List of Military Disasters
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List of Military Disasters
Battle of the Little Big Horn known as Custer's Last Stand.

In this list a military disaster is the unexpected and sound defeat of one side in a battle or war, sometimes changing the course of history.

Military disasters in this list can range from a strong army losing a major battle against a clearly inferior force, to an army being surprised and defeated by a clearly superior force, to a seemingly evenly matched conflict with an extremely one sided result. A military disaster could be due to bad planning, bad execution, bad weather, general lack of skill or ability, the failure of a new piece of military technology, a major blunder, a brilliant move on the part of the enemy, or simply the unexpected presence of an overwhelming enemy force.

One definition of military disaster describes the presence of two or three factors:[1]

  • chronic mission failure (the key factor)
  • successful enemy action,
  • (less significant) total degeneration of a force's command and control structure

According to this definition, two particular characteristics are not necessary for an event to be classified as a military disaster:

  • enormous loss of life
  • having greater casualties than the enemy

Ancient era

Battle of Salamis, 480 BC.png
Map showing Julian's journey from Constantinople to Antioch (in 362) and his Persian expedition (in 363), ending with his death near Samarra resulting in one of Rome's most catastrophic military failures in its history.[2]

Medieval era

16th century

The fall of Spanish Armada in 1588
  • The Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The Holy League's fleet defeated the Ottoman fleet in one of the largest naval battles of human history. The Ottomans lost 240 ships (out of about 300), while the League lost 12 of their 210 ships.
  • The Spanish Armada in 1588. An English fleet sends fire ships into the Spanish invasion fleet destroying some and scattering the rest effectively ending the invasion threat. The Armada would later run into storms and almost half the ships never returned to Spain, as well as more than half the troops.
  • The English Armada in 1589, where the English fleet was defeated by the recovering Spanish fleet. This allowed the Spanish fleet to quickly recover and maintained their shipping from the Americas.
  • The Battle of Sisak in 1593, where small Croatian contingent of 300 men managed to hold army of 10,000 Ottomans, which was then annihilated by incoming Croatian army.
  • The Battle of Myeongnyang, on October 26, 1597, the Korean Joseon Navy, led by Admiral Yi Sun-sin, fought the Japanese navy in the Myeongnyang Strait, near Jindo Island, off the southwest point of the Korean Peninsula. With 13 ships remaining from Admiral Won Gyun's disastrous defeat at the Battle of Chilchonryang, Admiral Yi held the strait as a "Last Stand" battle against a fleet of 133 Japanese warships and at least 200 logistical support ship.
  • The Battle of the Yellow Ford in 1598. An English force of 4000 is attacked by Irish defenders under Hugh O'Neill and defeated. This temporarily put Ireland out of English control, allowing the rebellion to spread throughout Ireland.

17th century

  • The Battle of Pratapgarh in November 1659. The battle was fought between invading Adilshahi forces and defending Maratha forces under Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj. Adilshahi forces composed of 30,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry along with 1500 musketeers. There was a reserve force of 12,000 infantry. The Adilshahi forces were scattered in the region. The opposing Maratha forces numbered 6,000 light cavalry, 3,000 light infantry and 4,000 reserve infantry. The battle turned out to be a rout for Adilshahi forces (5000 killed, 5000 wounded, and abandoned artillery and wealth) after Afzal Khan (general) was killed in Hand-to-hand combat by Shivaji Maharaj.
  • The Battle of Umberkhind in February 1661. The Battle was fought between invading Mughal forces and defending Maratha forces under Chattrapati Shivaji Maharaj. 30,000 strong Mughal army was routed by 3000 Maratha forces in a fine display of Guerilla Warfare. The war lasted for few hours and ended with complete unconditional surrender of Mughal forces.
  • The Raid on the Medway in June 1667. A Dutch fleet led by Michiel de Ruyter sailed up the river Medway and attacked the English fleet lying at anchor at their home base of Chatham. Ending in a decisive victory for the Dutch, and an unfavorable peace for the British in the Second Anglo-Dutch War.
  • The Battle of Saraighat in March 1671. The Ahoms under their general Lachit Borphukan defeated the Rajput general Ram Singh's Mughal imperial forces consisting of 4,000 troopers (from his char-hazaari mansab), 1,500 ahadis and 500 barqandezes by an additional 30,000 infantrymen, 21 Rajput chiefs (Thakurs) with their contingents, 18,000 cavalry, 2,000 archers and shieldmen and 40 ships.
  • The Battle of Vienna in September 1683. A coalition of armies from Poland, Germany, Hungary and Italy fought the invading Ottoman Turks. The Polish King Jan Sobieski led one of the largest cavalry charges in history and crushed the Ottoman force.
  • The Battle of Narva in November 1700, where the city of Narva was under siege by a Russian force of 37,000 men, led by Charles Eugène de Croy. A blizzard against the Russian side allowed a Swedish army, led by Charles XII of Sweden, to win despite having only 12,000 men.

18th century

  • The Battle of Poltava in June 1709. Charles XII of Sweden's disastrous defeat ended his march on Moscow during the Great Northern War and marked the beginning of the decline of the Swedish Empire.
  • The Battle of the Salween River in September 1718. An entire Qing army was destroyed by Zunghar Mongols.
  • The Battle of Karnal in 1739 was a battle in which an invading Persian army under the military genius Nader Shah decimated a much larger Mughal army in a matter of hours and thereby subdued the Mughal Emperor Muhammad Shah, making him a vassal of Nader Shah's.
  • The Battle of Cartagena de Indias in March-May 1741. This battle, fought in the War of Jenkins' Ear, saw a huge British amphibious force of 26,400 men and 186 ships beaten back and defeated by 6,000 Spanish troops and just 6 ships. The British pulled back after losing many men to disease.
  • The Battle of Assietta on July 19, 1747, between a French force of 40,000 men and an Italian Force of 15,000 men from Sardinia. All French attacks were repelled by the Italians, resulting in 6,400 French killed, including general Louis Forquet.
  • The Battle of the Monongahela River at the beginning of the Seven Years' War (July 9, 1755). A small contingent of French and allied Indians soundly defeated a far superior British-American force under the command of General Edward Braddock, the commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. Braddock was killed in the battle as was the French commander, Daniel-Hyacinthe de Beaujeu.
  • The Battle of Plassey on June 23, 1757, when the British East India Company decisively defeated a much bigger force fielded by Siraj Ud Daulah and gained their first major foothold into India.
  • The Third Battle of Panipat on January 14, 1761, between the two indigenous South Asian military powers of the time, the Afghan Durrani Empire and the Hindu Maratha Empire. The Durrani forces were able to achieve decisive victory. The battle is considered one of the largest fought in the 18th century,[8] and has perhaps the largest number of fatalities in a single day reported in a classic formation battle between two armies. The extent of the losses on both sides is heavily disputed by historians, but it is believed that between 60,000-70,000 were killed in fighting from both sides, and another 40,000-70,000 Maratha non-combatants massacred following the battle.[9][10]
  • The Battle of Buxar(1764) was an engagement in which 8,000 British East India Company troops defeated a Mughal Army of 40,000, allowing the British to establish dominion over northeastern India.
  • The Battle of Trenton was a battle of the American Revolutionary War that took place on the morning of December 26, 1776, in Trenton, New Jersey. American forces commanded by George Washington surprised and defeated Hessian mercenaries fighting for the British.
  • The Battle of Saratoga in September-October 1777. John Burgoyne's British Army is captured after the battle by the Continental Army under Horatio Gates.
  • The Battle of Camden in August, 1780. The American forces under Horatio Gates were defeated by the British who were half their size in numbers. This battle in the South turned out to be important for the British General Lord Cornwallis.
  • The Battle of Polliur was a defeat for the East India Company at the hands of Kingdom of Mysore during the Second Anglo-Mysore War. The Mysorean usage of long-distance rockets under the direction of Tipu Sultan allowed them to defeat a numerically superior East India Company force and ultimately win the war.
  • The Great Siege of Gibraltar in June 1779 - February 1783. During the American Revolution a combined Franco-Spanish force lays siege to a British garrison for nearly four years. A 'Grand Assault' of over 60,000 men, and 150 assault vessels by the besieging forces in September 1782 results in total disaster, with over 6,000 casualties and dozens of ships lost.
  • The Battle of Karánsebes on the 21st of September 1788. A friendly fire incident including drunken soldiers arguing over recently purchased schnapps ending in massive confusion and the loss of 1,200 Austrian soldiers, 3 cannons and the payroll for the entire army. Nicknamed, "The Battle of the Schnapps".

19th century

20th century

Turn of the century

First World War

  • The Battle of Tannenberg -- August 1914, at the first month of the war, in the forests of East Prussia. The Russian First and Second Armies consisting of 230,000 men have a catastrophic defeat suffering 170,000 casualties against the German 8th Army of 150,000 that suffers 13,000. Although having numerical superiority, the two Imperial Russian Army commanders are at enmity with each other, their soldiers are poorly trained, ill-prepared, composed largely of illiterates, for supplies they rely on two outdated trains and the use of Cossack horses, and for communication they use radio messages that have been already decrypted by the Germans. Though numerically inferior, the Imperial German Army has vastly superior technology, planning, mobilization and mechanization, their units have superior training, equipment and tactics, and the commanders are united and communicate with each other. The victory is so total that Russians come out from the forests massively to surrender, forming a line that spans miles and provokes a traffic jam -- 60 trains are required to transport Russian POWS and captured equipment to Germany. The event would be known by the Germans as "Erntetag", or "Day of the Harvest".
  • The Battle of Sarikamish - Ottoman forces attack Russian fortifications in the Allahuekber Mountains in late 1915. They suffer devastating losses because of their use of outdated tactics and ill-preparedness for low-temperature combat.
    Landing at Gallipoli, April 1915
  • The Siege of Kut - The British Indian 6th Division attempts to capture Baghdad but its commanders underestimate the strength of the Ottoman Army and meet unexpectedly heavy resistance. They were defeated at Battle of Ctesiphon (Selman-? Pak), and besieged in Kut Al Amare. Despite relief efforts by British troops, Kut surrendered to Ottoman Forces on 29 April 1916 ending up with capture of the division's commander Major General Charles Townshend, many high ranked British Indian Army officers, and 11,000 soldiers. Around 30,000 casualties had been suffered.
  • The Siege of Przemy?l - The Austro-Hungarian garrison of Przemy?l Fortress surrendered to the Russian Third Army on 22 March 1915, after holding out for a total of 133 days. The loss of the fortress was a serious blow to Austro-Hungarian morale and opened the possibility of a Russian invasion of Hungary.
  • The Gallipoli Campaign - April 1915 to January 1916. A combined British, Commonwealth and French attempt to capture Istanbul becomes a stalemate on the Gallipoli Peninsula and is abandoned.

Intra-wars era

Second World War

Surrendering British troops held at gunpoint by Japanese infantry in the battle of Singapore

Cold War era

  • The Battle of Inchon in September 1950 was an amphibious invasion during the Korean War that resulted in a decisive victory for the United Nations forces led by General Douglas MacArthur. The battle at Incheon led to the recapture of the South Korean capital, Seoul, two weeks later and a general collapse of the Korean People's Army, with 135,000 North Korean prisoners taken by the Americans in the next four weeks.
  • The Battle of Dien Bien Phu, in which the French Far East Expeditionary Corps advanced deep into northwestern Vietnam near ?i?n Biên Ph? to cut off the Viet Minh's supply lines from Laos and force it into a confrontation. The Viet Minh besieged the French and smuggled heavy artillery through mountain terrain, preventing resupply by air with anti-aircraft guns. The defeat forced the French Armed Forces to withdraw from North Vietnam in 1954.
  • The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a United States-backed attempt in 1961 to overthrow Cuban President, Fidel Castro, using 1,500 Cuban exiles. Not only were the exiles heavily outnumbered when they reached the bay, but the US-promised air support never came to aid the exiles.
  • In the Six-Day War, in response to Arab threats of invasion and low-level attacks, Israel launched surprise air attacks which almost completely destroyed the Air Forces of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria, followed by a series of ground, air, and naval attacks which saw the capture of the Sinai from Egypt, the West Bank from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria, victories which lead to heavy Arab losses in personnel and material.
  • The Battle of Longewala - during the western theater of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, Pakistan launched a large-scale offensive (involving 2,800 soldiers, 65 tanks and more than 130 other military vehicles) to capture a small Indian Army post at Longewala manned by 120 personnel and one jeep-mounted recoilless rifle. Despite numerical inferiority, the Indian Army successfully held on to the post during the night. In the morning Indian Air Force aircraft were launched at first light. This air offensive halted the progress of the Pakistani regiment. The ensuing battle resulted in destruction and capture of more than 100 Pakistani tanks and military vehicles,with only 2 solider's death from Indian side.[12][13]
  • Operation Eagle Claw, a U.S. attempt to rescue hostages in Iran in April 1980 during the Iran Hostage Crisis. This operation was marked by a series of planning, mechanical and communication failures that led to the deaths of eight American servicemen, and failed to rescue the hostages and humiliated the administration of President Jimmy Carter.
  • The Battle of Afabet, where the Eritrean People's Liberation Front killed 18,000 Ethiopian soldiers and prevented Ethiopia from destroying the EPLF.
  • The Gulf War, in which the Iraqi Army had invaded and annexed Kuwait, resulting in a vast international coalition being assembled in response. The Coalition then launched a counter-invasion of Kuwait and Iraq proper, resulting in the complete reversal of all Iraqi territorial gains, the devastation of the Iraqi Army (with over 100,000 casualties), and Ba'athist Iraq becoming an international pariah state.

Post Cold War

Ruins in Vukovar in 1991 after the JNA invasion.

21st century

See also


  1. ^ McNab, C. "World's Worst Military Disasters". The Rosen Publishing Group, 2009. 978-1404218413
  2. ^ Beate Dignas & Engelbert Winter, Rome & Persia in Late Antiquity; Neighbours & Rivals, (Cambridge University Press, English edition, 2007), p94, p131 & p134
  3. ^ Beate Dignas & Engelbert Winter, Rome & Persia in Late Antiquity; Neighbours & Rivals, (Cambridge University Press, English edition, 2007), p94, p131 & p134
  4. ^ Golden, Peter B. Turks And Khazars. Farnham, England: Ashgate/Variorum, 2010. Print.
  5. ^ Mikaberidze, Alexander. Conflict And Conquest In The Islamic World. Print.
  6. ^ Alexander Mikaberidze, Miraculous Victory:' Battle of Didgori, 1121, Published: May 14, 2008;"The size of the Muslim army is still a matter of debate with numbers ranging from a fantastic 800,000 men ("Bella Antiochena", Galterii Cancelarii), 600,000 Turks (Matthew of Edessa) to 400,000 (Smbat Sparapet's Chronicle) while the estimates of modern Georgian historians vary between 100,000-250,000 men."[1]
  7. ^ Nomads in the Sedentary World, p. 47, at Google Books
  8. ^ Black, Jeremy (2002) Warfare In The Eighteenth Century (Cassell'S History Of Warfare) (Paperback - 25 July 2002)ISBN 0304362123
  9. ^ James Grant Duff "History of the Mahrattas, Vol II (Ch. 5), Printed for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1826"
  10. ^ T. S. Shejwalkar, "Panipat 1761" (in Marathi and English) Deccan College Monograph Series. I., Pune (1946)
  11. ^ Willmott, H. P. (1983). The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Strategies, February to June 1942. United States Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-59114-949-5.[page needed]
  12. ^ Lal, Pratap Chandra. My Years With The IAF. ISBN 978-81-7062-008-2.
  13. ^ Palit, D. K. (1972). The Lightning Campaign: The Indo-Pakistan War, 1971. Thomson Press. p. 86. ISBN 1-897829-37-X.
  14. ^ Central Intelligence Agency Office of Russian and European Analysis 2000, p. 99
  15. ^ Woodward 1995, p. 258
  16. ^ Bethelem, Daniel; Weller, Marc (1997). The Yugoslav Crisis in International Law. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521463041.
  17. ^ Rubi?, Mate (2008). Republika Hrvatska i Domovinski rat 1990.-1995. - Dokumenti, Knjiga 5 [The Republic of Croatia and the Croatian War of Independence 1990-1995 - Documents, Volume 5] (PDF) (in Croatian) (PDF). Zagreb, Croatia: Hrvatski memorijalno-dokumentacijski centar Domovinskog rata. ISBN 978-953-7439-13-2.
  18. ^ Zovak, Jerko (2009). Planovi, sporazumi, izjave o ustavnom ustrojstvu Bosne i Hercegovine 1991. - 1995 [Plans, Agreements, Statements on the Constitutional Arrangements of Bosnia and Herzegovina 1991-1995] (in Croatian). Slavonski Brod, Croatia: Posavska Hrvatska: Slovo M. ISBN 978-953-6357-86-4.

Further reading

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