Great Military Disasters: The Greatest Tragedies and Failings in Warfare History.

Bath, UK: Parragon, 2009.

Full-color coffee-table volumes like this can be a great way to lose an afternoon, as long as they’re reasonably well done — and this one is. The first thing to remember is that one side’s disaster is the other side’s victory, so you’ll probably find some battles and campaigns here you wouldn’t have expected.

Gallipoli and the Charge of the Light Brigade, naturally — but also Agincourt, Midway, and Stalingrad, which were certainly disastrous for the losing side.

The editors start with Cannae in 216 BC, in which Hannibal convincingly beat the Roman army, largely through the then-revolutionary “double envelopment” strategy. The only other confrontation from the ancient world is the Teutoburg Forest, where three legions were destroyed utterly. (I’m a bit surprised they didn’t include any of Alexander’s key battles, which were complete disasters for the Persians, or Actium in 31 BC, which was a definitive victory for Octavian and a total disaster for Mark Antony, and which ended a generation of civil war.) In fact, half the twenty-four battles described are from the American Civil War or later. (And I don’t know that I would describe Gettysburg as a “disaster” for the losing side, really. It was the combination of that and the nearly simultaneous Vickburg that turned the war around.)

To evaluate the accuracy of a book like this, I go to those topics I’m uncommonly familiar with, which in this case means San Jacinto in 1836. Considering that this is the work of British authors, and that they often have a correspondingly odd take on U.S. history, that chapter is actually quite good. And the most recent engagement included is Mogadishu in 1993 — inarguably both a military and political disaster for the U.S.

There are reproductions of portraits and paintings and engravings on nearly every page until we reach the photographic era, and weapons and military units of special interest are discussed in some detail. And for each battle, there’s a two-page-spread tactical map with a full key to the action.

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