The worst commanders in history?

What makes a good or bad military leader? Is it just the winning and losing of battles, or does personality also play a part? A new book looks at some of the most disastrous commanders down the centuries. Here, three historians explain their choices.


The study of military history has tended to concentrate on stories of great generals — from Alexander the Great to Napoleon — whose victories echo down the ages, and whose achievements are held up as an example to future generations.

According to a new book, however, there is another side to the coin. In their introduction to The Worst Military Leaders in History, John M Jennings and Chuck Steele argue that to understand war more completely it is necessary also to give consideration to history’s most catastrophic commanders. After all, they ask, are there not lessons to be learned from the study of failure, as well as of success?

As we discover over the following pages, terrible military leaders come in different shapes and sizes. Some — like dashing WWI naval commander David Beatty — appear blind to their own flaws. Others — like US Army officer John Chivington — are persuaded by ambition to commit barbarous acts. Yet others — like Roman statesman Marcus Licinius Crassus — find out the hard way that they are politicians first and generals second. In all these cases, their stories have much to teach us about the nature of war, and the role of character in victory and defeat.

THE FRAUD: David Beatty

by Chuck Steele

below, left to right Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty, John M Chivington, and Marcus Licinius Crassus.
Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

At first glance, David Beatty appears an unlikely inclusion in a study of history’s worst commanders. With rakish looks, commanding presence, and the acclaim of contemporaries, he was known for his courage and charisma. Popular and wilful, he appeared at the turn of the 20th century to be the embodiment of all that was best from the Age of Nelson, when audacity was the most-prized trait of a Royal Navy officer. Indeed, the resemblance seemed so great that it caused one of his subordinates to remark, ‘Nelson has come again’.

However, the lion’s share of Beatty’s reputation was the product of service removed from the strains of fleet command. He was also the British admiral responsible for leading the Battle Cruiser Fleet against Germany’s High Seas Fleet at the Battle of Jutland, on 31 May-1 June 1916 – the bloodiest day in British naval history. It was a disastrous encounter that showed he was unable adequately to prepare for and control large-scale engagements featuring the advanced technology of the Industrial Age.

Beatty was born in Cheshire on 17 January 1871. Although his father had served in the 4th Hussars, and his three brothers were soldiers, young David was set on a career in the Royal Navy, entering the Naval College at 13. Despite passing out from Dartmouth without distinction in 1886, he was destined for greatness. Possessing a wealth of physical courage, cultivated in part through a love of fox hunting, he would soon be recognised for his bravery. Propelled into the limelight as second in command of the flotilla accompanying General Herbert Kitchener during his 1896 expedition in Sudan, he proved cool in a crisis, going so far as to personally extricate and jettison an unexploded enemy shell from his gunboat while under fire. Making a name for himself during the fighting, he won the DSO and the admiration of Kitchener.

Under fire

Quickly promoted to commander, Beatty was again to distinguish himself under fire in China, during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Leading a contingent of sailors in combat at Tianjin, he was out front with his men when he was wounded in the left arm and wrist – heroism that saw him made captain at just 29. Thus Beatty had become one of the navy’s most-celebrated officers, without having done anything of note at sea.

ABOVE The British grand fleet on its way to meet the German fleet at the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916.
The British grand fleet on its way to meet the German fleet at the Battle of Jutland, 31 May 1916. Image: Alamy.

Back in England, marriage to the department-store heiress Ethel Tree liberated him financially. Despite a dearth of time in command at sea, Beatty attained the rank of rear admiral in 1910 – the youngest officer to do so in a century. Fortune continued to smile on him with Winston Churchill’s arrival at the Admiralty as First Lord in 1911. Despite warnings about Beatty’s youth and impertinence, Churchill made him his naval secretary, recognising the young admiral as a very bright star in a constellation dimmed by a lack of meaningful naval activity. Unsurprisingly, in 1913, when the position of commander of the British Battle Cruiser Squadron became vacant, Churchill filled it with Beatty. As a trained soldier, the future PM might have been influenced by personal bias in lauding Beatty’s unconventional record. Whatever his motivation, he was wrong to have discounted the importance of being technologically orientated for members of the 20th-century sea service.

With the 1906 launch of HMS Dreadnought, Britain had ushered in a new age in naval architecture. By 1916, Beatty was flying his flag from HMS Lion, the lead ship in a class of battle cruisers that mounted eight 13.5-inch guns, and could steam at a remarkable 26.5 knots. The net result was that naval engagements would now involve faster ships firing at greater ranges with heavier shot. In other words, technology was driving an accelerated pace and range of battle. During the First World War, however, Beatty would prove an incapable maestro when it came to coordinating these new instruments in battle.

Admiral John Jellicoe [above], Beatty’s superior, had warned him that Reinhard Scheer [below], commander of Germany’s High Seas Fleet, might try to set him a trap. Images: Wikimedia Commons.

During 1914-1915, the Royal Navy engaged in four substantial actions against the Imperial German Navy: the battles of Coronel and the Falklands in the South Pacific and South Atlantic, and the battles of Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank in the North Sea. In May 1916, the problem confronting the Royal Navy – and Beatty, a squadron/fleet commander at both Heligoland Bight (28 August 1914) and Dogger Bank (24 January 1915) – was that they were incapable of learning lessons from recent experiences. These included hard lessons about information-sharing and communications; about the ineffectiveness of British gunnery and operating procedures; and about the difficulties of matching increased speed and the greater range of heavy-calibre guns with target plotting and directing accurate fire.

In the aftermath of Dogger Bank, Beatty was honoured for having routed the enemy. But in reality, he had not done well in preparing or controlling his forces, and the battle was a lost opportunity for the British, highlighting problems of poor communication and inefficient shooting (with only 1% of rounds hitting home at ranges between 16,000 and 18,000 yards). Obviously, Britain thirsted for a hero of Nelsonic proportions, but, unlike Nelson, Beatty neither comprehended the strengths and weaknesses of the technologies at his disposal, nor did he enjoy a demonstrative qualitative advantage in sailors and commanders over his foes.

Perhaps fearing that Beatty was not the most assiduous student of naval affairs, Admiral John Jellicoe – Beatty’s superior, who commanded Britain’s Grand Fleet – wrote to him in March 1915. In a ‘difficult letter’, he outlined his concern that the Germans might ‘sooner or later try and entrap you by using their battle cruisers as a decoy’, luring Beatty into a chase to bring him closer to Germany’s High Seas Fleet and away from Jellicoe’s support. The note was prophetic: in May 1916, Reinhard Scheer, commander of Germany’s High Seas Fleet, set that very trap.

Terrible losses

Having received intelligence that Rear Admiral Franz Hipper’s First Scouting Group was putting to sea from Germany, Beatty’s Battle Cruiser Fleet left Rosyth on 31 May to search for his forces. Once the two groups of battle cruisers came into contact off the Danish coast, a heated moving battle took shape. The fighting was intense and extremely costly for the British. But, beyond getting the better of Beatty in combat, Hipper was also playing his part in leading Beatty on a chase towards Scheer, known as the ‘Run to the South’.

Beatty’s force comprised six battle cruisers and Rear Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas’s Fifth Battle Squadron of four Queen Elizabeth-class battleships – though communications between the two commanders were again poor. In his rush to face his adversary, Beatty outstripped the support of Evan-Thomas’s powerful battleships, and surrendered the advantages of superior gun range that his battle cruisers held over their five German counterparts. Instead of engaging at more than 20,000 yards, it was estimated that Beatty opened fire at a range possibly as low as 16,000 yards. This meant his ships were well within Hipper’s range when fighting began at around 3:45pm.

The consequences of Beatty’s haste were disastrous. At 4:02pm, the British lost Indefatigable; at 4:26pm, they lost Queen Mary. Within half an hour, Hipper had sunk a third of Beatty’s battle cruisers, taking the lives of more than 2,000 British sailors. Beatty had been thoroughly drawn into the trap Jellicoe had foreseen.

The sinking of the British battle cruiser HMS Queen Mary on 31 May 1916 claimed the lives of 1,266 crew members. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Following Hipper’s First Scouting Group, the main force of Scheer’s High Seas Fleet pressed on to complete the destruction. Knowing that Jellicoe (approaching from Scapa Flow) was behind him, Beatty turned his forces north to lead the Germans into a broader clash with the entire Grand Fleet. Again, communication proved difficult, and Evan-Thomas’s battleships passed Beatty’s remaining battle cruisers before turning north themselves under heavy fire from the High Seas Fleet.

Even Beatty’s escape to the protection of Jellicoe’s guns was not beyond reproach. Once again, poor – or non-existent – communications left Jellicoe without proper situational awareness. He knew that Scheer’s fleet was pursuing Beatty, but he was aware of little else until the two parts of the British fleet made visual contact around 6pm. Still, Jellicoe’s battleships manoeuvred expertly to fire full broadsides into the German bows when contact was made at approximately 6:30pm. As night fell, Scheer decided retreat was his most attractive option. But though the battle ended in the early hours of 1 June, the controversy was just beginning.

Remarkably, Beatty’s reputation was not ruined. After the battle, he and his supporters sought to cast it in a new light – arguing that the real failure was Jellicoe’s, for failing to annihilate the German Fleet. Far from being held accountable, Beatty was even rewarded, replacing Jellicoe first as commander of the Grand Fleet, then (in 1919) as First Sea Lord. But his efforts to achieve a favourable interpretation of his role at Jutland put him at odds with many who fought there, and also with some historians. His career was long and illustrious, and if the battle had not resulted in such terrible losses – 6,768 British officers and men were killed or wounded at Jutland, against 3,058 on the German side – he might be thought of as one of British history’s many gifted naval officers.

While it may seem untoward to judge Beatty so harshly, there is no denying that by May 1916 Beatty should have been the most knowledgeable war fighter in the Royal Navy; yet, for all of his experience, his last effort in a fighting command was his worst. Moreover, in the battle’s aftermath, Beatty and his partisans tried to shift blame, making Jellicoe the subject of the criticism they deserved. In doing so, Beatty proved himself to be not only a poor commander, but also a thoroughly ignoble man.

THE CRIMINAL: John M Chivington

by Courtney A Short

ABOVE Colonel John M Chivington, photographed here c.1860s, orchestrated the massacre of hundreds of surrendering Native Americans, most of whom were women and children. right Native American deer-hide painting of the Sand Creek Massacre on 29 November 1864.
Colonel John M Chivington, photographed here c.1860s, orchestrated the massacre of hundreds of surrendering Native Americans, most of whom were women and children. Image: Alamy.

On the morning of 29 November 1864, the 1st and 3rd Colorado Volunteers, led by Colonel John M Chivington, attacked a Cheyenne and Arapaho village at Sand Creek (present-day Colorado) and massacred the unsuspecting Native Americans they found there. The massacre prompted editorials celebrating the army’s valour; yet eye-witness reports contradicted the images of glory, forcing an official inquiry into the brutality of the offensive. News that the village contained mostly women and children who had petitioned for peace proved unsettling, even in an era when dawn attacks against sleepy Native American villages were standard.

Violent encounters between Native Americans and whites had been taking place for centuries with varying outcomes. By the 19th century, however, exploration and expansionist ambitions led to government treaties that dislocated the Native populations to make space for pioneers. Legislation forced tribes that once resided in mid-western or southern territories first to find new land west of the Mississippi, then to stay on reservations and adopt agriculture.

To enforce government policy, the US Army was deployed along the wide expanse of the western frontier. Soldiers lived with the constant possibility of violent engagement, as they tried simultaneously to contend with the aggressive tendencies of civilians and the unpredictable disposition of some Native American tribes.

The events at Sand Creek occurred within an environment where white settlers and soldiers alike viewed Native Americans as disposable and dangerous. Darwinian theories categorised Native Americans as an inferior race, while the US military regarded tribes as insurgent forces. Yet, when Chivington rode into the Cheyenne and Arapaho encampment that morning with 700 men under his command, he ordered an attack so horrific that it still shocked, tarnishing his military reputation and extinguishing his political ambitions.

Chivington’s brutality was such that both the military and Congress soon launched investigations. But when he arrived in the Colorado Territory in 1860, he did so not as a soldier, but as a Methodist minister. With the start of the American Civil War on 12 April 1861, however, Chivington joined the 1st Colorado Volunteers as a combat soldier, and pinned on the rank of major.

Callous behaviour

As the war expanded westward, Chivington had an opportunity to gain fame. During the Battle of Glorieta Pass in 1862, he earned a reputation as a skilled military leader. But though he was lauded for his bravery, his insolent and callous behaviour offended other soldiers. Outspoken and defiant, he campaigned aggressively for promotion as an initial step in his ambitious plan for a Republican seat in Congress, but his chances were hindered by his insubordinate behaviour. He did, however, rise to the rank of colonel and take command of the District of Colorado.

Native American deer-hide painting of the Sand Creek Massacre on 29 November 1864. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/State Historical Society of Colorado.

In early 1863, tensions increased between Native American tribes and settlers across Colorado Territory. US military leaders lacked sufficient force to contend with warring tribes, while Native American raids cost white settlers dearly in livestock, guns, and food. Their fierce attacks also led to killings and kidnappings of the pioneers. In June 1864, the gruesome murder of a ranch family, the Hungates, caused particular alarm. Nonetheless, US troops tried desperately to protect goods and livestock, and to safeguard settlers.

By late summer, government officials regarded the frontier as being in a state of war. ‘It is impossible to exaggerate our danger,’ wrote Colorado Governor John Evans to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in Washington. For Chivington, it was an opportunity to demonstrate his military genius, and thus to reinvigorate his campaign for promotion and political advancement. Even when tensions with Native Americans subsided in September, Chivington was determined to have his fight. As he would explain two decades later, ‘what must be done, must be done quickly’.

As the weather turned colder, Cheyenne chief Black Kettle wrote a letter, delivered to the post of Fort Lyon, asking for peace. On 28 September, Governor Evans hosted a council at another military camp, Camp Weld, between Black Kettle, the Arapaho chief Left Hand, and US military leaders. Chivington spoke only once, to explain: ‘My rule of fighting white men or Indians is to fight them until they lay down their arms and submit to military authority. You are nearer [Major Edward W Wynkoop, commander of Fort Lyon] than anyone else, and you can go to him when you are ready to do that.’ With that, the council closed.

Chivington’s words caused Wynkoop to believe he had been given responsibility to handle the situation. With his approval, Black Kettle and Left Hand brought their village to an area outside Fort Lyon, where they were allowed to reside under his protection – and, later, that of his replacement Major Scott J Anthony, who arrived on 2 November – while they waited for army officials to initiate peace negotiations. Chivington, however, had other ideas. With full knowledge of the peaceful disposition of the tribes, he planned an expeditious attack against their encampment along Sand Creek.

Dawn raid

At daybreak on 29 November – on Chivington’s orders – the men of the 1st and 3rd Colorado, along with a small contingent of New Mexico cavalry, descended on the village of Black Kettle and Left Hand. The surprised warriors hastily put up a defence that wavered against the pressure of the attack, and then broke. Retreating towards the Creek, they staged a second stand and braced for the continued assault. US infantry, cavalry, and artillery swept cleanly through the encampment, killing all who lived there and destroying the lodges. More than six hours later, the commotion fell silent, and hundreds of men, women, and children lay dead across the ground.

ABOVE The Cheyenne chief Black Kettle (shown seated third from the left in the middle row) was among the attendees at the ill-fated peace council at Camp Weld on 28 September 1864.
The Cheyenne chief Black Kettle (shown seated third from the left in the middle row) was among the attendees at the ill-fated peace council at Camp Weld on 28 September 1864. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Chivington’s troops easily overpowered the village, which consisted of more women and children than warriors. The slaughter, however, did not occur simply because a larger force overtook a weaker group. The brutality of the soldiers exceeded the level of violence seen in other raids and battles between US troops and Native Americans. Women begged and screamed on their knees as soldiers hacked off arms and ripped scalps. Troops mutilated bodies by cutting out genitals and tearing off fingers; they disembowelled a pregnant woman, ripping the foetus from her womb. The men acted with bloodthirsty abandon – a crazed violence incited by the orders Chivington had issued before they rode for the village. He instructed his soldiers to kill every person found in the camp. To his subordinates, he voiced a longing for bloodletting and made flippant comments about cannibalism.

Beyond the creek, the fighting dissolved into a melee of individual encounters. Though some soldiers stood their ground and refused to fire, most did not. Spurred on by the orders to take no prisoners, they maimed and dismembered living and dead alike. Soldiers beat the brains out of children, and watched as mothers sliced their children’s throats hoping to save them from murder and torture. Chivington watched the violence, but did nothing to interfere.

As the frenzy dissipated late in the day, Chivington sent out a short report to his higher headquarters. Believing the news would elevate his reputation, he told a hurried story of spectacular triumph that was full of self-praise. ‘All did nobly,’ he reported.

Throughout the investigations that followed Sand Creek, Chivington defended his actions. Before his peers and superiors, he argued steadfastly that the tribes had indeed posed a serious threat to settlers. But his attempts to defend his reputation were contradicted by the correspondence, conversations, and orders that he had given before the attack. In the end, Chivington found few allies. Many agreed with the findings of the Joint Committee on the Conduct of War that held him responsible for ‘deliberately plann[ing] and execut[ing] a foul and dastardly massacre’.

While the controversy of Sand Creek did not signify a positive change in attitudes towards the Native Americans, the massacre was so gratuitous and unjustifiable that it shocked even the relatively lax moral sensibilities of Civil War-era Americans. As a result, Chivington saw his military and political ambitions crumble. In addition, his actions ignited the spread of retaliatory violence that government policy had sought to avoid. Raids and depredations from Native Americans increased throughout the West, forcing the commitment of more soldiers and more money to contain the fighting.

Chivington orchestrated the slaughter of hundreds of surrendering Native Americans, destabilised the frontier for years to follow, and incited tense and prolonged controversy throughout the nation. His despicable behaviour did not even gain him the promotion he sought. Instead, he lived out the rest of his life as a polarising figure who is a fitting candidate for the title of the worst military commander in history.

THE POLITICIAN: Marcus Licinius Crassus

by Gregory S Hospodor

Although ancient military leaders often shared the horrific consequences of catastrophic defeat with the soldiers they led, the Fates seemed especially unkind to Marcus Licinius Crassus, Roman commander at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC. He witnessed the Parthians parade his son’s severed head on the tip of a lance. Later, he walked to a parley with his mounted enemies. That one of Rome’s most influential men found himself without a horse manifested how far his fortunes had fallen. After Crassus’ assassination at the meeting, Surenas, the Parthian commander, degraded his remains, removing the right hand and head, pouring molten gold into the dead man’s mouth, and sending both as trophies to the Parthian king. They arrived as King Orodes II was watching Euripides’ The Bacchae; improvising quickly, an actor used Crassus’ head as a prop.

ABOVE Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the Roman commander at the disastrous Battle of Carrhae, fought against the Parthians in 53 BC.
Bust of Marcus Licinius Crassus, the Roman commander at the disastrous Battle of Carrhae, fought against the Parthians in 53 BC.

Crassus’ reputation fared little better back at home. Given the defeat was Rome’s greatest in an offensive war, Carrhae demanded explanation. But Crassus had political enemies, who delighted in savaging his performance.Though he bears much of the responsibility for Carrhae, his failure also exposes the strengths and the weaknesses of the late Republican military system. Crassus was not idiotic. He proved a competent, if ordinary, product of Rome’s approach to warfare. But against Surenas, a Parthian commander of true genius, ordinary was not good enough.

The roots of the Carrhae debacle, then, rest in a mix of individual and collective failure. Crassus’ expedition against the Parthians in 54-53 BC reflected a Roman way of war – and, in Republican Rome, war and politics were intimately linked. Along with wealth and political acumen, military glory was indispensable for any who wished to accumulate power. Thus Marcus Licinius Crassus strove to acquire it.

As a young patrician from one of Rome’s pre-eminent families, he gained military experience while supporting Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix. He funded a personal army, and garnered a reputation as a commander during Sulla’s victory at the Battle of the Colline Gate (82 BC). However, it was his command during the Spartacus War of 73-71 BC that served as the jewel in his military crown. Granted nearly unlimited power to suppress Spartacus’ slave rebellion, he won the decisive Battle of the Silarius River (71 BC), afterwards ordering thousands of prisoners to be crucified as a warning to others.

Between his military exploits, Crassus built his fortune and influence, eventually becoming one of the three men – with Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar – who in 59 BC formed an unofficial power-sharing alliance, the so-called ‘First Triumvirate’, which dominated Rome. At a meeting in 56 BC, Crassus was made governor of Roman Syria – with the right to make war.

For Crassus, military success was essential to secure – and advance – his political position. But if the indivisibility of war and politics in Republican Rome led to him making war on Syria’s Parthian neighbour, the Roman expectation that their generals would aggressively seize, retain, and exploit the initiative also shaped his operational approach.

ABOVE Crassus was himself killed in a scuffle shortly after Rome’s worst defeat in an offensive war.
Crassus was himself killed in a scuffle shortly after Rome’s worst defeat in an offensive war. Image: Alamy.

So it was that Crassus went to Syria itching for a decisive battle, and with supreme confidence in the Roman military system, based on deployment of heavy infantry. His faith caused him to discount the significance of conditions on the ground, most of all the cavalry-centric character of his Parthian opponents. Although he was at least 60, he was giddy with excitement at the prospect of martial glory, as well as the riches that victory would bring. Having recruited seven legions, he departed Rome brimming with confidence.

Initially, things went well. Crassus marched into Parthian western Mesopotamia, where he easily defeated the satrap of the region, Silaces, and swiftly sacked the city of Zenodotium. The Romans, it seemed, were unstoppable. But stop they did. Crassus evidently viewed operations in 54 BC as only the prelude for a decisive effort the following year: he garrisoned the conquered territory, and withdrew the rest of his troops to winter quarters in Syria. The delay, however, allowed the Parthians crucial time to prepare.

Other mistakes were made. Crassus disdained to develop accurate intelligence. At the same time, he apparently rejected an offer from King Artavasdes II of Armenia of military assistance totalling 16,000 cavalry and 30,000 infantry. As it was, the Armenians and Romans would wage war on the Parthians separately, dividing their efforts.

For their part, the Parthians used the respite well. Appreciating the threat, King Orodes II developed a strategy to defeat both the Romans and the Armenians. He would take the main field army to deal quickly with his less dangerous Armenian neighbours, leaving a smaller force under the command of a leading noble, Surenas, to delay the Romans. With the Armenians subdued, the two forces would unite for the conclusive battle with Crassus.

The drums of war

In the spring of 53 BC, Crassus marched into the Parthian heartland at the head of approximately 40,000 men – seven legions of heavy infantry, 4,000 auxiliary light infantry and missile troops, and 4,000 cavalry – along a caravan route that passed the garrisoned city of Carrhae. Having identified Crassus’ line of march, Surenas deployed his army on the far side of the Belikh River. Crassus was still confident that any fight would be easy – but that changed on the morning of 9 June, when the Roman reconnaissance screen reported that a large army of cavalry was quickly approaching.

Initially Crassus reacted relatively well. He ordered the army to form a hollow square, with 12 cohorts on each side, a squadron of cavalry interspersed between each, and the logistics train and a reserve at the centre. Forming a square was a classic response when infantry confronted cavalry, but more controversial was the decision to advance. Apparently, the Roman formation arrived at a small stream while marching forward. Most of Crassus’ officers recommended stopping to assess the situation, engaging in battle the following day. Perhaps remembering that Rome expected her generals to fight, Crassus ordered the army to press on.

Surenas’ army closed on the Romans that afternoon to the thrum of war drums. Out of a dust cloud, a host of light cavalry emerged. The throng parted into two, riding either side of the Roman square. At this point, Surenas’ cataphracts (heavily armoured cavalrymen) removed the robes covering their burnished armour, which now glittered brightly in the sun, and trotted towards the Roman formation. All this was calculated to unsettle the Romans.

left The Parthian mounted archers proved too agile for Rome’s slow-moving heavy infantry.
The Parthian mounted archers proved too agile for Rome’s slow-moving heavy infantry. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It did not. Crassus reacted by sending his light infantry forward. They were met by a torrent of arrows and withdrew within the square.

With the initial engagement completed, Surenas’ men began to execute his plan. The 9,000 Parthian light cavalry worked to encircle the Romans, while the horse archers poured forth a galling fire. The legionaries quickly learned the power of the Parthian composite bow, which penetrated shields and armour and, in some cases, nailed limbs to the ground.

Darkest hours

Recognising defeat stared him in the face, Crassus made a desperate move, ordering his son Publius to attack with 1,300 cavalry, 500 archers, and eight cohorts, perhaps 5,000 men in total. But despite frenzied efforts, the heavily armoured Parthians proved too much. The remnants of Publius’ corps retreated to a hillock, where they were wiped out. Publius himself committed suicide. The Parthians removed his head, mounted it on a lance, and rode back towards Crassus to renew the attack.

The spectacle of Publius’ head affixed to a lance marked the battle’s denouement. All that was left before nightfall was more bloodletting as Roman defeat was assured. In his darkest hour, Crassus rose to the occasion, riding up and down the ranks shouting encouragement and demonstrating the bravery expected of a patrician.

Whatever inspired Crassus during the closing stages of the battle left him at nightfall, however. According to Plutarch, he fell into a listless depression. After the Parthians pulled back for the night, Crassus’ wing commander Cassius and a legate, Octavius, stepped into the void, ordering a withdrawal towards Carrhae, and abandoning 4,000 wounded. To the sound of their disabled comrades’ pitiful cries, the once proud army left the battlefield as a disorganised rabble.

Crassus’ failure to manage the retreat stands as his greatest failure as a tactical military leader. Without firm leadership, the withdrawal was a shambles. The Parthians followed up their victory by slaughtering the Roman wounded and dispatching stragglers. In the end, Crassus, one of Rome’s most powerful men, died in an ignominious scuffle at a parley.

Carrhae stands as Rome’s worst defeat in an offensive war. Around 20,000 of the 40,000-man army died; another 10,000 became captives. Crassus’ death also ended the First Triumvirate, which left Caesar and Pompey to compete for dominance and contributed to the Republic’s demise.

Rightly or wrongly, leaders are judged by results. Thus Carrhae weighs heavily on Crassus’ reputation. In the end, he lost because he was too orthodox, too much a reflection of the Roman way of war. The political importance of a military reputation made him lust after the opportunity to command troops in a major conflict, while two centuries of Roman military success created an unquestioned faith in a system based on heavy infantry and focused on decisive battle.

In retrospect, then, Carrhae possesses the classic elements of tragedy: as a protagonist, Crassus’ virtues, which allowed him to rise to near mastery of Rome, contained the seeds of his eventual downfall. But the example of the Carrhae campaign also calls attention to the fact that war is a hard schoolhouse, and, when the headmaster possesses the talents manifested by Surenas, it is harder still. One forgets that the enemy gets a vote at one’s peril. •

Chuck Steele is an Associate Professor of history at the US Air Force Academy.

Courtney A Short holds a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Gregory Hospodor is an Associate Professor in the Department of Military History at the US Army Command and General Staff College.

This edited extract is from The Worst Military Leaders in History (Reaktion Books, £16.99), edited by John M Jennings and Chuck Steele.