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10 Great Books about Military Blunders

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We salute those brave soldiers who gave their lives in The Emu War.

For those of us who love their military history, there are few things more appealing than the military master stroke, that moment in which a general outwits and thwarts an opposing general so totally that all we can do is wonder at their intelligence. This is not an article about those moments…

This article is about exactly the opposite. If there is one thing that military history has to offer that outweighs the thrill and excitement of a genius military manoeuvre, it is the great military blunder. We’re not talking about small-scale confusions here, like the notorious story of the time Lichtenstein went to war with 80 men, and somehow returned with 81, or the “War of the Oaken Bucket” fought between Bologna and Modena. Instead, this is a reading list for those of you who want to know more about full-scale military disasters.

At the very least, this reading list should offer some insight into the validity of that age old pearl of military wisdom that, for some reason, great generals just can’t help but ignore…

Never invade Russia in the winter.

1812

One of the greatest military minds that France has ever produced, Napoleon Bonaparte effectively conquered the known world as he rose to the position of emperor. Things only really began to fall apart when, in an effort to starve out France’s rivals, Austria and Prussia, Napoleon marched on Russia with one of the largest armies the world had yet seen. While the army was somewhat successful in that it reached and sacked Moscow, what followed was a brutal retreat across the Russian countryside in the frigid grip of an exactly-as-cold-as-its-reputation Russian Winter.

1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow details the circumstances leading up to Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia. While doubtless more pleasant than the experience itself, the book fully communicates the grim terms of the attempt to return to France.

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Rome's Greatest Defeat

As a civilisation, Rome seems to have produced more than its fair share of military masterminds. Indeed, for those of us who don't take an active interest, it can often feel as though Rome simply won every conflict it was involved with until the empire spontaneously collapsed. With that in mind, it can be interesting to do a little reading that presents the Romans in less-than-flattering terms.

Rome’s Greatest Defeat: Massacre in the Teutoburg Forest gives readers a glimpse into just how Publius Quinctilius Varus managed to lose three legions at the hands of the anti-Roman alliance led by Arminius. The real lowlight here is the roman soldiers being attacked while stretched in a kilometers-long line, wading through the boggy conditions of the Teutoburg forest. Things go from bad to worse when an attempt to escape under cover of darkness serves only to lead them into another ambush.

Murdoch communicates the battle and it’s historical setting with a style that puts the reader right into the context in which those dreadful missteps were made.

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Thousand-Mile War

For those unfamiliar with them, the Aleutian Islands form a chain of volcanic islands in an arc across the Northern Pacific Ocean. Thanks in no small part to their combination of isolation and extreme weather, the Aleutian Islands served as the battleground for some of the most difficult campaigns of the Second World War.

Brian Garfield’s The Thousand-Mile War: World War II in Alaska and the Aleutians includes an in-depth account of the conflict in the Aleutian Islands. The book also includes a lengthy description of the invasion of Kiska, also known as "Operation Cottage." This bizarre manoeuvre saw U.S. and Canadian forces invade the island of Kiska in an effort to capture the island. Under a thick fog, the combined force managed to lose 32 soldiers (with a further 50 wounded), before it became clear that the Japanese force had abandoned the island a fortnight before.

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The Price of Glory

There are few wars quite so replete with military disasters as the First World War, and few individual engagements quite so all-encompassingly catastrophic as the Battle of Verdun. If only to help give an impression of the scale of the disaster, the German assault on the French city of Verdun is said to have resulted in over 800,000 casualties. Given the scale of the carnage, it’s hard not to categorise it as something of a collective blunder, with disastrous decisions being made on all sides.

The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 is actually part of a trilogy, though it reads well out of context. Horne splits his time between descriptions of the on-the-ground realities of the situation for both sides and the political characters and machinations that have resulted in those grim scenarios. There’s just enough distance to offer understanding, without the text ever moving too far from the inhumanity of the situation.

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The Battle That Shook Europe

Like the Romans at the Teutoburg forest, the Battle of Poltava is one of those events that seems like a definite turning point in history. The cliff notes are that, in the early 18th century, Sweden invaded Russia. At the time, Sweden was seen as one of the great powers in Europe, though the attack on Russia proceeded so disastrously that it was seen as the beginning of Sweden’s decline as a power, while also heralding Russia’s arrival as a power in Europe.

In this case, the would-be conquerors of Russia at least had the wisdom to invade in summer, but it seems that this strategy was insufficient to win them the day. The Battle that Shook Europe: Poltava and the Birth of the Russian Empire is a strange beast that sits almost perfectly between a documentary and a novel. The resulting blend helps to situate the reader in the events better than many other historical texts, without losing the edge of scholarly rigour vital to keep the book from feeling bombastic.

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Beyond the Gates of Fire

Thanks to the success of Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 (and Zack Snyder’s slow-motionfest blockbuster adaptation), the defense of Thermopylae by 300 spartans under Leonidas continues to enjoy a reputation as a military masterstroke, rather than a blunder. 

Things are a little less cut and dry if you consider things from the opposite side. Think about how things went for poor Xerxes, who can't have been happy with performance of his million Persians (depending on whose numbers your trust) to overcome 300 spartans. Beyond the Gates of Fire: New Perspectives on the Battle of Thermopylae is a collection of essays that attempt to situate the Battle of Thermopylae in a broader historical and cultural context, as well as providing a more granular (if less spectacular) examination of the battlefield itself.

Full warning: Beyond the Gates of Fire never steers clear of being a bit scholarly. This is a book replete with footnotes and some fairly academic language. If you can look beyond that, it’s an interesting examination of an otherwise well-worn topic.

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The Tsar's Last Armada

In an article filled with questionable decision-making and strategic manoeuvres that are, at best, confusing, the Battle of Tsushima might take the award for the most roundabout route taken to reach a disaster. During the Russo-Japanese war, the Russian Second Pacific Squadron made the journey from the Baltic sea, around the Iberian peninsula to the West, then around the Cape of Good Hope to the South. Having successfully made this arduous journey, the entire fleet was then utterly smashed by the Japanese fleet in the Tsushima Strait.

As you might have guessed from its title, The Tsar's Last Armada: The Epic Journey to the Battle of Tsushima is more often focussed on the fleet’s navigation to Japan than anything else. In that respect, as in many others, it is a meditation on the changing face of naval warfare in the 19th century, which included the introductions of wireless telegraphy and the self-propelled torpedo.

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The Battle for Moscow

Russia must present a terrible temptation for the successful general. It seems as though a general can only achieve so many victories before they begin to believe themselves beyond defeat… at which point they decide it must be necessary to prove it, by invading Russia. In 1941, Adolf Hitler ordered his forces to push for Moscow. Unfortunately, the German offensive was turned back, much as Napoleon’s was in 1812.

Obviously, it’s very easy to write the whole mess off and chalk it up to another insane attempt to invade Russia in Winter, but that hardly does the whole affair justice. Instead, Stahel breaks down the economic, strategic, and practical background to the failure of the German offensive, portraying the Battle of Moscow in a very different light than the close-fought-fight-that-ultimately-led-to-total-disaster we usually see. In its place, we are shown a German offensive that had little (if any) hope of success against an entrenched Russian defense, slowly whittled down until it was eventually turned away, at which point it was Winter and they were already in Russia...

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Boom and Bust

In a truly strange turn of events just after World War I, South Western Australia found itself invaded by 20,000 migrating emus. Arriving just in time for the harvest season, the Emus engaged with Sun Tzu’s strategy, marching without food of their own and instead eating the food of their enemies. A beleaguered Australia enlisted its own army to fight the invading force off.  The only thing still more outrageous than this is that the army then suffered a bewildering defeat.

The military action against the emus was led by Major GPW Meredith, who commented that the emus were “like Zulus.” In description of the war that they fought against the emus, Meredith said,

“If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds it would face any army in the world... They can face machine guns with the invulnerability of tanks.”

It’s a fascinating tale, and one that sadly doesn’t quite warrant a whole book of its own. Obviously, the truth is just a touch less spectacular than much of the reportage around it might lead you to believe, but there is a simple satisfaction in the knowledge that a nation the size of Australia once went to war with 20,000 emus, and somehow lost. That said, there is a full chapter dedicated to the emu in Boom and Bust: Bird Stories for a Dry Country, which includes notes on both “the emu war” the emu’s place in Australian culture.

We hope that you've found something to enjoy here. While these are each, obviously, terrible tragedies in their own right, we hope that you've found at least one military disaster that tickled your interest. If you have any suggestions for books on military blunders, please leave them in the comments. We'll read them as soon as possible and add the best of them to the list.

If not, we hope that you've at least learned to expand your golden rules for warfare. Now, below, "Never invade Russia in the winter," you can append another piece of hard-won wisdom,

Never engage in a war with an avian enemy that can run at 50km per hour.

You might never live it down.

A former military man, Rick would say that he specializes in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.