Although they say that nobody really wins in a war, some battles in history could be considered, depending on which perspective you’re looking, great military victories or huge military disasters — when the defeated side was in a complete failure in achieving their goals in the first place, lost many lives and equipment, totally being the big losers. While many factors could’ve affected the result, like errors, logistical problems, poor planning, or just plain bad luck, in the end, when all was said and done and lost, it wouldn’t really matter. Here are some of the painful military disasters of history:

The Battle of Marathon, 490 BC

This was a battle between Persia and Greece when Persian forces under the command of Datis and Artaphernes attempted to invade the city-state of Athens, which allied with the city of Plataea. Athens had encouraged and participated in the revolt of smaller greek cities against Persian rule, in retribution for this the Persian king Darius I swore before Zeus that he would burn Athens to ashes. This began the first war between Athens and an expansionist Persian empire, with the second one famously begun by his son, Xerxes I, who inherited the goal of subjugating Greece after his father died. continue his father’s goal after he died.

Scene of the Battle of Marathon. (John Steeple Davis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 490 BC, Darius and Artaphernes sailed the Persian fleet to the island surrounding the sacred island of Delos and brought them back under Persian control. Then on to the island of Euboea to take the city of Eretria, Athen’s ally in assisting other Greek islands revolting against the Persians. Emboldened by their successes so far, the Persians sailed for Attica and landed in the bay near the city of Marathon.  The Athenians knew they were next and with a small force from Plataea marched to block the two exits from the plain of Marathon to contain the Persian. At the time, the most famous warriors in Greece were the Spartans and Athens sent a letter to Sparta asking for their help. the Spartans replied that they were holding a religious festival and could not help them until the full moon rose, some ten days away.

The Athenians and their allies were on their own until then, so they shrewdly positioned their troops in the marshes and mountainous terrains to prevent the excellent Persian cavalry any room to charge or maneuver against their flanks. Athenian general Miltiades beefed up is flanks in a plan to draw the Persian infantry into his center which would slowly retreat backward into a bowl that would allow his flanks to envelope the Persians. The Athenians had their flanks protected by woods and wooden stakes and a stalemate ensued for five days while the Persians built a camp, got their supplies ashore and pondered their next move.  A costly battle here might prevent them from reaching Athens with enough troops to take the city, but the longer they waited the more likely it was the Spartans would arrive and tip the balance of forces over to the Greeks.

The Persian infantry was lightly armed compared to the Greek Hoplite who carried both a long spear and sword and was protected by a large shield.  The Hoplite fought in a tight, disciplined formation that could defeat most infantry but was vulnerable on the side and rear to cavalry attacks, so the Persians had to also consider that a frontal attack on a Greek Phalanx was nearly suicidal.

No one is really sure how the attack started, but it appears that the Persians decided to load their cavalry back on the ships and send them on a flanking maneuver behind the Greeks or perhaps to attack Athens itself while the Greek army was tied up at Marathon facing down the Persian infantry.  In any event, it appears that the departure of the cavalry prompted the Greeks to advance and attack the Persian front.

The Greeks stretched out their line to prevent the Persians from being able to turn their flanks and closed the 1,500 yards distance quickly at a trot to reform just outside the range of Persian archers.  They then marched right into the Persian lines.  As planned the Greek center gave way and the Persians began to push in.  The better Greek troops defeated the Persians arrayed against the and rather than continue to advance, they turned in towards the center to attack the flanks of the Persian troops.  Seeing that they were about to be enveloped, the Persians at the center broke and tried to flee, but it was too late, the Greek flanks moved in and a great slaughter ensued.  Something on the order of 6,000 Persians died for the loss of less than 200 Greeks.

Some myth surrounds the battle about a runner who was dispatched to Athens to bring news of the victory and covered the distance of some 26 miles in a very short time.  He was brought before the Athen’s leaders, reported that the Greeks had won the battle and then died from exhaustion.  In any event, the story of the runner ended up inspiring the Olympic games which sprung from an annual commemoration of the event in Greece.

Wikimedia Commons, Cornelis Cort – The Battle of Zama – 1990.563 – Art Institute of Chicago

Battle of Zama, 202 BC

This battle between the Romans and the Carthaginians marked the end of the Second Punic War. The Romans were led by Publius Cornelius Scipio and supported by the Numidian leader named Masinissa, while the Carthaginians were under the infamous Hannibal.

It all started when Rome, unable to beat Hannibal for some 17 years while he ranged all over Italy sent Consul Scipio Africanus with an army to Africa(in modern day Tunisia) to defeated both Carthaginian and Numidian armies at the battle of Utica, and he imposed peace terms on them that were crushing to the Carthaginians. Without having much choice, they accepted it, but recalled Hannibal’s army from Italy and believed that when he returned they could renew the fight against Rome again. When Hannibal, who had won every battle he fought against the Romans returned, Carthage broke the agreement and had a confrontation that led to the Battle of Zama. Hannibal brought 36,000 infantry and 80 war elephants with him versus Scipio’s 29,000. Hannibal was lacking something important from his army though, his Numidian cavalry which were considered the finest in the world. The Numidians had broken with Carthage and now fought for Scipio. Hannibal’s first sent his elephants into the center of the fight as they had been terrifyingly effective against the Roman legions in previous battles, but the Romans had adopted knew tactics and opened their ranks to let blunt the elephant charge and blew loud horns which spooked several of the elephants who then ran back rampaging through Hanniba’s infanty line.  Seeing this as an opportunity, Scipio’s Legions attacked and drove them back. Hannibal ordered his second line into the assualt which caught the Romans in disorder and inflicted sever losses on them.  Scipio’s second line then repelled Hannibal again. Finally, Hannibal employed his third line of veterans who had fought with him in Italy, his finest and most loyal troops. Scipio’s cavalry had run off chasing the remnants of Hannibal’s first and second lines and now returned at the crucial part of the battle, able to attack the Carthaginian infanty on the flank and rear.  Hannibal’s veterans could not hold and began to rout. As was common in that time when armies lost their discipline and ran for their lives, they were slaughtered.  The Carthaginians lost around 20,000 to 25,000 troops, while Scipio’s team had about 5000 deaths. Because of their defeat, the Carthaginian ruling elite sued for peace and had no choice but to accept the humiliating defeat and terms, ending the war after 17 years.

Hannibal himself managed to escape and found refuge in a several countries who welcomed his military expertise, but the Romans continued to hunt for him.  When the Romans discovered that he was in Bithynia, they sent a delegation to the country demanding that he be turned over or face invasion by Rome.  The Bithynian king told them where Hannibal was living quietly in the countryside.  Hannibal suddenly found his house surrounded by Roman soldiers leaving him no escape route this time.  He knew that what would come next would be his capture and then being paraded at Rome and humiliated before being strangled or beheaded.  He took poison and ended his own life.

Battle of Flodden, September 1513

A drawing of the Battle of Flodden. (James Grant (book author), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Fought during the War of the League of Cambrai, it was between the Kingdom of England versus the Kingdom of Scotland fought near Branxton in northern England. The Scots under King James IV thought to unite of all England under Scottish rule. After successfully besieging plenty of castles on the English border, King James decided to camp on a commanding hilltop at Flodden while waiting for the English forces to arrive. Unbeknownst to them, the Earl of Surrey’s army was already marching to position themselves in the rear of the enemy camp. Upon discovery of this, they abandoned their camp and transferred to Branxton Hill, which was just adjacent. When the battle began, the Scots ary made up mostly of Pikemen were advancing until the battle reached the marshy land to their front, breaking their excellent formation. In trying to cross the wet and muddy ground the Pikemen began to stumble and fall and they began discarding their pikes as they were too hard to keep pointed towards the enemy as they tried to keep their footing. The English seized the chance and turned it into a close-quarter fight with their shorter billhook type weapons which was a combination of axe, sword and spear about 8ft long. while the Scot Pikemen could not counter with just their swords. In the battle that followed, the Scots were defeated and lost as many as ten thousand men and so many of the Scottish noblemen perished  or were captured in the battle that is all but destroyed their monarchy as well. James IV was killed in the battle, becoming last monarch to die in battle on British soil.

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