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.