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What was the worst military decision in history?

The Charge of the Light Brigade

On 30 March 1856, the Crimean War between Russia and an alliance of European empires was brought to an end by the signing of the Treaty of Paris. The war lasted two and a half years and included one of the most infamous blunders in military history - the Charge of the Light Brigade. 

Everyone’s allowed a bad day at the office and for most of us, our shoddy decision making that day has manageable consequences and is largely forgotten about a short while later. There are those, however, whose poor judgement and decision-making has led to catastrophic loss of life and failure on the field of battle, leading their bad days to be documented and forever remembered in the annals of history. 

Whilst there are enough examples to fill an entire dissertation, we’re offering up a selection of four mistakes that could well be considered the worst in military history. 

1. Charge of the Light Brigade

In late 1854, an alliance of British, French and Turkish forces besieged Sevastopol, Russia’s main naval base in the Black Sea on the Crimean peninsula. On 25 October, Russian soldiers attacked the allied supply base at Balaclava and captured a number of earthwork forts known as redoubts. 

‘By Jove. They’re going to take away the guns!’ shouted one member of Lord Raglan’s staff as they viewed the action from their battlefield vantage point. Raglan, the commander of the British forces, had never lost a gun in battle and was unwilling to start then. He hastily dictated the following order, ‘Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front – follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns.’

The now written order was given to a hot-tempered Captain called Lord Nolan. Nolan was to ride the order down to the valley floor and give it to Lord Lucan, a man who Nolan had much contempt for believing him to be weak and timid. When Lucan read the note he questioned the operation. Nolan responded that the cavalry should ‘attack’ immediately. It seems he fatally added this word at his own authority. ‘Attack what? What guns, sir?’ replied Lucan before Nolan barked back and gestured vaguely, ‘There, my lord, is your enemy! There are your guns!’

Of the 676 or so men who charged the guns, around 278 of them were killed or wounded.

In the end, Lucan would send his Light Brigade not towards the captured guns but instead towards Russian artillery down the valley. Of the 676 or so men who charged the guns, around 278 of them were killed or wounded along with nearly 400 horses. Due to terrible communication between Raglan and his senior command, the Light Brigade was lost that day and the Russian’s were handed their first victory (of sorts) during the war.  

Just weeks after the event, poet Laurette Alfred Lord Tennyson forever immortalised the event with his poem, ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade.’

2. Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia

Napoleon was a brilliant leader who enjoyed many successes on the battlefield. As Emperor, he made France the dominant power in Europe but all of this went to his head and overconfidence led him to make one of history’s most notorious military howlers.

In 1812, Napoleon decided it was a good idea to invade Russia with winter just around the corner. His ‘Grand Armié’ went in 680,000 strong, the largest army ever assembled in the history of warfare at that time. Just five months later, the French army would limp out of Russia having lost nearly 500,000 men. 

Russia’s unwillingness to engage but instead retreat further into their own country and employ scorched-earth tactics meant that Napoleon was refused the fast victory he wanted. When he finally reached Moscow, Napoleon discovered it abandoned and burnt. Instead of moving on he decided to stay in Moscow and wait for a peace offer from the Russians. It never came and the Russian winter was now one month closer.

As the Russian winter set in, the lack of food and shelter paid a heavy price on the French army. 

As Napoleon’s army began their retreat they followed the same route home, a route that had little on offer regarding food and shelter since the Russians had destroyed it all. The inadequate French supply lines offered little in support. 

As the Russian winter set in, the lack of food and shelter paid a heavy price on the French army. Coupled with persisted attacks from Russian forces, the Grand Armié army went into a state of disarray and discipline went out the window. 

By the time the last French soldier made it off Russian soil, it was clear the campaign had been the bloodiest in the Napoleonic Wars and a tremendous turning point for the French Empire. Not only was Napoleon’s reputation severely damaged but his army was also a shell of its former self. Ultimately the failure of the invasion triggered the War of the Sixth Coalition, which saw Napoleon defeated and exiled on Elba. 

3. Operation Barbarossa

Like Napoleon before him, Hitler gathered the largest invasion force in history, over three million strong, and began his campaign against Soviet Russia in June of 1941. At this stage of the war Germany had the upper hand but Hitler’s decision to now split his forces into two fronts, Eastern and Western, would prove costly. 

After just five months, Hitler’s foray into Soviet Russia came to an end, almost a carbon copy of Napoleon’s invasion. What makes Hitler’s decision worse though is the fact he had learnt nothing from history - overstretched supply lines, inadequate preparations for a war of attrition, the Russian winter and the sheer vastness of the country all aided in the German defeat. 

Operation Barbarossa also saw Hitler lose his greatest, largest and most battle-hardened army, the Sixth Army, during the Battle of Stalingrad. Hitler’s decision to take Stalingrad could arguably make this list in its own right. 

A secondary target, the city could have been completely bypassed by Hitler’s forces as they made their way to the strategically more important oilfields in the Caucasus. Instead, Hitler’s army besieged Stalingrad and lost, allowing the Soviets to turn the tide of the war. The defeat would prove pivotal and marked the end of German expansion eastwards; from that point onwards the Third Reich was fighting a defensive war.

By the time the last German soldier made it off Russian soil, millions of lives had been lost and Hitler’s fatally flawed campaign went down in the history books as the bloodiest of all time.

4. The Battle of Red Cliffs

The Han Dynasty in China lasted some four hundred years starting from 206 BC. During its rule, great technological advancements were made including paper, the compass and the world’s first seismograph. The dynasty would eventually come to an end in 220 AD with China being split into three states, heralding in the Three Kingdoms period in Chinese history. 

Although a number of political and economic factors contributed to the fall of the dynasty, there was one massive military error that played a significant role as well. That mistake came during the Battle of Red Cliffs in 208 AD, a naval engagement between the forces of the northern warlord Cao Cao and the allied forces of southern warlords Liu Bei and Sun Quan. 

Hundreds of thousands of personnel participated in this battle, making it one of the biggest in naval history and ironically it was an awful tactical decision regarding seasickness that ended the fighting. 

Although Cao Cao’s forces greatly outnumbered those of his enemies, the majority of his men were made up of infantry and cavalry who had little experience on the water. This was Cao Cao’s first mistake, converting a land force into a naval one with very little training. Subsequently the men suffered greatly from seasickness. 

To alleviate their suffering Cao Cao decided to chain all his ships together to reduce the amount they swayed on the water. Some accounts suggest that it was a southern spy who had infiltrated Cao Cao’s ranks who advised him on this tactical manoeuvre. Whilst this might have conquered the men’s motion sickness, it effectively turned the ships into sitting ducks and the enemy sought to take advantage of this.

The southern forces filled up a number of their own ships with ‘ingredients necessary for starting a fire’ and sent them towards Cao Cao’s fleet with strong winds pushing them quickly on. Feigning surrender the enemy ships were allowed to get close. At the last minute, enemy sailors set the ships ablaze before jumping off them onto accompanying smaller boats. The fire-ships crashed into Cao Cao’s armada and set it alight. Not only was Cao Cao’s entire fleet burnt down but the fire also spread to his camp on land, devastating his forces and leading Cao Cao to issue an order of retreat.

The result of the battle confirmed the separation of China into northern and southern halves, with the Yangtze River Valley acting as the border. The cultural and political divide would last for centuries and it all might have turned out differently had Cao Cao not decided to tie all his boats together.