Heroic Sacrifice or Tactical Blunder?

Bob Hubbard

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The story of the '300' at Thermopylae had me thinking.

There, the story related that 300 Spartans sacrificed themselves to stop a much larger Persian army, giving the rest of the Greek city-states time to prepare.

Often overlooked are the sea battle at the same time between the Athenian navy and Persian fleet where the Athenians were outnumbered 6 to 1, or that there were really around 5,000 greek troops at Thermopylae and that 1,000 of them stayed with the Spartans.

Regardless, in the case of the first battle of Thermopylae the Spartans stayed to fight a rear guard action that greatly delayed the Persian plans.

What other battles saw such actions, and were they really heroic sacrifices, or were they tactical mistakes where alternatives were ignored or missed?
 

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The most obvious candidate I suspect is the famous charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. Even Tennyson, in his famous poetic ennoblement of the troops themselves, throws in the tart observation that `Was there a man dismayed?/Not tho' the soldier knew/Someone had blundered'.
 

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...and on the other side of the scale, the celebrated rearguard defense of the main Russian army by Gen. Pyotr Bagration in 1805, the subject of most of a chapter in War and Peace, who lost around a third of the 7,000+ men under his command in safeguarding the retreat of Kutusov and the main Russian army. The action is universally considered to have been a crucial Russian victory, in spite of the fact that the rearguard was ultimately forced to give way in the face of Murat's sustained attack, because the core of the Russian forces was preserved and able regroup with fresh reinforcements, effectively blocking any further French advance.
 

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2 instances of heroic sacrifice come to mind...

Stands made by American units across the Ardennes during the Battle of the Bulge which fatally delayed the German panzers.

Read "the Last Square" section of Les Miserables.... Victor Hugo's account of Cambronne's command at Waterloo..... a classic. If that doesn't inspire you, you may already be dead.
 

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Less well known than the Light Brigade, but perhaps even more militarily important, was the sacrifice of the British Regular Army contingents in Belgium in 1914.

So small in numbers that the Kaiser reportedly suggested a constable be sent to arrest them, the regulars were sent to stop the hordes of Prussian Guardsmen flooding across Belgium. They primarily had to rely on their accurate and fast firing SMLE rifles.

When the engagements were over, the British contigents were almost extinct, but they had covered the fields with mounds of dead Germans, whose headquarters reported they had been machine gunned. The (amended) Schlieffen Plan was fatally compromised.
 
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Bob Hubbard

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Rorke's Drift was a mission station in Natal, South Africa, situated near a natural ford (drift) on the Buffalo River. The defence of Rorke's Drift (22-23 January 1879) during the Anglo-Zulu War immediately followed the British Army's humiliating defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana earlier in the day. At Rorke's Drift 139 British soldiers successfully defended their garrison against an intense assault by four to five thousand Zulu warriors.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rorke's_Drift
 

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The most obvious candidate I suspect is the famous charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava. Even Tennyson, in his famous poetic ennoblement of the troops themselves, throws in the tart observation that `Was there a man dismayed?/Not tho' the soldier knew/Someone had blundered'.

The saddest thing about the charge was that the Light Brigade captured the guns that were their primary objective. Then, because they had no further orders and their commander had returned to the ships to have tea or something, they simply abandoned them. The end result a valiant, if ill-advised, charge which succeeded despite heavy casualties but no ultimate gains.
 

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Rorke's Drift was a mission station in Natal, South Africa, situated near a natural ford (drift) on the Buffalo River. The defence of Rorke's Drift (22-23 January 1879) during the Anglo-Zulu War immediately followed the British Army's humiliating defeat at the Battle of Isandlwana earlier in the day. At Rorke's Drift 139 British soldiers successfully defended their garrison against an intense assault by four to five thousand Zulu warriors.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rorke's_Drift

What this battle truly demonstrates is a complete failure by the commader of the superior force. If the Zulu general had assaulted the position with concerted effort on two or three sides he would have swept theBritish from the field. He was, however, rather tentative and carried out numerous probes and half-strength assaults which depleted and demoralised his men. An interesting postscript to the battle is that the Zulu commander was removed from command by Ctesawayo afterward and the impi he commanded was disbanded.
 
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Bob Hubbard

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What this battle truly demonstrates is a complete failure by the commader of the superior force. If the Zulu general had assaulted the position with concerted effort on two or three sides he would have swept theBritish from the field. He was, however, rather tentative and carried out numerous probes and half-strength assaults which depleted and demoralised his men. An interesting postscript to the battle is that the Zulu commander was removed from command by Ctesawayo afterward and the impi he commanded was disbanded.
Interesting. I didn't know that. Thank you :)
 

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Regardless, in the case of the first battle of Thermopylae the Spartans stayed to fight a rear guard action that greatly delayed the Persian plans.

What other battles saw such actions, and were they really heroic sacrifices, or were they tactical mistakes where alternatives were ignored or missed?

Just been thinking about this some more and from an Australian perspective I can think of two battles that are quite different but might fall into the category described.

The first occured during the Boer War at a place called Eland's River. Soldiers from the New South Wales Regiment were trapped and surrounded but refused to surrender. Australian troops would infiltrate the Boer lines at night and kill soldiers by stealth, seriously damaging the morale of the Boers. It got to such a point that the English officer commanding the Australians told the besieging commander when asked to surrender that he couldn't do that because his own men would kill him. An Heroic Stand?

The second is not so much a battle as an entire campaign. The Gallipolli Campaign was our nations "Baptism of Fire". From start to finish it was a disaster. The troops were landed in the wrong place and were not withdrawn. The soldiers involved were mostly the Australian Light Horse and they were fighting on cliffs, not what they were trained for. Valiant service was given time and again, but in the end, some nine months later, the troops were withdrawn with no significant gain. Perhaps this is more of a strategic disaster, but tactically it was pretty appalling as well.
 
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Bob Hubbard

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One that comes to mind is Pickett's Charge on July 4th 1863 at Gettysburg. This one, I hope to examine in depth later in a separate thread though. Also, The actions of the 20th Maine on July 3rd at the Round Tops.
 

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One that comes to mind is Pickett's Charge on July 4th 1863 at Gettysburg. This one, I hope to examine in depth later in a separate thread though. Also, The actions of the 20th Maine on July 3rd at the Round Tops.

Chamberlain, even though he turned eminent disaster into Victory would have HAD to have held to the last (as he was ordered). He was the far left of the Union line. If the flank had been turned it would have been curtains for the Army of the Potomac. If not outright Union defeat.
 

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