We’ve all seen it in movies: the good guys appear to be seconds from defeat, surrounded and outnumbered. Then, just when all hope is lost, reinforcements come over the horizon, and the bugler sounds the charge as dramatic music plays and the bad guys get a swift kick to the seat of the pants. Hell, even history, the greatest of all storytellers, is littered with stupidly awesome charges that won the day, such as the story of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who found himself at the command of the 20th Maine Regiment on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg, weathering repeated charges by Confederate soldiers. With ammunition supplies almost exhausted, and retreat not being an option, Chamberlain decided to take the fight to the enemy. With Bayonets.
The 20th Maine charged down the hill with fixed bayonets. The Confederates, convinced that there was no way in hell only 150 men would be coming at them like that, so there must be reinforcements, fled. Chamberlain’s actions likely saved the Union army from being flanked, and earned him a Medal of Honor. But it doesn’t always work out like that. In fact, sometimes a brave charge, flags flying, bugles blaring, ends in an absolute disaster for the side for the men involved. Just like in…
1. Pickett’s Charge
The very same battle that featured the stand of the 20th Maine also featured one of the most famous and ill fated charges in history. The Battle of Gettysburg was a three day slugfest in July 1863 that featured more loss of American lives than in any other battle in history. Of course, it didn’t help that the numbers were rather skewed by Americans shooting other Americans, but statistics are still statistics.
By July 3rd, both armies were exhausted from battle, with nothing being decisively gained or lost on either side. General Robert E. Lee believed his Army of Northern Virginia to be invincible, as they had performed miracles on the battlefield many times before. He ordered all of his cannons to fire on the Union center, to be followed by a massive infantry advance. After a two hour long cannon barrage that could be heard as far away as Pittsburgh, 15,000 men under the command of General George Pickett marched in formation towards the Union army. Cannons blew holes in the lines, and a withering fire of musketry cut down the attacking force. Amidst the chaos was General Lewis Armistead, one of the brigade commanders in Pickett’s Division. Armistead felt a more direct approach was in order, so he removed his hat, stabbed it with his sword, and started waving it around, daring his men to come with him as he charged towards the Yankees.
Armistead and the 1500 men that followed were the only ones to make it over the stone wall where the Union army was positioned. Despite a fierce hand to hand fracas, no reinforcements came, and the Confederate advance sort of fizzled out after Armistead was hit three times (he would die of his wounds two days later.) Pickett’s Charge and The Battle of Gettysburg as a whole was a turning point in the Civil War. The Confederacy suffered 7,000 casualties in the ill fated advance, and their officer corps was particularly hit hard. This was the best the Army of Northern Virginia was ever going to be, the best chance they had of military victory over the North. From that day onward, it was all downhill towards ultimate defeat.
2. The Charge of the Light Brigade
The Crimean War was an 1850s style dick measuring contest between the King of England, The Tsar of Russia, and French Emperor Napoleon III (this is when France was going through a retro phase,) that manifested itself in armed conflict on the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea.
So, British and French troops laid siege to the city of Sevastopol, the major city/fortress of the region. In the midst of this, an order was delivered to the commander of the British 13th Light Dragoons, a rather vague directive to take out some cannons were making a nuisance of themselves. Lord Cardigan promptly misinterpreted the order, and attacked a different set of cannons that happened to be flanked by more cannons. In other words, he rode with 600 men straight into a trap with cannons firing on him from three sides, known in military lexicon as a “double envelopment” aka “a goddamn stupid thing to do.” It…didn’t go well for the Light Brigade.
The Charge took out half the Light Brigade while gaining no decisive objective. Lord Cardigan somehow survived the Charge, despite being at the front of the cannon firing melee. Cardigan and his superiors spent the next few years passing blame back and forth before everyone settled on blaming a Captain that delivered the order to Cardigan and had been killed in the Charge for the screwup. Meanwhile, back in England, a poet read the story in a newspaper, and wrote a poem about it that romanticized the whole thing into a glorious and noble enterprise.
3. Battle of Agincourt
Ah, the Hundred Years War. Back in the days when warfare was taken so seriously, it took an entire century to settle a conflict. This particular conflict pitted those hopeless frenemies, England and France, against each other once again, on a field in Agincourt, France, in October 1415. King Henry V of England wanted to establish that he was clearly the superior king, by invading with an army. The French confronted him with a far larger force, composed mainly of heavily armored knights and noblemen. The English army, on the other hand, was composed mainly of the feared English longbowmen, that had wrecked the shit of French armies in battles past. However, the French were confident that this time, this time goddamnit, they were going to defeat the archers.
So, the battle began with an initial cavalry charge by the French to try and drive off those pesky archers. But, they were unable to flank them because of woodlands and they were stopped by wooden stakes driven into the ground by the English. The French were pinned, and all the while the archers rained arrows down on them. The horses were forced to retreat, churning up the muddy field in the process. Next came the main body of French knights, heavily armored, heavily armed, and just plain heavy. Arrows plinked off their armor, and forced them to close their visors, restricting their breathing. So now you had a bunch of hot, exhausted, half choking Frenchmen wearing 60 pounds of armor slogging across a muddy field towards a much lighter armed English army that was shooting at them the whole time.
What happened next was a story best told by Shakespeare himself, or at least Kenneth Branaugh, which is really the same thing.
It was an unadulterated spanking for the French. Their tired metal men were no match for the English, who, when in doubt, simply shoved them into the mud, where they were unable to pick themselves up and drowned. The French eventually fled after witnessing so many nobles and knights being slaughtered, and King Henry V won one of the greatest military victories in the history of his nation.
4. Constantine’s Last Stand
Constantinople was for over a thousand years the great city of the East, being the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which was formed from the remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire and stayed relatively intact while Western Europe endured its rather painful “Middle Ages” period.
This prosperity really pissed off the neighboring Ottoman Empire, who felt there was only room for one empire in the area, and they would be damned if it wasn’t them. So, in 1453, the Sultan Mehmed II gathered a massive army of around 100,000 men and laid siege to the city. The city itself had few defenders, only around 7,000 men under the command of Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI. They begged for help from the rest of Christian Europe, but all they got was a ship full of provisions sent by the Pope.
After blasting away at Constantinople’s walls with his cannons for a few weeks, Mehmed gave the order to start the assault, using the time honored strategy of sending so many troops into battle that the other side couldn’t possibly kill them all. The Greeks and Italians defending the city fought bravely, but they were overwhelmed, and the Ottoman forces entered the city. Emperor Constantine wasn’t a man to surrender, so he brought together a thousand men of similar thinking and charged headlong into the swarm of Turks, the maneuver giving time for the rest of the defenders and other civilians to get away or into hiding. The move went about as well as you would expect it to.
Awed by their sacrifice, Mehmed stopped the pillaging of the city…after three days. The Byzantine Emperor and the Empire itself were both dead, Constantinople would later become Istanbul, the capital of the modern country of Turkey, and the Ottomans would know what they put the Byzantines through when they were destroyed as an empire almost 500 years later, after they were shellacked in World War I.
5. Charge at Krojanty
September 1, 1939 was a bad day to be Polish. For you dyslexic folks who get dates mixed up, that was the day the people of Poland suddenly found themselves plagued with these heavily armed German fellows who clearly weren’t visiting their land for a tea party.
It was on this day that one of history’s last great cavalry charges was executed by the Polish Army. The surprise attack was initially successful, dispersing a German infantry force and allowing the Poles to retake some ground. But then German armor showed up and reminded the Poles why cavalry units that still used actual horses had been outmoded some years prior, in the form of gratuitous machine gun fire.
About a third of the Polish cavalry were casualties, including the two commanders. Although the charge was ultimately a failure, it had the positive of delaying the German offensive all along the front, because a lot of Germans were hiding behind trees, waiting for crazy Polacks on horses to show up and stab them. It also gave rise to the popular myth of Polish cavalry charging tanks, as the story sort of became “embellished,” if you will, in the German newspapers. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, that wasn’t the only thing they were “embellishing.”
By Ben Adelman