A remarkable compendium of the worst military decisions and the men who made them
The annals of history are littered with horribly bad military leaders. These combat incompetents found amazing ways to ensure their army's defeat. Whether it was a lack of proper planning, miscalculation, ego, bad luck, or just plain stupidity, certain wartime stratagems should never have left the drawing board. Written with wit, intelligence, and eminent readability, How to Lose a Battle pays dubious homage to these momentous and bloody blunders, including:
- Cannae, 216 B.C.: the bumbling Romans lose 80,000 troops to Hannibal's forces.
- The Second Crusade: an entire Christian army is slaughtered when it stops for a drink of water.
- The Battle of Britain: Hitler's dreaded Luftwaffe blows it big-time.
- Pearl Harbor: more than one warning of the impending attack is there, but nobody listens.
How to Lose a Battle includes more than thirty-five chapters worth of astonishing (and avoidable) disasters, both infamous and obscure -- a treasure trove of trivia, history, and jaw-dropping facts about the most costly military missteps ever taken.
About the Author
Bill Fawcett is the author and editor of more than a dozen books, including You Did What?, It Seemed Like a Good Idea . . . , How to Lose a Battle, and You Said What? He lives in Illinois.
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How to Lose a BattleFoolish Plans and Great Military Blunders
By Bill Fawcett
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2006 Bill Fawcett
All right reserved.
The Battle of Arbela
Near the Village of Gaugamela in Persia, 331 BC
In the fourth century BC there was only one real world power, Persia. That empire had already conquered all of the Greek cities along the eastern shore of the Aegean. When Athens dared to involve itself in the revolt of one of these formerly Greek cities, the Persian emperors felt they had no option but to conquer all of Greece. Twice they tried, and, to the amazement of even the Greek city-states, failed. Eventually the many fractious cities were united under the military control of Philip of Macedon. His son, Alexander, saw it as his divine duty to protect all of Greece. The conquest of the Persian Empire by Alexander the Great was an astounding feat, and there is no question of the brilliance of his generalship or the organizational brilliance of Alexander's father, Philip. His supply system alone was centuries ahead of anyone else's. Reinforcements of Macedonian troops arrived even as he prepared to cross into India. The conquest is even more amazing when you compare the relative populations and wealth of all Greece and Macedon to that of the Persian Empire ruled by Darius III: there were atleast ten times as many subjects in Persia as Alexander controlled. Worse yet, Greece was poor, while Persia had a rich and thriving economy. With so little work at home, many Greeks found it necessary to hire themselves as mercenaries, often to Darius.
In modern terms, Alexander's invasion of the Persian Empire would be the equivalent of Canada invading the United States, but only being able to move troops over the bridges near Detroit. So how did Alexander win and Darius lose? The Macedonian king had three advantages that made all the difference. First, he inherited a truly first-class and innovative military machine from another military and political genius, his father, Philip. The next advantage was the men he led. Man for man, Alexander's Greek mounted and infantry forces were both better armed, better trained, and often better supplied than any force they met. The phalanxes, massive formations often sixteen men deep, were armed with the sarissa, a metal-tipped spear eighteen feet long. This far outreached any weapon they faced, even the twelve-foot spears of the Greek mercenaries. The man-for-man superiority of the Greek infantry was recognized by Darius and his predecessors, who made phalanxes of Greek mercenaries a key element in all of the armies they formed. Interestingly, and to Alexander's disadvantage, Darius III had been able to hire several thousand Greeks to fight for him at Issus only a year earlier. Still Alexander's Greek soldiers were superior in training, weapons, and attitude. The final advantage Alexander had was himself. He was not only a brilliant tactician and strategist, but also charismatic and courageous.
Darius III was fighting to retain his throne, and after losing to Alexander the year before at Issus, the Persian emperor needed to prove himself capable of defending his empire. Darius III was by no means either inexperienced or stupid. In fact, he managed to choose the ground for this pivotal battle and had several days to prepare it. His army was at least three times the size of Alexander's, and had exotic weapons, such as elephants and scythe-bladed chariots, which the invading Macedonian army did not. In the decisive arm, cavalry, Darius had nearly five times the number of horsemen Alexander led. Many of Darius's horsemen were also much more heavily armored, covered head to toe in scale mail, and were armed with lances. So the battle was fought at the place Darius III chose, the field he had leveled for his chariots, near his capital, and he made the first moves, so, in theory, he had the initiative. Darius did almost everything needed to ensure a victory, but all of this could not overcome what turned out to be a fatal flaw, one which lost him both this battle and his empire.
Once they were close to where Darius's army waited near the town of Arbela, the Macedonians moved cautiously to within a few miles of the Persian army, which stood ready to meet them. They arrived just as the sun was setting. Rather than rush into battle, they camped and rested. Every Greek knew they were greatly outnumbered and far from home. If defeated, their nearest safe haven lay over a thousand miles away. This could have caused morale to collapse, but combined with their faith in their commander, the situation instead engendered great resolve among Alexander's men. In contrast, Darius III had gathered forces from all parts of the empire, including Indian cavalry and slingers from the mountains of what is today Afghanistan. They did not all speak the same language, and most had never even seen Darius III. The first manifestation of Darius's great flaw revealed itself as the Greek army approached. Darius was sitting in camp less than seven miles from Alexander's army with an army that was relatively rested and ready for battle, and even though his opponent's men were exhausted from several days of hard marching, he did nothing. Rather than move to attack the camp, Darius allowed the Greek army three full days to recover from what had been a difficult march. You could rationalize that the Persian emperor felt that the advantage of fighting on a large, smooth battlefield he had prepared outweighed the tactic of hitting his enemy when they were vulnerable. Whatever the reason, by not even sending a part of his army to harass the Greeks, Darius gave up the strategic initiative. In effect he committed his much larger army to waiting for the Greeks to come to them.
Finally, on the third day after arriving, the Greeks formed up and marched onto a set of hills that afforded almost every man a good look at the massive number of soldiers arrayed against them. After studying the Persian army before . . .
Excerpted from How to Lose a Battle by Bill Fawcett Copyright © 2006 by Bill Fawcett. Excerpted by permission.
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