Incompetence That Shaped History

Incompetence That Shaped History

Khalid Elhassan - March 9, 2020

Did you know that one of Napoleon’s most crushing defeats was caused by hapless underlings, who mistakenly blew up a bridge and stranded a big chunk of his army on the enemy side of a river? Or that when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, his bodyguard was out drinking instead of guarding the president’s booth at Ford’s Theater? History is shaped not only by the brilliant, capable, and competent. The dim, inept, and incompetent, can also inadvertently produce long-lasting results. Following are forty things about incompetence that helped shape history.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 ended in disaster. Total War Center

40. Blowing Up a Bridge at the Wrong Time

In 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with 685,000 men – the largest army ever seen until then. He came out with only 120,000 cold and hungry survivors, including 35,000 Frenchmen. The rest had died (over 400,000), deserted, or switched sides. Napoleon’s dominance of Europe was shattered, as client states and subject nations rushed to shake off French hegemony.

Racing back to France, Napoleon raised an army equivalent in size to the one recently lost, but of lower quality and experience than the veterans lost in Russia. However, they were led by one of history’s greatest generals. Although vastly outnumbered, Napoleon conducted a brilliant campaign in 1813, fighting his enemies to a draw. Then catastrophe struck when a lowly corporal was entrusted with blowing up a bridge after a reeling but still formidable French army had retreated across it. He blew up the bridge too soon, stranding a major part of the French army on the other side.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Battle of Leipzig. Weapons and Warfare

39. Surviving the Battle of the Nations

Napoleon’s 1813 German Campaign culminated in the Battle of the Nations, so-called because it was fought by contingents from many countries. Fought near Leipzig from October 16th to 19th 1813, it pitted 225,000 men under Napoleon against a multinational coalition army of 380,000 men. Napoleon held his own until the 18th, when 10,000 Saxon allies suddenly switched sides, abandoned their positions in Napoleon’s lines, and marched off to join his foes.

With a gaping hole now suddenly appearing in his lines, Napoleon had to abandon an entire sector. By nightfall, his position had become untenable, so he ordered an orderly retreat. Without alerting the enemy, Napoleon began withdrawing his forces across the nearby Elster River, using a single bridge in Leipzig. It was to be blown after the last of Napoleon’s men had crossed to prevent the enemy from using it. Things went smoothly at first, until incompetence struck.

Incompetence That Shaped History
The Battle of Leipzig, by Vladimir Ivanovich Moshkov, 1815. Wikimedia

38. Entrusting the Fate of an Army to a Corporal

Napoleon planned to use part of his army to hold off the enemy with street-to-street fighting in Leipzig, while the rest of the army and its heavy equipment crossed the town’s only bridge. According to a precise timetable, once the last of Napoleon’s men had crossed, the bridge would be blown up. The plan and the orderly retreat went without a hitch, until things suddenly went haywire early in the afternoon of October 19th, 1813.

Napoleon had entrusted the task of blowing up the bridge to General Dulauloy. Dulauloy delegated it to Colonel Montfort. Montfort was not completely clear about the timetable, so he headed to Napoleon’s headquarters, seeking clarification. While away, he left Corporal Lafontaine in charge of the bridge’s explosives. Lafontaine knew even less than his Colonel about the retreat timetable. When he heard distant gunfire, he panicked.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Napoleon’s retreat from Leipzig, with the premature detonation of the bridge in the background. Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast

37. Incompetence Turns an Orderly Retreat Into a Catastrophic Rout

Entrusting the fate of an army to a lowly corporal turned out to be a bad decision. Around 1 PM on October 19th, 1813, Corporal Lafontaine, temporarily in sole charge of the explosives-rigged up to blow up Leipzig’s bridge, heard distant gunfire. Discombobulated, the corporal immediately blew up the bridge – while it was jam-packed with Napoleon’s retreating men.

Most of those on the bridge were either killed by the explosion, or drowned. That was just the tip of the iceberg. The unexpected detonation caused a panic, during which thousands of French troops were killed. Tens of thousands of Napoleon’s men were still on the far side of the bridge, when they found themselves suddenly cut off from retreat, and on the same side as the enemy. Many more drowned as they tried to swim across. 30,000 of those stranded on the wrong side of the bridge were forced to surrender.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Abraham Lincoln. Wiki Quote

36. Abraham Lincoln’s Inept Bodyguard

For much of America’s history, seeing to the safety of the country’s chief executives was very much an ad hoc affair. The Secret Service, created in 1865 to fight currency counterfeiting, was not tasked with protecting US presidents until 1902, after the McKinley assassination.

Before that, security for US presidents was astonishingly lax. For example, on the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, April 14th, 1865, only one man had been assigned to protect him: an inept and unreliable cop named John Frederick Parker.

Also Read: The Anarchist that Killed President William McKinley Changed the Presidency Forever.

Incompetence That Shaped History
The attempted assassination of Andrew Jackson in 1835. Smithsonian Magazine

35. Lax Presidential Protection

Back when Abraham Lincoln occupied the Oval Office, people were pretty blasé about presidential security. This, notwithstanding earlier warnings, such as an 1835 attempt to assassinate President Andrew Jackson, that failed only because the would-be assassin’s pistols misfired. Lincoln was himself quite cavalier about his personal safety, despite numerous threats and hate mail.

In 1861 a plot was uncovered that sought to murder him in Baltimore. In 1864, while riding at night unguarded, an unknown sniper fired a rifle shot that missed the president’s head by inches, and pierced his hat. Notwithstanding, Lincoln often went about unescorted. He sometimes walked alone at night from the White House to the War Department, often attended church or went to the theater without bodyguards, and generally disliked the fuss of a military escort.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Nineteenth-century Washington Metropolitan Police Force officers. Washington Metropolitan Police

34. Assigning One of Washington’s Worst Cops to Guard the President

John Frederick Parker (1830 – 1890) was a bad cop. One of the first officers to join Washington’s Metropolitan Police Force when it was created in 1861, Parker stood out for his ineptness and unsuitability as a policeman. He was frequently hauled before the police oversight board on a variety of charges, any of which could have gotten him fired. He was let off each time with a slap on the wrist.

Parker was frequently charged with conduct unbecoming an officer. His infractions included abusing civilians, cursing, frequenting whorehouses, being drunk on the job, and sleeping in a streetcar when he was supposed to be walking his beat. Each time, he got away with no more than a reprimand. Despite that poor record, when in November 1864, the Metropolitan Police Force created the first permanent detail to guard the president, Parker was one of four officers assigned the task. On the night of April 14th, 1865, Parker escorted Lincoln and his wife to their box seats in Ford’s Theater.

Incompetence That Shaped History
John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Corbis

33. Abandoning a Post Guarding the President to Go Drinking

Parker grabbed a seat in the hallway behind Lincoln in Ford’s Theater, but was unable to see the play from there. So he abandoned his post to watch from downstairs. The play bored him, however, so Parker left Ford’s Theater altogether, to go grab a drink in a bar next door. There, he might have crossed paths with John Wilkes Booth, who was also at the bar for the last shot of liquid courage before heading into Ford’s Theater.

Lincoln was unguarded when Booth entered his theater box and shot him in the back of the head. It is unclear if Parker ever returned to Ford’s Theater that night, or only found out about the assassination the next day. Parker was charged with failing to protect the president, but incredibly, the charge was dismissed. He was even kept on the presidential protection detail for another three years, before he was finally fired for once again sleeping on the job.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Gamal Abdel Nasser delivering a speech. Madison

32. Biting More Than One Can Chew

Tensions climbed steadily between Israel and her Arab neighbors in the runup to the 1967 Six-Day War. 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.

Nasser 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. However, he now found himself being criticized for failing to aid other Arab states against Israel. He was also accused of hiding behind a UN peacekeeping force stationed on the Israeli-Egyptian border. So Nasser tried to show his chops by saber-rattling, without intending to actually draw a saber and fight. Unfortunately, saber-rattling ended up getting him in a fight, which ended in a humiliating defeat.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Gamal Abdel Nasser addressing Egyptian pilots in May, 1967: “The Jews want war. We tell them ‘welcome'”. Wikimedia

31. Miscalculating How Close to the Edge One Can Get Without Falling

Gamal Abdel Nasser knew that Egypt’s military was in no shape to fight Israel, so 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.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Egyptian prisoners of war are shown during the Arab-Israeli Six Day War in June 1967. Associated Press

30. When Bluster and Bluff Backfire

On June 5th, 1967, Israel launched preemptive air strikes that destroyed 90 percent of the Egyptian air force on the ground, and put paid to Syria’s warplanes 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.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Israeli soldiers guarding Egyptian POWs captured during the Six Day War. Greanville Post

The defeat was humiliatingly lopsided: about 24,000 Arabs were 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.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Reenactor with a lantern shield. YouTube

29. A Shield That Set Its Users On Fire

Lantern shields – small circular bucklers to which a lantern was attached – became popular with duelists during the Italian Renaissance. A leather flap covered the lantern, and when the user deemed it appropriate, he would throw open the flap and the sudden light from the lantern would hopefully dazzle the opponent by blinding or otherwise degrading his night vision. Some of the more sophisticated lantern shields, which could include built-in spikes, sword blades, and gauntlets, also had a mechanism for dimming or brightening the lamp’s light.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Lantern shield. Pinterest

It was a good-looking contraption, and quite stylish, bestowing upon its bearer an air of elegance, urbane classiness, and refinement. A drawback – and a significant one at that – was that lanterns of the day were oil lamps. That meant that the lantern shield suffered from an unfortunate design defect: it literally mixed oil and fire, strapped to the user’s arm and in close proximity to his face and torso. They could set their users on fire.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Lantern shield. Wikimedia

28. Transforming Users Into Human Torches

The lantern shield had an oil storage compartment to allow extended use for hours on end. When the lamp was jostled – and being affixed to a shield it could not help doing so since the purpose of a shield is to absorb blows when used defensively, and to bash opponents when used offensively – the oil could leak out or spill uncontrollably.

With the lantern’s fuel compartment affixed to the shield, there was a strong possibility that the user’s shield-bearing arm, face, or body, would get drenched in flammable oil, and catch fire if that oil came in contact with the lantern’s flame. As a result, the lantern shield had a tendency to turn its users into human torches every now and then.

Related: 10 Most Bizarre Duels in History.

Incompetence That Shaped History
General William Hull. History Net

27. The Hero Who Got Duped Into a Humiliating Surrender

Early in the War of 1812, British general Isaac Brock marched on Fort Detroit. He led a force of 1330 men, comprised of 330 Redcoats, 400 Canadian militia, and 600 Native Americans. They were supported by 3 light guns, 5 heavy guns, 2 mortars, and 2 warships. Brock’s target was garrisoned by a force nearly twice the size of his own, comprised of 600 US Army regulars and nearly 2000 militia. They were sheltered within the protective walls of a fortress bristling with over 36 cannons, commanded by an American Revolutionary War veteran and hero, General William Hull.

Brock learned from captured messages that American morale was low, that the garrison was short of supplies, and that his enemies were in mortal fear of his Native American allies. Emboldened by that information, Brock decided to immediately attack Detroit, using bluff and deception to bamboozle the enemy commander – who proved quite gullible – into surrendering.

Incompetence That Shaped History
General Isaac Brock. Brock University

26. Capitalizing on an Enemy’s Fears

General Brock played on his enemy’s fear of Indians by arranging for a misleading letter to fall into American hands, which greatly exaggerated the number of his native allies from an actual 600 to a fanciful 5000. He also tricked the Americans into believing that he had more regulars under his command than was the case, by dressing up his Canadian militia in castoff British regimental uniforms.

Outside Detroit, Brock had the same troops march in a loop over the same stretch within eyesight of the garrison, duck out of sight, then return to march anew as if they were fresh reinforcements. He also ordered his troops to light 5 times as many fires at night than was the norm, in order to further convey an illusion of greater strength. General Hull’s already low confidence collapsed at the prospect of facing a strong British army accompanied by 5000 Natives.

Incompetence That Shaped History
William Hull caving in. Khronikos

25. Intimidating the Already Timid

Brock sent a message demanding the surrender of Fort Detroit. He informed General Hull that he did not want to massacre the defenders, but that he would have little control over his Indian allies once fighting began. Hull decided it was futile to resist. Unwilling to sacrifice his men against hopeless odds, and fearing for the women in children inside the Fort, including his own daughter and grandchild, he raised a white flag and asked Brock for three days to negotiate the terms of surrender.

Brock gave him only three hours before he would attack. Hull caved in, and surrendered his entire command of nearly 2500 men, three dozen cannons, 300 rifles, 2500 muskets, and the only American warship in the Upper Lakes. The British cost was 2 men wounded.

Incompetence That Shaped History
American troops leaving Fort Detroit after its surrender. Over There

24. A Lasting Impact on North America

The surrender of Fort Detroit was a military disaster for the US, and its impact on the political map of North America has lasted into the present. It derailed American plans to invade and seize Canada early in the war, before the British could rush in reinforcements. It reinvigorated the Canadians, who had been pessimistic about the prospects of resisting forcible annexation by the US. It also fired up Native Americans in the Northwest Territory to war against US outposts and settlers.

An American invasion of Canada was attempted later on, but by then the British and loyal Canadians were better prepared and more confident, and forced the invaders back across the border. As to general Hull, after his release from British captivity, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be shot. However, his life was spared out of consideration for his heroism decades earlier during the American Revolution.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Live fire test in which the magnetic exploder used in Mark 14 Torpedo failed to detonate beneath a target ship, and the torpedo continued on. Wikimedia

23. The US Navy’s Worst Weapon?

When America joined WWII, our submarines’ standard weapon was the Mark 14 Torpedo. It was supposed to be a dramatic improvement over earlier torpedoes, which detonated on impact with a ship’s hull. The Mark 14 had an advanced magnetic detonator that was supposed to set off the explosive charge directly beneath the enemy’s keel and break its back – fatal damage to any ship.

The concept was good, as it meant that a single Mark 14 could sink a ship, regardless of size. Before, it frequently took multiple torpedoes holing the enemy in various spots on the hull. However, because of secrecy and penny pinching, only two Mark 14s were tested, and one of them failed. That 50% failure rate did not give the Navy pause and prompt it to conduct further testing. In 1938, the Mark 14 was approved and issued to the US submarine fleet as its standard torpedo. The results proved disastrous.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Mark 14 Torpedo. Pacific War Online Encyclopedia

22. Discovering the Mark 14’s Flaws at the Worst Possible Time

The Mark 14 Torpedo’s defects only became apparent when America joined the war – which is the worst possible time to discover that a standard-issue weapon is seriously defective. Within the first month of hostilities, submarine skippers correctly reported that the Mark 14 had serious problems. Not least was the trouble maintaining accurate depth so as to pass within the correct distance beneath an enemy ship’s keel.

The magnetic detonator often detonated prematurely, or failed to detonate at all. The contact detonator failed to set off the torpedo, even when it struck an enemy’s hull at a perfect angle with a loud clang that was clearly audible in the firing submarine. Worst of all, it could boomerang, missing its target and running in a wide circle to come back and strike the firing submarine. At least two submarines, the USS Tang and USS Tullibee, are known to have been sunk by their own Mark 14s circling back to hit them.

Incompetence That Shaped History
US Navy Bureau of Ordnance personnel inspecting a Mark 14 Torpedo in 1943. Imgur

21. Refusing to Acknowledge and Address a Problem

The US Navy ignored a flood of reports from submarine commanders complaining about the Mark 14. In one incident, a submarine’s skipper fired two spreads totaling a dozen torpedoes at a large Japanese whaler, but only managed to cripple it. Then, with the enemy ship dead in the water, he maneuvered his submarine and carefully positioned it so that his torpedoes would have a perfect angle of impact, and fired off 9 more Mark 14s. Not a single one detonated.

Despite myriad reports detailing the Mark 14’s shortcomings, it took the Navy two years from the start of hostilities to even acknowledge the possibility that a problem might exist, and to conduct tests to find out what, if anything, was wrong. The tests verified what American submariners had been complaining about all along. Remedial steps to address the problems were finally begun – two years later than should have been the case.

Also Read: Failed Double-Barrel Cannon and Other Weapons That Absolutely Flopped.

Incompetence That Shaped History
General George B. McClellan. Wikimedia

20. The Union Commander Who Let Himself Get Conned Out of Winning the Civil War

Union General George B. McClellan outflanked the Confederate main army in Northern Virginia in March of 1862, by landing 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 had time to rush in reinforcements to protect their capital. Things went smoothly at first, as McClellan successfully disembarked with no difficulty, and began marching to Richmond.

The only opposition standing between McClellan and Richmond were 12,000 Confederates at Yorktown, commanded by John B. Magruder and outnumbered 10 to 1. Realizing 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 into slowing down. The Union commander proved more than sufficiently gullible to let a certain victory slip from his grasp.

Incompetence That Shaped History
John B. Magruder. Calisphere

19. A History of Theatrics Comes in Handy

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 trick McClellan into believing that he faced far stronger opposition than was the case.

Taking advantage of the small Warwick River which separated him from the advancing federals, Magruder 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.

Incompetence That Shaped History
1862 Siege of Yorktown. American Battlefield Trust

18. Putting On a Show For McClellan

Magruder directed his forces to create a din. With drumrolls and men cheering in woods behind the lines, they aimed to fool their foes into believing there were far more Confederates in the vicinity than was the case. 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, then slipped away outside the Union observers’ line of sight, reassembled, and marched back to the defensive line to once more.

Incompetence That Shaped History
In Front of Yorktown, by Winslow Homer, 1862-1863. Wikimedia

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. A less timid commander could have simply bulled through, swatted Magruder aside, and seized a nearly undefended Richmond.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Union 13-inch mortar battery at the Siege of Yorktown. Wikimedia

17. Timidity Doesn’t Pay

For an entire month, McClellan methodically prepared for a huge attack 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 an overwhelming attack. Having already bought his side a month to prepare Richmond’s defenses, Magruder slipped away on the night of May 3rd, leaving 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 to his starting point with furious attacks during the Seven Days Battles. When the dust settled, the Peninsula Campaign had come to an ignominious end.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Ottoman Turks marching on the Austrian Habsburgs in 1788. Wikidata

16. An Army That Defeated Itself

The Austro-Turkish War of 1787-1791 witnessed the Battle of Karansebes, one of history’s most farcical debacles. Occurring in 1788, it pitted an Austrian Habsburg army of 100,000 men against itself. It ended with the Austrians killing up to 10,000 of their own ranks, routing themselves, and scattering in panicked flight without an enemy present.

Austria’s Habsburgs ruled a diverse and multiethnic empire. Its army was 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. 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, and a brawl ensued, and escalated into an exchange of gunfire. It got worse.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Battle of Karansebes. Lock Stock and History

15. History’s Greatest Act of Collective Battlefield Incompetence?

During the fight between Austrian infantry and drunken hussars, an infantryman decided to prank the hussars by shouting “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). The drunken hussars fled in panic – along with 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!” That 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 startled and confused soldiers woke up to the sounds of combat, some began firing wildly. Within minutes, fear and wild firing had 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.

Incompetence That Shaped History
The Chauchat. Imgur

14. History’s Worst Machine Gun

The French army’s light machine gun, the Chauchat, entered service during World War I and proved itself to be a disaster. It became infamous as one of the worst firearms to have ever gone into mass production and gotten inflicted upon an army as a standard-issue weapon.

The Chauchat was introduced in 1915, and immediately began showing problems caused by both a defective design, plus poor workmanship. The design and manufacturing defects were made worse by reliance on low-quality metals to produce the Chauchat.

Incompetence That Shaped History
The Chauchat in the trenches. Historic Firearms

13. Good in Theory, Terrible in Reality

In theory, the Chauchat should have been a winner. Conceptually, it was a revolutionary weapon, being the world’s first truly light (20 lbs) portable automatic firearm. Manufacturing it was relatively cheap. It did not require a team of machine gunners and a heavy mount or tripod, but could instead be operated by a single user, alone or with an assistant.

The Chauchat also featured a detachable magazine and a selective fire capability. It could easily be carried around the battlefield by a single soldier, and was light enough to be fired from the hip during assaults in suppressive marching or walking fire, to pin down enemy defenders while the attackers closed in. From that perspective, the Chauchat set the template for subsequent light machine guns, from the BAR to the SAW. However, the weapon’s negatives far outweighed its positives.

Incompetence That Shaped History
A Chauchat in the field. Tumblr

12. Serious Defects

Eclipsing the pluses that should have made the Chauchat an excellent weapon, the actual battlefield conditions of WWI exposed serious defects. Among numerous problems, the worst was probably the detachable magazine, which was designed with one side open. That allowed the entry of loose earth, mud, dirt, and grit with which the trenches of WWI abounded.

Particles then made their way into the chamber, barrel, and firing mechanism, resulting in stoppages and malfunctions. The Chauchat’s magazines were very flimsy and easily dented, resulting in jamming and stoppage. The ejection port lacked a cover, which allowed dirt and other particles to enter from there as well and cause jams.

Incompetence That Shaped History
American Doughboys with a Chauchat in France. Science Source

11. Failing in a Myriad of Ways

The Chauchat often ceased firing at the worst possible time – and any time you’re firing a weapon in combat is a bad time for it to quit on you. It could fail because it was jammed with dirt and mud, or because the magazine got dented, or because the weapon overheated. The sights were misaligned, which wreaked havoc with aiming. The plate assemblies were secured by screws that tended to come loose and fall off when the weapon was fired.

On top of all the preceding, the bipod was loose. That, coupled with poor ergonomics, made it impossible to keep the weapon on target other than with short bursts. By 1918, only three years after its introduction and with months still to go before the war ended, the Chauchat was gradually withdrawn from service. It was replaced by the M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR).

Read More: History’s Failed Military Weapons.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, seated center, with his staff during the Siege of Mafeking. Pinterest

10. The Boers Let Themselves Get Bamboozled Out of an Easy Victory

Colonel Robert Baden-Powell, later Lord and founder of the Boy Scouts, commanded British forces in the besieged town of Mafeking during the Boer War (1899 – 1902). The Boers were bamboozled by Baden-Powell into letting him seize the town shortly before the outbreak of war, then kept falling for his bluffs when they besieged the town after the war began.

The future founder of the Boy Scouts, who had been ordered to raise two regiments of volunteers, began storing his supplies in Mafeking. However, openly garrisoning the town before hostilities began would have been impolitic and provocative. Baden-Powell got around that by politely asking the townspeople for permission to send guards to protect his supplies. They consented, and Powell sent in his entire force of nearly 1500 men. When the locals protested, he responded that he had never specified the size of the guard.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Defenders manning the lines during the Siege of Mafeking. British Battles

9. Falling For Fake News

When hostilities commenced, Robert Baden-Powell was besieged in Mafeking by a Boer force five times the size of his own. To discourage a direct attack, he began burying mysterious boxes around the town’s periphery. When asked, he responded that they were powerful new landmines, the latest in British technology.

To demonstrate, he had a couple blown up within sight of Boer sympathizers. He then allowed them to slip out of town, knowing that they would make a beeline for the enemy, to inform them of the new British weapon. In reality, the boxes blown up had been stuffed with the town’s entire stores of dynamite. The other boxes buried around the defensive perimeter contained nothing but sand.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Boer raid on a British position during the Siege of Mafeking. Pinterest

8. Believing in the Existence of Nonexistent Defenses

Another of Robert Baden-Powell’s ruses involved barbed wire, of which Mafeking’s defenders had none. Barbed wire was effective in slowing down a charge, and since he wanted to discourage the numerically superior Boers from charging and overrunning his defenses, Baden-Powell set out to convince them that he had plenty of barbed wire.

He had no barbed wire, but he had plenty of the wooden posts from which barbed wire was strung. So he had them hammered into the ground all around the defensive perimeter. From a distance, even with binoculars, barbed wire is difficult to see. However, the wooden posts from which it is usually strung are readily visible, and the sight of a line of such posts in the distance is indicative of barbed wire fences. Seeing the wooden posts, the Boers assumed that they were strung with barbed wire.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Robert Baden-Powell. Pinterest

7. Getting Taken in by Theatrics

The Boers kept getting gulled by Robert Baden-Powell. To strengthen his barbed wire deception and further mislead Boer watchers, he had his men drop to the ground whenever they reached a line of wooden posts – wooden posts that had no barbed wire between them. The defenders would then crawl “beneath” the imaginary barbed wire to get to the other side, before getting back on their feet, dusting themselves off, and carrying on.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Lord Robert Baden-Powell in later years, at an international Boy Scout Jamboree. The Telegraph

Between bluffs such as the fake super landmines and imaginary barbed wire, coupled with a heavy dose of stubborn resistance when the situation warranted, Mafeking’s defenders fought off the enemy and withstood the Boer siege for 217 days. Baden-Powell held on until he was finally relieved by the arrival of a British army that chased off the Boers and lifted the siege.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos. Wikimedia

6. Communists Kept Tipping Their Hand by Failing to Conceal Cultural Clues

When baseball was introduced to Cuba in the 1870s, the locals were hooked, and took to the yanqui sport with a passion. Cuba’s love of baseball thus began decades before America seized the island during the Spanish-American War. Indeed, despite its American origin, “beisbol” became associated with Cuban nationalism in the nineteenth century, displacing sports associated with Cuba’s colonial master, Spain.

That strong association with baseball played a significant role in kicking off the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon. Indeed, as seen below, the Soviets’ and Cubans’ failure to conceal clues provided by baseball tipped their hand time after time during the Cold War. Cuba’s association with baseball not only impacted the 1962 crisis, but had an impact on numerous other instances in subsequent decades, that threatened to turn the Cold War hot.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Soviet missile sites in Cuba. Imgur

5. Sports and the Cuban Missile Crisis

The humiliating failure of the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961 left the Kennedy administration leery of adventurism in Cuba. However, in September of 1962, a CIA analyst spotted numerous soccer fields along the Cuban coast, and grew concerned. Cubans did not commonly play soccer, but do you know who did? Russians. Soccer fields’ presence allowed the CIA to figure out that there were Soviets around.

US intelligence analysts worked out that the soccer fields indicated the presence of Soviet military camps nearby. Between that and other intelligence, Kennedy authorized U2 spy planes to overfly Cuba and see what was going on. Aerial photography revealed a significant Soviet presence in Cuba. More significantly, it also revealed the presence of Soviet missiles that could reach much of the continental US, including Washington, DC, within a few minutes. The result was the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Incompetence That Shaped History
President Nixon meeting with Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office. Wikimedia

4. “Those Soccer Fields Mean War

The US and USSR came eyeball to eyeball over the nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, until the Soviets blinked. An understanding was reached between Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, whereby America agreed to not invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviets removing their missiles from the island. Things calmed down for eight years until soccer and Cuba helped trigger another crisis.

In 1970, Cuba began expanding naval facilities in Cayo Alcatraz, an island in the port of Cienfuegos, just as a flotilla of Soviet nuclear missile submarines was headed there. That September, US National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger burst into the office of Nixon’s chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. He slapped down U2 photos of the Cuban naval expansion, including soccer fields near Cienfuegos. “Those soccer fields mean war, Bob“, Kissinger exclaimed. “Cubans play baseball. Russians play soccer“. A Cuban Missile Crisis 2.0 was in the offing.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Photo of Cayo Alcatraz, depicting the tell-tale signs of its intended use as a Soviet base. CIA

3. “We Have Yet to See a Major Cuban Military Installation That Does Not Provide For ‘Beisbol’

It was not only what spy plane photos showed, but what they did not show, that demonstrated that Cayo Alcatraz was being developed as a Soviet base. Facilities included a soccer field, plus tennis, volleyball, and basketball courts – all sports that Cubans did not commonly play, but that Soviets did. Most telling was that the facilities did not include the one sport that Cubans were crazy about: there were no baseball diamonds.

American intelligence concurred, and in a congressional briefing, then CIA Director Richard Helms told the legislators: “clinching the case that all this was for Soviet — not Cuban — use, there are sports facilities for soccer, tennis and volleyball only, and we have yet to see a major Cuban military installation that does not provide for ‘beisbol’“. Under American pressure, the Soviets backed down, the crisis fizzled, and the Cubans left the Cayo Alcatraz naval base unfinished.

Also Read: Unforgettable Facts about the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Fidel Castro visiting Cuban troops in Angola. YouTube

2. ‘Beisbol‘ Diamonds Remained an Easy Tell Throughout the Cold War

The Cubans’ love of baseball made baseball diamonds a ubiquitous part of their island’s landscape. That allowed American aerial photo analysts to guesstimate the amount of Cuban activity in an area by counting the number of baseball diamonds there. And since Cubans played baseball wherever they went, baseball diamonds on a landscape became an easy tell, allowing analysts to determine that Cubans were present.

After Angola gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, Cuban military advisors were sent to the newly independent country. They supported the socialist Movimento Popular de Libertecao de Angola (People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola, or MPLA) against rival factions supported by the US and apartheid South Africa. American eyes in the sky were able to track Cuban presence by the presence of baseball diamonds.

Incompetence That Shaped History
Cubans in Angola. The Sun

1. Rounding Up Allies With Baseball Diamonds

The Cubans stayed in Angola until the 1980s, their presence easily spotted by American satellites because of the tell-tale baseball diamonds. American diplomats frequently used that evidence to rally support for the US, and against that of the Eastern Bloc. America’s then-ambassador to Tanzania used to pass aerial photos of baseball diamonds to convince Tanzania’s president, Julius Nyerere, of Cuba’s presence in neighboring Angola.

As ambassador David C. Miller put it: “You would show Julius [Nyerere] examples of satellite photography of Angola … and then point out that the overhead photography keeps turning up baseball diamonds all over Angola. We know that they’re Cubans playing baseball“.


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

All Things Medieval – The Strangest Medieval Weapon Ever Created: The Lantern Shield

Blair, Clay – Silent Victory (1975)

British Battles – Siege of Mafeking

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

Chandler, David – The Campaigns of Napoleon (1966)

Cracked – Famous Moments in History (Brought to You by Incompetence)

Defense Media Network – The Mark 14 Torpedo Scandal

Encyclopedia Britannica – Siege of Mafeking

Forgotten Weapons – The Worst Gun Ever

Latimer, Jon – 1812: War With America (2007)

Medium, April 5th, 2015 – How Baseball Betrayed Cuba’s Covert Ops

Nafziger, George – Napoleon at Leipzig: The Battle of Nations (1996)

National Park Service – Surrender of Fort Detroit: “He Is a Coward”

Oren, Michael – Six Days of War (2002)

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

Smithsonian Magazine, April 7th, 2010 – The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln: Lincoln’s Missing Bodyguard

We Are the Mighty – Why America’s World War II Torpedoes Were Horrible

Wikipedia – Baseball in Cuba

Wikipedia – Battle of Karansebes

Wikipedia – Battle of Leipzig