British Military Defeats.

Occasionally we lose!


This short list is inspired by an argument I have had with several different people (often people I met in the pub) over the years. After a number of ales have been sunk the debate often turns to history and politics, I am always amused (but alas no longer surprised) to find a sizable minority of people who are under the impression that Britain has never lost a war (This probably comes as a surprise to any American or French readers). There is an even smaller minority that insist Britain has never lost a battle. My initial response to these people was to react with a kind of amused sympathy, this soon evolved to an exasperated disbelief as they consistently produced fantastically spurious arguments to back up their opinions.

I'm sure that there are small-minded people all around the world who insist that their particular nation has never been defeated in a war; it is my intent, in this article, to deal with those small-minded British people by giving a brief outline of our greatest military failures. I shall include both battles and wars as well as one-off military disasters, I shall also try to restrict the list to British defeats (so I shall not include battle fought between armies that were both raised internally to Britain). One of the most important themes of each of these historical episodes is how easily they are forgotten from the national memory. When asked about the Hundred Years war people often can't see past the British victory at Agincourt. When asked of the Napoleonic wars, often people think that the battle of Waterloo was some kind of isolated event in which Napoleon was defeated by a group of Eton Rugby players. It is my intention to de-base such theories. So where to start then? Well how about the biggest British retreat of all time? A battle which the British media, in a brilliant piece of 'doublethink', always portrays as a victory for the British spirit.

Dunkirk, 1940.

British troops at the Dunkirk beaches
The British retreat from Northern France in Spring 1940 is often referred to as 'almost a victory' and people discuss the 'Dunkirk spirit' at great length. This 'spirit' refers to the way that a large number of civilian ships crossed the channel to Dunkirk in order to help demoralised British forces return to Britain. Undoubtedly these acts by ordinary British fishermen and sailors were heroic, undoubtedly the British retreat from Pas de Calais was a disaster.

When war was declared with Germany in 1939, Britain and France expected to fight in Northern France once more as they had done 25 years previously. The German war machine (Wermacht) had moved on though, they had developed a new kind of warfare (Blitzkrieg - 'lightning war') that was storming across Europe routing armies at will. British and French forces were, with minor exceptions, swept away during the spring of 1940 by this new warfare. Although the French and British, not wishing to give any credit to the Germans, may blame each other for the defeat, the British may accuse the French of not defending their homeland and the French may accuse of the British of trying to cut their losses early, the truth is that neither army was ready for the kind of war that the Wermacht were fighting. The all-too-predictable result being that the Allied force was defeated and routed. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) struggled its way to the city-port of Dunkirk where as many as 300,000 troops were withdrawn to Britain despite being under continuous assault from German aircraft. It is believed that the only reason the Wermacht failed to kill or capture the whole BEF was that Herman Goering insisted to Hitler that the Luftwaffe (German air force) be allowed the 'glory' of assaulting Dunkirk without ground support. Put simply, the German army was better prepared for the Battle of France in all areas, they soundly defeated the French and British forces.

Spurious counter argument...

The events at Dunkirk were merely a pre-curser to the rest of the war, where the British forces returned to Europe and defeated the Germans. The French were at fault for the loss and so it doesn't count as British troops were just helping them.

Using this line of reasoning, the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo cannot be described as a British win as British troops were a minority in an army dominated by Germans and other central Europeans, in addition the battle of Agincourt doesn't count as a 'win' as England lost all its land in France eventually.

Singapore, 1942.

British troops surrendering.
On the 15th of February 1942, about 100,000 British and Australian troops surrendered to Japanese forces on the island fortress of Singapore. The Japanese, despite being massively outnumbered, took good advantage of some appallingly bad command decisions on the part of British generals, and the fact that their planes were superior to those of the RAF, to invade and conquer the island in little more than a week. British commanders seemed incapable, in the weeks before the invasion, to come to terms with the fact that a Japanese invasion of Singapore might ever occur. On the 1st of February the last of the British troops in Malaya retreated into the island fortress, soon after that the RAF withdrew from the airfields and many British commanders were evacuated. Many 'directives' to the troops from commanders and the Prime Minister himself made bold and wholly unrealistic proclamations about 'not giving any ground' in Singapore, they were often under the impression that Singapore was an impregnable fortress. A combination of good intelligence and quick decision-making from the Japanese high command forced the surrender of the British forces despite many ordinary troops fighting valiantly.

There is no doubt that this surrender stands as one of the British military's worst ever humiliations.

The Suez 'Crisis', 1955.

The Suez canal.
The history of the battle for control of the Suez canal dates back to the reasons for its construction. The British Empire, desperate for easier shipping routes to India, opened the canal in 1869. The canal runs through the then British territory of Egypt. After the second world war, many old British colonies began to fight for their independence. When India won its freedom in 1949 it signalled the end to an old world order, the old European colonial powers were no longer in charge of the world, the USA and the USSR were the new superpowers. The conflict also has a root in the establishment of the Israeli state in former Palestine in 1948. The final nail in the coffin of the British empire came when General Nasser, president of Egypt, attempted to nationalise the canal so that profits derived from its use would go to the Egyptian state rather than into British and French coffers. A large conspiracy surrounding the outbreak of hostilities has only recently been uncovered, the British, French and Israeli governments colluded to invade Egypt. The Israelis would invade on a security pretext before the British and French would come to the region in order to 'protect' their interests in theatre.

In military terms, the Anglo-Franco-Israeli force defeated the Egyptian army. The defeat for Britain and France came in the form of international politics. By the time of the conflict neither country was the dominant power in the west, and pressure from the U.S. (due the fact that Washington was unwilling to condone the Anglo-French actions while condemning the Soviet actions in Hungary) forced a UN ceasefire upon the region. The conflict formed a turning point in world politics, no longer would Britain and France have a free reign around the world. The resignation of the then British Prime Minister (Anthony Eden) and the level of propaganda in the British media against Nasser at the time of the crisis serves as a reminder that, even in the post modern age of a western democracy, cynical manipulation of public opinion and conspiratorial international politics are still common.

Spurious counter argument...

The Suez crisis wasn't a war, merely a 'crisis'. British troops did win the battle, the conflict was lost in international diplomacy.

The first argument is just semantics, we could easily call the conflict 'The battle for the Suez canal'. The second argument has more validity, but Britain's loss was its credibility as an international superpower and control of the canal rather than a loss in terms of strict military casualties or territory gained.

Somme, 1916.

British troops in World war one.
The battle of the Somme began on the morning of the 1st of July 1916. British generals had decided that the attritional trench war on Europe's Western front could be won with a 'big push' after an enormous artillery bombardment designed to destroy German trenches and defences. So confident were they in their stratagem that troops were advised to walk across no-man's-land from the British to the German side rather than dash between cover (as the French generals had advised their men to do). The plan was flawed as the German defenders had much stronger and well-built defences than the British generals believed possible, when the attack came it was met by a huge barrage of machine gun and artillery fire. By the end of the 1st of July almost 20,000 British troops were dead (almost 60,000 total casualties). It is estimated that, over the course of the next 3 months of the Somme campaign, there were nearly half a million casualties on each of the German and British sides. British forces did succeed in conquering almost 10 miles of French territory back from the Germans, but the loss of life incurred (the greatest loss of life on a single day in the entire history of the British army) leaves no one in any doubt that this was a disaster for Britain and its army. Indeed not even our friends the little-Englanders claim Somme as a victory, the loss of life being too great even for them.

Spurious counter argument...

British troops gained some 10 miles of land from the Germans.

The argument comes down to whether victory can be at any cost or not. Anyone arguing that the British loss of life was worth those 10 miles of French land is standing on thin ice.

Afghanistan, 1842, 1880, 1919.

During the early 19th centaury, Britain had enormous interests in terms of trade on the Indian subcontinent. It was essential, from the point of view of the British, that a friendly government be place in Kabul to control the various tribes of Afghanistan and prevent opposition to the British rule in India. The previous puppet government, led by Shah Shuja, in Afghanistan had collapsed and so British and Indian forces marched on Kabul in 1840 in to restore their power. Despite initial military successes, by 1842 a popular revolt forced the occupying forces to retreat from the country. A massacre then followed as 20,000 British and Indian troops were attacked relentlessly on the long march back to India. It is said that there was only 1 survivor of the retreat from Afghanistan, one Dr. W. Brydon. A second British incursion into Afghanistan came in 1878 when military planners decided upon the need to counter a perceived threat from Russian imperialist interests by establishing the borders of the empire north of India. Although better prepared for the campaign than in 1840, Anglo-Indian forces once again failed to realise that the fractured Afghan tribes would unite to cast the British out. This took a long time to happen, after major British victories at the Khyber Pass and Kandahar they reached Kabul and began to take petty vengeance on the Afghan people. By 1880 the British once again prepared for a military withdrawal as it had become clear that they were fighting the kind of attritional battle that they could never win. Constant attacks from the various fractured tribes were wearing the men down. The tribes finally united under one banner when the British were decisively defeated outside Kandahar in 1880. The rest of the army, given changing political conditions in Britain, had no choice but to withdraw to India. Afghanistan finally did recognise its ties to Russia after the brief war of 1919 when Afghan forces attacked the British in India. So soon after World War 1 the British had no will to fight another war and so with a peace agreement came a recognition of Afghan autonomy and Afghanistan's official recognition of the new Soviet government.

Spurious counter argument...

The British never had any intention of conquering Afghanistan, merely pacifying it and preventing the Russians from influencing politics in the region.

True of course, but the British incursion into Afghanistan failed even in these objectives, stirring up Afghan tribes and over-estimating Russian interests in the area during the 1800s.

Gallipoli, 1915; Iraq, 1916.

Australian troops at Gallipoli.
The Ottoman Empire, now Turkey, was allied with the central powers of Austria, Hungary and Germany during the first world war. As part of the war, Britain staged several invasions against Ottoman interests, in 1915 Britain attacked the Dardanelles region in an attempt to open up a new front in the campaign. Expecting inferior Turkish forces (which was true) British military leaders decided to send a fleet to the area and then stage a land assault without drawing up any specific goals beyond 'opening up a new front'; this was a major flaw in the battle that was to come, a war without a specific objective is almost doomed to fail from the start. Many British ships, including 3 battleships, were destroyed by mines before the invasion took place. After establishing beachheads the British and Turkish forces became embroiled in the type of trench warfare typical of the first world war, with many British troops dying of disease. After suffering 200,000 casualties the decision was made to withdraw from the area in the winter of 1915. The disaster at Gallipoli was the result of poor planning and leadership on the British side; it is important to remember that one of the major British leaders behind the Gallipoli campaign was Winston Churchill. A second invasion against the Ottoman empire was planned in 1916 against much of what is now known as Iraq. At the time of the war Baghdad and many important cities in the region were part of the Ottoman Empire. An Anglo Indian force landed in Basra in late 1914 and marched on Baghdad. They grossly underestimated the strength of Turkish opposition and became embroiled in a lengthy siege from which they eventually surrendered in April 1916. Many British and Indian soldiers died as prisoners of war. The British later conquered Baghdad in 1917.

Spurious counter argument...

The British withdrew from the Dardanelles without being defeated.

Which means that the invasion failed in its objective to 'open up a new front'.

Isandhlwana, 1879.

The battle at Isandhlwana.
The battle that took place at Isandhlwana, which is now Durban in South Africa, was part of a larger colonial campaign that the British Empire fought during the 19th century in Africa. African natives, known as the Zulus, had opposed the British occupation and scored a major victory when British troops, in response to the Zulu nation ignoring an ultimatum, marched on the capital of Ulundi. A force of some 25,000 Zulu warriors camped in wait for one of the marching British columns. The Zulus were well prepared for the battle, they had even managed to acquire a number of guns which they used to fire on the British as they marched. The British were also well prepared, and the Zulu trap was spotted by a British scout. Recognising that their opportunity was now or never, the Zulu warriors, realising they had been discovered, marched quickly on the British column. Being lightly armed and armoured, the Zulus moved quickly and were able to surround the British positions as they were adopting defensive formations. Determined waves of Zulu warriors eventually forced a hand-to-hand engagement which overwhelmed the British troops. Some 1000 British and 2000 Zulus died after the Zulu forces cut off the line of retreat back to Rorkes Drift. Once again it is interesting to consider the historical context and the way that this battle is often discussed in the British mainstream. The fact that the colours of the 24th regiment (the British unit that fought in the battle) were not captured by the enemy and were recovered after being washed up down stream from a river where it is surmised that a Lt. Coghill died defending the banner is often seen as a coded victory for the honour of the British army. What actually happened to the Regimental colours is a matter of historical interpretation as not a single soldier survived to tell the tale. Ultimately the Zulus were defeated when they pushed on to Rorkes Drift as a precursor to an invasion of the land occupied by European settlers in Natal. They were finally defeated at Ulundi when well-drilled British troops beat back a similar Zulu attack.

Spurious counter argument...

Britain conquered the Zulu capital at Ulundi soon after the battle at Isandhlwana.

This is true, but it cannot paper over the cracks of the fact that an entire column of British troops were wiped out.

Castlebar, 1798.

The Irish rebellion of 1798 was, in some respects, fuelled and inspired by the successes of the French Bourgeois revolution of 1789. Ireland was under the control of London and in 1798 several large uprisings took place across the country; each one was ruthlessly crushed by the British army. The Irish rebels appealed to the French government for military aid (France and Britain were at war at the time) and in August several thousand French troops landed in Ireland. Joined by Irish irregular forces they fought the British at Castlebar. The British defeat at Castlebar became known as "The races at Castlebar" because of the ease with which the numerically superior British (accounts differ dramatically over the number of French and British troops that were at Castlebar. Patriotic Irish historians may well have massaged the figures over the years) routed from the battle after a Franco-Irish charge. There was always a certain unease in the alliance between the French and the Irish and the rebellion didn't last much longer as the British defeated the French force at the Battle of Ballinamuck (also in 1798).

Saratoga, 1777.

The British surrender at Saratoga.
The battle at Saratoga was the first of many turning points in the American war of independence, it was the first great American victory over the British and heralded French and Spanish support for the emerging US nation. British, Indian and German troops, marching under the union jack from Canada, were attempting to isolate the states of New England from the rest of the fledgling USA. There were a series of battles along the river Hudson which have become collectively known as the battles of Saratoga. The engagements were mainly fought over control of the supply lines from Canada and New York and eventually resulted in the British forces becoming surrounded and having to surrender. Some 5000 soldiers and 300 officers surrendered to the Americans. There is an interesting contrast to be drawn between the US and British troops, the US soldiers often fought without uniform, preferring to wear simple clothes that they might wear in any other form of life. The British soldiers, on the other hand, wore red coats. It is interesting to consider the revolutionary fervour in which this battle was fought, American militias and irregular troops fighting harder than professional British soldiers because they believed in a cause and much public opinion in Britain was against the war. The battle did signal what was essentially the beginning of a world war, as now Britain and France were openly in conflict once again.

Spurious counter argument...

Many of the troops at the battle were Germans or Americans fighting under the Union Jack, it was not a true British force.

This argument is irrelevant, a defeat is a defeat for any and all sides and allies involved in a battle. Besides, even if the British troops were born in the Americas they were still fighting for British interests in the region. Anyway, if you want to talk about the majority of the force not being British than we can always talk about Waterloo...

Yorktown, 1781.

The defeat of the British by the Americans and French at Yorktown was the battle that effectively won the US revolution for the Americans. After the British forces surrendered, following a lengthy siege of the city, the will of the British parliament to fight the war was totally broken. Within 2 years the British had signed an accord that recognised the existence of the United States as an independent nation.

British forces were commanded by Major General Cornwallis, a man who made several mistakes that lead to the defeat. The British army had been forced to retreat out of the Carolinas after a difficult campaign and was expecting to receive re-enforcements and supplies by seas along the river York. Camping out at Yorktown, the British inexplicably abandoned defensive positions and allowed the Franco-American force to take up positions around the town ideal for bombarding them with artillery. Within 2 months of the start of the siege, a British army of some 8000 soldiers surrendered to the Americans, this army constituted a full quarter of the troops loyal to the British crown in the Americas. Although the war did not officially end for the next two years, the war was won on this day. The British could not hope to prevent American independence given the lack of popular support for the war and the fact that international politics (war with France was a more important concern) loomed as a much greater concern in the mind of the nation.

Hastings, 1066.

Now before anyone starts calling a 'foul' on my list, I should point out the following: I know that the battle of Hastings wasn't fought between British troops and a foreign power, and that in fact it was more struggle between two individuals who both believed themselves to have (relatively spurious) claims on the English throne. The fact remains though that the majority of troops fighting for Harold (the ruling English monarch) were from England while the troops fighting for William (the Norman pretender to the throne) were from France. The difficulty in classing this as a defeat for the British or English is that the concept of the English nation state didn't exist at the time, indeed the people of what is now Cornwall or Cumbria had very little to do with the English crown at the time of the battle. What can be said is that the victory of the Normans at Hastings opened a new chapter in the history of the British Isles, i.e. the operation of the state and monarchy were changed forever while the English crown claimed ownership over lands in northern France for centuries to come. I therefore leave my discussion of the English defeat at Hastings as an open-ended question; without doubt the soldiers of England were defeated on that day, but whether one can truly class such a defeat as a British military loss is a question of semantics and conflicting historical viewpoints. I shall leave the readers to make up their own minds.

La Rochelle, 1372.

The naval engagement at La Rochelle.
A discussion of the battle at La Rochelle necessitates that I take a slight liberty with my original remit. The battle was a Franco-Spanish defeat of the English, rather than the British. I feel that it is important to include the battles of the Hundred years war in this list as the conflict had an important influence in defining England, and therefore Britain, as a nation. The English had had a series of victories in the early stages of the war and were, by 1372, in possession of large parts of France. At La Rochelle however, they were under siege by the French. The political intrigues of medieval Europe were ever changing, and at this point in history the King of Spain was allied to the French king while the English and Portuguese were allied. A large Spanish fleet attacked the English ships at La Rochelle, they were joined by smaller French vessels and utterly destroyed the English. Thousands of English troops and knights were captured while the superior Spanish tactics meant that many large English ships were captured and taken back to Castile (Spain). The defeat signalled the end of English dominance over the seas off the western coast of France.

Orleans, 1429.

A medieval portrait of Joan of Arc.
This battle of the hundred years war might also be known as 'How the English were beaten by a small girl'. The English, after winning at Agincourt in 1415, were in possession of large portions of Northern France including Paris. The English conquest of France seemed inevitable and so they began the siege of Orleans, the city being a 'gateway' to southern regions. The legend of Joan of Arc was born when a young 17 year old maid took upon herself the task of leading a French reprieve of Orleans. Accounts of Joan and the events that lead to her appointment as the leader of an army are littered with myth and religious overtones, she was seen as an angel or a saviour from heaven, men could not understand how she was able to command such respect and loyalty from the troops. She led a relief force, with food and supplies, to Orleans and, once there, led an attack against the English camps outside of the city. Guerrilla style tactics were used, small attacks in different locations, splitting up the English forces and making them more vulnerable. Soon the English siege was broken despite the fact that they had outnumbered the French defenders.

An English relief force was defeated almost to a man despite also outnumbering the French led by Joan. Accounts of the battle once again speak of the French being supported by angels and having a divine leadership. These victories, combined with subsequent liberation of several French towns and cities by Joan, led to Joan of Arc being forever remembered as a heroine of France, her name and legend being equated with that of a saint or holy leader. She was captured and burned at the stake by the English in 1430.

Spurious counter argument...

Joan of Arc never lived to enjoy her victories, we killed her.

The fact that the leader of an army was eventually murdered cannot wipe out the victories that the army had. The English were defeated soundly at Orleans.

Bordeaux, 1453.

A re-enactment of a battle between France and England in the Hundred years war.
The battle of Bordeaux effectively signaled the end of the Hundred Years war. The decisiveness of the battle was such that the English would never again make a claim on the lands of Aquitaine, the regional capital of which is Bordeaux. Although these days Aquitaine is a part of France, it is important to realise that at the time of the Hundred Years war the region was a Duchy that was being fought over by English and French kings. When the French conquered the province in 1450 its leaders in Bordeaux called to the English for help. A force of some 6000 English soldiers were in Aquitaine by 1453 and the province had declared its loyalty to the English crown. The most decisive engagement of the campaign occurred outside of Castillon in 1453, an enormous force of French artillery had been massed in order to besiege the city and the British under Talbot was given the task of attacking the guns. This battle is one of the first in European history in which massed guns were used in the defence of a static position. Some 300 French guns (an enormous number of guns for that point in military history) caused the rout of English troops who were then cut down by French cavalry. The English had charged against the French camp under the belief that the French were retreating, in fact they were merely re-organising their forces and causing large quantities of dust to be thrown up around the artillery base.
We shall attempt a wider discussion of the issues surrounding the Hundred years war below

Medway, 1667.

The battle of Medway.
The Dutch raid into the rivers Thames and Medway in 1667 is historically interesting as it shows the part that luck plays in the tides of history. The wars that took place between Britain and Holland in the 17th century were fought in order to resolve shipping rights and territorial claims in the fledgling colonies of the Americas and other places around the world. In June 1667 a large Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames and attacked the fort at Sheerness, the main objective was to attack the British docks at Chatham. The British fleet was totally unprepared for the assault, panic swept through the regions around the Thames all the way to London as it became clear that there was no sizable British force that could do anything but watch the Dutch sail into the capital. Thankfully for Britain, the plans of the Dutch were not as grandiose as a direct invasion of London, rather they forced the abandonment of the Sheerness fort and successfully raided the docks at Chatham, towing away the British flagship "Royal Charles". The Dutch saw this as a major victory, and indeed they were able to sue for peace later in the year in an agreement which saw the British hold on to shipping rights to New York (then New Amsterdam) while the Dutch acquired Suriname. Little did Dutch commanders know how close they had been to one of the greatest military coups of all time, their fleet was mere miles from the centre of British power with nothing in its way. Despite this reprieve for the British hierarchy, there is no doubt that the battle of Medway goes down as one of the British navy's worst failures in terms of planning and inability to react quickly to a deteriorating situation. Once again it can be noted that this part of British naval history is all too often ignored in favour of a discussion of the battles against the Spanish Armada.

Spurious counter argument...

The Dutch never actually conquered Britain. Who cares about loosing a couple of big ships anyway?

Well for a start they never would have been able to conquer Britain even if their fleet had landed in London, and that was never their objective anyway. Losing the flag ship was a big deal, the modern equivalent would be if someone sailed into a US naval base and stole an aircraft carrier.

The Hundred years war, 1337-1453.

We have already discussed the three most important English defeats of the Hundred years war. Something that is often, unforgivably so, overlooked by popular history and historical myth is the fact that the English lost the Hundred years war. With so much concentration on the English victories as Crecy (1346) and Agincourt (1415) (where the superiority of the English longbows over the French crossbows and knights signaled a new era in warfare) the ultimate English defeat in the war is occasionally forgotten. The historical roots of the conflict lie in the fact that the kings of France and English had identical heritages and therefore felt that each had a claim on the lands of the other, indeed this is one of the reasons why William the Conqueror saw himself as the rightful heir to the English throne in 1066 and Henry II (king of England 1154-1189) spoke mostly French as he was born and raised in France. The territory controlled by the English monarchs of this era often contained large portions of continental Europe in France. The war consisted of a series of set backs and victories for each side as well as a multitude of shifting alliances between the major and minor powers of Europe in the region. France and Spain were allied and supported the Scottish cause of independence from the English crown. England was allied with Portugal and Burgundy and controlled large sections of Aquitaine and northern France. Ultimately the war caused the solidification of England and France as nation states in the form that one might recognise them these days. Never again did England attempt to claim lands in continental Europe while finally France was united under one banner after centuries of division into independent provinces and fiefdoms. The war was one of the most important series of conflicts in the formation of nation states in western Europe, is was also a defeat for English interests in Europe. The English now turned their attentions to the New World and Africa to build an empire.

The US war of Independence, 1775-1783.

Quite how anyone could ignore this great British military defeat is beyond my comprehension. For several centuries before this conflict, the great Atlantic European powers (Britain, France, Holland, Spain and Portugal) had fought for control of shipping rights and territory in the New World. New York (originally New Amsterdam) was now a centre of British power in the Americas in terms of trade. When American rebels in Boston rose up against excessive British taxes during 1775 (now known as the Boston tea party) they could hardly have expected that within a year an independent American congress would have been formed and declared its independence from the British state. The British moved quickly to crush this threat, but several great thinkers and writers (amongst them Thomas Paine) inspired the rebels with an overwhelming sense that their cause was one of freedom and liberty. The American rebel army had many defeats in the early days of the war and had to adopt tactics which might now be seen as akin to guerrilla warfare (I'd love to say that they used terrorist tactics. Just to annoy Americans of course, but I wont). The great American victories often came by outmaneuvering the British forces and luring them into un-winnable situations. The longer the war drew on, the less of a stomach for a fight the British public had. Even though many of the troops fighting on the British side were German mercenaries the commanders were all from the British officer class. After the great US victory at Yorktown the French openly declared their support for the fledgling USA. This was the turning point of the war, international recognition and French aid as well as the British public lacking the stomach for another war with France meant that the British were placed in an un-winnable situation. This is, of course, very ironic in the light of the current deterioration in international relations between the USA and France.

Britain lost control of its colonies on the east coast of the Americas and was defeated by France (again) in international politics. Given the vast natural resources available to America and the power that the USA now holds, the British lost one of its most valuable assets in 1783 when it officially recognised the existence of the USA in the treaty of Paris.

The Battle of Cartegena de las Indias, 1741.

Over the years many people have read this article on British military defeats, over the years some have emailed me. Of those who have emailed me, almost all have cited the battle of Cartenea de las Indias as one of Britain's biggest military defeats and are surprised by its absence in my list. Ashamed as I am to say, the British education system and national predisposition to forget failures has bested me once again - for I had never heard of this encounter before it being brought to my attention by my readers. I have since done my research, and for the uninitiated I shall provide a brief history.

During the 18th century Britain and Spain were two of the world's foremost naval powers, naturally they were battling for control over the lucrative colonies in the new world. Spain had control of the South Americas, Britain wanted a slice of the pie and so sent a fleet to the South Atlantic with the intention of capturing the port of Cartegena de las Indias (now in Columbia). The British force outnumbered the Spanish by almost an order of magnitude, yet were defeated after several months of bombardments, seiges, pitched battles and ship-to-ship combat. Fully one third of British troops were killed during the conflict, which was characterised by bad command decisions and terrible diseases which plagued British forces. The result of this failure is difficult to understate. Not only did Britain's position on the World and Eurpoean stage decline in the short term, but Spain's position of power in Central and South America was firmly-entrenched to the point that its dominance was never challenged during the age of European Empires. A world in which Britain succeeded at Cartegena de las Islas may have resulted in a South America which Spain and Britain controlled equally, resulting in a vastly different 19th and 20th centuries. Imagine a British Empire with South American nations at its heart, speaking English and perhaps with a lessened feeling of brotherhood for their neighbouring nations. Such a world would likely result in a wildly different set of relations between North and South America and who knows what else?

In Britain today people still make a fuss about the British victory over the Spanish Armada of 1588, however the Battle of Cartengena de las Indias was fully 150 later and it is forgotten. Proves just how variable history can be.

Dean Wright, August 2009.

© Dean Wright February 2005.