Top 10 Dumbest Orders in Military History

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Obviously, soldiers have amongst the most dangerous jobs in the world. When it’s not the enemy, friendly fire, weather, or disease that gets them, their commanding officers step in to endanger them through stupidity.

Now imagine being one of the soldiers under the commanders who ordered things this stupid:

10. Build Those Defenses… Backwards!

gideon-pillow-political-cartoon

The War: Mexican-American War, 1846

The Leader: General Gideon Pillow

Pillow was appointed general because he was a friend with then President James Polk from when then practiced law together, so the likelihood he would do something really embarrassing was pretty high from square one. During the war, his most notorious mistake took place when he was stationed at a Mexican village called Camargo. There, he ordered entrenchments built, but had them built so awkwardly that the defenses were backwards, leaving his troops exposed to the enemy.

The incident would have been the most embarrassing incident of his career, but he seemed determined to top it. In 1847, Pillow wrote letters to Washington crediting himself with winning the war, rather than commanding General Winfield Scott; something so blatantly treacherous and false he was arrested for it. He was called back to active service during the American Civil War (luckily for the Union, he fought for the South). There, the most significant thing he did was lose a fortress with 12,000 soldiers to General Grant in 1862. In 1863, he managed to top even that by his actions at the Battle of Stony Creek: one of his subordinate generals found him hiding behind a tree instead of leading his soldiers. (Source: southernhistory.net)

9. Machine Guns?! No Thanks!

The War: Great Sioux War, 1876

The Leader: Colonel George Custer

Everyone knows how Custer led the 7th U.S. Cavalry into an attack on a Sioux tribe that ended with him and every soldier under his direct command being killed at the Battle of Little Big Horn. He was outnumbered 9-to-1, just about the only advantage he possessed being that he had the element of surprise. Another advantage he COULD have had was to possess three machine guns. Specifically, Gatling guns that had the capacity to fire several hundred extra rounds a minute. Custer turned down these relatively lightweight, very dependable weapons personally. While it’s quite likely they wouldn’t have automatically have won Custer the battle, it seems very likely that they would have been extremely useful to Custer in covering a retreat or intimidating the Sioux into believing they were being attacked by a much larger force than Custer had actually brought. But then there wouldn’t be a “last stand” and he wouldn’t be so famous. (Source: wired.com)

8. No Wading the River!

The War: American Civil War, 1862

The Leader: General Ambrose Burnside

The Battle of Antietam is often mentioned in even general history classes because it resulted in Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Less well known, and, we dare say, a little less inspiring was this event that happened during the battle. More than 12,000 troops under the command of Ambrose Burnside were opposite less than 400 troops for the Southern army- separated by Antietam creek, which was spanned by a stone bridge. Burnside’s troops were told to stay in position as Burnside looked for another ford, and when one wasn’t found after three hours, they started across the bridge. In a narrow, extremely easily shot column, the Southern soldiers picked them off so well that they held back a group of soldiers thirty times their number for another three hours, which gave time for thousands of extra Southern soldiers to arrive. This prevented the battle from becoming such a victory that it could have ended the Civil War two years early. But what was ridiculous about this was that the stream was actually fordable. One Southerner, a native local to the area, said of the stream “…(they) could have crossed the stream without getting their belts wet.” (Source: latimes.com)

7. No Running On The Battlefield!

The War: World War I, 1916

The Leader: Field Marshal Douglas Haig

It was the first day of the Battle of the Somme, which ultimately became the bloodiest battle of Great Britain’s history, with 630,000 casualties. After a week-long bombardment that primarily served to let the Germans know they were coming, July 1 found a massive attack by the British army beginning. However, because many of the soldiers were new to the front, Haig told them that they were to march across the treacherous terrain known as “No Man’s Land” in neat, ordered lines of battle. As a result, the British army suffered 60,000 casualties that day, presenting targets that were ridiculously easy against entrenched machine gun positions, which were barely touched by the attack. Not only was this after two years of battles that demonstrated how stupid this was, but on the very same day, down the line of trenches, the French army was attacking. Spacing their soldiers out, they actually broke the German lines. It’s things like this that lead to Haig being viciously parodied in British programs like Black Adder.(Source: ramsdale.org, skip to 8:19 in video for Haig section)

6. After Those Horsemen, Footmen!

The War: Roman Invasion Of Parthia, 44 B.C.

The Leader: Crassus

Crassus, known for defeating the slave army led by the legendary Spartacus and for being the richest man in Rome, wanted to perform a big, showy invasion to get his name out. He chose to invade the Parthian Empire. He had forty thousand soldiers, but the overwhelming number of them were infantrymen heavily burdened with heavy shields, armor, and weapons. The enemy army was ten thousand archers on horses, armed with arrows that would penetrate Roman shields and armor. Nevertheless, Crassus ordered an attack, doggedly pursuing an enemy that constantly fell back and kept turning and firing at them the whole way. The Roman cavalry managed at least to reach the enemy, but with Crassus brought less than two thousand cavalrymen, all carrying spears, so they were quickly overwhelmed. After that happened, Crassus ordered one last charge, confident the enemy was running out of arrows. They were not, and broke the last of the Roman army and sent it running. Thus, the Roman army suffered thirty thousand casualties and hardly inflicted any casualties. (Source: wikipedia)

5. Chain the Ships Together!

The War: Han Dynasty’s Civil War, 208 A.D.

The Leader: General Cao Cao

Admittedly, this time the general in question fell for a trick instead of ordering something stupid that was his own idea, but even the enemy generals must have been face-palming when they found out it worked. The situation was that two warlords in Southern China (Zhou Tai and Han Dang) were rebelling, and prime minister/general Cao Cao was sent with an army now estimated at 220,000 soldiers to put their rebellion down. While initially successful, Cao Cao ran into trouble when the enemy retreated to ships. His army needed to transfer from ground warfare to naval without much training and the enemy noticed he had moored his ships closely together to decrease pitching and avoid seasickness. They sent a pretend traitor named Pang Tong over to advise Cao Cao that he tie his ships together to avoid seasickness. When he fell for it, ships on fire were sailed into his fleet, a disaster that lost the Han Dynasty the war. (Source: sanguoguide.com)

4. Abandon the High Ground!

The War: American Civil War, 1863

The Leader: General Joseph Hooker

It was the day before the Battle of Chancellorsville. The Northern army had 134,000 men, the Southern army 60,000 men. The Southerners were effectively surrounded, with 75,000 behind them and the rest in front of their army. Not only that, but the Northern army in the rear had the high ground and effectively control of the field. But, just before they could attack and completely destroy the Southern army, Hooker apparently completely lost his nerve and ordered his army to fall back. Most ridiculously, he ordered soldiers off the high ground. General George Meade whose soldiers had been stationed there (and who would be the next commander of the army, in time for the famous battle of Gettysburg) said of the order “My god, if we cannot hold the top of the hill, certainly, we will not be able to hold the bottom of it!” As a result, when the Southerners attacked instead, they were able to get their cannons onto the high ground, and even though they were badly outnumbered, they managed to partially route Hooker’s army and win a battle they had absolutely no right to. (Source: books.google.com)

3. We’re Within Firing Range? HALT!

The War:  The War of 1812, 1814

The Leader: General Edward Pakenham

The battle of New Orleans became famous for both happening two weeks after the end of the war and for making Andrew Jackson the reputation that would get him elected president. The battle itself was mostly British soldiers attacking American entrenchments and being repulsed, with ridiculously disproportionate casualties being suffered. The most ridiculous example of this was when the 93rd Sutherland Highlander’s resident was about to attack some breastworks, but then a halt was called. While the regiment was within range of the enemy‘s rifles. So, the regiment was mowed down, without so much as being given orders to fire. One of the Americans claimed that watching the enemy just stand there while being shot down drove him to tears. (Source: allempires.com)

2. Into the Crater!

The War: American Civil War, 1864

The Leader: General Ambrose Burnside

Hey, Burnside’s back! Hi Burnside!

Burnside’s second dumbest order in the Civil War took place at the Battle of the Crater. It was very near the end of the Civil War, when the main Northern and Southern armies were dug into trenches outside the city of Richmond, Virginia. They ultimately would be entrenched for ten months. In an effort to shorten that amount a spell, ingenious engineers suggested building a long tunnel to under the Southern positions, and loading it with dynamite. This went off perfectly well, and a large hole was blown in the Southern defenses. But then, true to form, Burnside bungled it by ordering his soldiers into the huge crater, so the soldiers jumped into a hole too deep for them to climb back out of as Southern reinforcements were rushed to the crater. The commanding general, Ulysses Grant, said “a greater opportunity to take an enemy position I have never seen.” Burnside was permanently stripped of his rank, and by this point; even he must have breathed a sigh of relief. (Source: civilwar.org)

1. Nap Time!

The War: Mexican-Texan War, 1836

The Leader: Dictator Santa Anna

We return to Mexico, to a time before Texas was part of the United States of America. On April 19, a Mexican army of several thousand under Santa Anna in a village called San Jacinto had just been cut off from reinforcements by the Texan army destroying a bridge in its rear. The army then moved to surround the Mexicans. Despite being cut off, Anna had ordered his army to take its usual 3:30 siesta. This allowed the Texans, despite being outnumbered, to completely encircle them, and then take them by surprise, Anna having forgotten to even post sentries. This allowed the Texans to inflict over 600 casualties while suffering only 39, so low they must have started to feel sorry for the Mexicans half way through. Among the Mexicans captured was Santa Anna himself (despite shedding his uniform, he was identified by being saluted by his soldiers and his silk underwear. Honest.), from signing a humiliating treaty where he agreed that all Mexican armies would retreat, thus allowing Texas to become a sovereign nation. Still, no reason to skip a good siesta. (Source:  wikipedia)

By Dustin Koski


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13 Comments

  1. How about the “Charge of the Light Brigade” during the Crimean War? I don’t remember exactly what happened, but I do remember what happened but I do remember it was pretty disastrous. By the way the phrase “do or die” is actually a misquote from Tennyson’s famous poem about this incident. The actual line goes

    Theirs not to reason why
    Theirs but to do and die

    True statement. In any case the “Charge of the Light Brigade” should be on this list somewhere.

  2. Well, I am very surprised about one thing about this list. How about Adolf Hitler two-facing and back stabbing the Russians. Both Germany and Russia were allies at first during World War II, but Hitler decided to take matters into his own hand and try to invade Russia. Let’s think about this for a couple of minutes, shall we ? One, invading a country that is 2 1/2 times the size of the United States. And two, fighting winter’s weather conditions of Russia in which some regions get to minus 50-60 below zero. In my opinion that goes beyond the realm of sheer stupidity. But then again, Hitler and his henchman we’re insanely sociopathic themselves

    • magic carpet on

      Hitler and Stalin both knew that if they didn’t start the war the other one would the non-aggression pact was only a way for Hitler to get war material (oil,coal etc.) and for Stalin to get time to prepare. As well as this the pact only increased the chance of war as the two nations now share a large border. Also the only reason Stalin did not listen to warnings that the Germans were going to attack on the day of operation Barbarossa was that he had received numerous warnings that year and there was no reason to believe this one was true (I know you didn’t make that point but i often hear it)

      Instead of this I would say the decision not to intervene in Czechoslovakia in 1938 as Germany could have easily been defeated as Czechoslovakia had a stronger army but did not resist as it did not have French, British or Soviet support. If any of these countries had supported them then we would have seen a much smaller and shorter war in Europe.

      • Peter Boucher on

        @ magic carpet. Well, that is something I never knew about. It would encapsulate decades or centuries before we find out what was really going through the minds of these evil people. If I may, I would like to recommend a movie to you that is extremely rare, unless you have it already. Its entitled “Operation Daybreak” and its all about the Czechoslavakia Resistance as the Nazi’s were closing in. It stars Timothy Bottoms. I had it, but then again you know what Yard Sales can do to a person who doesn’t know what he or she has.The ending is very tragic.

  3. Great instances pointed out here. Got another one:
    Ney’s Charge during the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon’s own General Ney commanded his cavalry to charge across a large open field against hundreds of British soldiers, many of whom were marksmen. Not so bad to start out. Cavalry charges against ground troops is ok. But after British marksmen shot a few hundred cavalrymen (and the horses from beneath them), Ney continued the charge, even though his remaining cavalry was slowed so much as to tip-toe around their fallen comrades. They became sitting ducks. Napoleon’s cavalry was all by completely wiped out and dealt a major blow to his army, eventually leading to his defeat.

  4. The French knights at Crecy 1356 cutting down their allied Genoese crossbowmen was pretty damn stupid. Though, I’m not sure if that qualifies as an “order” for this list.

    King Guy marching his fully armored Hospitaller knights and men-at-arms through a waterless region at the hottest time of the year to Hattin in 1187. Saladin won of course and surviving knights were executed.

    Cornwallis marching his British troops into Virginia without orders placing his force in a compromising position. Guess who won at Yorktown in 1781?

    How about friendly fire from US aircraft attacking their own troops at Hamburger Hill? The media and American public loved that one.

  5. Genie in a Bottle on

    I have one that I think should be up in the order. August 1945 Pacific Theater, After delivering the atomic slug to Tinian, the Heavy Cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis was not given an escort, even though the war was still on, AND there were reports of Japanese subs in the area… Not to mention the fact that NO came looking for them after not reporting in for 5 days!

  6. magic carpet on

    The order to walk across the Somme was given as the land between the trenches was both long and also uphill. The leaders believed that there would be little defense anyway due to the bombardments and so ordered the soldiers to walk so they would still be able to fight when they got to the enemy trenches. The idea that Haig was a bad general may be true of his ww1 leadership however it must be remembered that every general on the western front Haig, Foch, Pershing (ignored the lessons that the rest of the entente had learned), Hindenburg and Ludendorff were using the same tactics. As well as this Haig was considered by ww1 veterans to be a good leader and it wasn’t until 1960 (when the veterans began to die of old age) that historians began to criticize as there was no one to defend him. It must also be remembered that the french were begging for us to attack the German lines in order to relieve pressure from Verdun where to quote the french commander of Verdun “the game was up”.

  7. While Custer most certainly made mistakes at Little Bighorn it is difficult to count not taking Gatling guns as one of the them. The Gatling guns were on wheeled carriages which were difficult to move in the rough country of Montana. They had been left behind several days before. Custer’s biggest mistake was attacking 8-10,000 Indians with 500 soldiers due to shoddy pre-battle reconnaissance, although language difficulties with his Crow scouts may have played a significant role.
    The length of time between Custer’s force attacking the camp and their annihilation was pretty short, most likely less than an hour and possibly as short as 45 minutes. It’s extremely unlikely that the Gatling guns could’ve been used in any event.

  8. Custer should have stuck with attacking defenseless women and children while the men were away hunting, he was very good at that.

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