‘We lose many battles, except the last’ – an adage referring to how the British prevailed in a catalogue of conflicts from the British Empire’s inception in 1707 until its end in the 1950s, yet were mauled on many an occasion.
This article includes the worst military calamity of (almost) every decade – failures little and large that resulted in losses of men and matériel, strategic reversals and political trauma.
Capture of Saint John, 1709
At a time when the French and British, with their respective Native American allies, were wrestling for control of North America during Queen Anne’s War, the French struck the British like lightning at their main garrison of Saint John in modern day New Brunswick and seized the seat of British power in the region.
On New Year’s Day, a mixed force of 150 marines and settlers sneaked up on the town’s fort at the crack of dawn with scaling ladders. The fort was manned by almost 500 defenders but, although the attackers were spotted and the alarm raised, the British were quickly overwhelmed and captured because an air of indolence pervaded the fort; instances of cowardice and indifference were numerous and they struggled to grasp the seriousness of their situation until too late. The French destroyed the fort but abandoned St John soon after.
Quebec Expedition Disaster, 1711
As the contest for north-west America progressed, the British felt the time was ripe for a naval expedition to capture Quebec – the capital of New France. Sailing from Boston in late August, then, a large fleet of over 70 vessels with 13,000 men on board entered the vast estuary of the Saint Lawrence River.
Whilst still in the Gulf, strong winds picked up allowing them little headway. Fog then rolled in, blanketing both sea and shore. Fleet commander Rear Admiral Walker, forebodingly overconfident in his sense of orientation, led his fleet too close to the treacherous northern shoreline where a number of his ships floundered and sank. Throughout the night Walker heard sounds of distress, and at times when the fog lifted, ships could be seen in the distance being ground against the rocks. Eight transports were lost and a 1400 men perished. The expedition to capture the Quebec was abandoned thus.
Blockade of Porto Bello, 1726-1727
During yet another bout of Anglo-Spanish warring, a British fleet of 20 warships was sent forth to blockade Spanish treasure ships in Porto Bello, modern Panama and ordered to let no ship enter nor leave the port.
They captured a few Spanish vessels upon arrival in 1726 before both sides then settled in for the blockade. The next six months, however, were disastrous for the Royal Navy as yellow fever decimated its ranks. 3000-4000 out of 4,600 sailors, skin yellowed by jaundice and with blood leaking out of their orifices, died. The Fleet’s Rear Admiral Francis Hosier also succumbed to the disease as did his next two successors. Repeatedly returning to Jamaica to replenish its crewmen meant the fleet’s stranglehold on Porto Bello fell limp. Thus, the Spanish treasure fleet was able to break out and deliver its bounty home in March 1727. With the blockade a failure, the fleet returned home in ignominy in 1729.
Battle of Cartagena de Indias, 1741
As part of a British plan to oust the Spanish from their Caribbean holdings during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, a large military expedition sailed with 30,000 men aboard 250 ships, including 12,000 soldiers, to seize Cartagena de Indias – one of Spain’s main ports, defended by just 6,000 military personnel and six warships.
Casualties from disease were already sky-high before the fleet laboured to incapacitate five outlying forts which they managed with considerable loss. The entire land force was then put ashore to capture the fort of San Lazaro that guarded Cartagena landward. The British, now without siege engineers to breach the fort’s walls, resorted to a direct assault anyhow. 2,000 men tried to scale the walls but, to their dismay, observed their ladders were too short. The defenders quickly started delivering withering fire on them. The Brits were in danger of getting cut off, so they withdrew.
Riven by disease throughout, they suffered 18,000 casualties by the time they sailed home with their tails between their legs. The political fallout was huge. Robert Warpole’s government collapsed, Spain’s hold over the Caribbean was secured, and Britain was forced to withdraw its support for Austria which triggered the start of the War of Austrian Succession.
Battle of the Monongahela, 1755
Strategic and tactical naivety within Westminster and the British Army respectively resulted in the French-Indians overwhelming and routing a major force of British amidst the dense woodland of North America. A big chunk of the British regular forces there, commanded by Major General Edward Braddock and with George Washington under his command, were sent to hack a path through the unrelentingly thick forest to attack Fort Duquesne and secure Ohio Country. As an advance of 1,300 regular and militia troops rushed towards the fort near what is now Braddock, Pennsylvania, a French force, swarming with Indian warriors, attacked them. The British held their own against the French, yet their rigid European movement-and-fire tactics failed miserably in the face of free-flowing hit-&-run skirmishing by the Indians. They sliced the force of redcoats to pieces, spreading panic and confusion among them. They sniped at the redcoats from among the brush and charged among the ill formed ranks shrieking bloodcurdling war-cries, nailing the scalps of unfortunates on tree trunks to further panic the British. Braddock almost managed to restore some tactical control over his ranks until he, too, fell. With that, the redcoats discipline collapsed and they fled the battlefield.
950 of the 1300 strong army were casualties and more were captured. It was a devastating defeat. Braddock’s force had been regarded as overwhelmingly strong, so when news reached home it delivered a hard jolt to British hubris. It forced them to accept that the French-Indian alliance was going to be a much harder nut to crack. Crown forces struggled on for three more years.
Devil’s Hole Massacre, 1763
The British suffered significant losses near the Niagara Falls in modern-day New York State when a wagon convoy was ambushed and destroyed before a rescue party of infantry was annihilated.
In the first year of a Native-American rebellion triggered by the will to drive British rule away from the Great Lakes region and led by Chief Pontiac, a band of 300-500 warriors ambushed a guarded wagon train of 24 men. As the trail entered a steep ravine, the wagon train was bushwhacked, with the men and horses at the mercy of hundreds of Seneca who quickly cut them down. Just four of the party escaped to raise the alarm. Within proximity were a couple of companies of light infantry and they rushed off to rescue the wagon train. The Seneca warband redeployed a mile from the original ambush site to set a new trap for the infantry. They attacked from a brush covered hill and cut off the British from their lines of retreat. Despite being raised specifically for the kind of ‘bush warfare’ the Native Americans were so adept at, this light infantry force was also wiped out with over 80 butchered and scalped.
The Devil’s Hole Massacre reminded the British Crown that the American wilderness was still a dangerous place for its forces, even if the French-Indian War was over.
Battles of Saratoga, 1777
Almost two years into the counter insurgency campaign to end the American Revolution, British General John Burgoyne set off from Quebec with mixture of 7,200 loyalist Americans and Germanic troops to meet two other armies with the aim of cutting off the particularly insurgent New England region from the rest of the colonies. At this point in the revolutionary struggle, the Americans dominated the colony’s transport and supply network. So every day that the British forces remained in the field they weakened, and every day the Americans remained mobilised they grew in strength.
After a defeat at Bennington in August, Burgoyne’s Indian allies abandoned him. Without guides and diminishing supplies, his command tentatively reached Saratoga where the first of two battles were fought in mid-Autumn. In the first, the British suffered high casualties among their officers as marksmen picked them off. They strained and finally forced the Americans to retire from the battlefield by the day’s end. Surrounded by ever increasing numbers of rebels, Borgoyne was forced to fight again. In the 2nd battle, the Americans withstood an assault by grenadiers but Brigadier-General Fraser then fell, mortally wounded. With more Americans joining the fray Borgoyne was forced to retreat under hot pursuit to a redoubt before nightfall. This saved Borgoyne’s command from destruction, giving him time to negotiate a humbling submission.
The British suffered a thousand casualties in the two battles and the 6,000-odd remaining troops were taken into captivity. This major British failure marked a turning point in the war as it secured the active involvement of the French. Their military support to the fledgling US republic would ensure the loss of Britain’s Thirteen Colonies and the end of the ‘First British Empire’.
Siege of Yorktown, 1781
The result of France’s support for the US fight for independence bore fruit in July, 1781. Events had transpired that an army of 9,000 British, headed by Lord Cornwallis had allowed itself to be corralled into Yorktown, Virginia where they then awaited reinforcements from the sea. US General Washington, meanwhile, had concentrated a 7,000-strong army of Americans and French near New York city. Washington had wanted to campaign around New York, but it was decided French naval forces in the theatre could be better used to blockade the British in Yorktown instead. Washington complied and marched south to Yorktown, arriving by September’s end. Now, Cornwallis was trapped.
A British fleet attempted to break the blockade and provide reinforcements to the British but were fought off by the French fleet at the Battle of Chesapeake. From now, Cornwallis would have to try to fend off the encroaching Allied army alone, although Yorktown’s defences were formidable, with hundreds of cannon and a number of redoubts. Early attempts to storm the redoubts failed, yet the redcoats noted with alacrity a trench parallel to their main defences soon appeared. The Allies utilised this trench to position cannon within range of the main British fortifications. From there the siege advanced. The beleaguered redcoats were pummelled into submission. Landward cannon smashed Yorktown’s streets and defences alike, whilst the French fleet sank ships in harbour. Finally Cornwallis accepted the writing on the wall, surrendered and 7,500 of his men were taken into captivity.
The wider implications of this defeat were devastating for the Crown; the fall of Yorktown sealed the loss of the ‘Thirteen American Colonies.’
Battle of Castlebar, 1798
One late Summer in County Mayo, Ireland, the British suffered what was said to be the most humiliating defeat in their history up until that point. The Irish were fighting their own independence war. There were some familiar actors too; Lord Cornwallis was military commander in Ireland and the French were again on the scene, trying to serve liberté to another subjugated people of the British Crown. The Gauls were coming good on their promise to provide troops and naval support to the United Irishmen by landing over a thousand troops to be augmented by rebels. This force then set out to capture Castlebar. A British force thrice the size and with artillery, however, lay in wait.
The British force of regulars and local militias were caught akimbo when the Franco-Irish force of 2,000 managed to sneak up on them from an unexpected angle. Despite this, the British cannons cut swathes through the oncoming Franco-Irish. The attackers spotted a defile that would shelter them in their approach towards the artillery, however. Getting in close, the Franco-Irish launched a frenzied bayonet charge. The inexperienced infantry behind the cannons lost their nerve as the enemy neared, and once the enemy closed with them, panicked. The debacle of the ‘Castleford Races’ then proceeded. Thousands of British turned tail and fled from the battlefield in blind terror, tripping over each other to save their own skins. Tonnes of supplies and weapons were abandoned for the exultant Irish republicans and, to add insult to injury, some of the troops fighting on the side of the Brits even changed sides mid-battle and began attacking their own comrades-in-arms. In spite of this victory, the flame of rebellion was snuffed out by Autumn’s end
Walcheren Campaign, 1809
The British invasion of modern-day Netherlands during the Napoleonic Wars was aimed at capturing Walcheren island in order to deny use of the Scheldt estuary to a French invasion fleet. In mid-summer of 1809, 525 ships ferried 40,000 men across the English Channel in what was then Britain’s largest ever overseas expedition. The force landed well enough and soon captured the deep-sea port of Vlissingen whilst a polyglot cinderella force drawn from the French Empire struggled to obstruct the British in their quest to seize Antwerp. Perhaps those French troops would’ve performed better if they hadn’t suffered 80% casualties a few years prior from something that was already beginning to decimate the British. The local low-lying and swampy terrain was a breeding ground for mosquitos. The number of combat effectives amongst the redcoats plummeted as thousands fell lame to fever. Physicians within the British camp were quickly overwhelmed, despite the British high command having known what the dangers of ‘Walcheren Fever’ – a combination of malaria, typhus, and typhoid fever – were before the expedition’s go-ahead.
The five-month campaign unravelled as defending Napoleonic forces were reinforced and Antwerp put out of reach to the British. Remaining in the Netherlands was no longer justifiable, especially in the face of crippling casualties; combat effectives trickled to just 5,000 by September whilst 12,000 lay stricken. Another 4,000 had succumbed, including Lieutenant-General Alexander Fraser. The Royal Navy launched an evacuation and the Walcheren fiasco was over by Christmas. The Crown suffered acute political embarrassment as a whopping £8 million was wasted on the expedition. What is more, 12,000 much-needed frontline troops remained incapacitated for many months to come.
Battle of Grand Port, 1810
Throughout the Napoleonic Wars, Britain ruled the waves and triumphed against Napoleon’s fleets at every turn. The sole exception to this was when a squadron of its frigates was utterly destroyed by a weaker squadron of French around the waters of modern-day Mauritius.
The French had been using Isle de France as a base for its warships to maraud across the Indian Ocean and prey on British merchant ships. Considering this was the City of London‘s main revenue stream being disrupted here, capturing their bases of operation was quickly made a priority. Île Bonaparte (Reunion) was subsequently captured to be used to neutralise Isle de France and the French fleet operating from there.
First, the British tried to ambush the French fleet of three frigates (plus two captured merchant ships) returning to Grand Port but failed and the French ships reached harbour sanctuary. Royal Navy commander Samuel Pym thus sallied forth to attack the enemy where they anchored. But Grand Port entrance was extremely hazardous. A mass of jagged coral reef afforded just one way in – a narrow, treacherous channel. The battle, lasting over a week, went awry for the Brits within minutes when a frigate struck the reef and a second frigate soon joined it. For the French, the same reef that was shielding them immobilised them also. All their ships were beached ashore leaving only one fifth-rate frigate to repulse their stricken adversaries. This frigate was well sighted, however and extra guns and crew were added by the resourceful French. The British struggled manfully to extricate themselves but two of their frigates could do nothing but surrender and Pym decided to scuttle his other two fifth-rates to deny them to the French. With supplies low, the Royal Navy surrendered. The Royal Navy suffered a bloody nose with a total five ships lost and 250 casualties in Napoleon’s sole naval victory against Great Britain.
Battle of Ramu, 1824
A British-led force under the banner of the East India Company (EIC) was destroyed by battle-hardened Burmese in May 1824. The Burmese Konbaung dynasty had run up against an immovable object by the time it had expanded up to the British Empire’s Bengal border in the late 1700s. It was inevitable the two alpha empires would have a clash of arms to establish dominance before long – all that was needed was a flash-point. By 1822 that flashpoint had crystallised in the form of Britain’s support for anti-Burmese rebels and this casus belli triggered a two-pronged invasion by a large Burmese army into Chittagong ostensibly to demand the handover of rebels sheltering there. Amidst the rugged jungle-strewn mountains, the EIC struggled to repel the invaders. Lord Myawaddy led a detachment of 2000-4000 infantry, plus some cavalry to occupy Ramu. Defending Ramu was a force of 350 British officer-led Bengal native infantry, plus support troops and some cannon. Burmese troops initially took heavy casualties from cannon fire as they gathered to cross a stream. Once across, however, the Burmese deftly took cover as they advanced on EIC troops. They used the cover from water tanks and their own entrenchments to steadily advance. After three days of fighting, morale plummeted among the native troops as they failed to repel the Burmese. First, the support troops deserted the battlefield then Captain Noton withdrew the infantry but a troop of cavalry caught them a mile down the road: “A small body of Horse attached to their force, by whom the men that fell off from the main body were instantly cut to pieces, filled our troops with an ungovernable panic, which rendered the exertions of their officers to preserve order unavailing.”
The EIC force was destroyed. The Burmese then seized Cox’s Bazar; for a moment, even Calcutta seemed vulnerable. The British scrambled to quell a mutiny of nearby native regiments, sewing further alarm. Ultimately, Myawaddy’s army would turn home to defend Rangoon and the threat passed.
Battle of Saint-Denis, 1837
The Lower Canadian Rebellion was a toothless attempt to fight the British Army out of modern-day Quebec. The standout success for the Patriote insurgents, however, was when they fought off a British assault at Saint-Denis. The rebellion kicked off on November the 6th and the Patriots established Saint-Denis as a headquarters. Wolfred Nelson organised 800 volunteers into a town defence – half of them possessed firearms; just a few knew how to use them. A coach house and brewery were incorporated into the defence as solid stone strongholds. And so they waited.
The British, of course, responded. They ordered troops to put down the rebellion and strike at their heart at Saint-Denis. In driving sleet one November night, Colonel Charles Gore, commanding 300 infantry and one 12-pounder (5.4 kg) cannon, marched out of Sorel towards Saint-Denis 18 miles (29 km) south. Maybe it was the idea of fighting civilians, and on such a dismal winter night, but Gore’s men struggled with a lack of fortitude it seems. Upon arrival, Gore ordered a company and the cannon to occupy a barn within range of the coach-house. This they managed, but once the cannon was turned on the coach-house, the balls merely bounced off the building’s thick walls. 200 soldiers then advanced on the coach house but came under heavy fire and took casualties. The officer directing the assault, bleeding at the neck, ordered his men to fall back. Gore next tried approaching the town from a different axis but bumped into hundreds of civilians armed with firearms, clubs and pitchforks. Together with reinforcements, the Patriots fell upon their assailants. Now, with the impotent cannon almost out of ammo, Gore ordered a retreat.
Casualties were trifling for both sides. Colonel Gore soon returned with more troops, but the Patriots had by then scarpered. The flame of Canadian rebellion was extinguished within a year.
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