Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era

Khalid Elhassan - August 13, 2017




a sudden and ignominious failure; a fiasco.

In most battles and wars, there are winners and losers. Sometimes the outcome is clear cut. Other times it is a near run thing, with Pyrrhic victors and losers who went down hard and honorably. And then there are those other times where the outcome is a humiliating defeat in which the loser is beaten so badly, and the defeat is so convincing and in such stark contrast to the brimming confidence and high expectations of success with which the losers had started off, that it is simply cringeworthy.

Following are twelve of the worst military debacles in history, spanning the gamut from antiquity and the Middle Ages, to the age of gunpowder and the world wars, and into our modern era.

Roman Defeat at Cannae

Hannibal led a Carthaginian army into Italy during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC) and inflicted a series of humiliating defeats upon the Romans. The losses shook Rome’s hold on Italy, as allies forswore their allegiance and either joined Hannibal or declared neutrality. The Romans appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus dictator for 6 months, and he adopted a strategy that became known as “Fabian”. Realizing that Rome’s manpower reservoir exceeded Hannibal’s, Fabius turned to attrition, whittling the Carthaginian’s forces with skirmishes and raids on his supply lines while avoiding pitched battle.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Battle of Cannae. Dickinson College

That stabilized the situation but did not sit well with other Romans, who wanted to avenge the earlier defeats as soon as possible. When Fabius’ term expired, the Romans amassed 87,000 men, their biggest army to date, and marched off to destroy Hannibal. Hannibal, who had been discomfited by Fabius’ attrition tactics, was willing to accommodate the Romans and give them battle when they met near Cannae, where Hannibal’s 40,000 men 87,000 Romans.

Hannibal adopted a brilliant tactical plan that was carried out to perfection. He placed his undisciplined 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. The confident Romans, scenting victory as the enemy gave ground, would push 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 would have defeated the Roman cavalry. It would then turn around, and attack the enemy infantry’s rear, thus completely encircling the Romans. In the battle that is seen to this day as the gold standard for tactical generalship, the surrounded Romans were nearly wiped out, with only 10,000 out of the 87,000 strong armies escaping, the remainder either slaughtered or captured.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Battle of Carrhae. Military Wiki

Roman Defeat at Carrhae

Marcus Licinius Crassus (115 – 53 BC) was a leading figure of the late Roman Republic and its richest man. He used his wealth to sponsor politicians, including Julius Caesar, whose political rise he bankrolled, and amassed considerable power. The one thing he lacked, yet craved, was military glory. His pursuit of such glory would end in catastrophe.

Crassus was a shrewd and avaricious businessman. An ally of the dictator Sulla in the 80s BC, he got his start on wealth by bidding on the confiscated properties of those executed as enemies of the state, buying them in rigged auctions for a fraction of their value. He even arranged for the names of those whose properties he coveted to be added to the lists of enemies of the state, slated for execution and confiscation of property.

Crassus leveraged his wealth and power into creating the First Triumvirate, a power-sharing agreement by which he, Pompey the Great, and Julius Caesar, effectively divided the Roman Republic amongst themselves. He wanted military glory, though – something his partners had, but he lacked. Unlike Pompey’s and Caesar’s brilliant military records, Crassus’ only military accomplishment had been to crush Spartacus’ slave uprising, which didn’t count for much in Roman eyes. It gnawed at Crassus, so he decided to invade Parthia, a wealthy kingdom comprised of today’s Iraq and Iran, which he assumed would be a pushover. A decade earlier, Pompey had invaded and easily defeated other kingdoms in the east, so hard could Parthia be?

Crassus assembled an army of 50,000, and in 53 BC, marched off to an easy conquest. He trusted a local chieftain to guide him. The guide was in Parthian pay, and led Crassus along an arid route, until, hot and thirsty, they reached the town of Carrhae in today’s Turkey, where they encountered a Parthian force of 9000 horse archers and 1000 armored cataphract heavy cavalry. Although they outnumbered the Parthians 5:1, the Romans were demoralized by the rigors of the march and by Crassus’ uninspiring leadership.

The mounted archers shot up the Romans from a distance, retreating whenever the Romans advanced. As casualties mounted, morale plummeted. Crassus, unable to think of a plan, rested his hopes on the Parthians running out of arrows. The Parthians however had a supply train of thousands of camels loaded with arrows. Finally, Crassus ordered his son to take the Roman cavalry and some infantry, and drive off the horse archers. The Parthians feigned retreat, Crassus’ son rashly pursued, and was slaughtered with all his men. The Parthians rode back to Roman army and taunted Crassus with his son’s head mounted on a spear.

Shaken, Crassus retreated to Carrhae, abandoning thousands of his wounded. The Parthians invited him to negotiate, offering to let his army go in exchange for Roman territorial concessions. Crassus was reluctant to meet the Parthians, but his men threatened to mutiny if he did not, so he went. Things did not go well, violence broke out at the meeting, and ended with Crassus and his generals killed. Mocking his avarice, the Parthians poured molten gold down Crassus’ throat. The surviving Romans fled, but most were hunted down and killed or captured. Out of Crassus’ 50,000, only 10,000 made it back to Roman territory.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
English longbowmen at Agincourt. Some Things Matter

French Defeat at Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt (1415) during the Hundred Years War saw a French army of about 36,000 men, including thousands of armored knights, suffer a humiliating defeat at the hands of 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, and that limited French options to a frontal attack along a narrow front comprised of recently plowed muddy fields. He placed longbowmen on his flanks, his dismounted knights and more longbowmen in the center, had his men hammer pointed stakes in front of their positions, and waited for the French.

The French obliged, and their commander ordered his first wave of mounted knights to charge. However, the muddy fields, the weight of their heavy armor, the rows of sharpened stakes in their path, and the rain of arrows spelled trouble. 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 that he was being attacked in the rear. Judging that he lacked the men to guard thousands of prisoners, Henry ordered the captives executed. By the time he learned the reports were mistaken and ordered a halt to the executions, about 2000 prisoners had been massacred.

The French sent in their third and final 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. Estimated losses were about 600 English killed vs 10,000 French dead on the field of battle, plus another 2000 executed prisoners.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Battle of Karansebes. Lock, Stock, and History

Battle of Karansebes

The battle of Karansebes (1788) was 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 present. It occurred during the Austro-Turkish War of 1787-1791, and was fought between an Austrian army of 100,000, and itself.

Austria ruled a diverse and multiethnic empire, with an army comprised of units drawn from various ethnic groups, most of whom could not understand each others’ languages. During the night of September 21-22, 1788, Austrian hussars crossed a river to scout. They found no Turks, but found some Gypsies who sold them schnapps, and soon, the hussars were uproariously drunk.

Back in the camp, the Austrian commander grew worried by the hussars taking so long to return, so he sent some infantry across the river to check. The infantry found the hussars and demanded a share of the schnapps. The hussars refused, a brawl ensued, and escalated into an exchange of gunfire. During that fight, an infantryman shouted “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”), which caused the drunken hussars to flee in panic, accompanied by many infantrymen, unaware that it had been a trick by a comrade.

Across the river, the Austrian camp stirred uneasily at the sounds of distant gunfire and screams. When the panicked hussars and infantry neared the camp, shouting “Turci! Turci!“, they were challenged by sentries who shouted at them to “Halt! Halt!” – which was misheard by non-German speaking soldiers as “Allah! Allah!” In the confusion, an artillery officer concluded that the camp was under attack and ordered his cannons to open fire.

As soldiers woke up to the sounds of combat, startled and confused, some began firing wildly, and within minutes, the panic and wild firing spread and engulfed the 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.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
French army during retreat from Moscow. Quora

Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia

In 1812, on the eve of invading Russia, Napoleon bestrode Europe and was at the height of his power. By year’s end, he had suffered an epic defeat, and began the downward slide that would culminate two years later in his exile to St. Helena.

His first misstep was his poor choice of subordinates. His aim was to bring the Tsar to heel by decisively defeating the Russian army as soon as possible. However, he appointed his unqualified stepson, Prince Eugene, to major command, and the inexperienced youth allowed the Russians to retreat. Napoleon then plunged into Russia, following the Tsar’s army for hundreds of miles as it retreated, refusing to give battle and scorching the countryside. He had planned to halt at Smolensk, go into winter quarters, and resume the campaign the following year. But once in Smolensk, 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 wavered and held off from his usual tactic of sending in the elite Imperial Guard, kept in reserve, to finish off the reeling enemy. That prevented the victory from becoming decisive, and allowed the battered Russians to live to fight another day.

When he reached Moscow, Napoleon assumed that the Russians would sue for peace, so he waited for their peace feelers even as winter drew near. The Russians strung him along, but no more than he strung himself along with wishful thinking of peace negotiations long after it became obvious that the Russians were not interested. By the time he gave up and marched back to Smolensk, it was too late, and his unprepared army was caught by winter during the retreat. That was exacerbated by his choice of route: he had two options and ended up picking a route that was struck by severe winter storms, while the one he didn’t take saw little snow that year. Most of his army starved or froze to death, while more were killed by Cossacks who harried the rear and flanks of the retreating columns.

Napoleon 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, with the remainder either dead (over 400,000), deserting, or switching sides. Reflecting upon the debacle, Napoleon commented: “From the sublime to the ridiculous, it is only one step“.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Last stand of the 44th Regiment during retreat from Kabul. Wikimedia

British Retreat From Kabul

For most of the 19th century, the British and Russians jockeyed for influence in Central Asia, as the Russians pursued their version of “Manifest Destiny” by expanding into the region, while the British suspected the Russians of coveting India, and sought to keep Tsarist borders as far away as possible from Britain’s most prized imperial possession.

In the 1830s, an Afghan ruler became too friendly with Russia for Britain’s tastes, so the British invaded Afghanistan in 1839, deposed its Russophile ruler, replaced him in Kabul with a British puppet, and garrisoned the Afghan capital and key cities to keep their new pet ruler in power. Things initially went well, the British made themselves comfortable in Afghanistan, and it seemed only a matter of time before the country was annexed to British India.

However, the Afghans proved obstreperous, and Britain’s puppet ruler proved incapable of controlling the country. By 1841, discontent had flared into open revolt as the Afghan tribes rebelled against the British and their pet ruler. As the countryside was lost and supply lines to India were cut off, British control first shrank to the garrisoned cities, and soon, the British found themselves in control of little more than the grounds of their fortified garrisons.

The British sought a face saving measure to extricate themselves from what had become an untenable situation. They removed their puppet ruler, dusted off the ruler whom they had deposed in 1839, and reinstalled him in power in exchange for a promise to control the Afghan tribes long enough for the British to evacuate Afghanistan and withdraw in peace.

Whether the reinstalled ruler deliberately betrayed the British, or simply lacked the influence to control the tribesmen, things went sour. Setting out from Kabul on January 6, 1842, amid falling snow, the British column of 16,500 soldiers and civilians was barely a mile beyond the city before it began to take sniper fire from the surrounding hills. By that first day’s end, emboldened parties of Afghan tribesmen were dashing in and out of the column to loot the supply train and butcher whoever they could lay their hands on.

That night, many froze to death as the column encamped in the open without tents. The following day, some Afghan leaders arrived and demanded that the British halt while they tried to ensure the safety of the route ahead, extorted a large sum of money, negotiated a British agreement to withdraw immediately from all of Afghanistan, and demanded that they be given officers as hostages. The following day, the British resumed the march, by which point many of the soldiers had become too debilitated by the cold to fight. As they entered a narrow pass, the column was fired upon by tribesmen ensconced on the rocks above, losing 3000 casualties.

Over the following days, the British were shaken down for more money and more hostages in exchange for empty promises to rein in the tribesmen. On January 11, the British commander and his deputy were forced to surrender in exchange for yet another promise of safe passage, but soon thereafter the British found their path barred, this time for good, by entrenched Afghans who had blocked and fortified a pass. A desperate charge was made to try and breakthrough, but it was beaten back.

On January 13, a week after setting out from Kabul, the last group of survivors formed a tiny square and made a last stand. Later that afternoon, British sentries in Jellalabad, on the lookout for the arrival of the Kabul garrison, saw a single rider approaching. It was Dr. Brydon, the sole survivor of the British retreat from Kabul.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Sole survivor of the retreat from Kabul arriving at Jellalabad. British Battles

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Hitler touring Paris. Rare Historical Photos

French Collapse in 1940

The French had been traumatized by WWI and by the devastation suffered by the parts of their country that were fought over. So they devised a plan to avoid repetition: the Maginot Line would secure the Franco-German border to the south, while the bulk of the mobile French army was stationed in the north, tasked with advancing into Belgium soon as the Germans attacked, to fight as far forward and outside of France as possible.

The French had adequately fortified the south, and amassed enough mobile forces in the north to keep the Germans from bursting into France via that route. However, they ignored a stretch of wooded terrain in the center, the Ardennes Forrest, which they deemed impassable for tanks, and so kept it lightly defended. The Germans figured the Ardennes was actually passable, so they massed the bulk of their armor against that sector.

When the Germans burst through the Ardennes and raced to the English Channel to sever France’s armies in the north from the rest of the country, the French were caught wrong footed: their mobile forces were advancing into Belgium, and couldn’t be turned around in time to stop the Germans pouring out of the Ardennes, and they lacked adequate reserves to send in and plug the widening gap.

Collapse quickly followed, and the same country that two decades earlier had fought the Germans for four bloody years and emerged victorious in WWI, capitulated and signed a humiliating surrender after just 40 days’ fighting in WWII.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Soviet POWs beseeching captors for food in summer of 1941. Wikimedia

Soviet Disaster in Summer of 1941

The Soviets suffered horrific losses during the opening months of the German invasion in 1941. The seeds were planted years earlier, during Stalin’s Military Purge, starting in 1937, which threw the Soviet military into turmoil by removing 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.

The Purge also decimated the best middle-rank officers. Until 1937, the Soviet military had been innovative, and 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, brimming with ideas and confident that they would revolutionize warfare. They suffered the most, because the Purge fell heaviest on the most creative and free-thinking 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 of impending invasion. 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, and Soviet commanders were prohibited from taking precautionary measures, lest they provoke the Germans. Indeed, hours after the invasion had begun, Stalin disbelieved Soviet commanders reporting that they were being overrun, insisting that they were experiencing border incidents, not war.

Stalin also fancied himself a talented generalissimo, and meddled too much. Among his poor decisions were ordered to counterattack, issued to units that were in no position to do so. Later, 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.

The Soviets suffered over 6 million military casualties, plus millions of civilians, in the first 6 months of the war – more 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 for keeping the USSR in the fight long after any other country would have thrown in the towel. But Stalin deserves even more credit for the catastrophic debacle at war’s beginning.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Douglas TBD Devastator launching torpedo. Aviation History Online Museum

Japanese Defeat at Midway

At 10:25 AM, June 4th, 1942, Japan was mistress of the Pacific, had the world’s strongest naval aviation force, and was dictating the terms of war. By 10:30 AM, Japan had effectively lost WWII.

After Pearl Harbor, Japan went on a rampage, winning stunning victories. Her war strategy however was to win a battle of annihilation, like Tsushima, then negotiate a favorable peace. Pearl Harbor was a success, but no Tsushima, so the Japanese figured an invasion of Midway Island might lure what’s left of the US Navy into showing up for a climactic showdown. Assuming that the US Navy had only 1 or 2 aircraft carriers in the Pacific, the Japanese launched their operation with 4 fleet carriers. However, US cryptanalysts had cracked Japanese codes and knew of the upcoming attack. Moreover, the Americans had more carriers in the Pacific than expected – one had been transferred from the Atlantic, and another that had been damaged in an earlier battle and was expected to take months to fix, was rushed back into service after 48 hours of repairs. Thus, the Japanese would meet 3 US carriers, and an alert enemy waiting in ambush rather than one caught off guard.

The Japanese launched a carrier strike against Midway on the morning of June 4th. They inflicted significant damage, but a second strike was necessary. So the Japanese aircraft were recovered and readied. While preparing that strike, the Japanese learned of the presence of American carriers. Midway wasn’t going anywhere, and destroying aircraft carriers was more important, so orders were given to switch the bombs from ones intended for ground targets, to anti-ship bombs and torpedoes.

While that was going on, the American carriers had launched their own aircraft against the Japanese. First to arrive were Devastator torpedo bombers – slow planes that had to fly low, steady, and straight, to launch their torpedoes. 41 Devastators attacked the Japanese carriers without fighter escort. 35 were shot down, without scoring a hit. The Japanese carriers resumed refueling and rearming to strike the American carriers.

While the American torpedo bombers were getting slaughtered, a flight of American Dauntless dive bombers was lost, trying to locate the Japanese. They had neared the point beyond which they wouldn’t have sufficient fuel to return to their carriers, but their commander decided to keep going. He was rewarded by spotting a lone Japanese destroyer below. Guessing that it was heading to rejoin its fleet, he used its wake as an arrow, and that led him to the Japanese fleet.

And a Japanese fleet caught at the worst possible time for an attack from dive bombers. The carriers were rearming and refueling, so their decks were full of bombs and torpedoes and gas. There was also no fighter cover – the Japanese fighters had gone down to intercept and destroy the torpedo bombers that had attacked at low level, and hadn’t yet regained altitude when the American dive bombers showed up high above and dove down. Within 5 minutes, 3 of the 4 Japanese aircraft carriers were burning. The fourth was sunk later that day.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Douglas SBD Dauntlesses diving to attack Japanese carriers at Midway. US Naval Institute

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
German prisoners after capitulation at Stalingrad. Life Magazine


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

Hitler unnecessarily poured more and more resources into capturing the city. 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, and therein lay the seeds that germinated into a German debacle: the story of the battle could be summarized as the Germans thinking small, while the Soviets thought big.

The Germans focused on the fight for the city, with its capture being 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, while massing huge armies hundreds of miles to either side, with the aim of launching them in a pincer attack, Operation Uranus, that would bag the Germans inside the city and the Axis armies guarding their flanks.

Operation Uranus went like clockwork, as the Soviets smashed through the Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian armies protecting the Germans in Stalingrad, and within 4 days, the Soviet pincers met. The disaster was made worse by Hitler’s insistence that the Germans inside Stalingrad stay put and fight it out until relieved by a rescue force, rather than try and break out. No rescue came, and 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.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
French prisoners herded into captivity after surrender at Dien Bien Phu. Pinterest

Dien Bien Phu

As the First Indochina War (1946 – 1954) wore on, France’s grip on her Southeast Asian colonies was loosened by the increasingly assertive Viet Minh nationalist forces. While the French had a decided edge in firepower, they were unable to bring the lightly armed Viet Minh to offer the type of stand-up pitched battle in which superior firepower could prove decisive. At wit’s end, a plan was hatched to entice the guerrillas into massing for a pitched battle by offering them an irresistible lure. That lure would be French paratroopers airdropped into an isolated base, Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh, unable to resist the opportunity to destroy the isolated French, would flock to the area. The garrison kept supplied by air, would resist, and draw in more and more Viet Minh into a battle of attrition in which they would be wrecked by superior French firepower.

The paratroopers were dropped into Dien Bien Phu, whose main feature was an airstrip in a valley encircled by hills. Things quickly turned sour, as many French assumptions were proven mistaken. The French had assumed the guerrillas lacked anti-aircraft capabilities, but the surrounding hills were soon studded by flak guns, forming a deadly gauntlet through which aircraft had to fly when taking off or landing from the airstrip. So many planes were shot down that the French were soon forced to rely on airdrops for supply, many of which missed their targets and landed within enemy lines, instead.

The French had also assumed the Viet Minh would have no artillery. Their commander, general Giap, organized tens of thousands of porters into a supply line that hauled disassembled howitzers over rough terrain to the hills overlooking the French, ingenuously dug them in to render them immune from counter-battery fire, and kept them adequately supplied with shells.

The besieged French were bombarded nonstop, and began to run low and supplies and munitions. Relentless attacks reduced fortified positions one after another, and the defensive perimeter shrank steadily. Within two months, the French were forced to surrender. After losing 4000 dead and missing, and nearly 7000 wounded, the survivors, numbering nearly 12,000, were herded into Viet Minh captivity.

Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era
Israeli soldiers guarding Egyptian prisoners during Six Day War. Greenville Post

Arab Defeat in Six-Day War

In the runup to the Six-Day War (June 5th – 10th, 1967), tensions between Israel and her Arab neighbors climbed steadily. Raids from Palestinian guerrillas based in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, increased, eliciting massive Israeli reprisals. That put Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser in a bind. He was the Arab world’s most popular politician, a hero of the masses for his defiance of Britain, France, and Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956, but he was now being criticized for failing to aid those Arab states against Israel. He was also accused of hiding behind a UN peacekeeping force stationed on the Israeli-Egyptian border.

Nasser knew that the Egyptian military was in no shape to fight Israel, but he sought to regain his stature in the Arab world by bluster and bluff. He broadcast increasingly heated speeches threatening Israel, and sought to convey his seriousness with demonstrations short of war. However, Nasser got carried away with his own rhetoric, and escalated the demonstrations beyond the point of prudence. He began by massing Egyptian forces in the Sinai. A few days later, he requested the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers separating the Israeli and Egyptian forces. A few more days, and he closed to Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping. A week later, Jordan’s king arrived in Egypt to ink a mutual defense pact, followed soon thereafter by Iraq.

Unfortunately, what might have been intended as bluff seemed all too real from an Israeli perspective. Moreover, the Israelis, who actually were prepared for war, had long been itching for an excuse to cut Nasser down to size. So on June 5th, 1967, they launched preemptive airstrikes that destroyed 90 percent of the Egyptian air force on the ground, and put pay to the Syrian planes as well. Then, having secured aerial supremacy, the Israelis launched ground attacks that routed the Egyptians and seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula within three days, and routed the Jordanians and seized Jerusalem and the West Bank within two. Egypt and Jordan accepted a UN ceasefire but the Syrians unwisely did not, so the Israelis attacked Syria on June 9th, and captured the Golan Heights within a day. Syria accepted a cease-fire the following day.

The defeat was humiliatingly lopsided: about 24,000 Arabs killed vs 800 Israelis, with similarly disproportionate rates for wounded and equipment losses. Nasser’s prestige in the Arab world, which he had sought to burnish with warlike rhetoric and demonstrations short of war, took a severe hit from which it never recovered.