Historical Debacles: 12 Humiliating Military Defeats from Ancient Times to the Modern Era

English longbowmen at Agincourt. Some Things Matter

de·ba·cle

/dāˈbäk(ə)l,dəˈbäk(ə)l/

noun

a sudden and ignominious failure; a fiasco.

In most battles and wars, there are winners and losers. Sometimes the outcome is clear cut. Other times it is a near run thing, with Pyrrhic victors and losers who went down hard and honorably. And then there are those other times where the outcome is a humiliating defeat in which the loser is beaten so badly, and the defeat is so convincing and in such stark contrast to the brimming confidence and high expectations of success with which the losers had started off, that it is simply cringeworthy.

Following are twelve of the worst military debacles in history, spanning the gamut from antiquity and the Middle Ages, to the age of gunpowder and the world wars, and into our modern era.

Roman Defeat at Cannae

Hannibal led a Carthaginian army into Italy during the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC), and inflicted a series of humiliating defeats upon the Romans. The losses shook Rome’s hold on Italy, as allies forswore their allegiance and either joined Hannibal, or declared neutrality. The Romans appointed Quintus Fabius Maximus dictator for 6 months, and he adopted a strategy that became known as “Fabian”. Realizing that Rome’s manpower reservoir exceeded Hannibal’s, Fabius turned to attrition, whittling the Carthaginian’s forces with skirmishes and raids on his supply lines while avoiding pitched battle.

Battle of Cannae. Dickinson College

That stabilized the situation, but did not sit well with other Romans, who wanted to avenge the earlier defeats as soon as possible. When Fabius’ term expired, the Romans amassed 87,000 men, their biggest army to date, and marched off to destroy Hannibal. Hannibal, who had been discomfited by Fabius’ attrition tactics, was willing to accommodate the Romans and give them battle when they met near Cannae, where Hannibal’s 40,000 men 87,000 Romans.

Hannibal adopted a brilliant tactical plan that was carried out to perfection. He placed his undisciplined Gauls in the center, in a formation that bulged out towards the Romans, and on either side of the Gauls, he positioned his disciplined African infantry (see map above). As the Romans advanced, the Gauls would give way, until their formation which had started off bulging outwards, bent and bulged inwards, forming a bowl shape or sack. The confident Romans, scenting victory as the enemy gave ground, would push into the sack.

Once inside the sack, the African infantry positioned to the Gauls’ sides would wheel inwards and attack the Roman flanks. By then, the Carthaginian cavalry would have defeated the Roman cavalry. It would then turn around, and attack the enemy infantry’s rear, thus completely encircling the Romans. In the battle that is seen to this day as the gold standard for tactical generalship, the surrounded Romans were nearly wiped out, with only 10,000 out of the 87,000 strong army escaping, the remainder either slaughtered or captured.

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  • Harry McNicholas

    It appears this article is mostly accurate.

  • ARavingNutCase

    Forgot Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn.

    • thenicklemansbrother

      Custer was jus a small battle and the Union forces eventually slaughtered the natives.

  • Rockhound

    Many think that it was the invention of firearms that brought an end to armored knights. It wasn’t, it was the invention of the longbow. It was relatively cheap to make, could fire rapidly, and had the power to put an arrow through even the best armor. A man just couldn’t carry the weight of armor thick enough to stop these arrows.

    • Koriel

      Longbows were weak. It was the laminated recurve bow that could pierce armor.

      • Rockhound

        After doing some research, I am going to have to provisionally bow to you on this. I say provisionally because, while I found a number of videos showing people using longbows to shoot at plate armor, I couldn’t find any that I could confirm were using bows with the pull weight that they original longbows had. Back in the day, the military longbow would have a pull weight of 100 to 150 lb. The tests that I saw only used modern target longbows (40 to 50 lb. pull weights). Those bows definitely did not have the power to penetrate plate sufficiently to do serious harm to a knight.

        One other test that I saw, used a machine rather than a bow to propel the “arrow”, but they gave the speed of the arrow rather than telling the equivalent bow weight. However, that arrow also failed to penetrate sufficiently.

        So, I don’t know that I have actually seen any conclusive evidence to one way or the other that the English longbow (which is the version to which I was referring) could penetrate plate armor, but I will accept the possibility that it could not.

        • Scott Norwood

          Thank God.provisionally of course

  • Patrick Green

    Gulf war?

  • Neal Ekengren

    I say the biggest military disaster in history is the Spanish victory over the Mexica in Tenochtitlan on August 13, 1521. Cortez landed with 630 men (many not even soldiers) and defeated a vast empire. Nothing else even comes close.

    • Bill Christensen

      Don’t forget that Cortez had tens of thousands Indian allies who were itching to get out from under Aztec control.

      • Neal Ekengren

        yes, of course. Also, you can argue the merits of the campaign versus the single battle. Cortez only lost about 100 men in the final battle with the help of 20,000+ indian allies. To bring down an empire.

        • Bill Christensen

          What really brought the empire down was smallpox, left behind in the aftermath of La Noche Triste.

  • stevetacitus

    One debacle that might have been mentioned was the Roman defeat at the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. An alliance of Germanic tribes annihilated three Roman legions and their auxiliaries, effectively ending any Roman attempts to colonize east of the Rhine.

    • Scott Norwood

      True. Took out entire northern army.

  • MonroeMethodActor

    Let us not forget arguably the greatest turning point in European history: The Battle of Tours, 753 A.D. If it had gone the other way, we would now most probably be speaking Arabic and Christianity as we know it, would have succumbed to Mohammadanism! It was actually the Northern most point the Muslim armies reached in France after they had taken the Iberian Peninsula. Although it is highly iffy to play “coulda-should-woulda” games with historical events, bet on the French having much darker complexions by now, to say nothing of other European countries.

  • norm

    They left out the Spanish Armada debacle.