“No one wins a war. It is true, there are degrees of loss, but no one wins,” Brock Chisholm, WWI veteran and first director-general of the World Health Organization, once said. And there may be some truth to that, as even victorious wars are often attained at great cost to the winner. Of course the alternative is losing a war which often comes at an even greater cost. Some losses in the history of war were painfully humiliating that they teach us the lesson that winning a war can come at a cost that is close to losing one. Here are three of them:
Battle of Jingxing
This was a battle between the Han and the Zhao army in 205 BC. Han’s 30,000 soldiers faced off against the 200,000-strong Kingdom of Zhao. The outcome should have been entirely predictable. It is important to remember that ancient armies were not often comprised of trained and battle-hardened soldiers. They tended to be a levied rabble of men called up by their rulers for temporary service and then return to their farms and other jobs. As a result, many battles were enormous melees of barely trained troops hacking at each other with loaned weapons. The exception to this in the ancient world was the Romans who had a trained and professional army that won victory after victory against untrained troops all over Europe, Africa and the Middle East.
The night before the battle, Han Xin, the Han commander, ordered his 2,000 mounted men to the rear of the Zhao Army’s camp, each carrying a red battle flag of the Han army. He told them to occupy Zhao camp as soon as their army moved out to press the attack. He also sent 10,000 men across the Tao River to dig ditches with their back to the river, giving his men fortification but leaving them no route of retreat. When the battle was joined Han Xin’s men feigned defeat and retreated on their fortified ditch on the river with the Zhao’s chasing them behind. Once in their trench with no option but to fight or die, the Han fought with the courage of despair and held the Zhao at bay.
When the Zhao withdrew temporarily to regroup, they saw thousands of enemy flags in their camp, making them think they were about to be taken from the rear by fresh troops. The result was panic and disintegration among the Zhao who themselves tried to flee with an open route of retreat. The Han cavalry and infantry ran them down and killed them.
The Zhao army took 150,000 casualties
It also gave rise to the military axiom, “You achieve survival by fighting from a position of certain death.”
Battle of Carrhae
The Battle of Carrhae happened in 53 BC and was considered one of the most crushing defeats in Roman history. Here’s why:
Motivated by his insatiable greed, the already wealthy Marcus Crassus wanted to invade the Parthian Empire. And so, he teamed up with Julius Ceasar and Pompey in hopes that his military reputation would improve.
On the day of the battle, Crassus brought with him around 40,000 men— legionaries, cavalry, and auxillaries. They marched directly through Mesopotamia (in what is now Turkey). The 10,000 Parthian Army, led by their army chief named Surena, marched towards the enemy while beating their loud drums to intimidate them. The Parthian ” wore chainmail armor and rode horses that were also armored. What they lacked in stamina and speed, they made up for in crushing weight in a charge. The Parthians cataphracts were armed with long spears and maces and even their archers were armored and mounted. They had the particular skill of being able to lie back in the saddle and fire arrows backwards at a pursuing enemy. This was known in the ancient world as “The Parthian Shot,” a term we still use more than 2,000 years later when we call a final slight directed at someone as a “Parting Shot.”
As expected, the Roman light cavalry was useless against armored horses and riders and the outstanding heavy infantry of the Legion was outmatched by the mounted archers showering them with arrows from all sides. They tried to advance towards the Parthians for close-quarters fighting only to see the Parthians withdraw. They also tried the testudo formation by locking their shields together to protect themselves from arrows only to see the Parthian heavy cavalry charge in with their lances. The javelins carried by the Romans bounced off the chainmail of their enemies as well. The Parthian mounted troops ran rings around the Legions refusing to give them the toe to toe fight the Romans were the masters of. In the end, Crassus ordered retreat after finding out that his son was killed and his head was on a spear. He left behind his wounded soldiers, who the Parthians killed. He was killed the next day during a peace talk, and his severed head was used as a prop in a play. His army of some 43,000 was nearly annihilated in a few hours, more than 30,000 were killed or captured, the survivors fleeing all the way to Syria where city walls protected them from Parthian horsemen.
Months after the start of World War II, the Soviet Union decided they wanted to invade Finland. In November 1939, they faked a bombing incident and blamed the Finns to spark the war. 130,000 Finns battled against 250,000 Red Army soldiers, complete with their tanks. The Finns did not have sufficient knowledge and training in modern anti-tank tactics, nor did they have ample anti-tank weapons, but they found out that these tanks were useless in close combat in the snowy forests of Finland. The Finns learned to jam their tracks with crowbars and logs and light them off with Molotov cocktails.
Purges of the officers in the Soviet Army and their replacement with officers ideologically loyal but lacking in military skills left the Red Army without effective leadership in the field. Officers below the rank of major had no real authority and were not expected to take any initiative in a fight. Battling the Finns in the forests was a job for small units, not regimental formations and their command and control structure was not set up for that at all.
Another factor was the extremely cold temperature in Karelian Isthmus. The Finns dressed in layers and covered in lightweight white snow capes, making them almost invisible amidst the snow. The Finn knew the ground intimately were experts in cross-country skiing. The Soviets, on the other hand, lacked proper winter clothes and tents, as well as skill in skiing. Thus, many of the soldiers died of frostbite. At the end of the war, the Finns had 68,480 casualties, while the Soviets had approximately 200,000.