Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes

Khalid Elhassan - December 14, 2022

A blunder – especially a military blunder that gets people killed – is terrible for the reputation of the doofus who made it. It is worse, of course, for the unfortunates who paid with their lives for somebody else’s screwup. Take the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) miscommunication that sent a British brigade to its doom when it attacked the wrong target. Or the Austrian army that wrecked itself in a friendly fire panic, without an enemy in sight. Below are twenty five things about those and other historic military blunders and screw-ups.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Lord Raglan, the British commander in chief in Crimea. Wikimedia

History’s Most Dramatic Military Blunder?

It is a given that good communication and attention to detail are vital to the success of any military plan. Recruits in basic training have that hammered into them from their first day in the armed forces. Unfortunately, nobody seems to have explained that to the British commanders in charge at the Battle of Balaclava on October 25th, 1854, in the midst of the Crimean War. That day, failures in communication, made worse by inattention to detail, led to a catastrophic blunder that became a byword in military screw-ups ever since. The disaster began when on the morning of that fateful day, a Russian attack chased away British-allied Ottoman soldiers from the Causeway Heights (see map, below) and captured some artillery pieces. From his vantage point on high ground, the British commander in chief, Lord Raglan, saw the Russians removing the guns back to their lines.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Map of the charge of the Light Brigade. Imgur

So Raglan ordered a cavalry charge to stop the Russians from taking away the captured artillery pieces. An order was issued to the British cavalry commander, Lord Lucan, which read in relevant part: “Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy, and try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns“. Raglan wanted the cavalry to attack the Russians he saw moving artillery pieces on the Causeway Heights. Where Lucan was positioned, however, he could not see those guns. The only Russian guns Lucan could see where at the end of a valley, with Russians on the high ground to both sides. To attack those guns was obviously stupid, and both Lucan and his subordinate Lord Cardigan, commander of the Light Brigade, knew it was stupid. However, as seen below, they simply shrugged, and sent their men to their doom.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Charge of the Light Brigade, by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr. Wikimedia

An Epic Charge, and Epic Blunder

Lord Lucan sought clarification about just what “guns” Lord Raglan referred to. So he asked the messenger who had delivered the British commander in chief’s orders. That worthy, a high strung Captain Nolan, made a dramatic gesture with his arm. It encompassed not just the Causeway Heights, whose guns Raglan wanted recaptured but that were not visible to Lucan, but also the guns at the far end of the valley, that Lucan could see. So Lucan ordered Lord Cardigan to lead his Light Brigade to attack the guns at the valley’s end, with the Heavy Brigade to follow in support. Soon after the charge began, Captain Nolan seems to have realized that the cavalry was after the wrong guns. He galloped to the head of the Light Brigade, but before he could point out the blunder, an artillery shell exploded in front of his horse and killed him.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
The Light Brigade in combat with the Russians when they finally reached the guns. History Network

The Light Brigade, 607 cavalrymen strong, continued its charge into what came to be known as the Valley of Death. It was shredded as it advanced a mile to the guns. As Alfred Lord Tennyson, Britain’s poet laureate put it in Charge of the Light Brigade: “Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them volleyed and thundered. Stormed at with shot and shell, Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell, Rode the six hundred.” Incredibly, the British cavalrymen actually reached the guns, and fought a brief battle there against incredible odds, before they were forced to withdraw. Of the 607 men who made the charge, 118 were killed outright, 127 were wounded, and about 60 were taken prisoner. When the Light Brigade regrouped upon its return, there were only 195 men left with horses.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Austrian hussars. Fine Art America

The Army That Beat Itself

The Battle of Karansebes (1788) was one that featured blunder after blunder. It ended in a farcical debacle, in which an army killed up to 10,000 of its own ranks, routed itself, and scattered in panicked flight without an enemy anywhere near. It took place amidst the Austro-Turkish War of 1787-1791, and was fought between an Austrian army of 100,000 men, and itself. Austria ruled a diverse and multiethnic empire, and its army was drawn from various ethnic groups, most of whom could not understand each others’ languages.

On the night of September 21 – 22, 1788, Austrian hussars crossed a river to scout. They found no Turks, but they did come across some Gypsies who sold them schnapps. Soon, the hussars were uproariously drunk. Back in the camp, the Austrian commander grew worried when the hussars took too long to return, so he sent some infantry across the river to check on them. The infantry found the hussars, who by then were four sheets to the wind, and demanded a share of their schnapps. When the hussars refused to share, a brawl ensued, and soon escalated into an exchange of gunfire. That was bad, but as seen below, things were about to get worse.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Austrians versus Turks. Pinterest

From Blunder to Catastrophic Rout

In the middle of the fight between the hussars and infantry, an infantryman shouted “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). That caused the drunken hussars to flee in panic. They were accompanied by many infantrymen, unaware that the alarm had been a trick by one of their own comrades. In the meantime, across the river, the Austrian camp stirred uneasily at the sounds of distant gunfire and screams. The panicked hussars and infantry, now intermingled in a terrified mob, neared the camp as they shouted “Turci! Turci!” They were challenged by sentries who shouted at them in German to “Halt! Halt!” That was misheard by some non-German speaking soldiers as “Allah! Allah!

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
The Battle of Karansebes was an epic blunder. Nothing is Written

In the confusion, an artillery officer concluded that the camp was under attack, and ordered his cannons to open fire. Many soldiers woke up to the sounds of screams, cannonade, and combat, startled and confused. Some began to fire wildly, and within minutes, the panic and uncontrolled discharge of firearms spread throughout and engulfed the Austrian camp. Soon, entire regiments were firing volleys at each other, before the entire army dissolved and scattered in panicked flight. The Turks arrived two days later and captured the Austrian camp, where they found 10,000 dead and wounded.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
A scale model of the Son Tay prison, used to train the raiders. Air Force Special Operations Command

A Heroic Rescue Mission Undone by a Blunder

The night of November 20th, 1970, so the start of one of the Vietnam War’s most dramatic exploits. A force of 56 US Army Special Forces, or Green Berets, boarded HH-3E “Jolly Green Giant” and HH-53E “Super Jolly Green Giant” helicopters. The big choppers flew them from a base in Thailand to execute Operation Ivory Coast, a courageous rescue mission. Its aim was to free an estimated 65 American prisoners of war held at Son Tay prison camp, about twenty miles west of the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi. It was an exceptionally hazardous operation, in which speed and precision of execution were extremely important. There were an estimated 12,000 North Vietnamese soldiers stationed within five miles of the prison camp.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Blueboy Assault Group, one of the Son Tay raid teams, inside a helicopter shortly before takeoff. Wikimedia

It was thus vital that the raiders complete their mission quickly, and be gone before the enemy had time to react with irresistible numbers. Three raider teams landed in Son Tay. The first intentionally crash landed its helicopter 2:19AM in the middle of the camp to get into position as quickly as possible. A second helicopter mistakenly landed 400 yards away, at the prison camp’s headquarters. Its Special Forces attacked the headquarters, and killed or wounded an estimated 100 guards. The third helicopter disembarked its attackers outside the camp complex. They swiftly secured the perimeter, then helped seize control of the camp. So far, so good. Then the raiders discovered that somebody had made a serious blunder.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
The Son Tay raid. Warfare History

An Intelligence Blunder That Sent Raiders to Rescue Prisoners from an Empty Prison

The Son Tay raid was a brilliant tactical success. It wholly accomplished its objective and seized control of the camp within minutes of the raiders’ arrival. The attackers suffered only two injuries: one Green Beret was shot in the leg, while another broke an ankle. There were no prisoners to rescue, however. As it turned out, the entire enterprise had been a huge blunder: the mission had been planned based on outdated information. The POWs had been moved months earlier from Son Tay, which was adjacent to a river that often flooded, to another prison camp.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
The Son Tay prison camp. Wikimedia

Within 26 minutes of from when they had landed, the raiders were airborne again, en route back to base. While a tactical success, the mission had clearly been an intelligence failure. There was plenty of egg on the faces of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and other entities that had gathered and shared the information upon which the assault was planned. In the raid’s aftermath, criticism of the faulty intelligence that led to a risky operation to rescue prisoners from a prison camp that held no prisoners, led to an extensive overhaul of American intelligence.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
German armor plunging into the Soviet Union at the start of Operation Barbarossa. Encyclopedia Britannica

A Soviet Blunder That Led to Catastrophe

The Soviets suffered horrific losses at the start of the German invasion in 1941. The seeds were planted years earlier, in Stalin’s Military Purge, which began in 1937. It plunged the Soviet military into chaos because it removed its most experienced commanders. 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 corps commanders, all 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars were executed or imprisoned or fired. The Purge also decimated the best middle rank officers. Until 1937, the Soviet military had been known for its innovation. The intellectual ferment within the Red Army, such as the Theory of Deep Operations, was as creative as what the wehrmacht was doing at the time. The Soviets had their equivalents of Guderians and Mannsteins, bright officers who brimmed with new ideas and were confident that they would revolutionize warfare. They suffered the most.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
German troops capture a Soviet soldier during Operation Barbarossa. Asis Biz

The Purge fell heaviest on the most creative officers, since they stood out and were thus prime suspects of harboring the deviationist tendencies Stalin wanted stamped out. Thus, when Hitler attacked, the Soviet military was poorly officered and poorly led. Stalin also failed to heed warnings that the Germans were about to invade. Those who raised the alarm were punished, as Stalin insisted it was a plot engineered by the British to instigate a war between the USSR and Germany. In what turned out to be a huge blunder, Soviet commanders were not allowed to take even precautionary measures, lest they provoke the Germans. Indeed, hours after the invasion began, Stalin disbelieved Soviet commanders who reported that they were being overrun. He insisted that they were experiencing isolated border incidents, not a full-blown war.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
German soldiers storm through Kharkov in October, 1941. Bundesarchiv Bild

When Russia Survived by the Skin of its Teeth

To make things even worse for the desperate Soviet forces, Stalin fancied himself a talented generalissimo, and meddled too much. One blunder among many was his order to counterattack, issued to units that were in no position to do so. Later, in another blunder, he insisted that units stay put in untenable positions and fight to the last man. That led to a series of massive encirclements, in which the Germans would capture up to 700,000 Soviets per encirclement. By the end of 1941, the Germans had captured 3.4 million Soviet POWs, most of whom died in captivity.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Soviet prisoners of war, captured in Operation Barbarossa. Pinterest

The Soviets suffered over six million military casualties, plus millions of civilians, in the first six months of the war. Such catastrophic figures were greater than any country has ever suffered in a similar period. It took superhuman efforts and sacrifice for them to recover, claw their way back up, and win in the end. Stalin deserves much credit because he managed to keep the USSR in the fight, long after any other country would have thrown in the towel. However, Stalin deserves even more credit – or blame – for the catastrophic screwups at the start of the war.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
The Mary Rose. Mary Rose Organization

The Pride of the English Navy

When it was commissioned in 1511, the English ship Mary Rose was at forefront of naval technological development. It was among the earliest vessels that relied on cannons that fired not from the top deck as had been the norm since guns were introduced to ships, but from portholes cut into the hull on lower decks. As such, she was among the pioneering ships that revolutionized naval warfare. Such vessels helped usher in the transition from thousands of years of naval combat in which ships rammed each other, and sailors grappled and boarded enemy vessels. Now, ships would fight each other with massed gun broadsides.

The Mary Rose was a success, and gave the Royal Navy decades of solid service. Then in 1536, she underwent an unfortunate redesign and upgrade. The idea behind the upgrade seems to have boiled down to “cannons are good, so more cannons are better“. It was not bad logic, in of itself. However, it turned out to be a major blunder in this particular case. More cannons were added to a ship that had not been specifically designed to accommodate more cannons and bear their additional weight.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
The Mary Rose heeling over. Trip Savvy

The Design Blunder that Sank the Mary Rose

A major part of the Mary Rose’s redesign and upgrade revolved around a new gun deck. The addition of more and heavier cannon increased the ship’s weight from 500 tons to 700. That made the Mary Rose to ride lower in the water. That in turn brought its lower deck’s gun portholes closer to the sea’s surface. The consequences played out in the 1545 Battle of the Solent. In that engagement, the Mary Rose was among a fleet of English sailing ships becalmed in the Solent and unable to maneuver for lack of wind, when they were attacked by French rowing galleys. The English fleet was in trouble, and the French galleys seemed on the verge of a victory over the immobilized English sailing ships.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Cannons and culverins recovered from the wreck of the Mary Rose. The Mary Rose Museum

Then the wind finally picked up. The Mary Rose sailed out in a stiff breeze, and led the English counter attack. The outgunned French galleys were the ones in trouble now. However, the Mary Rose’s first broadside caused her to heel or lean over to her starboard side. Her gun portholes, now lower and closer to the water’s surface thanks to the additional weight of the 1536 upgrade, dipped into the water. The sea rushed in through the open gun ports and the crew was unable to correct the sudden imbalance. Guns, ammunition, and cargo shifted to the submerging side of the ship. That made tilt even further. The Mary Rose sank quickly, and took 90% of her crew with her.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
German soldiers fighting their way through Stalingrad. Bundesarchiv Bild

Hitler’s Blunder on the Volga River

In the summer of 1942, the Germans launched a major offensive that sought to capture the Soviets’ oil fields in the Caucasus. The city of Stalingrad on the Volga River was intended as the easternmost anchor for a line that stretched between the rivers Don and Volga. It was to be manned in order to protect the advance into the Caucasus from attack in the rear by Soviets to the north. However, the symbolism of a city named after Stalin grabbed the attention of the egomaniacal German and Soviet warlords. As a result, what began as relatively unimportant morphed into a major showdown.

Unfortunately for the Germans, Hitler made a major blunder when he unnecessarily poured more and more resources in a stubborn attempt to capture Stalingrad. The Soviets’ fierce resistance, as with the Germans’ fierce attacks, was initially based on the symbolism of the city’s name. However, the Soviets soon saw potential that went beyond the fight for the city, while the Germans did not. Therein lay the seeds that grew to produce a German disaster. The story of the Battle of Stalingrad could be summarized as the Germans thinking small, while the Soviets thought big.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
A Soviet attack during the Battle of Stalingrad. The Atlantic

A German Defeat That Turned the Tide of WWII

The Germans focused on the fight for the city of Stalingrad, with its capture as an ultimate end. The Soviets saw the defense of the city as simply a means to a more ambitious end. They fed enough forces and supplies into Stalingrad to keep the battle going and the Germans engaged. In the meantime, they massed huge armies hundreds of miles to either side. Their goal was to launch a pincer attack, Operation Uranus, that would bag the Germans inside the city, as well as the Axis armies that guarded their flanks.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
German prisoners captured at Stalingrad. Life Magazine

Uranus went like clockwork, as the Soviets smashed through the Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian armies tasked with the protection of the Germans in Stalingrad. Within four days, the Soviet pincers met. The disaster was made worse by Hitler’s blunder when he insisted that the Germans inside Stalingrad stay put and fight until relieved by a rescue force, rather than try and break out. No rescue came. By the time the last Germans in Stalingrad surrendered in February of 1943, the Axis had suffered 728,000 casualties, and the German spell of invincibility was broken.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Raid on the Medway’s path. Wikimedia

When the English Navy Got Caught Asleep at Home

On June 9th, 1667, the Dutch launched a surprise raid that caught England’s Royal Navy off guard. A fleet of Dutch ships brazenly sailed up the Medway River in Kent to attack English warships anchored in dockyards at Gillingham and Chatham. The raid took place in the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), and resulted in one of the most impressive victories in Dutch history. From the start of the Second Anglo-Dutch War in 1665, things had gone bad for the English. First, they suffered the Great Plague of 1665 – 1666, then the Great Fire of London in 1666. By 1667, King Charles II of England realized that he had made a huge blunder when he got his kingdom into a war it was unprepared for.

Charles was broke, unable to pay his sailors, and desperately wanted peace. However, the Dutch were sore about an earlier loss in the First Anglo-Dutch War, and wanted to even the score. They sought to inflict a massive defeat on the English, not only as payback, but also to enable them negotiate from a strong position that would allow them to impose punitive peace terms. So a Dutch fleet, commanded by Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, entered the Thames estuary, captured Sheerness at the mouth of the Medway, then sailed up that river. That was bad for the English. As seen below, things got worse for them soon enough.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
The Raid on the Medway. Maidstone Museum and Art Gallery

A Humiliating Defeat

The Dutch fleet overcame a barrier chain stretched across the Medway. They next forced their way past fortresses along the way that were intended to protect the English battleships anchored at Gillingham and Chatham. When the Dutch reached the English ships laid up in their dockyards, they discovered that the financially strapped English had committed a major blunder and left them virtually unmanned and unarmed. The raiders swiftly burned three capital ships and ten smaller warships. They also captured and towed away two major ships of the line, including HMS Royal Charles, the flagship of the Royal Navy, named after the reigning king.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Dutch burning down British ships at Chatham, by Jan van Leyden. Sailing Ships

The Royal Navy lost 13 ships, while the Dutch lost none. The demonstration that the English could not protect their own fleet within their own borders humiliated England and the Royal Navy. So great was the humiliation that there was speculation about the collapse of the monarchy, which had been restored only seven years earlier after a decade of rule without a king during the English Commonwealth. Chagrined, broke, and with a monarch seated atop a shaky throne, the English hurried to sign a peace treaty favorable to the Dutch, and exited the war.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
King Henry V at Agincourt. History Network

A Blunder That Led to a Massive French Defeat

The Battle of Agincourt (1415) in the Hundred Years War was one of France’s worst military defeats. A French army of about 36,000 men, including thousands of armored knights, was humiliated by a smaller English army of 6000 men, comprised of 5000 longbowmen and 1000 knights. England’s King Henry V was marching through Normandy to Calais when his path was blocked by a French army that outnumbered his six to one. Henry picked a position where his flanks were protected by woods.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
The Battle of Agincourt. The Map Archive

The English choice of ground limited French options to a frontal attack along a narrow front over recently plowed muddy fields. The English monarch placed longbowmen on his flanks, and his dismounted knights and more longbowmen in the center. He had his men hammer pointed stakes in front of their positions, and awaited a French attack. The French obliged, and their commander ordered his first wave of mounted knights to charge. As seen below, that was an epic blunder, whose result humiliated the French.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
The English at Agincourt. Some Things Matter

A Blunder That Led to Catastrophe for Many Lives

Unfortunately for the French knights who charged at Agincourt, the terrain and field conditions were against them. The muddy fields, the weight of their heavy armor, the rows of sharpened stakes in their path, and the rain of arrows doomed them. The charge wallowed to a halt, and a throng of disorganized French milled about in front of the English positions. They were attacked, and within minutes, the entire first wave was killed or captured. A second French wave attacked, but was beaten back. While this was going on, King Henry received mistaken reports of a French attack on his rear.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
The Battle of Agincourt. UK National Archives

Henry judged that he lacked the men to guard thousands of prisoners, and ordered the captives executed. By the time he realized the reports were mistaken and ordered a halt to the executions, about 2,000 prisoners had been massacred. In a final blunder, the French sent in their third and last wave, but it was also repulsed. Henry then ordered his small contingent of knights to mount up and charge the French, who, thoroughly demoralized by now, were routed. Casualties were about 600 English killed vs 10,000 French dead on the field of battle, plus another 2000 executed prisoners.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Joseph Hooker. California State Military Museum

Hooker Gets Caught Flat-Footed at Chancellorsville

In December, 1862, a blunder led the Union’s Army of the Potomac to suffer a bloody defeat when it crossed the Rappahannock River and attacked Confederates in strong defensive positions near Fredericksburg. The Union forces were given a new commander, Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Aware that another frontal assault on the Confederates near Fredericksburg would fail, Hooker decided to get at them from the rear. The new Union commander had about 134,000 men, while the Confederates, under Robert E. Lee, had roughly 61,000. On April 30th, 1863, Hooker left 28,000 men in front of Fredericksburg to keep Lee occupied, and marched westward with 106,000 men to cross the Rappahannock upstream from the Confederates.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Hooker’s and Lee’s marches to Chancellorsville. Wikimedia

Hooker wanted to strike Lee’s rear, and catch him in a pincer between the forces under his command and those left behind at Fredericksburg. He stole a march on Lee, crossed the Rappahannock in heavily wooded terrain north of Chancellorsville, and got in the Confederate rear. However, Lee was not one to leave the initiative to his enemy if he could help it. When he discovered what Hooker had done, Lee divided his army. He left a small rearguard behind in Fredericksburg, and took the bulk of his men, about 45,000 Confederates, to meet Hooker. That violated conventional wisdom that deemed the division of one’s forces in the face of a numerically superior enemy to be a serious blunder. As seen below, however, Lee got away with it, and made it work.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Lee and his men at the Battle of Chancellorsville. History Net

A Terrible Day for the Union Army

When he neared Chancellorsville, Lee doubled down on his violations of conventional wisdom, and further divided his already outnumbered army. He confronted 70,000 Union soldiers with only 13,000 Confederates east of Chancellorsville, and sent his chief lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson, on a flanking march to fall on Hooker’s right flank. In a major blunder, Hooker and his forces failed to realize what the Confederates were up. On May 2nd, while Confederate cavalry screened his flank to keep the Union force from observing him, Jackson led about 28,000 men on a twelve-mile roundabout march that brought him, undetected, to Hooker’s right flank.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Panicked stampede of the Union’s XI Corps at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Wikimedia

Late that afternoon, Jackson launched a surprise attack against the XI Corps on the Union army’s right flank, just as its men sat down for dinner. It caught the Union men completely off guard, and sent them on a panicked rout that soon sowed confusion throughout Hooker’s army. Jackson’s advance was only halted by the fall of darkness. Hooker, psychologically defeated and concussed from a shell that struck a post against which he was leaning, conceded defeat and withdrew. Chancellorsville went down as Lee’s “perfect battle”, and is taught in military academies to this day.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Pinterest

Napoleon’s Disastrous Invasion of Russia

In 1812, when he invaded Russia, Napoleon bestrode Europe and was at the height of his power. By year’s end, he had suffered an epic defeat, and began a slide that ended two years later in his exile to St. Helena. His first blunder was his poor choice of subordinates. Napoleon wanted to decisively defeat the Russian army as soon as possible. However, he appointed his unqualified stepson, Prince Eugene, to a major command. The inexperienced youth allowed the Russians to retreat. Napoleon then plunged into Russia, and followed the Tsar’s army. The Russians retreated for hundreds of miles, refused to give battle, and scorched the countryside in Napoleon’s path.

Napoleon had planned to halt at Smolensk, go into winter quarters, and resume the campaign the following year. But once in Smolensk, he made another blunder when he decided to continue on to Moscow. Near Moscow, the Russians finally offered battle at Borodino. Napoleon won a hard-fought engagement, but at the decisive moment, he made yet another blunder uncharacteristic of his usually aggressive style. He wavered, and held off from his usual tactic of sending in the elite Imperial Guard, kept in reserve, to finish off the enemy. He thus missed out on a decisive victory, and the battered Russians lived to fight another day.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Napoleon and remnants of his army during the disastrous retreat from Moscow. Total War Center

Napoleon’s Biggest Blunder

When he reached Moscow, Napoleon assumed that the Russians would sue for peace. In his biggest blunder of the Russian invasion, he waited for their peace feelers while winter drew near. The Russians strung him along. No more, however, than he strung himself along with dreams of peace negotiations, long after it became obvious that the Russians were not interested. By the time Napoleon gave up and marched back to Smolensk, it was too late. His unprepared army was caught by winter during the retreat. That was exacerbated by his choice of route. Napoleon had two options, and he picked a route that was struck by severe winter storms. The route he didn’t take saw little snow that year.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Napoleon in exile at St. Helena, by Oscar Rex. History Extra

Most of Napoleon’s army starved or froze to death, or perished at the hands of Cossacks who harried its rear and flanks. The French emperor had marched into Russia with 685,000 men – at the time, the largest army the world had ever seen. He came out with only 35,000 Frenchmen still under his command. The rest had died (over 400,000), deserted, or switched sides. When he reflected upon the debacle, Napoleon commented: “From the sublime to the ridiculous, it is only one step“.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Colorized photo of George B. McClellan. Fine Art America

George B. McClellan at Yorktown

Union General George B. McClellan outwitted the Confederate main army in Northern Virginia in March, 1862, and landed 121,000 men on the Virginia Peninsula to his enemy’s south, between the James and York rivers. The goal was to march up the Peninsula and capture Richmond before the Confederates could rush in reinforcements to protect their capital. Things went smoothly at first, as McClellan successfully disembarked with no difficulty, and marched towards Richmond. The only opposition between McClellan and Richmond were 12,000 Confederates at Yorktown, commanded by John B. Magruder and outnumbered 10 to 1. Aware that his small force stood no chance in a fight, and desperately needing to buy time until reinforcements arrived, Magruder set out to bamboozle McClellan to slow down. The Union commander proved gullible enough to let a certain victory slip from his grasp.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
John B. Magruder. Flickr

From the Confederates’ perspective, Magruder was the right man in the right place at the right time. Before the war, he had a reputation for florid mannerisms and a proneness to theatrics and ostentatious displays. Those traits came in handy when Magruder turned to theatrics and display to put on a show, and get McClellan to believe that he faced far stronger opposition than was the case. Magruder took advantage of the small Warwick River that separated him from the advancing federals. He set out to convince McClellan that its 14-mile length on the opposite bank was heavily fortified and strongly garrisoned. While the fortifications were real, Magruder lacked the men to occupy them in any strength that could have stopped McClellan had he attacked. In a major blunder, as seen below, McClellan failed to attack.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
The Warwick Line and the Siege of Yorktown. Wikimedia

McClellan Snatched Defeat from the Jaws of Victory With Blunder After Blunder

Magruder ordered his men to create a din. With drumrolls and cheers in woods behind the lines, they sought to get their foe to believe that their numbers were far greater than they actual were. Magruder also employed the same column of men over and over. They marched within sight of the federals to take up positions on the defensive line. They then slipped away outside the Union observers’ line of sight, reassembled, and marched back to the defensive line. The theatrics convinced McClellan that the Confederate positions were too strong for a frontal assault. Magruder’s task was made easier by McClellan’s predisposition to take counsel of his fears, and believe himself outnumbered. On April 5th, 1862, the Union commander ordered a halt on his side of the Warwick River, had his men dig in, and set out to conduct a siege.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Union 13-inch mortars at the Siege of Yorktown. Library of Congress

A less timid commander could have simply bulled through, swatted Magruder aside, and seized a nearly undefended Richmond. In his biggest blunder of the war, McClellan spent a month methodically preparing to break through Magruder’s supposedly “strong defenses”. He concentrated men, guns, and munitions for a massive bombardment scheduled for May 5th, 1862, followed by a massive attack. Magruder, however, had already bought his side a month to prepare Richmond’s defenses. On the night of May 3rd, he slipped away and left behind empty trenches for McClellan’s men to occupy. The Union forces resumed their march on Richmond, but by then the Confederates had gathered enough defenders to thwart them. McClellan was halted at the gates of Richmond, then pushed back with furious attacks in the Seven Days Battles. When the dust settled, the Peninsula Campaign had come to an ignominious end.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
A Spitfire and and an Fw 190. Pinterest

The Pilot Who Accidentally Landed in an Enemy Airfield

When the Luftwaffe’s Focke-Wulf Fw 190 first appeared in France in August, 1941, it came as an unpleasant surprise to Britain’s Royal Air Force. Except for turn radius, the new German plane was superior in just about every way to the RAF’s main frontline fighter at the time, the Spitfire Mk. V. Especially in low and medium altitude dogfights. The Fw 190 seized aerial superiority from the RAF for nearly a year, until the vastly improved Spitfire Mk. IX, introduced in July, 1942, restored parity. In the meantime, the British were desperate to get their hands on an Fw 190 to examine and figure out how to best fight it.

Aware of that, the Luftwaffe prohibited Fw 190 pilots from flying over Britain, lest one get shot down and give the British the opportunity to inspect the wreckage. Then in an epic blunder, a German pilot delivered an Fw 190 in pristine condition straight into the RAF’s hands. The odds of an enemy gifting you one of his most advanced weapons are pretty slim. Yet that is precisely what Oberleutnant Armin Faber did. In the summer of 1942, he landed his Fw 190A-3 at an RAF airfield in Britain, which he mistook for a German airfield in France. To add to his embarrassment, Faber had recently delivered written orders from Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering that prohibited Fw 190s from crossing the English Channel.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Fw 190s. Pinterest

A Disoriented Fighter Pilot

Armin Faber’s blunder began on June 23rd, 1942. Assigned mainly to administrative paperwork duties, he asked for and got special permission to fly a combat mission with an Fw 190 squadron. The squadron was scrambled to intercept British bombers sent to attack Faber’s home base, Morlaix Aerodrome in Brittany. Spitfire escort fighters fought Fw 190s over the English Channel, and in the middle of that aerial melee, Faber got disoriented. He and his fellow Germans got the better of the Spitfires, and shot down seven for the loss of only two Fw 190s. During the dogfight, a Spitfire got on Faber’s tail. To shake it off, he flew north, and ended up over Devon, in England.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
An Fw 190 in the summer of 1942. Bundesarchiv Bild

Eventually, Faber managed to turn on and shoot down the British fighter. By then, he was close to the Bristol Channel, which separates Devon from Wales. Faber was thoroughly disoriented by his narrow escape from the Spitfire. He mistook the Bristol Channel that separated Devon from Wales for the English Channel that separated England from France. He also mistook north for south. Rather than fly south across the English Channel towards France, he flew north across the Bristol Channel to Wales. That was not his biggest blunder of the day.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
An Fw 190 in a dogfight with a Spitfire over the English Channel. Imgur

The RAF Was Grateful for This Enemy Pilot’s Blunder

When Armin Faber crossed the Bristol Channel into Wales, he thought that he had crossed the English Channel and was back over France. He turned towards the nearest airfield, RAF Pembrey, and performed a victory roll to celebrate his aerial victory. Then he lowered his wheels and smoothly landed in front of astonished British observers. Pembrey’s duty pilot, a Flight Sergeant Jeffreys, grabbed the only weapon at hand, a flare pistol, jumped on the Fw 190’s wing as Faber taxied to a stop, and took the German pilot prisoner.

Historic Military Blunders that Will Make You Feel Better About Your Own Mistakes
Morlaix, Armin Faber’s home base in Brittany, and RAF Pembrey in Britain, where he landed. Square Space

When he realized just how big a blunder he had committed, a despondent Faber unsuccessfully tried to kill himself. He ended up in a POW camp in Canada. The RAF took full advantage of the airplane that Faber had gifted them – the only Fw 190 fighter captured intact by the Allies during the war. It was flown by British pilots, and thoroughly evaluated to examine its strengths and weaknesses. The results gave the Allies valuable intelligence on how to best counter the enemy fighter that had troubled them for so long.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Air Force Magazine, November 1995 – The Son Tay Raid

American Battlefield Trust – Battle of Chancellorsville Facts & Summary

Bellamy, Chris – Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War (2007)

Bradford, Ernle – The Story of the Mary Rose (1982)

British Battles – Battle of Agincourt

Catton, Bruce – Bruce Catton’s Civil War: Three Volumes in One (1984)

Catton, Bruce – Mr. Lincoln’s Army (1951)

Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust – Battle of Medway

Clark, Alan – Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45 (1965)

Cracked – 3 Idiotic Military Blunders That Lost Battles Before they Started

Daily Sabah, October 21st, 2021 – Battle of Karansebes: Easiest Victory in Ottoman History

Encyclopedia Britannica – Battle of Agincourt

Encyclopedia Britannica – Battle of Balaklava

Free Czechoslovak Air Force – Unintentional Gift

Friday Times, April 16th, 2022 – Dumbest Battle in History: Drunken Disorder and Confusion at Karansebes

Gargus, John – The Son Tay Raid: American POWs in Vietnam Were Not Forgotten (2007)

History Collection – 20 Mistakes the Axis Powers Made in World War II

Jones, James Rees – The Anglo-Dutch Wars of the Seventeenth Century (1996)

Lieven, Dominic – Russia Against Napoleon: The True Story of the Campaigns of War and Peace (2010)

Mary Rose Organization – About the Mary Rose

Riehn, Richard K. – 1812: Napoleon’s Russian Campaign (1990)

Robert, Geoffrey – Victory at Stalingrad: The Battle that Changed History (2008)

Sears, Stephen W. – To the Gates of Richmond: The Peninsula Campaign (1992)

Seaton, Albert – The Russo-German War, 1941-45 (1972)

Wikipedia – Armin Faber

Woodham-Smith, Cecil – The Reason Why: Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade (1954)