Seven Blunders That Changed The Course Of History

Seven Blunders That Changed The Course Of History

Jeanette Lamb - January 23, 2017

The smallest things can change the course of history. A gate left open, an unusually warm winter, a turn down the wrong street. Believe it or not, these and other gaffes have played a part in the ruin of nations. Here are just a few of them:

Napoleon Bonaparte Was Almost Italian

In the sixteenth century, the Bonaparte family left the Tuscan hills for the Italian controlled island of Corsica. It was here that their famous descendant was born. But just months before Napoleon’s birth, the island changed hands, passing to France. This change of nationality changed the course of history. But it was in itself the result of a variety of interlinked causes and effects.

Seven Blunders That Changed The Course Of History
Bonaparte at the Siege of Toulon

The roots of the alteration of Napoleon’s nationality lie in the seventeenth century when Corsica was in the hands of the Republic of Genoa. Genoa was a force to be reckoned with. It had the world’s biggest bank which financed much of the exploration and expansion ongoing during sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Merchant ships from Spain sailed to the Americas and returned to Europe maiden with silver. This silver found its way to Genoa and was used by the city’s bankers to finance other adventures in commerce. Genea’s reach became vast and its own trade links stretched as far as Sicily and North Africans.

So essential to European finance was Genoa, that no one wished to see the republic fall. But between 1656 and 1657, fate and nature intervened. The Black Death swept through Genoa. In one year, half its residents were dead. The great republic was weakened. It was the beginning of the end.

The Republic was attacked by the French in 1684. This was just the beginning of the decline. Genoa became so weakened that in 1768, just one year before Napoleon’s birth, Italy was forced to sign over the Island of Corsica to the French.

But Napoleon’s family’s standing also had its part to play in his meteoric rise. Napoleon’s father was a member of the Corsican nobility. This ensured him a position in the new French administration, which opened other doors for his sons. Napoleon and his eldest brother were sent to France to be educated.

Napoleon quickly realized the advantages of being fully French. He changed the spelling of his name to the more French-seeming Bonaparte. In 1779 he entered the military academy at Brienne-le-Château. By the time he was sixteen, Napoleon was a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment. He continued to advance and the rest, as they say, is history.


Seven Blunders That Changed The Course Of History
Battle of Karánsebes.

Drunk Austrian soldiers mistake one another for the enemy, and all hell breaks loose.

If the Austrian Battle Of Karansebes in 1788 has not gone down in history as one of the most bizarre battles in the world, it should. For the Austrians inflicted defeat on themselves.

Between 1787 and 1791, Austria and its Russian allies were at war with Turkey. By September 1788, the Austrians had split their forces into two sections. One of the sections set up camp on the outskirts of Karansebes, known today as Caransebeş, in modern Romania. The second section, a contingent of hussars, crossed the Timis River to look for enemy Turks.

But they did not find any. What they did find were some Gypsies selling schnapps. The Temptation was too strong and the hussars succumbed to the spirits. They proceeded to become very drunk.The elite unit of soldiers bought the schnapps. They proceeded to consume what must have been copious amounts.

Later, the same evening, some of the encamped infantrymen crossed the river. They found the hussars having a grand time and demanded to join in. But the hussars were not sharing. They went so far as to set up fortifications around the barrels! The argument began and escalated, and someone fired a shot. And so, the Battle Of Karansebes began.

Things soon became worse. Some of the soldiers shouted “Turks! Turks!” and the hussars fled the scene, thinking a Turkish attack was imminent. Most of the infantry also fled. But because the Austrian army spoke different dialects, they could not fully understand each other. In an attempt to restore order, officers began shouting “Halt! Halt!”. This was misheard by the soldiers who did not speak German as, “Allah! Allah!” The cavalry began fleeing through the camp. A corps commander thought it was a cavalry charge by the Ottoman Empire, and he ordered the artillery to fire.

Soon the entire camp woke to a battle. The Austrian troops, believing the Turks to be everywhere, fired indiscriminately, shooting their own men. The result of the Battle of Karansebes was the entire army retreating from an imaginary enemy. They even managed to knock their Emperor off his horse and into a river! When the Ottoman army arrived two days later, they discovered 10,000 dead and wounded soldiers.

Seven Blunders That Changed The Course Of History
Map showing Constantinople and its walls during the Byzantine era. Wikipedia

Constantinople fell because someone left a gate wide open.

The fortifications of Constantinople were built to be impregnable. Which was just as well, because, throughout history, there were plenty who tried to take the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The forces of the Kutrigurs, Avars, Slavs, Sassanid Persians, Umayyad Caliphate, Krum of Bulgaria, Rus’ and The Fourth Crusades in 1203 all tried and failed to take Constantinople. For the fortress’ walls were impenetrable. But there was one weakness in the colossal fortress: the gates.

On the morning of 29 May 1453, the small gate to the city known as the Kerkoporta was left wide open. This was a gift to the forces of the Ottoman Empire who waited outside. Fifty or more were able to enter undetected. They raced through the city and planted their banner to signal to their forces that they were inside Constantinople.

Shots were fired between the Turkish Invaders and the Greek defenders of the peribolos. Panic spread and the city the Ottomans took the city.

But Scholars continue debating if Constantinople really captured because of such a careless act. Certainly, the siege occurred. But because most of the fortress is now gone, no one knows for certain the location of the gate that may have brought about the fall of the Roman empire.

Seven Blunders That Changed The Course Of History
The Fall of the Alamo by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk depicts Davy Crockett wielding his rifle as a club against Mexican troops who have breached the walls of the mission. Wikipedia

Mexican soldiers divide and lose Texas.

Outnumbered six to one, there was no way Texas should have defeated Mexico in Spring 1836. But, despite the defeat at the Alamo and other losses, they soundly routed them all because of one tactical error.

Texas had declared its independence just five days before the Alamo, which was the worse defeat in the fledgling state’s brief history. Twenty-one days later, an even worse defeat, the Goliad Massacre left 342 men dead. Between the Alamo falling and the death of Colonel James Fannin and his men, Texas also suffered defeats at the battles of Coleto and Refugio. They knew they couldn’t face the Mexican Army with the forces they had.

An additional problem faced was that the Mexican Army fought in a European style, using battle lines. The depleted, irregular Texan troops did not have the discipline nor experience to stand up to them. General Houston knew this, and it worried him. In one battle he allowed his men to be backed up to the Colorado River before ordering a retreat.

The retreat began what became known as the Runaway Scrape. Texas troops completely withdrew. They faced a merciless, ignoble death at the hands of the Mexican troops who viewed them little better than criminals. The Mexican army followed burning farms, ranches, and settlements, pillaging as they went. The civilian population followed the defeated troops., cities, and pillage were acceptable tactics. Terror and death and wet, wet roads awaited the civilian population as they fled before the Mexican Army. The only thing that saved the revolution was the Mexican general’s impatience.

With victory in sight, it was then that Santa Anne, the Mexican general made his fatal mistake. Sure of his victory and impatient to complete it, Santa Anne allowed his troops to divide. He may have felt that the near defeated Texas rebels would be unable to face even a divided force. But his move allowed Houston to corner one faction between the Buffalo Bayou and the San Jacinto River. Houston’s troops were victorious and finally, the tide turned to the Texan’s advantage.

Seven Blunders That Changed The Course Of History
The Austrian Archduke, his wife and his Chauffeur, Leopold Lojka at Sarajevo’s City Hall. Erzsebet-Kira

The Archduke of Austria was killed because his chauffeur turned down the wrong street.

If the driver of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not panicked and taken a wrong turn in 1914, the First World War may never have happened.

The assassination of the Hapsburg Duke was well planned. Six would-be assassins had studied the route the Archduke’s car would take through Sarajevo. They picked their spot and waited for their moment. When the car passed, one of the assassins accurately launched his hand grenade at the car. But it did not detonate in time. Instead, it rolled and rolled under three more cars in the cavalcade, going off under the back tire of the fourth vehicle.

The passengers were injured and chaos erupted. The archduke’s driver, Leopold Lojka quickly sped away with him to prevent his employer becoming a target again. But in his panic, Lojka took a wrong turn.

He quickly realized his mistake and tried to throw the car into reverse. But he was so panicked he stalled it in the middle of a crowded street. On the corner of that street was Gavrilo Princip, one of the six assassins.

Princip was a Serb, raised on a farm in Bosnia which was threatened by the expansion of the Austrian empire. His anti-Austrian, pro-nationalist convictions were unwavering and by 1914, he was a devoted Bosnian activist. The archduke and his wife were now sitting targets. Princip did not pause. He pulled out his handgun and squeezed off two fatal shots. Unlike Lojka, his delivery was without error.

Seven Blunders That Changed The Course Of History
Napoleon’s withdrawal from Russia, a painting by Adolph Northern. Wikipedia

Napoleon, the great war strategist, is defeated by warm weather.

The year was 1812. It was early in September. Following a number of failed attempts to make peace, the Russians and the French forces of Napoleon came face to face on Russian soil. A brutal battle occurred, leaving 75,000 men dead.

It is estimated forty-four thousand Russian and thirty-five thousand French were lost on that day of fighting. Napoleon was triumphant. But he didn’t feel like a victor. Indeed, the victory marked the beginning of a run of bad luck for the French emperor. After a few weeks in Moscow, Napoleon was informed of rebellion in France. He did not hesitate to order his troops to mobilize and return home.

Napoleon knew once his army reached Poland they would be out of enemy territory. All they needed to do to reach that safe haven was cross the Berezina River and head directly for Poland. The river was easy to cross, usually – especially as it was usually frozen solid in November. But it had not been a cold winter and the river wasn’t frozen. Instead, there was just cold, rushing, water.

So Napoleon’s engineers had to erect a bridge across the cold but rushing water. The 100-meter long makeshift structure managed to get the cavalry and infantry across safely enough. But 20,000 troops were lost as they rushed to cross the bridges and fell into the icy waters.

Seven Blunders That Changed The Course Of History
President John F. Kennedy answers questions at a press conference about the attempted invasion of Cuba. Newsweek

The United States invades Cuba with disastrous results.

Before New Year’s Eve 1959, Cuba was a vibrant destination, a supplier of sugar, oil coffee – and banks. But on the 1st January 1960, the Cuban revolution began. Cuba aligned itself with the United States’ arch enemy, the Soviet Union. It was the height of the Cold War. Overnight, the tiny island just 90 miles south of Florida become a danger zone. For Cuba was the perfect place for the U.S.S.R. to use as a military base for any attack on the US mainland.

The reaction by the United Sates government was to set up covert operations, designed to support Cuba’s counter-revolutionaries attempting to overthrow Fidel Castro. The United States could not risk being perceived to be involved in supporting the rebels in any way. And so, the Bay of Pigs Invasion was conceived.

To disguise American involvement, Cuban exiles were trained in invasion tactics from military bases in Guatemala. The aim was to drop the U.S trained counter-revolutionaries into Cuba during the night. They would land in a swampy bay, known as the Bay of Pigs. From there, they would lead an attack against Castro; the local Cuban population would no doubt join their brothers in arms and fight. It might have been a good plan, except it began falling apart before it ever got moving.

Soon after its conception, word about the invasion spilled through the streets of Miami. Castro knew about the plan and it was soon in all the Cuban newspapers. On April 15, 1961, when the plot was officially launched, photographs of U.S. planes painted to look like the Cuban Air Force were decorating news headlines. Castro, of course, had his troops on alert ready for the invasion.

Upon arrival, the counter-revolutionaries were greeted with heavy gunfire. Kennedy reacted by sending unmarked B-26s to support their effort. But the planes arrived an hour late and were shot down at once.

The reason for the delay? Details, details — no one took any notice of the fact there was a one-hour time-zone difference between Nicaragua and Cuba.