There are few figures more inspiring than a great commander and few disasters worse than putting the wrong man in charge.
Publius Quintilius Varus
A relative of the Roman Emperor Augustus, Publius Quintilius Varus served as military governor of Syria before being transferred to crush a rebellion in Germany. He was lax regarding discipline and training and held his position due to nepotism, not skill.
In 9AD, Varus led his forces through the Teutoburg Wald, a forested region full of rebels. He did not keep his troops alert or ready for battle and allowed many civilians to travel with them.
Ambushed by Germanic tribes in the forest, Varus and his army were cut off and surrounded. Over the course of the extended battle, a tenth of all the legions then serving Rome were lost.
Unable to find a way out of the situation Varus committed suicide in the field rather than be captured. Many of his officers followed suit, leaving their troops leaderless.
King Edward II
One of the least capable monarchs to sit on the throne of England, Edward II was a weak and indecisive leader. Unable to keep his nobles in line, he invaded Scotland without the backing of the influential, Thomas of Lancaster, his cousin. At Bannockburn, his subordinates squabbled over leadership roles before assaulting the Scots on the ground of his enemy’s choosing. The English, who had been so strong a generation before, were utterly routed.
Edward retained the throne for 20 years as a result not of his skill but due to the equally inept opposition of Thomas of Lancaster, a man even more petulant and ineffective than himself.
The Duke of Cambridge
A British aristocrat and relative of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Cambridge was Commander-in-Chief of the British Army throughout much Victoria’s reign, leaving the post in 1895. Conservative to the point of incompetence, the Duke disliked all forms of reform. As wars in Europe and America proved that modern technology was changing the face of battle, the Duke refused to accept that change.
To the Duke, leading was just something people did, and he condemned any officer who studied the art of military command. Thanks to him, 50 times more military literature was written in the German language as it was in English by 1900. The British suffered an enormous intellectual disadvantage.
George Armstrong Custer
No account of history’s worst leaders would be complete without the infamous General Custer.
A veteran of the American Civil War, Custer was a braggart and self-publicist who repeatedly refused to follow orders. He wore a flashy uniform of his own design. When not on campaign, he courted politicians and newspapers, building up his reputation.