Messy as the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan might have been, it was at least nowhere near as catastrophic as that of the British evacuation of Kabul nearly two centuries ago. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the British and Russians jockeyed for influence in Central Asia in a contest that came to be known as “The Great Game”. A game that often turned deadly, driven in large part by the Russians’ quest to expand into the region in pursuit of their version of “Manifest Destiny“.
That alarmed the British, who suspected that the Russians coveted India, the “Jewel of the British Crown” and Britain’s most vital colony. So they sought to keep the Tsarist borders as far away as possible from India. Things came to a head in the 1830s, when an Afghan ruler became too friendly with Russia for Britain’s tastes. The result was the First Anglo-Afghan War, in which the British invaded Afghanistan in 1839. It began well for the invaders, but in hindsight, as seen below, it was a blunder that ended disastrously.
20. The British Discovered That Their Attempt to Control Afghanistan Had Been a Blunder
The British deposed Afghanistan’s Russophile ruler, an Emir Dost Mohammad, exiled him to India, and replaced him in Kabul as Emir with a British puppet named Shah Shujah. They then garrisoned the Afghan capital and key cities to keep their new pet ruler in power. Things initially went well, the invaders 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 flared into open revolt as the Afghan tribes rebelled against the British and their client, Shah Shujah. As the countryside was lost and supply lines to India were cut off, British control shrank to the garrisoned cities, and soon, the British found themselves in control of little more than the grounds of their fortified garrisons. So they sought a face-saving measure to extricate themselves from an untenable situation: ditch their puppet ruler, restore the one they had deposed, and cut a deal with him. That only added blunder upon blunder.
The British removed their puppet ruler, Shah Shujah, and dusted off the ruler whom they had deposed and exiled in 1839. They freed Dost Mohammad from his captivity in India, and reinstalled him as Emir in exchange for a promise to control the Afghan tribes long enough for the British to evacuate Afghanistan and withdraw in peace. It is unclear whether the reinstalled ruler deliberately betrayed the British, or simply lacked the influence to control the tribesmen, but things swiftly went sour.
On January 6th, 1842, amid falling snow, a British column of 16,500 soldiers and civilians set out from Kabul, which they had garrisoned for the past couple of years, to head back to India. The column barely made it a mile beyond the city before it began to take sniper fire from nearby hills. By that first day’s end, it dawned on the British that they might have committed a huge blunder. Emboldened Afghan tribesmen had begun to dash 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.
18. Blunder Piled Atop Blunder During a Disastrous Evacuation of Afghanistan
On the second day of the retreat from Kabul, some Afghan leaders arrived and insisted that the British halt while they tried to ensure the safety of the route ahead. The Afghans demanded a large sum of money, negotiated a British agreement to withdraw immediately from all of Afghanistan, and requested that they be given officers as hostages. In yet another blunder, the British agreed to halt as negotiations took place, rather than bull their way through to safety. The Afghans took advantage of the halt to further strengthen the forces that awaited the British on their route of march back to safety.
When the British finally resumed the march, many of their soldiers had become too debilitated by the cold to fight. British aspirations were reduced from an exit with dignity, to a simple hope that they would survive the hellish fix in which they now found themselves. That was driven home when the column entered a narrow pass and was fired upon by tribesmen from the rocks above. What little semblance was left of an orderly retreat vanished. The column, transformed into a panicked mob, stampeded its way through the deadly pass with no hope other than escape. 3000 were lost before they exited the pass.
17. The Only Man to Complete the Catastrophic British Evacuation of Kabul
The next day, and those after, the Afghans shook down the British for more hostages and more money. The British piled blunder atop blunder and agreed time after time to the Afghans’ demands, in exchange for empty promises to rein in the hostile tribesmen. On January 11th, 1842, the British commander and his deputy were forced to surrender in exchange for yet another promise of safe passage. Like the previous promises, it was worthless. Soon thereafter, the British found their escape 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.
A Dr. William Brydon and five other British officers escaped as far as Fatehabad. There, hostile Afghans fell upon them, and all but Brydon were slain. On January 13th, 1842, a week after they set out from Kabul, the last armed survivors formed a tiny square and made a last stand. They put up a heroic fight but went under just the same. 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, wounded and on his last legs from hunger, thirst, and fatigue. He was the only one who completed the British retreat from Kabul.
16. A Bureaucrat’s Blunder Brought Down the Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall stood for decades as both a literal dividing line and the Cold War’s ultimate symbolic separator that marked off a dour communist East from a vibrant capitalist West. There was a reason why Ronald Reagan’s admonition in a 1987 visit to West Berlin, “Mister Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” resonated so well back then. At the time, few could have predicted that, little more than two years later, the Berlin Wall would come down so suddenly that it would catch politicians and pundits alike off guard.
As communism began to crumble in the late 1980s, East Germany’s communist leaders began to grudgingly ease their citizens’ travel restrictions. On November 9th, 1989, East Berlin’s communist party boss Gunter Schabowski held a press conference to explain some minor revisions to the travel code. However, he committed a blunder and mistakenly implied that travel restrictions had been completely removed. When a reporter asked when the changes would take effect, Schabowski shrugged and replied: “immediately, right away“. That hit the news, and when East Germans heard it, they swarmed the border to demand the promised free passage. The border guards had received no such instructions, but to avoid a riot, they stepped aside, and the wall came down in a rapturous celebration – Berlin’s greatest citywide party, ever.
15. The Nineteenth-Century Russian Revolutionaries Who Set Out to Blow Up the System
Narodnaya Volya, Russian for “People’s Will”, was an underground nineteenth-century revolutionary organization. It sought to overthrow the Tsarist autocracy by acts of violent propaganda calculated to spark a mass revolt. They were the early forerunners of bigger and more effective anarchist and socialist organizations. People’s Will are best known for their repeated attempts to assassinate Tsar Alexander II. In a nearly comical display of dogged tenacity, they tried to do him in time after time and met with failure on each occasion.
They finally succeeded in 1881 when, in what turned out to be a blunder, the Russian ruler gave them another shot to take him out in the immediate aftermath of yet another failure to kill him. It was a remarkable feat for an organization that had its genesis just a few years earlier in radical student study circles in the 1870s, that sought to spread socialist ideas to peasants and industrial workers. They were quickly repressed by the Tsarist secret police, the Okhrana, who swiftly arrested and jailed the agitators. They bounced back, more determined than ever.
14. The Steady Radicalization of Nineteenth-Century Russian Students
The Tsarist secret police’s suppression of the radical student study circles led to a major think. The result was a growing consensus that attempts to preach socialism to the masses had been a blunder, and that they were doomed to failure because the Okhrana would simply arrest speakers as soon they opened their mouths. Instead, revolutionary violence came to be seen as the only effective means to overthrow Tsarism. So the students changed tactics to fit their new strategy, and turned to more clandestine and aggressive means – specifically, “propaganda of the deed”, or terrorism.
The result was Zemlya I Volya (Land and Liberty), a radical organization that advocated political assassinations as self-defense and justified revenge against oppressive officials. However, it did not view terror as a means of political struggle against the government. Narodnaya Volya, or People’s Will, splintered off from Zemlya I Volya in 1879 after the latter was nearly wiped out by the secret police after a failed assassination attempt on the Tsar. It was more radical. It viewed terror as a proactive tool that could overthrow the regime, and not simply as a reactive means of retaliation against individual officials who happened to be exceptionally bad or unjust.
13. People’s Will Went After The Russian Tsar With All the Determination of Wile E. Coyote to Get the Road Runner
People’s Will called for violence from the outset and announced an ambitious program of terrorism and assassination to break the government. It issued a proclamation in which a death sentence was declared against Tsar Alexander II, who was to be executed as an enemy of the people. The organization established clandestine cells in major cities and within the Russian military, and began to publish underground revolutionary newspapers and leaflets targeted at industrial workers. People’s Will tried to kill the Tsar in December 1879, with explosives on a railway, but due to a blunder, they missed his train.
They tried again two months later and planted a bomb in his palace. To their consternation, Alexander II was not in the room when the explosives went off. The frightened Tsar declared a state of emergency and set up a commission to repress the terrorists. Within a week, a People’s Will assassin attempted to kill the commission’s head. The repression was ramped up, and People’s Will activists who were caught with illegal leaflets were hanged. However, in a display of determination equal to that of Wile E. Coyote to get the Road Runner, the group doggedly persisted with its relentless efforts to assassinate the Tsar. Unlike the cartoon coyote, they would get their man.
On March 1st, 1881, People’s Will finally achieved their hearts’ desire. That day, one of the group’s assassins waited in ambush along a route taken by Alexander II every week and threw a bomb under his carriage. The explosion killed a guard and wounded others, but the carriage was armored, the Tsar was unhurt, and the bomb thrower was captured. Alexander was safe in his carriage, but in what turned out to be a blunder, he thought that the danger was over, and stepped out to survey the damage. As the shaken Tsar crossed himself at his deliverance from harm, a second assassin concealed in the gathering crowd spotted him. He shouted: “it is too early to thank God!” and threw another bomb. This one exploded at Alexander’s feet.
A third assassin in the crowd was ready with yet another bomb if the first two failed, but his explosives were unnecessary. The assassins were arrested and hanged, and in the aftermath intensified repression effectively crippled People’s Will as its members were rounded up and executed or jailed. Terrorism was kept in check for years, but the repression created even more enemies for the regime and drove more opponents into underground clandestine resistance. The Russian Empire was transformed into a pressure cooker that finally erupted into revolution in 1905, and into an even greater revolution that finally did away with Tsardom in 1917. Veterans of People’s Will, who began to emerge from prisons at the turn of the century as their sentences expired, played important roles in both revolutions.
The English ship Mary Rose, commissioned in 1511, was among the pioneers of a revolution in naval warfare. It relied on cannons that fired not from the top deck as had been the norm since guns were introduced to ships, but from portholes cut into the hull on lower decks. As such, she helped usher in the transition of naval combat from an era in which ships rammed each other before men grappled and boarded the enemy, to the age of massed gun broadsides.
The Mary Rose was a success, and gave the Royal Navy decades of solid service until 1536, when she underwent an unfortunate redesign and upgrade. The idea seems to have boiled down to “cannons are good, so more cannons are better“. That turned out to be a blunder. The logic was not bad in itself, but it could be problematic to add more cannons to a ship that had not been specifically designed to accommodate more cannons and bear their additional weight. The Mary Rose was such a ship.
The Mary Rose’s redesign and upgrade entailed the addition of a new gun deck, and with the addition of more and heavier cannon, increased the ship’s weight from 500 tons to 700. That caused the Mary Rose to ride lower in the water, which in turn brought her lower deck’s gun portholes closer to the sea’s surface. The consequences played out in the 1545 Battle of the Solent, when the Mary Rose was among a fleet of English sail ships becalmed in the Solent and unable to maneuver for lack of wind when they were set upon by a fleet of French rowing galleys. The English fleet was in trouble, and the French were on the verge of a victory over the immobilized English ships when the wind finally picked up.
Sailing out in a stiff breeze, the Mary Rose led the English counter-attack, and the outgunned French galleys were the ones in trouble now. However, the Mary Rose’s first broadside caused her to heel or lean over to her starboard side, and her gun portholes, now lower and closer to the water’s surface thanks to the additional weight of the 1536 upgrade, dipped into the water. That was when the ship’s design blunder caught up with her. The sea rushed in through the open gunports and the crew was unable to correct the sudden imbalance. Guns, ammunition, and cargo shifted to the submerging side of the ship, and caused her to tilt even further. The Mary Rose sank quickly, and took nine-tenths of the crew with her.
9. The Design Blunder that Explains Why Airplanes Have Round Windows
Boeing dominated passenger plane manufacture for most of the commercial air travel era. In the early 1950s, however, reasonable people could have predicted that the future of passenger planes belonged to Britain’s de Havilland, with Boeing a distant second. The reason was the de Havilland Comet – history’s first commercial jet liner, whose prototype first flew in 1949, and that hit the market in 1952. Fast and sleek, with a pressurized cabin that was comfortable, relatively quiet, and featured large square windows, the Comet cut six hours of travel time between London and New York. It was the world’s most promising passenger plane when it made its debut.
The Comet’s designers opted for large, square windows, because of aesthetic: they looked better than the traditional round “porthole” windows. Unfortunately, designers back then did not understand metal fatigue well. Stresses piled up at the Comet’s square window corners, and caused catastrophic fuselage breaches mid-flight that led to fatal crashes. Since the Comets often broke apart at high altitudes and above water, it took time to figure out the problem. Once the culprit was identified, the entire Comet fleet was pulled out of service. De Havilland never recovered: while the Comet underwent redesigns with round windows and thicker fuselages, the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 hit the market, and became hits with airliners.
The German V2 rocket, or “Vengeance Weapon 2”, was the world’s first ballistic missile, which carried a ton of high explosives to the edge of space, then descended at unstoppable supersonic speeds to detonate on its target. It was a brilliant, advanced, and literally revolutionary feat of technology. It was also one of history’s most wastefully expensive weapons. The damage inflicted by V2s was relatively small and did not justify the vast expenditure of resources that went into their production.
The V2 program was a blunder that diverted scarce resources from more effective weapons programs or other uses that could have better served the German war effort. From its first operational launch against enemy targets in September 1944, to Germany’s surrender nine months later, roughly 3000 V2s were fired. They did not all reach their targets, but even if they had, at one ton of explosives per V2 warhead, that would have been 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities over nine months. As seen below, that was a relative pittance.
In the same nine-month-stretch in which V2s dropped 3000 tons of explosives on enemy cities, British RAF bombers routinely dropped more than 3000 tons of explosives on a German city in a single nighttime raid. The US Air Force also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single daytime raids. Additionally, the Allied explosive delivery tools were reusable and thus far more economical. Unlike the single-use V2s, most Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, and returned the next day or night to again help drop more than 3000 tons of explosives on German cities, and repeated the process dozens of times.
In nine months, the 3000 tons of explosives dropped by V2s killed 2754 people. Most were not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. By contrast, over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers, died as they manufactured V2s. That gave the rocket the tragic distinction of being perhaps the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use. Thus, when results are contrasted with cost, V2s literally produced little bang for the buck.
6. A Huge Blot on the Reputation of an Otherwise Great Man
Winston Churchill was one of the twentieth century’s giants and a hero of the modern era. He is rightly celebrated for his tenacity and steadfastness early in WWII, when he rallied a reeling Britain and kept up the fight against Nazi Germany – the first step in the Third Reich’s defeat. However, Churchill was a complex man, and there was far more to him than the year or so when he and Britain held the line against the Nazis until joined by the USSR and USA. In a public career that lasted more than half a century, Churchill had no shortage of missteps, or outright villainous misdeeds, that contrast jarringly with the nobility of his heroics against Hitler.
One such misdeed was his WWII decisions about food distribution in India, which led directly to the deaths of roughly three million Indians in Bengal. Millions more were plunged into abject poverty as the crisis wreaked havoc upon the region’s economy and tore asunder its social fabric. Blunder after blunder lay at the heart of all aspects of the tragedy, from its avoidable start to policies that made things even worse, to a cruel indifference and reluctance to alleviate the resultant widespread misery.
5. British Authorities Destroyed the Rice That Fed the People of Bengal
The British Empire had long justified itself with the claim that it governed for the benefit of its colonized subjects. However, its conduct during the Bengal Famine of 1943 gave the lie to such pretenses. In the years that preceded the famine, many Bengalis had barely eked out subsistence from their lands, supplemented by imported rice, mainly from Burma. When the Japanese conquered Burma in 1942, Bengal was cut off from those imports, and millions of Bengalis were brought to the edge of starvation. Then the British implemented measures that tipped them over into famine.
When Japan conquered Burma, the British feared that nearby Bengal might be next. So the colonial authorities adopted a scorched earth policy to deprive the Japanese of the region’s resources if they overran it. That entailed a “Denial of Rice” policy, which came down to the removal or destruction of rice and other foodstuffs in Bengali districts that had a surplus. As it turned out, the Japanese had reached their limits at India’s border, were in no position to advance further, and were hard-pressed to hang on to what they already held. The people of Bengal would pay dearly for their British overlords’ blunder in overestimating the Japanese.
4. Blunder Followed Blunder Throughout the Course of the Bengal Famine
In what turned out to be yet another huge blunder, British authorities also destroyed thousands of boats throughout Bengal, out of fear that they might fall into the hands of the Japanese. Unfortunately, those boats were vital to the local economy and the transportation of food. With traditional rice imports from Burma cut off, home grown surpluses unnecessarily destroyed by the alarmed British, and the means to transport what little food surplus remained wrecked, famine roared through Bengal. Relief efforts were hampered by Churchill’s decision to divert food shipments intended for the starving Bengalis to already well-supplied British soldiers in the Mediterranean.
Ships loaded with wheat sailed past Indian cities whose streets were littered with the corpses of those starved to death, in order to add to the stockpiles of food in Britain. Simultaneously, offers of Canadian and American food aid to the famished Indians were turned down by Churchill’s government, even as it prohibited India from using its own sterling reserves or its own ships to import food. Indeed, India was made to export over 70,000 tons of rice in the first half of 1943, even as millions of Indians starved to death.
3. Churchill Disavowed British Responsibility for the Bengal Famine, and Blamed the Indians Instead
The colonial government in Delhi sent the British Prime Minister in London a telegram to inform him of the famine in Bengal and that millions of Indians were dying. Winston Churchill churlishly replied: “Then why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?” The Viceroy of India described Churchill’s attitude towards India as “negligent, hostile, and contemptuous“. Churchill was unrepentant, however. In addition to being shockingly callous about the millions of deaths sure to result from his orders, he seemed viciously gleeful about the predictable consequences when they actually occurred. As he put it, referring to the deaths of millions of Bengalis under his watch: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits“.
Nowhere in Churchill’s assessment was there any recognition of the fact that it had taken blunder after blunder by British officials to produce that famine. That was colonialism in a nutshell: an imbalance of power between colonists and colonized. It created dynamics whereby respected figures such as Churchill, widely praised for their moral virtues, could engage in morally reprehensible conduct without any qualms. It allowed the government that ruled both Indians and Britons to callously tolerate famine in India, yet remain sensitive to British views that bread rationing in wartime Britain was an intolerable imposition.
2. An Egyptian Leader’s Blunder in Provoking a War He Was Not Prepared to Fight
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, and elicited massive Israeli reprisals. That put Egypt’s 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. Now, however, he was criticized for his failure to aid other 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 wanted to retain his stature in the Arab world by bluster and bluff. He broadcast increasingly heated speeches that threatened 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 to mass Egyptian forces in the Sinai. A few days later, he requested the withdrawal of the UN peacekeepers who separated 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. Nasser had intended the whole affair as bluster, but it turned out to be a grave blunder.
1. Too Much Bluster Turned Out to Be a Grave Blunder
Unfortunately for Gamal Abdel Nasser and his allies, 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 Syria’s planes as well. With aerial supremacy secured, the Israelis then launched ground attacks that routed the Egyptians and seized Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula within three days. They also 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. It was a huge blunder by Nasser. His 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.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading