History's Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach

Course No. 3761
Professor Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
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Course No. 3761
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Course Overview

“All battles are in some degree…disasters.” These words by military historian John Keegan are true in that military conflicts inevitably involve death and destruction. Yet despite their tragic cost, many battles are regarded as great triumphs, while others are nearly universally declared blunders. What qualifies such battles for special condemnation—or inquiry, for that matter? Why focus on failure at all?

Perhaps above all else, it is the element of avoidability that makes these catastrophes so worthy of exploration. Military history often highlights success and suggests a sense of inevitability about victory, but there is so much that can be learned from studying failure, particularly when it’s unexpected. From how the arc of history was altered by the outcome of these battles to how such mistakes could have been avoided to how they might be circumvented in the future, there are numerous important lessons to be gleaned. You even consider how the world might be different if these egregious errors had not occurred.

Losing a battle due to being outnumbered, outmatched, or suffering a random misfortune is not enough to be deemed a blunder. For a military defeat to qualify as a true blunder, it must:

  • be avoidable;
  • involve a decision or action that common sense, training, or circumstance suggested was unwise, which dramatically altered the outcome for the worse;
  • involve someone who failed to take an obvious action; and/or
  • include an element of identifiable blame for the critical mistake.

In History’s Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach, you’ll study these crucibles of history to gain a better understanding of why a civilization took—or didn’t take—a particular path. Full of dramatic reversals of fortune, colorful characters, and unlikely triumphs, this course examines some of the world’s most notable examples of military misfortune, from the humiliating destruction of a Roman army at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C. to the tragic landings at Gallipoli in World War I. Presented in a narrative yet thoroughly informative fashion by Gregory S. Aldrete, Frankenthal Professor of History and Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, these 24 lectures reveal how the trajectory of history hangs in the balance of individual battles. Success and failure, as you’ll learn, are two sides of the same coin.

With a scope that spans the globe, from ancient Greece through the Crusades through global conflicts during first half of the 20th century, this course features infamous conflicts such as the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Battle of Little Bighorn, as well as lesser-known battles you may find surprising.

Compelling Stories and Fascinating Figures

How could an army equipped with cannon and rocket artillery be wiped out by Zulu warriors wielding spears, clubs, and outdated firearms? How could heavily armored French knights be vulnerable to the crude weapons of a band of Flemish shopkeepers? Why would a savvy Chinese general fall victim to a tactic he had previously employed himself?

Unpredictable twists of fate abound in this course, demonstrating that when it comes to war, there are no givens. Sheer numbers, superior weaponry, and skilled leadership are never a guarantee of success.

History’s Great Military Blunders also features remarkable personalities, such as:

  • the conniving and self-indulgent Alcibiades, whose fatal flaws brought his country to utter ruin;
  • the ambitious and egotistical Napoleon, who tarnished his legacy by appointing his inept brother to an important role in Russia, among other mistakes;
  • the flamboyant General George Custer, who was done in by his belief that he could defeat any number of Native Americans; and
  • Genghis Khan’s trusted military strategist Subotai, who cleverly maneuvered opponents onto ground of his own choosing.

On more than one occasion, you’ll see how an inflated sense of a general’s own abilities can spell doom for his troops, particularly when combined with a lack of respect for the opponent.

What becomes clear, as you trace the history of military mistakes across time and around the world, is a disturbing underlying theme that runs through almost all of these examples and categories of blunders: a fundamental failure to learn from the past that continues into the modern day.

Investigate Military Blunders from Root Causes to Ramifications

Whether you’re a student of military history or are simply intrigued by the notion of a blunder altering the course of the world, you’ll appreciate Professor Aldrete’s fresh perspective and engaging storytelling. In every lecture, he lays out a conflict’s historical context and key players before presenting a riveting blow-by-blow account of the battle. He concludes by analyzing the ramifications of the outcome, and considers how these fatal errors might have been avoided.

While the factors leading to the failures you’ll encounter are complex, there are four basic categories of blunders that recur throughout these lectures, regardless of setting, be it the United States, France, Ethiopia, or Afghanistan:

  • Failures of planning, which encompass decisions or omissions that doom one side even before battle begins, such as poor intelligence gathering, unclear objectives, or failure to take terrain into account.
  • Failures of leadership, which are often the result of overconfidence, indecisiveness, a general being charged with a task for which he is unfit, and internal conflicts.
  • Failures of execution, which include dividing control among multiple generals, breakdowns of communication, and refusing to call off an unsuccessful mission or sending additional forces into an operation that had already gone irretrievably wrong.
  • Failures of adaptation, in which leadership clings to tactics that have become outmoded, often because of advances in technology.

Evolving technology factors heavily in many of the battles discussed, such as at Culloden, where the Highlanders’ charge against British cannons and muskets proved brave but fruitless; and in the sinking of the battleship Prince of Wales, during which naval commanders failed to recognize the threat that aircraft posed to once-dominant armored warships.

Gripping Tales Told by a Master Historian

Professor Aldrete is a dynamic lecturer and masterful storyteller. His extensive background as an award-winning teacher, writer, and researcher elevates every lecture. A trove of custom visual content help these lectures come alive for those who experience it via a visual format, from battle plans to animations to historically accurate maps that highlight the geopolitical context of the time. These illuminating illustrations provide an immersive experience and facilitate deeper understanding of exactly how these blunders occurred and what could have been done differently. History’s Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach is a fascinating journey through some of the most gloriously inglorious wartime encounters, and along the way you’ll get to know some of the most legendary characters in world history, brilliant yet tragically flawed. By reversing the lens on history and confronting some of the most costly wartime mistakes, we can see the past from a new angle—and perhaps avoid making the same errors in the future.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Petersburg: Union Digs Its Own Grave - 1864
    Follow the chain of events that led to the Civil War's ill-fated Battle of the Crater, a notable example of what can happen in warfare when a plan goes awry due to poor leadership, last-minute changes, and other unclear objectives. Then, look at the phenomenon of military blunders and what they teach. x
  • 2
    Syracuse: Athens's Second Front - 413 B.C.
    From initiating a second front with a new enemy to dividing supreme command among multiple generals, see how failures of decision-making and leadership spelled disaster for the Greek city-state of Athens in the outcome of the Peloponnesian War, fought with Sparta. x
  • 3
    Carrhae: The Parthian Shot - 53 B.C.
    The Roman military suffered one of its most humiliating defeats at the hands of the smaller Parthian force at the Battle of Carrhae. Discover how this shocking defeat involved glaring intelligence failures, overconfidence, and poor decisions, as well as crafty use of terrain and exploitation of weakness. x
  • 4
    Red Cliffs: Cao Cao's Bad Day - 208 A.D.
    Even outstanding commanders can have a bad day, as evidenced by one of the most celebrated conflicts in Chinese history: the battle of Red Cliffs. How did general Cao Cao get fooled by an obvious ploy that set his armada ablaze - particularly when he had previously used such tactics himself? x
  • 5
    Barbarian Gate: Adrianople - 378, Pliska - 811
    Although waged 400 years apart, the battles of Adrianople and Pliska share a number of curious similarities. Explore how both defeats were triggered by the Romans' mistreatment of immigrant barbarian" groups from the north - who might otherwise have been converted into allies - and overconfidence on the part of the Roman emperors." x
  • 6
    Fourth Crusade: Byzantium Betrayed - 1204
    Innocent III initiated the Fourth Crusade to recapture control of the Holy Lands from Muslim rulers, but Crusaders ultimately rampaged through Christendom. Learn what led to the brutal attack and looting of the city of Constantinople, a supposed ally of the Crusaders and the seat of the Greek Orthodox branch of Christianity. x
  • 7
    Kalka River: Genghis Khan's General - 1223
    More than 40,000 Russians were slain at the hands of the Mongols at the Kalka River, including six princes and 70 noblemen. Examine the factors that led to the allied army's defeat, from underestimating the Mongols to repeatedly allowing their leader, Subotai, to maneuver his opponents onto ground of his own choosing. x
  • 8
    Courtrai: Knights versus Shopkeepers - 1302
    At the Battle of Courtrai in 1302, a French army of the finest knights equipped with the best available arms and armor was beaten by what many viewed as an undisciplined rabble of Flemish shopkeepers bearing improvised weapons. Delve into the battle and learn the mistakes leading to the knights' defeat. x
  • 9
    Nagashino: Taking Swords to a Gunfight - 1575
    The Battle of Nagashino was the culmination of a multi-generational conflict with some of the most memorable battles and colorful figures in Japanese history. Although both armies possessed guns, only one commander employed them to maximum effect. Delve into the battle and consider why mere access to a new technology isn't sufficient for victory - one must also understand how to use it effectively. x
  • 10
    Cartagena: High Walls, Short Ladders - 1741
    The most spectacular battle of the War of Jenkins' Ear was a massive amphibious assault launched against the Spanish port city of Cartagena, Colombia. Trace how this expedition began with great enthusiasm among the British but ended in failure and embarrassment, due primarily to the enmity that arose between Britain's top-ranking naval and army officers. x
  • 11
    Culloden: The Bonnie Prince Blunders - 1746
    Prince Charles Edward Stuart disembarked a French warship onto the shore of Scotland intent on restoring the House of Stuart over England and Scotland. As you delve into the battle of Culloden, notice how his rivalries, poor decisions, and waffling led to failure against the firepower and professionalism of the British. x
  • 12
    Russia: Napoleon Retreats in the Snow - 1812
    Napoleon made many mistakes in his campaign to invade Russia, a fatal miscalculation that led to his downfall and blemished his legacy as a brilliant general. Investigate his errors here, from appointing his inept brother to an important role to using unimaginative frontal assault tactics, which resulted in a bloodbath. x
  • 13
    Afghanistan: Khyber Pass Death Trap - 1842
    Propelled by paranoia about Russian plots, the First Afghan War was an unmitigated disaster for the British. See how their attempt to protect the East India Company's interests resulted in the entire Army of the Indus - 16,000 soldiers and camp followers - being wiped out by Afghan tribesmen. x
  • 14
    Crimea: Charge of the Light Brigade - 1854
    Although a minor incident, the Charge of the Light Brigade has gained a reputation as both a glorious moment in the history of warfare and one of the greatest military blunders of all time. Follow the disastrous chain of events that lead the British to attack the wrong target. x
  • 15
    Greasy Grass: Custer's Last Stand - 1876
    Military historians still argue over what happened and who was at fault in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Examine why this battle between George Custer's cavalry and the Lakota and their allies remains one of the most infamous in American history, and see how this rare victory for the indigenous tribes ultimately hastened their defeat. x
  • 16
    Isandlwana: 25,000 Zulus Undetected - 1879
    How could an army accompanied by cannon and rocket artillery be wiped out by Zulu warriors wielding spears, clubs, and a smattering of outdated firearms? Find out in this account of one of the most shocking and humiliating British defeats from the Napoleonic Wars up to World War I. x
  • 17
    Adwa: Italy's Fiasco in Ethiopia - 1896
    Learn how overconfidence, miscommunication, and miscalculation were all displayed by the Italians at Adwa in Ethiopia, resulting in one of the greatest victories of a native people over an imperial power during the colonization era - a rare indigenous civilization that succeeded in establishing itself as an independent modern nation. x
  • 18
    Colenso: The Second Boer War - 1899
    The Boer War's Battle of Colenso marked a turning point in military tactics, as the British forces clung to obsolete methods of fighting in the face of new weaponry and tactics. Explore how the stubborn determination of the British commanders to utilize outdated techniques resulted in a completely ineffectual attack. x
  • 19
    Tannenberg: Ineptitude in the East - 1914
    The Battle of Tannenberg was a brilliant victory for the Germans - made possible by the many errors committed by the Russians. Discover how the Germans turned the tables on Alexander Samsonov, fragmenting and tearing apart his once seemingly invincible battalions, leaving them lost in a nightmarish landscape of forest and bogs. x
  • 20
    Gallipoli: Churchill Dooms Allied Assault - 1915
    With World War I bogged down in trench warfare, Britain attempted to break the stalemate - which had tragic results in the Gallipoli campaign, an infamous episode of military incompetence. See where the Brits went wrong, from poorly allocating resources to giving the Turks ample time to prepare. x
  • 21
    World War II: Royal Navy Goes Down - 1941-42
    Examine two of the worst naval disasters in the Britain's history, the causes of which include both grossly underestimating and overestimating the enemy: the sinking of the Royal Navy's most technologically sophisticated battleship by Japanese bombers in December 1941 and the destruction of merchant ships in Convoy PQ 17 by Germans in July 1942. x
  • 22
    Dieppe Raid: Catastrophe on the Beach - 1942
    From conception to execution, the Dieppe raid was filled with unclear objectives and poor planning. Why did the Allies undertake such an ill-fated attack on this German-occupied French city? Find out here, along with a detailed account of what went wrong - from bad timing to overambitious strategies to unexpectedly difficult terrain. x
  • 23
    Operation Market Garden: A Bridge Too Far - 1944
    Operation Market Garden is routinely listed among the great military mishaps of World War II. Investigate the Allies' numerous errors in planning, organization, and execution in this bold air/land mission, from underestimating the Germans' resistance to ignoring important intelligence to making unrealistic timetables. x
  • 24
    The Great Blunders: Four Paths to Failure
    Review the conflicts in this course to determine the major recurrent errors leading to such blunders. Then, turn to the final case study: a location and culture encompassing modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan that has been the target of some of history's greatest conquerors and empires across more than 2,000 years. x

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Your professor

Gregory S. Aldrete

About Your Professor

Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Green Bay
Dr. Gregory S. Aldrete is Professor of Humanistic Studies and History at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, where he has taught since 1995. He earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his master's degree and Ph.D. in Ancient History from the University of Michigan. Honored many times over for his research and his teaching, Professor Aldrete was named by his university as the winner of its highest awards in each...
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History's Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 73.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from One man's risk, is another's blunder...but... Blunder, (n): a gross error or mistake resulting usually from stupidity, ignorance, or carelessness. Synonyms: bobble, boo-boo, boob [British], brick, clanger [British], clinker, error, fault, flub, fluff, fumble, gaff, gaffe, goof, inaccuracy, lapse, miscue, misstep, mistake, oversight, screwup, slip, slipup, stumble, trip. We all blunder...whether it's that bad throw from third base, or talking politics in a...well...anywhere. But, most of us recover with a red face, perhaps, and usually a 'no harm done' shrug of the shoulders. However, when there's a 'clanger' (see above) on the military field of battle, where many lives hang in the balance it becomes the most important thing imaginable...not only to the participants (and their families), but to entire countries, and, of course, to historians. The most clear-spoken and well organized Prof Gregory S. Aldrete is one of those historians, and in his (this) survey course he presents examples of (only) some of the clearest examples of 'slipups' in historic battles...some we all know, some are not. Some changed history (but wait history can't be changed)...maybe some redirected the course of history (Grant's tactics in the U S Civil War, notably at Petersburg), some just refined tactics (Dieppe...how many remembered that one?). All Aldrete's example can be boiled down into four significant causes for these 'fumbles': Poor planning, poor communication, poor interpersonal skills and abilities (leadership) ('boob' comes to mind), and poor adaptation (know when to quit ... “Forward, the Light Brigade!” Was there a man dismayed? Not though the soldier knew Someone had blundered.") (from Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" I'll say! The lectures are well-prepared, informative and entertaining. Are they the only military blunders in history?...sadly, no. But they get the message across. Maybe if we just thought about it a bit more, there might be a better way. Recommended, but surrender less with a coupon during a very good sale.
Date published: 2019-07-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fascinating, with a broad range of relevance Fascinating and well-delivered. I suspected that this might be a great guide to business management and strategy, and it is.
Date published: 2019-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Screw-ups can be fascinating This course offers a fascinating counterpoint to Professor Aldrete's course on decisive battles. It begins with a bang (sorry about that) with the story of the Crater, one of the all-time great military screw-ups, and continues with a series of battles, some famous, some not, but always interesting. For instance, I had heard of World War II's Dieppe raid and Operation Market Garden but knew little about them. Professor Aldrete sets the scene well and brings them to life with great enthusiasm, and the visual descriptions of the battles are a great help in understanding them. A battle doesn't have to be decisive to be educational. The Charge of the Light Brigade would be forgotten had not Tennyson read a news account of the fiasco and been struck by the line, "Someone had blundered." But it still makes for an entertaining half-hour. I have one complaint about all of the more recent Great Courses offerings. That is the annoying pattern of having the lecturer stride toward one camera, then turn on cue and stride toward the other camera, then back and forth. It quickly becomes tiresome, and you can predict when the next turnabout is coming. I long for the occasional return of the lectern!
Date published: 2019-02-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Comsequences I am a keen reader of history and enjoyed these courses as they projected the consequences of the blunder as well as recited the contributing elements of stupidity chance culture and technology. How the blunders affected history is important.
Date published: 2019-01-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing I thought that there was a lack of purpose. It seemed to be a group of stories about battles, but WHY they are important was never explained. Also, the presentation was distracting - the author has a choppy, sing-song delivery. It did not meet my expectations.
Date published: 2018-12-06
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Strong on Blunders, Less Strong on the Lessons It is probably at least partly my own fault that I found this course to be moderately disappointing. My friend told me it was his favorite and really talked it up, so I assumed it would be excellent. Don't get me wrong -- there's good content to this course, but I think it suffers from two shortcomings that have bugged me about it: First, the professor's cadence is *extremely* distracting. He pauses within sentences and places emphasis in strange places. I think he's trying to vary the pitch and timbre of his speech (which is laudable) but he seems to do it in the wrong way. It actually tends to put me to sleep. Second, I was kind of expecting a little bit more of a through line for this course. If not a kind of thematic coherence, then at least a little more in the way of connective material between and among the lectures. As it is, we learn about one military debacle, and then another one, and then yet another one. They're individually interesting stories (mostly) but I think the course would have been more engaging if there was a little more, say, comparison/contrast. I feel like the course was a little shy on the "lessons" in other words.
Date published: 2018-10-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! Professor Aldrete is one of my favorites here at TGC. His presentation is always spot on, covering each subject with information and wit. This course is a clear exposition of why the study of military history is integral to education. War is terrible, but an understanding of the past cannot be complete without dissecting the reasons and, in this case, blunders that caused nations to go to war. Hopefully humankind can move away from institutionalized killing. Until we do we should continue to study and learn from the mistakes of the past. I highly recommend this lecture series and Professor Aldrete.
Date published: 2018-09-29
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Had trouble recovering lectures eg listened to lecture 10 lecture 11 did not follow in spite of repeated taps finally rebooted to eventually get lecture happened about5 times so far!
Date published: 2018-09-11
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