God Save the Queen: Great Britain’s Five Biggest Military Defeats
For centuries, the sun never set on the British Empire. But eclipses there were, and more than a few that stained British arms.
Like the Romans, the British fought a variety of enemies. They also had the distinction of being defeated by a variety of enemies, including Americans, Russians, French, Native Americans, Africans, Afghans, Japanese and Germans. Even in defeat, there is something glorious in losing to so many different foes.
As the saying goes, victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan. Yet in Britain's case, defeat has multiple sires, from overconfidence to racism. Those Americans who would sneer at the Limeys should be mindful that the same reasons have also resulted in U.S. defeats.
Here are the five greatest British military failures:
Imagine an entire U.S. Army brigade surrendering to the Taliban, and now you grasp the impact of the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. A British force of 7,000 men had laid their arms before an army that European experts had dismissed as colonial rabble.
Saratoga was a battle that should never have been fought. Britain always had a small army for a major European power, and a particularly small army for subduing an area the size of eastern North America. Yet Britain did have the Royal Navy, which conferred a strategic mobility that allowed the British to concentrate or evacuate their forces with a speed that George Washington's Continentals couldn't match.
So in the best British tradition of contempt for the enemy, the British chose to mount an overland expedition deep in the North American wilderness in autumn 1777, as far from naval support as the Moon. General "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne would lead 7,000 men down from Canada into Upstate New York, where he would rendezvous near Albany with another force under General William Howe moving north from New York City. In theory, this would isolate that troublesome nest of revolutionaries in New England from the rest of the rebellious colonies.
Unfortunately, the British command was as divided as their forces. Instead of assisting Burgoyne, Howe chose to occupy Philadelphia. Burgoyne had managed to recapture Fort Ticonderoga, but now found himself low on supplies, with winter approaching. Instead of retreating back to Canada, he chose to press on to Albany. Meanwhile, the Americans eventually mustered a force of 15,000 militia backed by reinforcements sent by General Washington, including Daniel Morgan's riflemen and Benedict Arnold (actually a competent American commander before his defection).
It wasn't only the British who suffered from divided command; Arnold quarreled with Horatio Gates, the ostensible commander of the American force. But after two small battles at Freeman's Farm and Bemis Heights, Burgoyne's army found itself outnumbered, surrounded and isolated at Saratoga, far from any reinforcement or succor.
Gentleman Johnny surrendered on October 17, 1777, thus preserving the lives of his men from a hopeless battle. But the fact that the revolutionaries had destroyed a British army in the field helped convince France to ally with the fledgling American revolutionaries and declare war on Britain, later followed by Spain. The impact on world history would be immense.
Being defeated by the Americans was bad enough, yet at least the Americans were Europeans by ancestry and culture. But surely spear-waving African natives would be no match for a force of well-armed and well-trained British troops? Even today, that image is perpetuated by the 1964 movie Zulu, where a handful of British troops fight off human waves of African warriors at the Battle of Rorke's Drift.
Such a racist stereotype was shattered by the Battle of Rorke's Drift and was preceded by the defeat of Isandlwana, where the Zulus annihilated 1,700 British regulars and colonial auxiliaries at the Battle of Isandlwana on January 22, 1879. Britain had invaded Zululand, ostensibly to revenge the murder of British subjects, but in reality to create a Southern African confederation, which in turn required smashing the Zulu Empire.
As at Saratoga, the British recklessly maneuvered themselves into a deadly position. British commander Lord Chelmsford split his 15,000-strong force into three separate columns on the theory that this would enable the British to surround the Zulu army (of course they'll flee, old chap). Chelmsford commanded the main column of 5,000 men, which set up camp at Isandlwana just five miles from a Zulu army that British scouts hadn't detected. Not only didn't he entrench his position, but he also split his force again by sending most of the column chasing after what he thought was the main Zulu army, leaving just 1,700 men to guard the camp.
But the main Zulu army of 20,000 strong was actually hidden near the camp. When British scouts finally detected them, the Zulus attacked. They wielded Iron Age spears and shields in the Industrial Age of steamships and machine guns, but the Zulus proved what the highly organized, motivated and tactically mobile troops could accomplish despite technological inferiority. Their favorite tactic was the izimpondo zankomo ("horns of the buffalo"), where the older warriors of the Zulu force engaged the enemy from the front while the younger warriors circled around both flanks and attacked. Such tactics had won the Zulus a fierce reputation and an African empire. Now they would destroy the British.
Battle of the Denmark Straits: