10 Really Bad Military Leaders (Firearms Era)

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A Brief History

On August 16, 1812, General William Hull of the U.S. Army surrendered Fort Detroit to an inferior English force.  American forces numbered about 2,100, while the combined English and Native American forces only numbered just over 1,300.  Hull was court-martialed, convicted and sentenced to death.  Luckily President Madison gave him a reprieve.  History is full of military blunders and dunderheads, and here we list 10 (in no particular order) of those unfortunate men who found themselves in a position to prove just what lousy tacticians they were.  

Digging Deeper

10.  William Hull, U.S. Army.

As described above, Hull got himself tricked into believing the British forces were larger than his own, even though they were substantially smaller.  Some recent historians have sometimes taken his side and have claimed he was unfairly stained by this blunder, however, he was simply an old man who did not belong in command anymore.  Giving up Detroit came right after a failed foray into Canada that had had every chance of success had a more capable leader been in charge.

9.  Maurice Gamelin, France. 

This genius was in charge of defending France at the start of World War II, and he stubbornly kept his troops at the Maginot Line while the Nazi troops poured into France through Belgium.  Gamelin thought the main German attack was actually a diversion, and this mistake brought France a quick defeat.

8.  Sir Ian Hamilton, Great Britain.

This poetry-writing, anti-conscription British General was not considered ruthless enough for the high-stakes Western Front during World War I.  Instead Hamilton was left in charge of the Mediterranean and given the task of invading Turkey and seizing Constantinople (now Istanbul).  At first he tried to take the Dardenelles with ships alone, but the ships got battered.  He then had troops land at Gallipoli, which was such a sad disaster that it is remembered today as one of the worst military snafus of all time, even costing Winston Churchill his job as First Lord of the Admiralty.  Of the 568,000 Allied troops involved in the Gallipoli campaign, 252,000 became casualties, an astounding number.  Allied forces finally gave up after months of continued failure, and Hamilton was fired.

7.  Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense.

This man is the guy that assured the U.S. that the Iraq war would be over in a matter of weeks, not months, and the damn war lasted 10 years and is still not settled.  In the meantime the U.S. has been just about bankrupted!  To top it off, he pulled U.S. forces and effort out of Afghanistan in order to invade Iraq.  This move cost the U.S. a golden opportunity to capture Osama bin Laden and to finish off the Taliban.  His mismanagement of the military during these 2 wars has been catastrophic for the U.S. and will haunt the country for years to come.  Also under his charge, a ridiculous amount of female service members were raped an sexually assaulted, without proper resolution of the cases.  GIs were electrocuted in shower facilities and numerous other disasters, such as losing pallets of $100 dollar bills, amounting to over a billion bucks (seriously, no kidding!), also happened under his watch.  

6.  Arthur Percival, United Kingdom.

This Lt. General is responsible for losing the Malayan Campaign early in World War II.  Despite having more numerous forces, his troops kept getting mowed over by the smaller Japanese forces who only numbered about 30,000.  Having lost a total of 138,000 men who had been killed or captured, Percival then disobeyed a direct order from Winston Churchill to continue the resistance and gave up the island fortress of Singapore, a place so heavily defended that it was called “The Gibraltar of the Pacific.”  His surrender of Singapore was the largest capitulation in British history and involved hardly a fight.  Recent historians have been kinder to Percival, but now it seems obvious that he could have done better, especially since already in 1936 he personally had been tasked with coming up with plans for defending Malaya and Singapore.

5.  Field Marshall John French, Great Britain.

Despite his “French-sounding” name, French was actually in charge of the British forces in Europe during World War I and, in 1914, would have been fired were it not for the intervention of French General Foch.  Obviously, the war was not going well while French was in command of the British army.  As it so often happens, French blamed others, such as his own allied troops and politicians back home, for his lack of success.  Eventually French was given the choice to resign his field command rather than get publicly relieved of it.  He chose the former and was reassigned to non-combat duties in his homeland.

4.  George Armstrong Custer, U.S. Army.

Despite at 23 having been promoted to the temporary rank of Brigadier General during the Civil War, one the youngest generals in the Union Army, things did not go so well for Custer out west fighting Native Americans.  Having already massacred women and children, he thought that he and his men could do the same thing to a large Sioux village near the Little Bighorn River.  He famously declined to bring his Gatling guns which may have saved the day.  As it was, he managed to get himself and his entire immediate command wiped out to the man, a feat that even the others on this list failed to pull off.

3.  Ambrose Burnside, U.S. Army.

Although he did invent the “Burnside Carbine,” his leadership during the Civil War was a mess.  Repeated failures should have told him, better yet the President, that he should turn down Lincoln’s offer of command of the Army of the Potomac after both Maj. Gen. McClellan and Maj. Gen. Pope had been sacked.  Burnside continued to serve as a corps commander and made a mess of Antietam, repeatedly trying to get his troops across a heavily defended bridge, when they could simply have moved a short distance up or down the river and crossed on foot.  This resulted in his troops being slaughtered, and when at Fredericksburg he got his men slaughtered again, he earned himself the name “The Butcher of Fredericksburg.”  When his officers rose up against him, he threatened to have them court-martialed.  He was finally relieved of duty in 1863 ,following a failed offensive known as the “mud march. ”  Still, he was not kicked out of the army and was instead given a non-combat command of Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.  Under his new command, he made it a crime to speak against the war, jailing an Ohio congressman and shutting down the Chicago Times.  Burnside was then allowed back into battle but experienced neither success nor failure, until the Battle of the Crater in which a last-minute order did not allow him to use African American troops that had been specially trained for the task, and the Union forces ended up losing the battle.  Burnside got relieved of command but was later exonerated by Congress, however, the war was finally over for him.  On an interesting note, sideburns are named after him as he wore a healthy pair himself.  (Honorable mention to Confederate General Braxton Bragg.)

2.  Marshall Joseph Joffre, France.

The French had the misfortune of having this guy in charge at the start of World War I.  For some inexplicable reason, Joffre got command of the Army even though he had commanded an army (usually 2 to 4 corps) neither in real life nor at least on map exercises.  His poor planning, disdain for allies, underestimation of the Germans and reliance on the Russians nearly cost France the war.  For every problem he faced, he came up with an imaginary, self-serving solution.  For example, when it did not seem likely that France would win a long war, he said the war would be extremely short.  His ridiculous reliance on the offensive, his vague orders and ambiguous plans, his belief that valor and esprit would somehow overcome superior numbers and weapons were the recipe for disaster.  Only the ineptitude of almost all of the other generals on all sides at the start of the war prevented a quick French loss.  Joffre was replaced in 1916 but still ceremoniously promoted to Marshall.  He never commanded troops again.  (Honorable mention to General John Haig.)

1.  Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, Mexico. 

This guy had delusions of grandeur, calling himself “The Napoleon of the West.”  While fooling around with the Alamo in 1836, Santa Anna got his 600 of his 3,1000 troops killed or wounded by 189 Americans who were all killed. Afterwards 910 other American troops defeated his 1,360 troops at the Battle of San Jacinto, costing Mexico Texas.  As the icing on his cake, Santa Anna lost every battle he fought during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).  While living in exile on Staten Island, New York (no kidding), the 74-year-old, peg-legged soldier introduced Americans to chewing gum.  He had imported chicle to the U.S. to be used as a substitute for rubber.  As a rubber substitute, chicle was a failure (like Santa Anna), but it became the basis for chewing gum.

Question for students (and subscribers): Who would you add to the list?  (Hint:  There are a stunning number of really bad military leaders throughout history.)  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Regan, Geoffrey.  Great Military Blunders: History’s Worst Battlefield Decisions from Ancient Times to the Present Day.  Andre Deutsch, 2012.

Withington, John.  Britain’s 20 Worst Military Disasters: From the Roman Conquest to the Fall of Singapore.  Spellmount, 2012.


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.