A Brief History
On July 3, 1863, the Army of the Potomac fought a defensive battle against the Army of Northern Virginia at the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. On the last day of battle, Confederate Major General George Pickett was one of three Confederate generals to lead the final assault on Union lines, lending his name to the battle, a battle that has become synonymous with futility. Here we list 5 of the most valiant, and yet most futile fatal attacks in military history, with no significance to the order listed.
1. Pickett’s Charge, 1863.
When Confederate Commander General Robert E. Lee ordered Lieutenant General Longstreet to make the final attack on heavily defended and dug in Union lines on Cemetery Hill (apropos name!) on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Longstreet predicted catastrophe, and while he obeyed his orders anyway, he was right about the catastrophe. The 12,500 Rebels in the three attacking brigades bravely attacked uphill into withering musket, rifle and cannon fire, for ¾ of a mile uphill and in the open. As you can imagine, the slaughter was immense. Despite dogged and desperate attempts to breach Union lines (the Confederates nearly made it) Union fire made more than half the Rebels casualties, crushing the assault and forcing Lee to retreat back to Virginia. The Union lost 1500 men (killed and wounded), but Lee lost a massive 6555 killed and wounded. (1123 killed, 4019 wounded, 3750 men captured. Some of the wounded were also captured, accounting for the numbers not adding up.)
2. The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854.
At the end of the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War, misunderstood orders led to a suicidal cavalry charge against a heavily dug in and reinforced Russian redoubt heavily armed with cannons. The Light Brigade, late immortalized as “The 600” by Lord Tennyson, who called the battlefield “The Valley of Death,” was ordered to attack retreating and disorganized Russians that were attempting to hitch up their guns to their horses and retire from battle, but the messenger accidentally pointed to a still intact and fully functional redoubt (20 battalions of Russian infantry and 50 cannons) a mile away as the objective. The Light Brigade, on unarmored horses and armed with sabers and lances, charged into a withering fire of muskets and cannon, and were mown down like mature hay in a field. The earl of Cardigan led the charge, and was shocked when his cavalry not only received massive fire from the front, but also from both sides. Incredibly, the Earl of Cardigan survived the debacle even though he personally led the charge from the front, and the British lost 118 men killed, 127 wounded, and about 60 captured. Along with Cardigan, 195 British troopers survived to rejoin their forces, though 355 horses were killed. Although the catastrophe was witnessed by another British unit, The Heavy Brigade, no reinforcements were sent to help, and survivors of the horrible attack had to make their own way back to British lines without assistance. In no small thanks to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade, this failed assault is perhaps the most infamous in history.
3. Banzai Attack at Saipan, 1944.
Although the origin of the “Banzai” attack is Chinese, the Japanese took to the romantic concept of the suicide attack as a noble way to die in service of The Emperor or one’s other noble leader (Shogun, etc.). The Banzai attack became part of the Bushido code of the Samurai, and was cultivated in the Japanese military during the 20th Century. Banzai attacks took place during the Russo-Japanese War and through World War II, when the only hope of victory lay in a massive all out assault with no regard to being killed. The largest such assault took place on Saipan in 1944, when the US Marine Corps and US Army was inevitably going to complete the seizing of this vital base for B-29 bombers. On July 7, 1944, something over 4000 Japanese troops made a massive suicide charge with rifles, bayonets, and swords against American lines, managing to kill 650 Americans. Only 3000 of the Japanese were able bodied, the remaining 1300 or so were wounded soldiers. Virtually every single one of the attacking Japanese died, a not uncommon result for this type of attack.
4. First Day of The Battle of the Somme, 1916.
On July 1, 1916, British General Douglas Haig earned a spot in the Military Hall of Infamy when he ordered a narrow front assault against well prepared German lines. Despite a heavy artillery bombardment that Haig was sure would neutralize German defenses, the Germans merely fell back into well dug in bunkers to wait out the artillery barrage and when the cannon fire lifted, the Germans reoccupied their forward trenches and machine gun positions. Many of the hapless British soldiers were made to attack across open ground swept by massive amounts of rifle, machine gun, and artillery fire shoulder to shoulder in marching formation. Obviously, these soldiers were mowed down in a horrible slaughter. On that day, the bloodiest day in British military history, over 19,000 British soldiers were killed and another 40,000 wounded. During the entire battle, (July 1-November 18, 1916) the failed attack led to a gain of 10 miles for the British, at a cost of almost 100,000 dead and over 300,000 wounded.
5. Battle of the Emus, 1932.
This battle did not result in mass casualties for the attacking force, but it was a most futile assault, one that will live in infamy! With something like 20,000 giant Emus devastating Australian crops, the frustrated farmers could not cope with the large flightless birds on their own, and summoned the Army to assist. The Australian Army bravely assigned 2 regiments supplied with trucks and machine guns to eradicate the Ostrich-like birds and save the crops. Failure came frighteningly soon, with a total inability to herd the birds into a massive group so they could be slaughtered. The Emus proved way more mobile than the soldiers, even soldiers mounted in motor vehicles. Plus, the Emus proved to be tough, even when shot, sometimes more than once, the big chickens were more like Velociraptors in their ability to take hits and keep going. A carefully planned ambush at a dam with well-placed machine guns proved futile as well, and after 2 weeks of futility, only about 1000 birds had been killed and the Army admitted defeat! Over 10,000 rounds had been fired at this most persistent of foes.
Question for students (and subscribers): What other charges into oblivion would you include on this list? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Hessler, James A., Wayne Motts, et al. Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg: A Guide to the Most Famous Attack in American History. Savas Beatie, 2015.
Tucker, Phillip Thomas. Pickett’s Charge: A New Look at Gettysburg’s Final Attack. Skyhorse, 2016.
The featured image in this article, The Battle of Gettysburg by Thure de Thulstrup, is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 80 years or fewer. The copyright holder of this file, Adam Cuerden, allows anyone to use it for any purpose, provided that the copyright holder is properly attributed. Redistribution, derivative work, commercial use, and all other use is permitted.
You can also watch a video version of this list on YouTube!