Ten Massive Military Disasters of History


For every victory, there is a defeat. Some are worse than others, however. Some victories are brought about by military blunders committed by the other side. This top ten list is concerned with the factors that brought devastating defeat – from foolhardy advice to disastrous mistakes, cheap military equipment to poor leadership…


The Battle of Pliska [811]

Military Disasters Battle of Pliska

The Battle of Pliska was actually a series of battles between Emperor Nicephorus I Genik of the Byzantine Empire and Khan Krum, leader of Bulgaria.

Nicephorus marched into Bulgaria bringing with him a force of 80,000 men. He ignored Krum’s offer of peace and sacked Pliska, the Bulgar capital. He looted the city with extreme brutality, giving the Bulgarian army time to block the passes in the Balkan mountains. Pliska’s big mistake was failing to scout ahead before sending his army into the mountain passes after the sack of the city. Khan Krum ambushed the Byzantine emperor in the mountains and he and his army were trapped.

Nicephorus was killed, along with most of his men, and Krum had the Emperor’s skull encased in silver and made into a drinking cup.

The Battle of Issus [333 BC]

Military Disasters Battle of Issus

In 333 BC, the Achaemenid Persian Darius III, who proclaimed himself the King of Kings, led his huge army into battle against a much smaller force led by Alexander the Great, who was still very early in his military career.

Darius III had a number of difficulties, not least of which was supplying his huge force with enough food and water for all men and horses. However, his biggest error came when he met Alexander on a battlefield which was too small to allow him to take advantage of his greater numbers, but allowed Alexander to make full use of his smaller, more mobile army.

Darius III was defeated by Alexander, the first time a Persian King had been personally defeated in battle. Darius was forced to flee, leaving his army to be slaughtered by the victors.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest [9 CE/AD]

Military Disasters Battle of Teutoburg Forest

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest is considered by many historians, ancient and modern, to be Rome’s greatest defeat and one of the major turning points in Roman history.

In this battle, three Roman legions along with their many auxiliaries and civilian hangers-on, led by Publius Quintilius Varus, were slaughtered battle by an alliance of Germanic tribes under the leadership of Arminius.

Arminius was a Roman citizen and had received a Roman military education. His being a citizen of the empire allowed him to deceive the Roman commander personally, while his knowledge of Roman warfare allowed him to anticipate how the Romans would respond to an ambush.

Varus’ big mistake here was to arrogantly ignore warnings from other German noblemen that Arminius intended to trick him. He didn’t question Arminius’ warnings and he, too, failed to send proper scouts out ahead of his main force.

His legions marched into the Teutoburg forest in one long column, and when they were attacked, they could not get into battle order.

In the end, all three legions – and Varus, their commander – perished.

The Battle of Bannockburn [1314]

Military Disasters Battle of Bannockburn

The Battle of Bannockburn was an important Scottish victory during the First War of Scottish Independence and is seen as a landmark in the history of the Scots.

Edward II (depicted in Braveheart as the preposterously useless heir to the English throne) led a large, experienced, and well-equipped army to Scotland in 1314. Meanwhile, the Scottish King, Robert the Bruce, held back his smaller force.

Edward II managed to cross the Bannockburn River under cover of night, but when he met the Scots on the field his army was unable to maneuver effectively. A Scottish Knight who had been in the English army deserted to Bruce’s side, providing valuable intelligence. The Scots were able to attack the bogged-down English forces with spears, then flank them in a surprise cavalry charge. In the confusion, the famous English longbows could not be effectively brought to bear and Edward’s army was routed after an unusually long battle for medieval times.

Edward II lost a large portion of his army in that fateful battle – his failure to use the terrain effectively, and to ensure the loyalty of his knights, can be said to have cost him the battle.

Battle of Agincourt [1415]


Notable for its use of the English longbow, the Battle of Agincourt was part of the Hundred Years War and was fought between the French and the English, ending in an English victory.

There has been a debate on the ratio of French to English soldiers in this battle. According to French estimates, the French force outnumbered the English by thousands, while English estimates put the French to English ratio at six soldiers to one. Regardless of the exact numbers, one fact is certain – the English were greatly outnumbered by their enemy.

While the French army was eager, they were indecisive and only attacked after the English had fully fortified their position. They made repeated disastrous cavalry charges towards the long pikes that protected the English and Welsh archers.

It’s widely accepted that the armor piercing capability of the English longbows brought victory in this battle. The steel-plated cavalry could not break through the ranks of the English spears, and the arrows punched through their plate armor and killed them in their thousands.

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