troops were killed that day, making it one of the largest military losses in British history.

3. The Italian invasion of Greece

The outcome of World War II now seems to be a foregone conclusion, as something as evil as the Nazis could never have won anyway. However, this was not the case in the early years of the war. The German and Italian war machine was terrifyingly effective in Europe, doing quick work for the powerful military in the region, and it really could have gone either way at the time.

That is probably why Italy decided to invade Greece in late 1940, as it could be assumed that they would continue to win. That would turn out to be the Mistake that would change the tide of war, at least for the Italians, as Greece wouldn’t go under without a fight.

The Greek military – supported by one of the most violent civil resistance Movements of the war as well as other allied nations – successfully stopped the Italian invasion and forced them to retreat before winter was over, and launched a counter-offensive Italians could never push back. The defeat was the Allies’ first victory over an Axis power at the time, which said a lot.

2. The Tet Offensive

The Vietnam War is often only seen from the US perspective, as everyone on the North Vietnamese side is often united as a monolithic group. This was rarely the case as they were going through their own internal disagreements and factional rivalries. One of the main causes of this disagreement was the Tet Offensive, originally planned as a nationwide uprising. While some of the leaders supported the idea that after the invasion of the South Vietnamese cities, people would simply start joining their cause, it didn’t quite happen.

Instead, the offensive – led by North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong fighters – ended for them in a major catastrophe that strengthened the more radical elements of their armed forces. They received little to no support for the alleged “uprising” from the urban population, as South Vietnam was relatively stable at the time.

1. The Habsburg invasion of Switzerland

Switzerland appears to be a land of pocket knives and artisanal cheese, and it is hard to imagine that it is a military power of any kind. It’s only until you’ve really read up part of their story.

Switzerland likes to mind its own business in every major war because secretly it is a ridiculously strong military power. It is also in the most strategic location in Europe as it is surrounded by mountains on all sides. Many kingdoms made the mistake of invading them, though the largest of them must be the Habsburgs in the 14th century.

At that time, all Swiss cantons were under the control of the Habsburgs in Austria, although the Swiss were pretty tired of this regulation. They decided to declare independence and formed their own Swiss Confederation. This was understandably fiercely opposed by the Habsburgs, who dispatched an army of 15,000 of the best imperial knights they had to put down the uprising.

It might sound like a good plan, but they didn’t take the terrain into account. The Swiss Armed Forces – consisting of farmers and a handful of seasoned soldiers – heavily outnumbered but knew their territory well. When the invaders arrived, they were maneuvered into a mountain pass and slaughtered. The Habsburgs lost around 2,000 of their most elite cavalrymen in the battle, and the battle turned out to be one of the most important battles in the Swiss battle for independence.

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