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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:
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
The Battle of Muye in 1046 BC, in which a much smaller Zhou force decisively defeated the huge Shang army, that largely defected to the Zhou side. This caused the Shang dynasty to fall.
The Battle of Mobei in 119 BC, where the entire Xiongnu army of over 100,000 men was destroyed by the Han army. This battle and its aftermath ensured the supremacy of the Chinese over the northern barbarian tribes for the next few hundred years.
The Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, when Crassus with 40,000 soldiers marched into Parthia, expecting to be victorious, chose to march a direct route through the desert instead of the mountains of the north. He and his army was entirely annihilated by 9,000 Parthian soldiers.
The Siege of Alesia in 52 BC, where Gaius Julius Caesar, leading roughly 50,000 Roman soldiers, laid siege to a rebel Gaul army consisting of roughly 85,000 infantrymen and 15,000 cavalry led under Vercingetorix in the fortress of Alesia. The Belgae tribe attempted to relieve the siege with an army of 260,000 warriors. The Romans, through the personal leadership of Titus Labienus, wrought a terrific slaughter upon the Belgae; this demoralising event led the defenders at Alesia to yield, ending Vercingetorix's rebellion.
Julian's Persian War in 363 AD, in which the Roman Emperor Julian invaded the Sassanian Empire under Shapur II, gaining initial tactical victories, but soon being lured into the interior of the Empire, leaving his army trapped and unable to escape. Julian himself perished and his successor, Emperor Jovian, was forced to sign one of the most humiliating peace treaties in Roman history in order to save the remnants of the Roman army.
The Battle of Pliska in 811. Byzantine forces were ambushed by a Bulgarian force, leading to the death of the Byzantine Emperor and greatly increased the Bulgarian power in the Balkans.
The Battle of Achelous in 917. A Byzantine army of 30,000 men was tactically outwitted by a smaller Bulgarian force, causing the death of much of the Byzantine force in one of the bloodiest battles in the Middle Ages. The bones of tens of thousands who perished could be seen on the battlefield 75 years later.
The Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, known in Arab history as the Battle of Al-Uqab (Arabic? ), took place on 16 July 1212 and was an important turning point in the Reconquista and in the medieval history of Spain. The Christian forces of King Alfonso VIII of Castile were joined by the armies of his rivals, Sancho VII of Navarre and Peter II of Aragon in battle against the Almohad Muslim rulers of the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula. The al-Nasir (Miramamolín in the Spanish chronicles) led the Almohad army, made up of people from all over the Almohad Caliphate.
The Battle of Kalka River, 1223. A Mongol army obliterates an allied Kievan-Rus'/Cuman army at a river crossing on the Kalka in the Ukraine. The Mongols draw the Russo-Cuman force out until they are overextended, then attack with their heavy cavalry and destroy the allied forces in detail. The Mongols capture several Russian princes and ritually execute them by crushing them beneath a feasting table on which the Mongol leaders dance and feast.
The Battle of Legnica, 1241. A Mongol army under Baidar crushes an allied force of Poles, Germans, Bohemians, crusaders and mercenaries under King Henry II the Pious of Poland. Poor discipline within the allied ranks allows the Mongols to destroy first the knights and then the infantry. Henry II is killed, as are many nobles and princes, and most of the allied army except for the Bohemian contingent, which the Mongol army decides not to pursue having incurred heavy casualties.
The Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. English Earl John de Warenne's well-equipped army were trapped on a narrow bridge by William Wallace's 15,000 unarmored, lightly armed Scots, bearing the traditional long spears of lowland Scotland. The bridge had been chosen as the point of engagement by Warenne, even though the river could easily have been forded just a few miles upstream.
The Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. A Scottish army of around 7000 men under King Robert I defeats a roughly 20,000-strong English army near Stirling Castle. The English knights fail to penetrate the schiltrons of Scottish spearmen on the first day, and are routed completely the next day when Robert decides to counter-attack. King Edward II of England only narrowly escapes capture, and some of England's most important nobles are killed or captured.
The Battle of Agincourt in 1415. A large French army, with a large contingent of knights, was defeated by Henry V's much smaller army, which included the famed English longbowmen.
The Tumu Crisis in 1449. A very large force (500,000) of the Ming dynasty were defeated by a very small army (20,000) of Mongols, and the Zhengtong Emperor of the Ming dynasty was captured. This battle is regarded as the greatest military debacle of the entire Chinese history. There is a legend that Zhengtong Emperor had been working as a herder during the capture in Mongol.
The Battle of Mohacs in 1526. The Ottoman army crushed the Hungarian forces, who lost their king, Louis II during retreat. The battle marked the end of the medieval Hungarian state.
The First battle of Panipat in 1526. Babur sacked Delhi and defeated Ibrahim Lodhi. This battle marked the use of gunpowder for the first time in any battle in Indian subcontinent and also establishment of Mughal rule in india. Ibrahim Lodhi's war elephants panicked and crushed Lodhi's army after hearing cannon sound.
Battle of Szigeth in 1566. 2,300 Croatian troops under Nikola ?ubi?-Zrinski held Ottoman army of 100,000 troops and 300 cannons, led by Suleiman the Magnificent, for a month. Ottoman army lost 30,000 soldiers, while Suleiman himself died.
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 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.
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 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 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 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, 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.
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 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 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".
Battle of Assaye 1803: A British force of 10,000 men, led by Arthur Wellesley, defeats a Maratha force of 50,000 and ultimately leads to a British victory in the war.
The Battle of Bladensburg. War of 1812, the rout of the U.S. Army dubbed "the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms" in 1814 by a smaller force of British army regulars and Marines under General Robert Ross, which led to the burning of Washington. Described in an 1816 American poem as the Bladensburg Races after American troops ran through the streets of Washington in disarray. Ross was later killed in action by American soldiers on campaign during the Battle of North Point but was subsequently honoured posthumously as Ross of Bladensburg. His US opposite, General William H. Winder, was later court-martialled but cleared of blame.
The Battle of New Orleans. War of 1812. On January 8, 1815, a British force of more than 8,000 attacked entrenched positions manned by 4,000 Americans commanded by Andrew Jackson, losing more than 285 dead, to 55 killed and 185 wounded. The battle was fought after the Americans and British had agreed to peace (the Treaty of Ghent, Belgium), but sea-borne communications were too slow to prevent the battle.
The Battle of Koregaon, 1st Jan 1818: Fought between the British Light Native Infantry (500 in number) and Peshwai Forces of 28,000. The troops fought continuously for more than 12 hours without food or water. Peshwai forces finally retreating from the battlefield by day end.
The Battle of San Jacinto. Texas Revolution, April 21, 1836. General Santa Anna, fully aware that the Texian Army was very nearby, ordered his exhausted army to take an afternoon siesta and failed to post standing skirmishers or sentries. This led to an absolute rout when the Texian Army under command of General Sam Houston made a surprise attack in broad daylight, with 630 of Santa Anna's 1400 troops killed against 9 Texians and almost the entire remainder captured, including Santa Anna himself. This also proved to be the decisive battle of the entire war as the Republic of Texas then successfully negotiated with Santa Anna the withdrawal of all of his remaining troops from Texan soil at the Treaties of Velasco.
Battle of Isandlwana, January 22, 1879. In the first major battle of the Anglo-Zulu War, a Zuluimpi overwhelmed and defeated two battalions armed with modern rifles and artillery. The battle was a major victory for the Zulus during the opening stages of the 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.
The Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43 was one of the turning points of World War II. German General Friedrich Paulus failed to keep a mobile strategic reserve and the Sixth Army was surrounded by a rapid Soviet flanking attack. Rubble caused by German bombing and artillery fire left their tanks unable to enter the city. The 250,000+ German troops in Stalingrad surrendered even though Adolf Hitler had promised they would never leave the city.
Operation Bagration (1944). The Soviet summer offensive sliced through the German line and reached Poland within two weeks, and also destroyed Army Group Center with a loss of well over 400,000 men, the backbone of German forces on the Eastern Front.
The Battle of Leyte Gulf (23-26 October 1944) - a climactic battle in the Pacific Ocean that is perhaps the largest naval battle in all history. The Imperial Japanese Navy prepared for a titanic battle in the hopes of turning the tide of the war and allocated a huge part of their war effort. It was the last time the Japanese had significant resources to fight the war, much of their ships and planes were destroyed.
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.
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 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.
^McNab, C. "World's Worst Military Disasters". The Rosen Publishing Group, 2009. 978-1404218413
^Beate Dignas & Engelbert Winter, Rome & Persia in Late Antiquity; Neighbours & Rivals, (Cambridge University Press, English edition, 2007), p94, p131 & p134
^Beate Dignas & Engelbert Winter, Rome & Persia in Late Antiquity; Neighbours & Rivals, (Cambridge University Press, English edition, 2007), p94, p131 & p134
^Golden, Peter B. Turks And Khazars. Farnham, England: Ashgate/Variorum, 2010. Print.
^Mikaberidze, Alexander. Conflict And Conquest In The Islamic World. Print.
^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."
^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. ISBN978-953-6357-86-4.
Military Intelligence Blunders and Cover-Ups, by Colonel Hughes-Wilson John (ISBN0-7867-1373-9)