10 Famous Defeats

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A Brief History

On June 18, 1815, the combined forces of the Duke of Wellington and Gebhard von Blucher defeated the French army at the battle of Waterloo.  The battle is remembered by history not as a victory of the British and Prussians, but as a defeat for Napoleon Bonaparte, his final major defeat.  Certain battles are known more for their vanquished than their victor.  Here we list 10 of those famous battles.  What battles would you add to the list?

Digging Deeper

10.  Little Bighorn, 1876.

Better known as “Custer’s Last Stand,” the US 7th Cavalry Regiment consisting of 12 companies of soldiers sallied forth expecting to slaughter Native Americans that were refusing to surrender to the US and live on reservations.  What they got was 5 of those companies annihilated and their flamboyant commander killed.  Cavalry losses amounted to about 268 killed and another 55 wounded, while the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Native Americans lost only around 36 to 136 killed and perhaps as many as 160 wounded.  The cavalry had blundered into an attack against a force between 900 and 2500 strong with only 647 US soldiers.  The Native Americans had among their weapons perhaps 200 repeating Henry, Spencer, and Winchester rifles, while the troopers were armed with single shot Trapdoor Springfield carbines.  Custer had ordered his men to leave their sabers behind, and had turned down the opportunity to bring 2 Gatling Guns, possibly contributing to the defeat. 

9.  The Alamo, 1836.

Remembered as a valiant defeat of American Texans rather than a Mexican victory, “Remember the Alamo” is a war cry echoing through American history.  The Texans defending the San Antonio mission were wiped out to a man, the final defenders perhaps being executed after surrendering.  The 189 Texans that died are remembered, while the 600 or so Mexican dead and wounded are long forgotten.  Another aspect of the battle that is largely forgotten was that the Texans were fighting basically for the right to keep and own slaves, a fact usually glossed over by American accounts.

8.  Balaclava, The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854.

During the Crimean War Battle of Balaclava, the British Light Brigade of about 670 cavalry troops was mistakenly sent to attack the wrong artillery emplacements.  As they charged into intense Russian fire, the brigade was mauled, suffering 110 killed and 161 wounded before rapidly retreating.  This suicidal charge is used as a term today (“Balaclava Charge”) to describe any hopeless headlong rush into sure defeat.

7.  Yorktown, 1781.

The British army in America led by General Cornwallis was defeated and captured by American forces under George Washington and French forces under the Comte de Rochambeau, effectively ending the American Revolutionary War, a huge defeat for the British.  At that time, Britain was one of if not the most powerful European nation and the loss of the American colonies (although not Canada) was an epic defeat.

6.  Spanish Armada, 1588.

With the intention of invading England to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I and replace her Protestant rule with a Catholic monarch, the Spanish sailed 130 ships to destroy the British fleet and convey the invasion troops.  A combination of British tactics and bad weather defeated the Armada at the Battle of Gravelines which ended Spanish dreams of invading England.  Fighting, storms and disease left over 20,000 Spanish dead and 66 (of 130) ships lost.  The English suffered as many as 8,000 dead (mostly from disease) and their only ship losses were the 8 fire ships intentionally set on fire and adrift toward the enemy.

5.  Singapore, 1942.

Even Churchill realized the loss of Singapore was the worst defeat in British history.  Called the “Gibralter of the East” for its supposedly unconquerable defenses, the island was taken by a Japanese force outnumbered by the British, largely without a fight! How big was this defeat?  The British had 85,000 defenders against an attacking force of 36,000 Japanese.  About 80,000 of the British forces were taken prisoner.

4.  Midway, 1942.

After the crushing defeats at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere, the Japanese were on their way to seizing Midway as a preliminary to taking Hawaii.  The American Navy enjoyed a stunning victory in stopping the Midway invasion force, sinking all 4 of the Japanese aircraft carriers against the loss of only the USS Yorktown.  This battle changed the balance of power in the Pacific and turned the tide of the war, a crushing defeat for the bewildered Japanese.

3.  Pearl Harbor, 1941.

Rather than seen as a great Japanese victory, at least in the Western world the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor is seen as an enormous defeat for the US.  The Japanese attack sunk or heavily damaged all the major US warships at the port and destroyed virtually all the warplanes on Oahu.  The US Army General and Navy Admiral in charge of ground and Naval forces were court-martialed for suffering such a total defeat.  Only luck kept the US aircraft carriers out of harm’s way that day, and Japanese oversight in failing to bomb the oil storage and ship repair facilities.

2.  Stalingrad, 1942-1943.

Against the wishes of his generals, Adolf Hitler made the main thrust of his attack on the Soviet Union in 1942 to the south with Stalingrad as a main objective.  Likely because of the name of the city (now called Volgograd), Hitler gambled everything on its capture.  At one point, the city was almost completely in Nazi hands, but the Soviets would not quit despite terrific hardship.  The German army was finally surrounded by Soviet troops and ordered not to surrender or break out by Hitler himself.  Germany lost the battle, and with it the war, as Stalingrad was almost assuredly the most pivotal battle of World War II in Europe.  German (and their allies) losses included 850,000 to 1,500,000 men killed, wounded and captured, 1600+ aircraft, 2000 tanks and 11,700 guns.  Soviet losses were similar in casualties, but greater in equipment, with 4300+ tanks, 15,000+ artillery pieces, and 2700+ aircraft.  The Soviets could replace their losses, the Germans could not, and the war was as good as lost for Germany.

1.  Waterloo, 1815.

The final defeat that sent Napoleon into permanent exile is so well known as a defeat rather than a victory that the term “Waterloo” has become synonymous with the words “crushing defeat” or “final defeat.”  The issue was still in doubt when Blucher arrived late in the battle to turn the tide against the French.  Now anytime a person, sports team, or country faces a catastrophic defeat they are said to have met their “Waterloo.”

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Biddle, Stephen.  Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle.  rinceton University Press, 2006.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.