Posted on

20 Aug 2018

Throughout history, bad weather, insufficient weaponry, and bad luck played an important role in winning or losing battles. In normal life, overconfidence, carelessness, and momentary lapses in judgment can result in pretty bad consequences.

The same applies to battlefields where consequences can be catastrophic. One mistake can change the world or put millions of lives at stake.

Unprecedented events on the battlefield are largely responsible for military disasters.

In the book The World’s Worst Military Disaster by Chris McNab, war disasters are described by the presence at least two of the following:

  • chronic mission failure (the key factor),
  • successful enemy action, and/or
  • total degeneration of a force’s command and control structure (less significant)

War operations with the enormous loss of life or greater casualties than the enemy do not necessarily qualify as a disaster.

Without much ado, here are the 7 worst war operations in history…

1. The Alamo (1836)

The Mexican General Santa Ana’s overconfidence and lapse in leadership proved costly here. Santa Ana stopped at Alamo on his way to Texas where a rebellion to be quashed was ongoing. The detour at Alamo intended to teach him a lesson, which it did as the general won the war.

The detour allowed Texas troops to assemble, a costly mistake as Santa Ana experienced defeat a few days later leading to the birth of the Republic of Texas.

2. The Bay of Pigs (1961)

The botched operation is used as a case study of the failure of American imperialism through Latin America. Approximately 1,400 paramilitary troops supported by the CIA landed in Cuba with the objective to topple Fidel Castro from power. The Bay of Pigs invasion failed and troops involved interrogated before being shipped off to the United States.

3. Changpin (260 BC)

Zhao Kuo led an army of 450,000 men to break the siege at the fortress of Shangdang. Overpowered, the smaller army of Qin of Bai Qin retreated.

Zhao raced forward leaving their army supplies behind. The strategic Bai Qi’s cavalry used the lapse in the window to seize and destroy the supplies. Starved of Zhao retreated to Shangdang, but food shortage was there too. Zhao Kuo died leading a doomed breakout effort a month and a half later. Faced with starvation, Zhao’s army surrendered.

4. Trasimene (217 BC)

The hide and seek strategy between the Carthaginian commander Hannibal and the Roman commander Gaius Flaminius ended in a tragedy. Having eluded pursuit by Hannibal, Flaminius set a trap to ambush their nemesis. They mounted a deliberate effort at the shores of Trasimene where Hannibal front guard caught up with Flaminius rear guard. Flaminius miscalculated the opportunity and made a costly mistake of ordering their men to join the battle. Hannibal’s army crushed into the disordered Roman flank, killing Flaminius and 30,000 men in the massacre.

5. Carrhae (53 BC)

The Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus committed their army which clearly had a numerical advantage to battle without rest. At Carrhae, Crassus army of between 35,000 and 45,000 legionaries (and 4000 cavalry) and 12,000 allies was overpowered by a force of 10,000 Parthian cavalry under Surenas.

The tired, thirsty, and hungry Roman soldiers failed to deliver on the battlefield. Crassus was murdered along with thousands of Roman soldiers who tried to escape back through the desert.

6. Retreat from Moscow (1812)

When the French Emperor Napoleon invaded Russia with a contingent of 680,000 men drawn from France and her allies, they succeeded in capturing Moscow. But the Russian refused to make peace and besieged the city.

Shortage of supplies forced Napoleon to retreat exposing their army to extreme hunger, weather, sickness, and Russian raids. Advancing too far cost Napoleon the army because, by the time of leaving Russia, 380,000 of the men were dead, another 100,000 were prisoners, and 50,000 were unfit for service.

The Vietnam War (1955-1976)

The sensational war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam backed by communist allies and the United States respectively, claimed millions of lives, owing to poor decisions and resource management.

The political, social, and military problems that plagued the war from the start caused the U.S. and its allies to back out. But it was already too late because the damage had been done.


The worst war operations in history appear to have a common denominator – poor judgment by the leadership. Overconfidence and the adrenaline rush at the sight of the opportunity to obliterate the enemy are frequent sell-out factors that determine outcome of many battles.