Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories

Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories

Patrick Lynch - April 13, 2017

A pyrrhic victory occurs when you achieve a win at such a high cost that it is virtually a defeat. While you are victorious in the traditional sense, the heavy toll incurred eliminates the spoils associated with winning. The term is named after King Pyrrhus of Epirus who defeated the Romans in two major battles (Heraclea and Asculum) in 280 BC and 279 BC respectively.

However, he suffered such heavy losses that his campaign ended in failure. After Asculum, he reportedly said that one more victory like that would result in him returning to Epirus alone. In this article, I will look at 6 of the most famous ‘win but actually lose’ scenarios in history including the original Pyrrhic victory.

Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories
King Pyrrhus. Weapons and Warfare

1 – Battle of Asculum (279 BC)

Pyrrhus was the King of Epirus and became something of an inspiration to the Carthaginian general Hannibal. He took up arms against Rome after answering an appeal from the Greek city of Tarentum as they fought against the Roman Republic. Although he was an excellent commander by all accounts and enjoyed victories against the enemy, the losses he suffered during the Pyrrhic Wars (280-275 BC) were so great that he was unable to follow up on his wins in the long term.

Pyrrhus defeated the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea in 280 BC but lost thousands of men in the process. Both sides geared up for more fighting, and in the following year the Battle of Asculum took place. It was an even more brutal affair than Heraclea as both sides had enormous armies. Indeed, they were evenly matched with approximately 70,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry apiece. Pyrrhus also had 19 war elephants.

Ancient historians disagree as to the duration of the battle. While Plutarch said it lasted two days, Cassius Dio and Dionysius wrote that it took place over a single day. Regardless, it was a bloody affair, and while the losses suffered by both sides paled into comparison with casualties during the Second Punic War some 60 years later, the losses were heavy enough to cripple Epirus and cause its king to declare that another such battle would ruin him.

Pyrrhus knew that he couldn’t win a war against Rome, so he answered another appeal; this time from Greek city states in eastern and southern Sicily who needed help against Carthage. He campaigned for three years but angered his southern Italian allies who believed he abandoned them. After treating Greek city states poorly in his quest for more manpower, Pyrrhus had to deal with a revolt and returned to southern Italy. Eventually, he fought Rome one last time at the Battle of Beneventum in 275 BC and suffered defeat. The king died in a skirmish at Argos in 272 BC.

2 – Battle of Avarayr (451)

Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories
Depiction of Battle of Avarayr. Pinterest

Apart from the original Pyrrhic victory in the 3rd century BC, the Battle of Avarayr is one of the earliest examples of the concept. The battle took place between the Sassanid Empire of Persia and an Armenian army under the command of Vardan Mamikonian. Many historians suggest Avarayr was one of the first major battles for Christianity in history.

The fight took place in the middle of an Armenian uprising which occurred after the Sassanid king, Yazdegerd II, ordered the Armenians to convert to Zoroastrianism. Armenia had been a Sassanid dependency since 428 AD.

The battle took place on May 26, 451 AD and a 66,000 man Armenian army took on a Sassanid army with an estimated strength of at least 200,000. The omens for the Armenians were not positive; the Byzantines rejected appeals for assistance and a number of important noble houses defected.

During the battle, the smaller force held their own until the enemy unleashed its elephant corps which crushed the Armenians. Vardan and a number of other commanders died in the battle, but the Sassanid’s also suffered enormous losses.

Indeed, the casualties suffered by the Persians were so great that Yazdegerd was unable to force the faith issue because he also had to deal with other problems; a difficult task due to his severely depleted army. The Armenian Church was able to reject the Council of Chalcedon, and its citizens were allowed to worship as they wished.

The Armenians continued to resist the Sassanids, and eventually, the Nvarsak Treaty was signed in 484. It granted religious freedom to the Armenians and allowed them to continue building churches. To this date, many Armenians view May 26 as a holy day.

3 – Battle of Callinicum (531)

Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories
Depiction of Battle of Callinicum. Pinterest

This battle was another Pyrrhic victory for the Sassanid Empire and is noteworthy because it is one of the rare defeats suffered by legendary Byzantine general Belisarius. The two empires fought almost constantly in a conflict that ultimately destroyed the Sassanid’s in the 7th century and weakened the Byzantine Empire significantly. The empires broke their 20-year truce in 526 and went to war over the Christian kingdom of Iberia in the Caucasus Mountains.

After Belisarius brilliantly defeated the Persians at Dara in 530 despite being heavily outnumbered, the Sassanid’s elected to invade Syria as a means of turning the tide in the war. However, Belisarius responded quickly and forced the Persians into a battle in what is modern day Syria.

The two armies were evenly matched with approximately 20,000 men apiece, and both armies consisted mainly of cavalry. Incidentally, Belisarius didn’t want a major battle and hoped to drive away the enemy. His men demanded a conflict, so he acquiesced to quell any potential mutiny.

It was a fiercely contested battle as both sides fought to a stalemate for most of the day. Eventually, one of the Persian generals, Al-Mundhir III ibn, surprised the Byzantines with a fast infantry attack which overwhelmed the Ghassanid infantry section of Belisarius’ army. The Persians penned the enemy in near the river, but the Byzantine commander was able to avoid a massacre as his army inflicted heavy casualties on the Persians. Ultimately, Belisarius was able to retreat with a portion of his army.

While the Sassanid’s won a strategic victory of sorts, they suffered serious losses to the point where they couldn’t continue with their invasion of Syria. The Persian Emperor stripped the army’s main general (Azarethes) of command as he was displeased with the outcome of the battle and the conduct of his general. The war was the first in a series of mutually destructive wars between the two empires and also ended Belisarius’ first campaign against the Sassanid’s.

4 – Battle of Bunker Hill (1775)

Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories

This battle took place early during the Revolutionary War between America and Britain. When the colonial forces learned that the British were planning to occupy the high ground and control Boston Harbor, they responded with William Prescott taking a group of 1,200 men to occupy Bunker Hill and Breed’s Hill. The Redcoats learned of their enemy’s plans, and on June 17, 1775, they mounted an attack on the colonists stationed at the Charlestown Peninsula.

The size of both forces is disputed, although the British probably had 3,000 men against approximately 2,400 colonists since Prescott was aided by other leaders. The British, under the command of William Howe and Robert Pigot, moved towards the enemy.

Prescott supposedly told his men not to fire until they saw the whites of the British soldiers’ eyes; this is mainly because he wanted to preserve ammunition. Once the Redcoats came into range, the Americans opened fire and forced an immediate retreat.

The British regrouped and foolishly tried to attack once again, and as you would expect, the Americans successfully drove them back and inflicted heavy casualties. After a third attempt, the British finally climbed the hill and forced hand-to-hand combat.

The outnumbered colonists sensibly retreated, and the enemy took control of Charlestown Peninsula. However, it was a hollow victory as the Redcoats lost over 1,000 men in terms of deaths and wounded men. Critically, 19 British officers died at Bunker Hill.

Although the Redcoats earned a strategic victory, the heavy losses sustained prevented them from continuing towards the outskirts of Boston. Despite losing the fight, the Revolutionary Forces gained confidence; they had faced a numerically superior opponent and held their own for the most part. Howe lamented the high cost of the battle while Nathaniel Greene of the Patriots wrote that he would like to sell another hill to the enemy at the same cost.

If the British believed the Revolutionary War would be over quickly, Bunker Hill made them realize that it was set to be a long and torrid affair. It also had an impact on future encounters; instead of quickly seizing on an opportunity, the British were hesitant, and this new tactic gave the American forces time to retreat from several battles.

5 – Battle of Borodino (1812)

Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories

Although he achieved a victory, the Battle of Borodino was one of the costliest of Napoleon’s military career. It occurred a couple of months into the French invasion of Russia, and while he managed to defeat the Russian forces led by General Kutuzov, the casualties were so high that his entire invasion was in jeopardy. While his Grand Armee enjoyed fantastic success elsewhere in Europe, it found the going tough when it encountered the treacherous conditions in Russia.

The Russian Army had no interest in engaging directly with the French, so they continued to retreat and burned crops and resources along the way. As a result, Napoleon’s ‘living off the land’ strategy was ruined, and his army’s supply lines were stretched to the limit. Eventually, the Russian army turned to fight at the town of Borodino some 70 miles from Moscow. Napoleon was happy to engage because he knew a decisive win would pave the way to Moscow and represent a major step in his plan to conquer Russia.

At Borodino on September 7, 1812, two of the greatest armies in Europe squared off as the Grand Armee had somewhere between 130,000 and 190,000 men against the Russian forces with 120,000-160,000 soldiers. The French had 587 guns against 624 Russian guns. As usual, Napoleon attacked aggressively but sustained large losses as the Russians opted for a counterattacking strategy.

Eventually, the French took control of the battlefield and seized a key position. However, Napoleon did not want to risk his Imperial Guard; he apparently said that he could win the battle without their intervention.

While this proved to be correct, the decision allowed Kutuzov to retreat from the field in relatively decent shape. A total of 60,000 men died at Borodino and Napoleon could ill-afford the losses (some 30,000-35,000 French soldiers died or were wounded or captured). Nonetheless, he was free to take Moscow.

Unfortunately for him, the Russians did not do what he expected. They elected to abandon the city so when the French arrived, less than one-third of its population remained, and law & order had completely broken down. Also, the stores had been plundered so there were few supplies to feast upon.

Napoleon had expected to receive the Tsar in Moscow and bask in the glow of victory, but there wasn’t even a Russian general there to surrender on bended knee. The French were in Moscow for a day when a huge fire engulfed the city, and eventually they fled on October 19. By then, the Russian army had regrouped and harassed the French until Napoleon decided to abandon his invasion in 1812. In just six months, Napoleon had lost almost half a million men.

6 – Battle of Chancellorsville (1863)

Win the Battle, Lose the War: 6 of History’s Costliest Military Victories
Robert E. Lee. Washington Times

In many ways, the Battle of Chancellorsville showed the best and worst of General Robert E. Lee. Although it is widely regarded as his masterpiece, the Confederate army lost an enormous number of soldiers, losses it could not afford, and crucially, resulted in the death of Stonewall Jackson, a man Lee referred to as his ‘right arm’. Lee faced a Union army almost twice the size of his and took a huge gamble with a bold strategy that paid off.

On April 30, 1863, Lee commanded an army of approximately 60,000 men and found an enemy army of over 100,000 men, led by General Joseph Hooker, right behind him. A battle began that lasted for six days and resulted in approximately 30,000 casualties between the two armies.

Instead of pressing home his initial advantage, Hooker decided to set up a defensive position, and when Lee arrived on the scene on May 1, he was able to plan his own flank movement with the aid of Jackson.

The following day, Lee divided his army and Jackson took 30,000 men to fight against the Union’s weak right flank where he won a stunning victory. In fact, only the arrival of nightfall prevented him from completely destroying the enemy. That night, Jackson died in a tragic friendly fire incident. The Union army attacked the rear of Lee’s forces on May 3 but the Confederate general was able to beat them back, and on May 6, Hooker withdrew his remaining army.

Although both sides sustained enormous casualties, the Union had the far greater manpower and resources and could bear the losses and regroup. In contrast, the Confederate army was at a severe disadvantage. Within a couple of months, Lee would do battle with the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg; the conflict often said to be the turning point in the Civil War.