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.
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.