Which major campaigns were lost (in retrospect) by a general officer refusing to retreat?

See query, which is prompted by a recurring point in the excellent, just revived thread Was Washington a good general?

I have no doubt that lot of knuckle-headed bravado has shown a commander’s weaknesses quite dramatically. Sometimes the better part of valor really is discretion.

This must always be guessing, because you can’t assume that a commander who retreated would have ultimately emerged victorious. Still, some possibilities include:

Hannibal. One of history’s greatest tacticians, yet he persisted in unworkable tactics after Cannae and failed to make much of an impact on the war thereafter. Had he been able to withdraw his still-powerful army, he might have driven the Romans out of Spain and potentially won the Punic Wars. (Actually, there’s a whole succession of enemies of Rome who should have avoided fighting too many pitched battles, or made a favorable peace early instead of fighting to the bitter end.)

Napoleon: Not exactly a battle, but his invasion into Russia was unnecessary and disastrous. Had he withdrawn his troops early, he could still have launched raids into Russia, or invaded the following year and force a diplomatic victory of some kind. This could have changed all of modern history.

John Bell Hood should have retreated about five times instead of fighting some of his battles. He was an awful commander in both strategy and merely decent in tactics. He tried to adopt aggressive attacks like Lee, but lacked Lee’s ability pick the right time and place, resulting in outsized losses and not a single inch of ground gained. Again, Fabian tactics or some other form of delay would have suited the situation better. The Confederate authorities in Richmond hated those maneuvers as much as the Romans did, though, and sacked Joe Johnston for using them in favor of Hood.

Not so much refusing to retreat but consciously choosing to take the option of retreat off the table in the planning stage… Dien Bien Phu. The French intentionally planned to dig in and let the Viet Minh surround and attack them while being supplied by air. Ooops.

ital added
:confused: “Fabian tactics”?

Yes, there must be a lot of this. Sounds glorious.

Masada shall not fall again…

Fabius Maximus.

I’d agree as to John Bell Hood during the American Civil War.

Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union before conquering or at least neutralizing the UK, and then his never-retreat strategy thereafter, led to his eventual defeat.

Not this: Fabian Forte - Wikipedia

But this: Fabian strategy - Wikipedia

Quintus Fabius Maximus was possibly the single greatest general in human history, and even in his own day he was so unappreciated that he was jeered in the Roman street, despite achieving victory over victory over Hannibal. Fabius realized that Hannibal’s force, despite appearing small, was very powerful and almost unbeatable in the field. He then devised more or less an entirely new method of waging war. He avoided Hannibal’s armies and instead harassed him again and again, constantly avoiding pitched battles and picking off small groups and keeping Hannibal from resupplying or making any real gains. He further forced Hannibal to retreat - yes, retreat - time and time again. He likely would have defeated Hannibal in the field twice (at AGer Falernus and Geronium) except that Hannibal fled both times.

Fabian Strategy is a military path of countering larger or more powerful armies and substituting social endurance for concentrated force. This brand of maneuvering has historically allowed comparatively small forces to defeat far more powerful armies, achieving victory from circumstances that should have meant crushing defeat.

Hitler on both fronts. Even when his generals thought it would be better to fight defensively, he refused. On the eastern front, he refused to allow retreat even when it was strategically called for. On the west, he launched offensives such as the push into the Ardennes. It could not be said for certain whether it would have made any difference in the long run, but a more competent defense could have prolonged the war and made life significantly harder for the Allies.

I also agree with Hannibal. IIRC, Hannibal was never given a mandate to go offensive against Rome in the first place. The Carthaginian Senate was horrified when they learned what he had done, because despite his victory at Cannae they still could not win against Rome in the long run.

Not sure whether this counts, but the Athenians completely dropped the ball in invading Syracuse. They had been consistently winning the Pelopennisian Wars in a series of naval victories, and at certain moments it looked like they had Sparta on the ropes. They had so much hubris that they thought they were invincible and launched a military campaign in Syracuse that had no real strategic goal, and even if they had won it would not have benefitted them materially. They lost ten thousand men in a stunning disaster.

“Which major campaigns were lost (in retrospect) by a general officer refusing to retreat?”

There is no simple answer, since it depends on the definition of “lost”, and whether the mistake was failure to retreat or just picking the wrong strategy.

If the definition of losing is incurring more casualties than the enemy without achieving any compensating objective, the WWI Battle of Somme, commanded on the Allied side by Sir Douglas Haig is one candidate. The Allies lost about 800,000 men in that one battle: http://www.historynet.com/field-marshal-sir-douglas-haig-world-war-is-worst-general.htm

You can look at the list of greatest battles sorted by casualties, define which was the losing side, inspect who was the commanding general of that side, then decide whether failure to retreat was a factor:

It wasn’t a horrible concept. It was better than the complete lack of a plan when the general who planned it got there. The location chosen threatened Viet Minh supply lines and supported local allies. Suckering the Viet Minh into huge losses attacking a strong point had worked before by playing to French sttengths and Viet Minh weaknesses. It even almost worked with Viet Minh being in pretty bad shape till the Chinese helped with additional equipment and tactical advice.

There just wasn’t a Plan B when it didn’t work.

My apologies. A sentence in my post should have read:

“He was an awful commander in both campaign and grand strategy and merely decent in tactics.”

Specifically, Hood neither developed a successful plan of action to oppose either Sherman or Hood, nor did he seem to understand how to make himself useful to the overall war effort.

I’ve written an essay on the Atlanta campaign that discusses Johnston and Hood a bit; PM me with your email address if you’d like a copy sent to you.

It did not ultimately end in defeat, but in WW1 the insistence of the the Western Allies to hold their line strictly and rather than (as the Gemans did) retreat to more defensible pre-prepared fortifications cost them greatly.

I think that Lee at Gettysburg would qualify.

For that matter, many of the Foreign Legion’s most famous (and commemorated) fights involved not retreating and getting crushed to paste for their trouble. Not sure they ever had a winning chance had they picked up sticks however - it’s practically its role to get sent on suicide gigs without support since it’s kind of an elite penal battalion :).

I’m stunned this has received no immediate counters in this thread. (I’m illiterate in the Civil War, so I enjoy reading you guys duke it out. Civilly, of course.)

ital, ul added.
:confused:

The “Charge of the Light Brigade” in the Battle of Balaclava may qualify.

However, it was only a minor engagement in a battle, and a campaign, the Allies won. It was an ill-advised attack, rather than a failure to retreat.

George Armstrong Custer also made an ill-advised attack on superior forces at the Little Bighorn, but by the time he realized it it was too late to retreat. Also, Custer at the time was a Colonel instead of a General, and the US Army eventually won the campaign.