The Top 5 Battles Lost by Mistake… or by Total Accident

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A study of military history will reveal that most decisive battles were won thanks to a number of specific, identifiable factors. Perhaps one army seized high ground and was able to leverage their position into better range for their artillery. Maybe the morale of one fighting force surged while that of the other flagged. Perhaps the victors simply outnumbered the vanquished. Or perhaps stunning military strategy executed by skilled commanders won the day; any of these factors can turn the tide of combat. There have also been a limited number of engagements decided not by a strategist’s skill or an army’s numbers or anything like that: some battles are won (or lost) based on sheer dumb luck.

5 The Battle of Cannae

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One of the most famous battles of the ancient world, The Battle of Cannae, took place in 216 BC during the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage. The Carthaginians, under their leader Hannibal, were badly outnumbered by the Romans, at a ratio of almost two to one. But the Roman commander Varro made a tactical blunder so extreme it rendered the Roman’s numerical advantage useless: rather than spread his infantry out along a wide flank, he stacked them in an unusually deep formation, thinking in error that they could easily break through the forces commanded by Hannibal. Instead, the Romans found their too-narrow column surrounded by the Carthaginians and soon soundly defeated.

4 The Battle of Gettysburg

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Had General Robert E. Lee not commanded the attack now known as Pickett’s Charge (for CSA General George Pickett) go forward, the whole course of the Civil War may well have been altered. It was July 3rd, 1863, the last day of the epic battle, and Union troops held the prepared ground of Cemetery Ridge. Against the advice of his officers and against his own better judgment, Lee ordered a frontal attack against the Union lines. The “charge” was soundly repulsed: Union casualties numbered near 1,500, while the Rebels suffered more than 6,500 casualties. The Confederates never fully recovered from their defeat at Gettysburg, a defeat that many knew was coming.

3 The Battle of Balaclava

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The Crimean War pitted the Russian Empire against a number of European allies bent on seizing control of the Black Sea and the territories of the ailing Ottoman Empire. One of the most famous battles of the war, the Battle of Balaclava, took place on October 25th, 1854. What would likely have been a victory for the European allies instead led to a stalemate when a brigade of English mounted cavalry charged the wrong Russian position. Wielding sabers (that’s a sword, FYI), the horsemen rode headlong into a fortified line of soldiers armed with rifles, cannon and other artillery. In what came to be known as the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, the hapless Brits suffered immense casualties while producing absolutely no positive effect.

2 The Battle of the Little Bighorn

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Here’s a tip to all you future cavalry commanders: if you have about 700 soldiers on your side, and you are up against a force that could number well over 2,000 warriors, do not start a battle. And especially don’t start a battle assuming your enemy is going to turn and flee, when in fact their plan is to counterattack in force. By the end of Jun3 26th, 1876, Col. George Armstrong Custer and around 275 of his men were dead, more than 50 more were wounded, and the rest were in full retreat, soundly defeated by a combined force of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho Natives who outfought the overconfident soldiers at every turn.

1 The Spanish Armada

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One of the most resounding defeats ever inflicted on a major invasion force had little to do with any battle itself, and more to do with the weather. In 1588, the Spanish assembled one of the largest sailing fleets the world has ever seen and sailed north, determined to finally defeat their bitter enemy, the British, and gain control of the world’s seas. Upon nearing the British coastline, however, many ships of the massive fleet were destroyed by British fire ships, a weapon that is exactly what it sounds like: a ship set on fire and sent in the general direction of one’s foe. The Armada withdrew and sailed toward planned rendezvous points, intending to regroup and attack again, but a series of savage storms arose, wrecking dozens of Spanish ships. In the course of a few days, the mighty Armada was reduced to a force too weak to complete the planned invasion, and the Spaniards limped home, soundly defeated before any real fighting had begun.

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