5 Times Britain's Mighty Military Got Crushed in Battle

Michael Peck

Key point: Victory has many fathers, but defeat is an orphan.

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.

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