This week: Military disasters

The Last Stand at Gundamuck, 1842. By William Barnes Wollen (1898).

It is hard to disagree with the observation, made by the distinguished military historian John Keegan (1934-2012), that ‘all battles are in some degree… disasters’.

But if the brutal nature of warfare means that all such conflicts end in calamity, it should be added (as Keegan himself noted) that not all calamities are created equal.

Among the reasons for defeat in battle are some that could be classed as unavoidable – such as when an army is heavily outnumbered, or when freak weather proves decisive.

As we are reminded this week on The Past, however, it is surprising how often ignorance – in the form of misunderstandings, arrogance and lack of knowledge – can also play a part, especially in those military setbacks which might with hindsight be seen as entirely avoidable.

At the Battle of Crécy in 1346, for instance, French knights were slaughtered in their thousands as a result of their ill-advised failure to take English bowmen seriously. At the Battle of Balaclava in 1854, meanwhile, it was the British light cavalry who paid a heavy price, charging into the so-called ‘Valley of Death’ apparently as the result of a misunderstood order.

In some cases – as with French defeat at the Battle of the Nile in 1798, and with the encirclement of German forces at Stalingrad in January 1943 – deception plays a part. In others – as with Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812, and with the Russian and American invasions of Afghanistan in 1979 and 2001 respectively – it is the failure to learn lessons from history that proves fatal.

In the new issue of Military History Matters magazine, Peter Burke, Emeritus Professor of Cultural History at the University of Cambridge, looks at the many ways in which ignorance has affected events on the battlefield down the centuries, and asks: what can we really learn from the study of such failure?

Elsewhere this week, we have also been delving into the archives for more about famous military disasters: we analysed General Custer’s defeat (and Native America’s greatest victory) at the Battle of the Little Bighorn; we put the Charge of the Light Brigade into perspective by examining the whole of the Battle of Balaclava; and we looked at how Afghanistan became the ‘graveyard of armies’ from ancient times to the present day.

And finally, if all that leaves you hungry for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around great military disasters. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

The Past is powered by Current Publishing’s unique stable of accessible specialist magazines, each of which is a leader in its field, and by our global network of writers and editors.

Our aim is simple: to create a new essential destination for anyone interested in any aspect of the past – authoritative, easy to read and navigate, beautifully designed and illustrated, and with no annoying adverts, pop-ups and clickbait.

Whether you are an armchair historian, a budding archaeologist or a heritage enthusiast, we hope that you like what you find on The Past – and if you do, we hope very much that you might also consider taking out a subscription. Subscriptions cost £7.99 per month, or £79.99 for the whole year. But early visitors to the website can save £30 – subscribe by the end of January 2023 and pay just £49.99 by entering the code January23 at the checkout.