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

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

Khalid Elhassan - August 13, 2017

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.