12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever

Khalid Elhassan - November 19, 2017

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Mongol generals Subutai and Jebe relaxing in the aftermath of their victory, as the captive Mstislav III is brought before them. Our Russia

Battle of the Kalka River

The Battle of Kalka River on May 31st, 1223, occurred at the tail end of one of history’s longest feigned retreats, in which a Mongol army led by two of Genghis Khan’s chief lieutenants, Subutai and Jebe, lured a much larger force of Russians and Cumans into chasing them across the Steppe for hundreds of miles, before the Mongols turned around and annihilated their pursuers.

Following Genghis Khan’s conquest of the Khwarezmian Empire, Mongol generals Subutai and Jebe, who had chased the defeated empire’s ruler to his death in an island on the Caspian Sea, got permission from Genghis to conduct a reconnaissance in force westwards, and with their force of 20,000 Mongols, raid into Iran, then northwards into the Caucasus, before returning to Mongolia via the Steppe north of the Caspian Sea.

En route, the duo met and defeated the nomadic Cumans, whose khan fled to the Kievan Rus and convinced them to help fight the Mongols. The Rus and surviving Cumans assembled an army of 80,000 men under the joint command of Mstislav III of Kiev, and Mstislav the Bold of Galich. They caught up with and defeated the Mongol rearguard, at which point Jebe and Subutai decided to lure their pursuers into an ambush.

Pretending to panic after their rearguard’s defeat, the Mongols conducted a feigned retreat, and the led their pursuers on a merry chase which lasted for nine days, during which their pursuers lost their cohesion and became strung out in a long column. Finally, on the 9th day, Subutai and Jebe set up an ambush, crossing the Kalka River and concealing their forces near the opposite bank.

When the pursuers began crossing the river, the Mongols waited until most had reached their side, before springing their ambush and charging suddenly out of their concealed positions to shower the Russians with a rain of arrows before closing in. The ferocious and sudden attack from an enemy whom they had thought was in panicked flight shocked the Russians and threw them into confusion, which swiftly turned into a rout.

The Mongols encircled their panicked opponents and butchered them, killing around 75,000 out of the 80,000 who had set out to pursue them. Of the defeated commanders, Mstislav the Bold escaped, while Mstislav of Kiev managed to reach a fortified camp on the Dnieper, where the Mongols surrounded him. He eventually surrendered in exchange for a promise of safe conduct back to his territory, but the Mongols reneged, slaughtered his men, and executed him.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Battle of Cannae. Dickinson College


Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca led an army into Italy during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC), with which he won a series of stunning victories against the Romans. The lopsided losses humiliated Rome and shook her hold on the Italy, as allies abandoned their allegiance and either joined Hannibal, or declared neutrality. The Romans appointed a shrewd general, Quintus Fabius Maximus, dictator for 6 months, and he adopted a delaying strategy against the dangerous Carthaginian that became known as “Fabian”. Realizing that Rome’s manpower resources exceeded Hannibal’s, Fabius turned to attrition, whittling the Carthaginian’s forces with skirmishes and raids on his supply lines, while avoiding pitched battle.

That stabilized the situation, but did not sit well with Fabius’ fellow citizens, who wanted to avenge the earlier defeats as soon as possible. When Fabius’ term expired, the Romans amassed 87,000 men, their largest army to date, and marched off to crush Hannibal. Hannibal, who had been frustrated by Fabius’ attrition tactics, was willing to accommodate the Romans and let them try. At Cannae, on August 2nd, 216 BC, he offered the Romans battle, pitting his army of 40,000 men against the Romans’ 87,000.

Hannibal adopted a tactical deception plan that was carried out to perfection. He placed his less disciplined Gauls in the center, in a formation that bulged out towards the Romans, and on either side of the Gauls, he positioned his disciplined African infantry (see map above). As the Romans advanced, the Gauls would give way, until their formation which had started off bulging outwards, bent and bulged inwards, forming a bowl shape or sack. Hannibal reasoned that the Romans, emboldened by their enemy giving ground and scenting victory, would rush into the sack.

Once inside the sack, the African infantry positioned to the Gauls’ sides would wheel inwards and attack the Roman flanks. By then, the Carthaginian cavalry should have defeated the Roman cavalry. It would then turn around, and attack the enemy infantry’s rear, thus completely encircling the Romans. All went as Hannibal had planned, and in a battle viewed to this day as the gold standard for tactical generalship, the Romans were surrounded and nearly wiped out, with only 10,000 out of the 87,000 strong army escaping, while the rest were either slaughtered or captured.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Battle of Lake Trasimene. Emerson Kent

Lake Trasimene

On June 24th, 217 BC, after goading the commander of a Roman army into a rash pursuit, Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, using deception and guile, lured them into a trap along the northern shore of Lake Trasimene. There, he sprang on his unsuspecting pursuers what is considered, in terms of the number of combatants involved, history’s largest tactical military ambush.

After Hannibal defeated two Roman armies in northern Italy in 218 BC, Rome’s consuls for 217 BC were sent at the head of two armies to deal with him. One of the consuls, Gaius Flaminius, gathered the survivors of the earlier defeats, and reinforced by new recruits, formed them into an army of about 30,000 men and marched south to defend Rome. Hannibal followed him, and marching faster, overtook and passed Flaminius, and got his own army between that of the Romans and their home city.

It was one of history’s earliest examples of a successful strategic turning movement, getting between a defender and his base. Taking advantage of that, and to draw out Flaminius and goad him into giving battle, Hannibal began devastating and burning the countryside as he marched south. Flaminius was compelled to hurry his army to catch up with Hannibal before the Carthaginian reached Rome.

As Hannibal continued his march southward, with Flaminius in hot pursuit, the Carthaginian came upon a suitable spot for an ambush at Lake Trasimene, about 80 miles north of Rome. There, a stretch of the road passed through a defile, hemmed in between the lake’s northern shore and forested hills. Hannibal set up his camp on the eastern end of the defile, so as to be within clear of sight of Flaminius when he got there.

Hannibal formed his heavy infantry in front of the camp facing the road down which the Romans would arrive, to challenge them into battle. On the forested hills skirting the road to the north, he concealed his cavalry, light infantry, and Gaulish allies, and waited. When Flaminius arrived at the defile’s entrance on the morning of June 24th and saw the Carthaginian camp with forces arrayed in front of it to offer battle, he was relieved to have finally caught up with his quarry, and unwilling to chance Hannibal’s slipping away again, immediately marched in to get at the Carthaginians.

In his eagerness, Flaminius did not scout the hills to the north of the road before marching his army into the defile, and the hidden Carthaginians’ concealment was further helped by a fortuitous fog that morning, which reduced visibility. Once the last Roman entered the defile, trumpets were blown and the trap was sprung, as the concealed forces rushed down from the hills to fall on the flank and rear of the Romans, who suddenly found themselves surrounded on east, north, and west by the enemy, while the lake blocked them to the south. Flaminius’ army was wiped out, and out of the 30,000 men he took into battle that day, about half were killed or drowned, while the other half were taken prisoner.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Macedonian phalanx attacking the Indian center in the Battle of the Hydaspes River, by Andre Castaigne, 1899. Wikimedia

Hydaspes River

At the Battle of the Hydaspes River in May of 326, BC, fought in what is now the Punjab between Alexander the Great of Macedon and the Indian king Porus, Alexander successfully carried out a brilliant military deception that wrong footed his opponent and caught him off guard, and set the stage for a complete Macedonian victory.

When Alexander marched into the Punjab, king Porus set out to intercept the invaders, and beating them to the Hydaspes river, which Alexander would have to cross to penetrate into Porus’ territory, the Indian king waited on the far bank with his army to prevent Alexander from crossing. When the Macedonians arrived, Porus set his camp across the river from Alexander, and shadowed the Macedonian’s movements from the opposite side, as the invader marched up and down the far bank in search of a safe crossing.

So long as Porus shadowed the Macedonians from the opposite bank, a crossing of the deep and fast-moving river could prove catastrophic if made against opposition, as the Indians would be able to strike the Macedonians at their most vulnerable mid-stream, or fall upon and overwhelm a portion of Alexander’s on the Indian side of the river, before the crossing was completed.

So Alexander set out to lull Porus by marching his troops up and down his side of the river each day. The Indians vigilantly shadowed those movements at first, but over time, became accustomed to them and grew complacent. Then Alexander quietly drew off the bulk of his army, leaving behind a contingent to make noisy demonstrations in order to keep the Indians fixated on them, while Alexander hurried to a crossing upriver and safely got his force across, unopposed. Once on Porus’ side of the Hydaspes, Alexander advanced to attack, and caught the Indians in a pincer between the main force under his command, and the smaller contingent left behind on the opposite side of the river to keep Porus occupied, which crossed the Hydaspes and fell upon the Indians’ rear and flank when they turned to face Alexander. The battle was hard fought, but the outcome was a total Macedonian victory.

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Alexander the Great faking the Persian cavalry out of position at the Battle of Gaugamela. Quora


At the Battle of Gaugamela, October 1st, 331 BC, Alexander the Great’s army was outnumbered by that of the Persian king, Darius, who positioned himself at the center of his lines, with cavalry to either side, and chariots in front (see map above). Alexander beat him by pulling off one of history’s most successful battlefield tactical deceptions.

Alexander rode off with most of his cavalry, including his elite Companion Cavalry, towards the right of the field, accompanied by a scratch force of infantry, whom he interposed between his cavalry on that side of the field and the Persian chariots, to keep the chariots from striking the Macedonian cavalry’s exposed flank as he rode towards the right of the field. The Persian cavalry opposite Alexander shadowed him, riding parallel toward the right side of the map, to ensure he did not outflank the Persian line. That was what Alexander wanted: to remove as much of the Persian cavalry from their initial position as possible.

Alexander had a surprise for the Persian cavalry: while riding off toward the right, he had some light infantry keeping pace with him, but concealed from Persian sight by Alexander’s cavalry between the Persians and Alexander’s light infantry. The result was three parallel lines moving towards the right side of the map: the Persian cavalry, Alexander’s cavalry, whom the Persians could see, and Alexander’s light infantry, whom the Persians could not see and of whose existence they were unaware.

The Persian cavalry, shadowing Alexander as he moved to the right, eventually got ahead of him and outflanked what they assumed had been Alexander’s attempt to outflank them. Then, having gained the “advantage”, the Persian cavalry charged Alexander. That was precisely what Alexander had hoped they would do: in shadowing him and keeping pace as he rode to the right of the field, a gap had opened in the Persian line. A gap where the Persian cavalry had been at the start of the battle, and Alexander’s goal all along had been to draw the Persian cavalry out of position in order to produce that very gap (see map below).

12 Military Deceptions that Changed the Course of History Forever
Alexander the Great’s change of direction and charge at Persian king Darius III’s position. Quora

That was when Alexander’s concealed light infantry came into play: when the Persian cavalry charged, Alexander released the hitherto concealed light infantry to engage the Persian cavalry, and left them, along with most of his cavalry, to keep the Persian cavalry busy. Then, he neatly disengaged his elite Companion Cavalry from the fray, and turning direction, rode back at their head in a wedge formation, straight for the gap in the Persian line where the Persian cavalry had been at the start of the battle.

A gap where the Persian king, Darius, happened to be. It was a surgical strike that won the day. Seeing Alexander leading a furious cavalry charge straight at him, without enough cavalry of his own in position to ward him off, Darius panicked and fled the battlefield. The Gaugamela battle scene in the movie Alexander faithfully depicted this maneuver as it was described by contemporary writers in Alexander’s day.