War is Hell, as the old expression goes. War is also, in my opinion, a waste of perfectly good resources, though justified in many cases. However, numerous mistakes have had long lasting consequences which have directly impacted modern history.
1. Pickett’s Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg
In 1863, General Robert Lee launched a small case invasion of the Union during the Civil War, culminating with the Battle of Gettysburg. The three day battle, which was started by accident, ended with Pickett’s Charge, the name for what is one of the worst charges in the history of American warfare.
The Union army held the high ground of Cemetery Hill, as well as other hills and ridges, and had won the skirmishes the previous day when the Confederate forces had attempted to seize the high ground by out-flanking Union forces on Little Round top. Robert E. Lee, who was convinced that his army could, and in this case would, win the battle regardless of the circumstances.
Lee ordered thousands of men to charge the high ground, and those men were, with a few exceptions, all killed; those few who survived were congratulated by the Union forces for surviving, then captured.
The charge was devastating for the Confederate cause because while the losses at Gettysburg were equal for both sides, the Confederates had inflicted far more than they had gotten prior to the charge; it was the charge that evened out the figures. Furthermore, because of the timing of the charge, three days into an exhausting battle, it broke the morale, spirits, and the back of the Army of Northern Virginia.
In addition to forcing the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia and collapsing hope of a quick Union peace offering, it demonstrated one fundamental flaw of General Lee: he thought his armies could stomach the massive losses of manpower, when in truth, the Southern population could only replenish so much. The North, on the other hand, had substantial more capacity to replace their losses.
The failure of Pickett’s Charge eventually permitted the Union forces to launch several major incursions into the South without fear of a Confederate force launching their own invasions, and when that happened the war’s end was in sight, and its fate effectively determined.
2. Germany sent Mexico a message, sinks a ship, then loses the Great War
The First World War was brutal, especially when the only major belligerents were European countries. Trench warfare led to the deaths of millions of men, both from the war itself and from diseases that ran rampant in the trenches. The war ensnared all major European countries, and would end up killing an entire generation of European men, over ten million men in a five year span.
For the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary, the war was especially difficult: they were fighting enemies to East (the Russian Empire), the South (Italy), and West (France, backed by Britain). The initial movement of armies at the start of the war in 1914 had stopped and yielded to trench warfare, the result of using 19th century tactics with 20th century weapons.
However, in 1917, the Russian Empire collapsed, and after two revolutions, Russia bowed out of the war, ceding major land concessions to Germany. For the Central Powers, this should have been a major turn: they were able to redirect all their forces on their Eastern front to the Western front, which should have been enough to overpower the British, French, and in the South, Italian forces.
The United States had avoided the war like the plague, but most Americans, on account of their history with Britain and France, gave preferential treatment to the Allied Powers. Even so, few wanted to actively engage in the war, the Germans kept trying to get us involved: in 1915, a German U-boat, because the German Empire didn’t build submarines, they built U-boats after all, sank the Lusitania, a British passenger liner that has 128 Americans on board, who all, needless to say, died. After a spat where the Germans said there were munitions bound for Britain on board, they agreed to stop bombing passenger liners.
Then they changed policy a few years later, and to combat the likely entry of the United States, they sent Mexico a telegraph offering to help them recover all the territory they had lost in the Mexican-American War, except California. Unfortunately, the United States intercepted the telegram.
Thus, not only did the United States enter the war, but Mexico stayed the hell out of it. While American forces, affectionally referred to as doughboys by the British and French, as well as the French prostitutes near military camps, did not actually win the war directly, the Germans realized that the United States had a huge supply of manpower which would overpower them given enough time, and sure enough, they agreed to an armistice.
Germany’s attempts to preemptively overwhelm the United States resulted in the destruction of the German Empire, a complete redrawing of the map in Eastern Europe, most of which came out of Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungary, the end of the Ottoman Empire, and oh yeah, Germany owed the rest of Europe a ton of money. All this, coupled with the Great Depression, led to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, and the total destruction of Germany… again.
3. The Japanese Bombed Pearl Harbor
Let’s see. U.S. not in World War II. U.S. doesn’t want to be in World War II. Japan bombs Pearl Harbor. U.S. enters World War II. U.S. helps defeat Germany and Italy, Japan’s allies. U.S. drops nukes on Japan.
Pretty simple, huh?
4. Napoleon Invades Russia
In 1812, Napoleon, Emperor of the French, ruled, controlled, or was allied with all of continental Europe. As Frank Sinatra would have said, he had the world on a string. The only major power that opposed him was Britain, which had been at war with France for over a decade. Relations with the Russian Empire, under Czar Alexander I, were up and down, and in 1812, they finally sank.
Napoleon, against advice from French advisors, invaded Russia with an army of half of a million men. It proved to ultimately be his undoing, because it ignited an alliance between Russia, which proved far easier to occupy than to conquer, Britain, whose navy was premier in the world at the time, as well as numerous countries Napoleon had conquered.
That alliance was able to finally overpower the mighty French army and Napoleon was finally defeated and exiled; he would return and met his final end at Waterloo. The attempted invasion of Russia had cost him everything: his throne, his army, and most importantly, his empire. That decision would result in the rewriting of numerous military tactics, several countries ceased to be, and set the stage several decades later for the formation of both the German Empire, and the first unified Italian government since the Papal States centuries before.
You would think people would have learned their lesson about invading Russia; you’d think that, which makes our last one even more stupid:
5. Hitler Invades the Soviet Union
The comparisons with the Napoleon situation are staggering:
1. Both effectively controlled continental Europe
2. Both had love-hate relationships with Russia
3. Neither was able to conquer Britain
4. Both were at the height of their power when they launched their invasions
5. Both thought they knew better than their advisors
The primary differences lay in the better technology and weaponry at Hitler’s disposal; he could communicate with his generals better, ensuring that his commands were being followed. Hitler was able to better follow the action at the front, which permitted him to stay back in Berlin and concentrate on domestic and policy matters as well.
The relationship between Hitler and Stalin mirrored that of Napoleon and Czar Alexander: rocky. Hitler and Stalin, though, had had a recent reason to play nice: they had agreed not to attack each other and to divide up Poland instead. Stalin, whose army was recovering from the Red Purge of 1938, didn’t want to fight Hitler at that point, and probably would have preferred letting the United States and Britain duke it out with him instead for a while, having watched the United States play peacemaker by entering late in World War I. Hitler, whether or not he realized it, had spread his army out thin by invading and occupying the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and of course, France.
Hitler and Stalin knew they were going to war with each other eventually, and the point of the 1939 non-aggression pact had been to, intentionally, forestall it. Stalin likely expected four to five years before Hitler would invade. It turned out to be two.
Like Napoleon, Hitler discovered that the Russian countryside was easy to conquer: the Soviets gave up a lot of territory to the Germans, intentionally. The Soviets knew a few things that Hitler’s advisors also knew, probably from reading their history books about Napoleon, and probably should put in repeated memos over and over until he got it: invading Russia in the summer months is fine, but once Lady Winter strikes, make sure you’re prepared for it. Letting the Germans take extensive territory also forced them to extend their supply lines while also allowing the Red Army to consolidate and hold onto vital cities, such as Moscow and Stalingrad.
As with Napoleon, the invasion of the Soviet Union proved to be his undoing, as it prompted an unplanned alliance between the Soviet Union, United States, and United Kingdom, working under the classic adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It also cost him millions of troops and overextended his army, to a point that the Allied were able to launch D-Day and invade France, which coupled with the Soviet counteroffensive, began shrinking Hitler’s Reich day by day.
Like Napoleon, Hitler lost everything. Unlike Napoleon, he refused to be taken alive, choosing to commit suicide rather than face trial.
I think the moral here is simple: do not mess with Russia. I’m talking to you Chechnya.