History's Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach

Explore pivotal incidents of catastrophic failure in battle and consider how these errors changed the course of history in this fascinating 24-lesson series.
History's Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 100.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from I have enjoyed the course! Very interesting and informative course. The professor was very good, excited abut the subject. There are almost always the same causes of military blunders: poor planning; poor leadership; poor execution; and poor adaptation. It was thousands years ago and also in the current area. Interestingly, the same applies to almost all business or life failures.
Date published: 2021-09-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Greatly Needed Today As a former officer in the Air Force and later in the Army, I feel this course is important because if a country expects the wrong things from their military leaders, they weaken their military. Given China's increasing vocal aggressiveness, their July 2019 large-scale military drills near their take-over target of Taiwan, crackdowns in Hong Kong, infantry conflicts with India, massive increases in the number of their nuclear missile sites, and their economic takeover of Asian / African countries via the Belt and Road Initiative, this course serves as a historical warning to folks regarding the imminent dangers of forcing social divisiveness on our military. Aldrete's "Four Paths to Failure" (L24) illustrate how his analysis of history is needed to guide thinking about our own military. FAILURES OF ADAPTATION: Aldrete uses the examples of the Highlander charge at Culloden where the handsome, confident Bonnie Prince Charles' failure showed how masses of fearless, skilled warriors are no match for cannons and ordered troops. The sinking of the mighty Prince of Wales by Japanese aircraft was a failure to understand the power of weapon advances. As a contemporary example, we might consider that “space treaties” can hardly be counted on in war. Knowing what Aldrete teaches, how many of us have asked Congress about the dependency of our numerically inferior, widely scattered US soldiers on satellite technology? What happens if rapidly advancing Chinese satellites even briefly neutralize it? FAILURES OF EXECUTION: Aldrete provides excellent examples of such Chain of Command failure. For example, chain of command fails when a commander inappropriately divides his forces or fails to communicate. Custer’s overconfidence led to a fatal division of his troops. Other Failures of Execution by commanders include condescending opinions about an enemy’s abilities, his fellow commanders, or his own troops. Isandlwana exemplified underestimating enemies; Cartegena commander squabbles; and the Battle of the Crater disrespect for one's own troops. At the Crater, for example, well-drilled black troops were shunted aside at the last moment for unprepared whites. FAILURES OF LEADERSHIP: In L13, distant British bureaucracy put a hostile Afghan leader into power in Kabul. Worse, to prevent disputes with soldiers on the ground they put a seemingly senile general in command. The results were native riots against the disastrously British unprepared encampment outside of Kabul. Even when the angry son of the displaced Arab leader met with (and finally killed) the hapless bureaucrat, General Elphinstone dithered. The general next attempted a glacial retreat and turned over the women and children to his attacker. All but one of his soldiers was butchered in the enemy-lined Khyber Pass. After other British forces advanced, the British bureaucracy re-instated the original Afghan leader (who remained friendly) and the women and children were returned unharmed. FAILURES OF PLANNING: This catch-all includes over-reach, inadequate intelligence, and ignoring "unwanted" information. Dieppe and Market Garden were examples of bureaucratic over-reach. Dieppe’s tragic results were hard to listen to. At Colenso, Buller ignored unwanted South African Colonial intelligence. This arrogance caused his plan to fail with a huge loss of British soldiers. He eventually listened to others beyond his own staff and later planned a brilliant routing of the Boer commandos, freeing the Ladysmith garrison. We would today classify such partisan "unwanted" information as “cancel culture” and it is fatal in the military. SUMMARY: Aldrete ends his course with Livy's quote: "In history, you see...every sort of behavior...and from these you can choose...noble deeds to imitate, as well as shameful and harmful actions to avoid." One can substitute "commander" in this course with "Commander in Chief" to understand the seriousness of Aldrete's maxims. Could we be ignoring Aldrete? With Chinese aggressiveness in mind, one of our Naval officers recently bemoaned: “”Sometimes I think we care more about whether we have enough diversity officers than if we’ll survive a fight with the Chinese navy. They think my only value is as a black woman. But you cut our ship open with a missile and we’ll all bleed the same color.” (Washington Watch 7/21/2021) Aldrete’s course has vividly shown both commanders and voters that the military’s ONLY job is to create the best fighting force on the planet by avoiding the Four Paths to Failure. Anything else is nonsense.
Date published: 2021-07-23
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course Should Be Subtitled "Management 101" The instructor is animated, articulate, and very well organized. He focuses on issues with great clarity. I wish some of the graphics were animated as it is easier to understand how military units move if you see them move. But that is a minor complaint. A key message of the class is we should learn from history. So obvious, yet so seldomly done. Once I worked in a highly technical program where a series of errors lead to the deaths of over one hundred people. Every year since, every employee in that program, from clerk to senior executive sat thru a class revisiting those errors. The idea was never to forget. The blunders described in this class are all too human. I think this class would be great training for any manager who is responsible for any challenging project from building a widget to entering into warfare.
Date published: 2021-06-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Learn from the negative This course was a fascinating study into the truth that "people never change". The blunders of military "experts" is fascinatingly told by Aldrete like an army version of the book of Ecclesiastes. It's encouraging to see that people are ALWAYS making mistakes, and never learning from previous errors. Lots to learn for personal edification as well. What else is he teaching?
Date published: 2021-05-22
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Real Blast ! The course starts off with a blast “The Crater at Petersburg” and doesn’t let up until the end. I love Professor Aldrete’s animated, often quirky and engaging presentation style. So much so, I purchased his Decisive Battles which includes 35 more engagements. The course is well organized and detailed enough for 24 half hour lectures. Whether a battle is decisive or a blunder there are lessons to be learned from both sides and Professor Aldrete delivers on all counts, even though the consequences may be tragic for those involved. Highly recommend!
Date published: 2021-05-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course! This course is a great way to learn more about warfare, ancient and recent. If you enjoy learning history, you'll love this course.
Date published: 2021-05-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Human Error on the Battlefield As a long-retired infantryman, I finished each of the 24 lectures with the same thought, “Glad I missed that one ⸺meaning the battle, not the lecture.” Professor Aldrete does a fine job of explaining the circumstances preceding each of these disasters and, with the help of good maps, the tactical movements of the contending forces. My wife and I particularly enjoyed the lectures about battlegrounds that we had seen for ourselves in 2002 and 2014, respectively: Lecture 20 (Gallipoli: Churchill Dooms Allied Assault, 1915), and Lecture 11 (Cullodin: The Bonnie Prince Blunders, 1746). I was particularly impressed by Aldrete’s choice of a painting to illustrate Lecture 13 (Afghanistan: Khyber Pass Death Trap, 1842): Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Southerden Thompson, Lady Butler (1846-1933), depicting the wounded William Brydon (1811-1873), assistant surgeon in the Bengal Army, arriving at the gates of Jalalabad in January 1842. He was the only member of an army of 4,500 men to reach safety at the end of the long retreat from Kabul. This striking painting is owned by the Tate Britain, London. Of the twenty-four military catastrophes described by the good professor, nine are blunders by British forces: Khyber Pass in 1842, Crimea in 1854, Isandlwana in 1879, Colenso in 1899, Gallipoli in 1915, the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in 1941, the loss of Convoy PQ17 in 1942, Dieppe in 1942 and Market Garden in 1944. Come the 4th of July, I resolve to be more considerate of my English friends’ feelings by playing Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans” (1959) with some restraint regarding repetitions. Altogether, this course serves up an excellent selection of military mishaps. HWF & ISF, Mesa, AZ.
Date published: 2021-02-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good - but expected a bit more Prof. Aldrete is an excellent speaker. I LOVED his course on The Decisive Battles of World History, which is still one of my all time favorites. But, I have to admit - this lecture series was a bit of a disappointment. While interesting - the majority of most lectures didn't really seem to focus on the specific battle, strategy, tactics, etc. and there seemed to be a lot of extraneous information as prologue. If you like military history, I would still certainly recommend. It just wasn't the best.
Date published: 2021-01-14
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Overview

Circle the globe to explore pivotal incidents of catastrophic failure in battle and consider how these errors changed the course of history.

About

Gregory S. Aldrete
Gregory S. Aldrete

As an ancient historian, my goals are to share the enthusiasm for and fascination with antiquity that I feel, and to show some of the connections between that world and our own.

INSTITUTION

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 category, receiving both its Founders Association Award for Excellence in Scholarship and its Founders Association Award for Excellence in Teaching. That recognition of his teaching skills was echoed on a national level in 2009, when he received the American Philological Association Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Classics at the College Level-the national teaching award given annually by the professional association of classics professors. The recipient of many prestigious research fellowships including five from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Professor Aldrete has published several important books in his field, including Gestures and Acclamations in Ancient Rome; Floods of the Tiber in Ancient Rome; Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia; The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Daily Life I: The Ancient World (as editor); Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery: Reconstructing and Testing Ancient Linen Body Armor (with S. Bartell and A. Aldrete) and The Long Shadow of Antiquity: What Have the Greeks and Romans Done for Us (with A. Aldrete).

By This Professor

History's Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach
854
The Decisive Battles of World History
854
History of the Ancient World: A Global Perspective
854
The Roman Empire: From Augustus to The Fall of Rome
854
The Rise of Rome
854
A Historian Goes to the Movies: Ancient Rome
854
History's Great Military Blunders and the Lessons They Teach

Trailer

Petersburg: Union Digs Its Own Grave-1864

01: 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. ...

34 min
Syracuse: Athens's Second Front-413 B.C.

02: 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. ...

33 min
Carrhae: The Parthian Shot-53 B.C.

03: 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. ...

30 min
Red Cliffs: Cao Cao's Bad Day-208 A.D.

04: 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?...

33 min
Barbarian Gate: Adrianople-378, Pliska-811

05: 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....

31 min
Fourth Crusade: Byzantium Betrayed-1204

06: 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....

31 min
Kalka River: Genghis Khan's General-1223

07: 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....

29 min
Courtrai: Knights versus Shopkeepers-1302

08: 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....

29 min
Nagashino: Taking Swords to a Gunfight-1575

09: 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....

29 min
Cartagena: High Walls, Short Ladders-1741

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....

28 min
Culloden: The Bonnie Prince Blunders-1746

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....

29 min
Russia: Napoleon Retreats in the Snow-1812

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....

31 min
Afghanistan: Khyber Pass Death Trap-1842

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....

29 min
Crimea: Charge of the Light Brigade-1854

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....

31 min
Greasy Grass: Custer's Last Stand-1876

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....

30 min
Isandlwana: 25,000 Zulus Undetected-1879

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....

31 min
Adwa: Italy's Fiasco in Ethiopia-1896

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....

31 min
Colenso: The Second Boer War-1899

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....

30 min
Tannenberg: Ineptitude in the East-1914

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....

30 min
Gallipoli: Churchill Dooms Allied Assault-1915

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....

31 min
World War II: Royal Navy Goes Down-1941-42

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....

33 min
Dieppe Raid: Catastrophe on the Beach-1942

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....

29 min
Operation Market Garden: A Bridge Too Far-1944

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....

29 min
The Great Blunders: Four Paths to Failure

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....

33 min