10 Epic and Embarrassing Times Elite Forces Were Defeated

Before the modern era, conquest offered a simple, predictable path to establishing a reputation. The more battles they won, the more territories they held, then the more powerful an army, race, tribe, or leader would appear to be. Winners often got to write the history books, too, which gave them a way to not only preserve their reputation but to bolster it. They could make their victories seem larger while playing down their defeats.

Over time, warriors like the Mongols, Vikings, and Roman legionaries have come to be seen as practically invincible in the popular consciousness. But they were not always. Neither were the Spartans, Huns, or even ninjas. All of them have been defeated, sometimes embarrassingly. Yet these losses are typically little known compared to their many victories. Here are ten of the most epic and embarrassing times when elite warriors were defeated.

Related: 10 Often Forgotten Battles That Helped Shape the Modern World

10 The Spartans Were Made to Wear Their Own Chains

Okay, it is not exactly unknown that the Spartans have been defeated. The heroic last stand of King Leonidas against superior Persian numbers at Thermopylae is arguably one of the most famous battles in all of history. But less well-known—and far less heroic—was their defeat at the “Battle of the Fetters” several decades earlier. In fact, what happened there was an embarrassing episode that they likely wanted to forget.

The “Fetters” in the name of the battle do not refer to a place but to actual fetters—iron chains used to restrain prisoners or slaves. When the overconfident Spartan army arrived on the doorstep of their Greek neighbors, the Tegeans, they were carrying fetters as a sign of their intention to enslave their rivals. It also suggested that they saw their victory as a foregone conclusion.

However, that was far from the case. The Tegeans won decisively, and to rub it into the faces of the surviving Spartans, they chained them up like slaves in the very fetters they had brought with them.[1]

9 The Mongols Were Defeated by Egyptian Slaves

The Spartans might have been chained up like slaves, but in 1260, the fearsome Mongol horde was sent packing from Egypt by an army of actual slaves. But these slaves were far from ordinary. They formed a formidable fighting force known as the Mamluks and had a well-established reputation as elite warriors. In fact, the Mamluks were afforded a high status in Islamic societies despite being slaves. Even the sultan at the time of the attempted Mongol invasion was a Mamluk.

These warriors spent their entire lives training for combat, so they were well-prepared when a threatening letter arrived from Hulegu Kahn, grandson of Genghis Khan and brother of the then-Great Kahn Mongke. But Mongke died before Hulegu could move on Egypt, and he had to go back to Mongolia. However, he left his general, Ketbugha, in charge of an army of 20,000.

The Mamluks, knowing the Mongols intended to invade and that they were weakened by the absence of their Kahn, ambushed them at Ain Jalut in Gaza. They used cannons to frighten the Mongol horses. They easily slaughtered the horde, including the general, thanks to their ferocious fighting skills and larger Arabian horses.[2]

8 Attila the Hun Was Humiliated in Gaul

The strategist Lawrence Freedman wrote that “combining with others often constitutes the most astute strategic move.”

Attila the Hun’s legendary warriors learned this the hard way at the 451 Battle of Chalons. Also called the Battle of Catalunian Plains, it took place in what is now France and saw two rivals team up to take on the bloodthirsty nomads. They were the Romans under General Flavius Aetius and several Germanic tribes, including the Visigoths under King Theodoric I. The tribes had long rebelled against Roman rule, but both leaders knew they did not have the forces to stave off the Hun threat alone.

The pitched battle took place near the town of Troyes. Aetius commanded the coalition army and shrewdly let the Visigoth cavalry lead the costly effort to capture the high ground. This was partly because the Roman army was mostly infantry, but it also left the Visigoths weaker and the Romans stronger after the battle.

King Theodoric was killed, but they succeeded, and the coalition surrounded the Huns. Attila’s survivors, powerless and humiliated, were sent on their way.[3]

7 The Vikings Were Forced to Convert to Christianity

It is only fair that a person who defeats a union of murderous raiding parties is remembered with an epithet like “the Great.” Perhaps they are even more deserving if they convert the pagan pillagers to Christianity in the process. These were the accomplishments of the Saxon king Alfred of Wessex at the Battle of Edington in 877, and so he is known as Alfred the Great.

The events leading up to the battle began in 865 when the Vikings’ usual disjointed raids of England’s coastline were replaced with a full-scale invasion. The Great Heathen Army, or Viking Great Army, captured three of the four kingdoms that then comprised England. The only one they had not captured was Wessex, but they had a plan.

They surprised Alfred by attacking on Christmas Day in 876, forcing him to flee into the marshes. He headed to an ancient fort, which he renovated, and there his forces regrouped. In May 877, he marched against the Vikings, winning the battle with what a chronicler described as “great slaughter.” The survivors, including the Viking king, surrendered and agreed to be baptized.[4]

6 Ninjas Embarrassed the Son of a Samurai Warlord

Sixteenth-century Japan was rife with spats between feudal lords. This resulted in a lot of unlucky peasants finding themselves on the receiving end of a samurai’s sword. Eventually, some commoners started training to defend themselves. These were the ninja. They developed methods for spying and murder, but under their protection, democracy thrived in small provinces.

Some warlords, such as Oda Nobunaga, despised this and wanted to conquer them. One such province that Nobunaga set his sights on was Iga, so he sent his son Oda Nobuo to lead his army there. Nobuo first captured a castle that he intended to fortify as his base. However, he hired locals for the construction work. Many were ninja, and they could see what he planned to do, so they burned the castle down.

Nobuo retaliated by having his 12,000 samurai attack the village of Iseji, where about 5,000 ninja waited. That was his next mistake. His army approached through a valley where they came under fire from hidden ninja archers. Other ninja units blocked the exits, and many more attacked the samurai from the front. It was a massacre. Nobuo escaped but faced the wrath of his father.[5]

5 Roman Legionaries Missed the Signal to Retreat

Julius Caesar—the man who famously came, saw, and conquered—did not always succeed in the latter, at least not immediately. Even he did not know that in 52 BC when, after six years of victory after victory, the Averni tribe led by Vercingetorix forced him to retreat. Interestingly, the only contemporary account of the Battle of Gergovia was written by Caesar himself. He does not deny losing, but he only admits to the deaths of 700 men and 46 centurions, although he had up to 36,000 troops under his command at the time.

It does not appear to have been a failure of planning. It was the execution that went awry. Caesar’s plan was to advance on Gergovia, the Averni capital, and then stage a false retreat to lure Vercingetorix out into battle.

However, many of his legionaries did not hear the signal to retreat and tried to take the city. The Averni, less tired and with greater numbers, sent in their cavalry to attack the Romans and protect their city. Many legionaries were killed, and the survivors were forced into a real, albeit temporary, retreat.[6]

4 The Knights Templar Ran Out of Water

The Crusades offer an example of where combining forces did not work out. The Battle of Hattin in 1187 saw an army comprising several different Crusader factions, including the Knights Templar, brutally defeated by Islamic forces under the command of Saladin. The Crusaders’ error was not in joining forces but straying too far from the water supply.

United under Guy of Lusignan, the king of Jerusalem, the Crusaders were stationed at Sephoria when Saladin planned to lure them away from their water supply and into battle. He besieged the city of Tiberias, where the family of a senior Crusader nobleman was stationed. Guy ordered the army to head straight there, and in their haste, they marched straight past the only water spring on the route.

Saladin ended his siege to attack Guy’s men, who were now weakened and suffering in the hot Middle Eastern sun. Overnight, Saladin’s men taunted the thirsty Crusaders and started fires to further their suffering. Still, many Crusaders fought on, but they could not beat Saladin’s forces in their weakened state. Many were killed. Guy was captured, and the Knights Templar were beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam.[7]

3 The Janissaries Were Wiped Out in One Day

For around 500 years, the Janissaries were the elite fighting force of the Ottoman Empire. That was, until the “Auspicious Incident” of 1826 when they were wiped out in practically one swoop by Sultan Mahmud II.

Like the Mamluks, the Janissaries started out as slaves. Originally, they were Christian children who had been captured and forcibly converted to Islam. But by 1826, they had forgotten their place and had been known to overthrow the Sultans they were officially sworn to protect. They were also despised by ordinary citizens for their tax-exempt status and political influence.

Sultan Mahmud II knew they needed to be taken out, but it would be difficult. He patiently planned the Incident for almost 20 years. He eventually prompted a Janissary revolt by forming a new, Westernized army behind their backs. He then used their rebellion as an excuse to wipe them out. He sent the cavalry to round up the Janissaries in their barracks, then bombarded them with artillery. Over 4,000 were killed in that one attack alone. It had taken only a single day.[8]

2 Alexander the Great Slaughtered the Sacred Band

Before King Philip II took to the throne of Macedonia, it was an unstable kingdom terrorized by barbarian tribes. Philip turned it into a leading power, and like other leading powers of the day, he looked to expand it. Three Greek cities caught his eye: Athens, Corinth, and Thebes. But they did not wish to be ruled by Philip, so they joined forces to confront him at the Battle of Chaeronea.

Their military consisted mainly of hoplites—spear and shield-wielding warriors trained to fight in formation. But they also had the Sacred Band of Thebes. This was an elite unit of 300 soldiers who had defeated the Spartans. However, Philip knew about these and focused on taking them out. He put his son Alexander in charge of his own elite soldiers, and Alexander turned out to be quite the commander.

All 300 of the Sacred Band were killed, crushing the morale of the hoplites, many of whom also perished. The Sacred Band never reformed afterward, and the Greek cities surrendered. As for Philip’s son Alexander, the world would hear about many more of his victories. He would become better known as Alexander the Great.[9]

1 Alexander Also Proved That the Immortals Were Not Immortal

The 10,000-strong regiment known as the “Immortals,” part of the army of King Darius III’s Persian empire, had some terrifying battlefield tactics. One that they liked to use was the scythed chariot. A sharp blade protruded from the chariot’s wheels, which would chop down any poor infantryman who happened to be standing within its reach. They also had amazing archers and cavalry, and this was just one regiment that supplemented an enormous army.

When they faced off against Alexander the Great at Gaugamela, everything was in their favor. The wide expanse would let them use their numbers advantage. They had even flattened the ground so that they could use their feared chariots. How did they lose?

It probably did not help that they feared a nocturnal attack by Alexander’s troops and stayed awake all night. After that, it was Alexander’s strategy and the discipline of his men that won the day. Forcing a gap in the Persian line, Alexander led a cavalry charge straight at the Persian king, who only narrowly escaped while the Macedonians devastated his army. Experts estimate that as many as 40,000 Persians were killed.[10]

Comments are closed.