Edited by John M. Jennings and Chuck Steele

Reaktion Books. 337 pages. £16.99. ISBN 978-1-78914-583-0

Reviewed by Jim Burns

On the 25th June, 1876, General George Armstrong Custer led the 7th Cavalry towards the Little Big Horn River where, his scouts had informed him, there was a large Indian village. Custer’s unit comprised almost 650 soldiers, scouts, and civilians, and was part of a larger force which, in turn, was made up of three columns working to a plan to surround the Indians and force them onto reservations. They had been deemed to be hostiles for not adhering to an order to go to the appointed locales on a voluntary basis. For the Indians, basically Sioux along with some Cheyenne and Arapaho, such an order conflicted with their natural nomadic instincts. And the twenty or so years since the end of the Civil War had seen them harried by the intrusion of settlers and soldiers into what the Indians saw as their traditional hunting grounds. It’s difficult to know what, as a group, they thought of their situation, but it’s possibly true that they realised their traditional way of life was under threat, and were consequently in no mood for compromise.

Custer had been given orders to find the Indian encampment and observe it, but to wait for the main column, commanded by General Crook, to arrive before taking further action. What he didn’t know was that Crook had been stopped at the Rosebud River by a clash with the hostiles and his advance brought to a halt. From the available evidence it seems probable that, even if Custer had been aware of Crook’s setback, he wouldn’t have delayed his attack on the village. He was impulsive, and anxious to re-establish the reputation as a cavalry commander he’d gained in the Civil War. And later he had cultivated the image of a practised Indian fighter after action against a Cheyenne village in the winter of 1868. He wanted to be seen as the man who effectively brought the Indians to heel, and was confident that his regiment alone could defeat whatever forces they came up against.

The problem was that Custer was inclined to ignore warnings from both white and Indian scouts that the village was the largest they had ever seen. He underestimated the number of warriors he was likely to encounter. He then divided his force, using the tactic of launching an attack from each end of the encampment. This might have succeeded on a smaller scale, but it soon became obvious that things weren’t going to plan. The troops attempting to enter one end of the village were quickly in retreat and forced into a defensive position. Custer’s command of over two hundred soldiers and scouts was likewise overwhelmed, but in their case they all died. When the casualties were added together they totalled 268 killed, not to mention numerous wounded. Custer’s ambitions and arrogance had caused the deaths of almost half of his regiment.

I suppose the Custer debacle is the best known of the various stories of blunders and bungling that are included in this book. There have been novels, films both factual and fictional, academic studies, paintings, and articles too numerous to count looking at what was, in contrast to some other examples, a fairly minor incident in terms of the numbers involved. But you didn’t have to be American to know about the Little Big Horn when I was growing up in industrial Lancashire in the 1940s. The cinema saw to that and Errol Flynn died gallantly, if not accurately, in They Died With Their Boots On.

This isn’t the place for anyone in the United Kingdom to claim superiority in military affairs. Bonnie Prince Charlie hadn’t a clue what to do at Culloden (not included in the volume under review) and his incompetence resulted in hundreds of deaths among his followers. And Chelmsford’s actions during the Zulu War might be questioned. His decision to divide his army made it easier for the Zulus to kill around one thousand troops at Isandlwana. But I’m moving away from what is in the book, and Lord Wolseley is there and taken to task for the failure to relieve General Gordon in Khartoum in 1884. His push up the Nile and on land just didn’t move fast enough and the Mahdi and his followers soon had Gordon’s head on the end of a lance. Joseph Moretz, writing about Wolseley, does try to be fair, and points out that not all the blame can be attached to him. There were shortcomings in the general organisation of the British Army. It could have been that not having to fight what Moretz refers to as a “first class enemy” for many years had brought about a degree of complacency with regard to training, equipment, and related matters.

Wolseley’s reputation as a commander largely rested on campaigns fought in China, India, Canada, the Gold Coast, and Egypt. It could be argued that his experiences in colonial warfare ought to have equipped him to deal with the Mahdi, but he badly underestimated the strength of the Mahdi’s forces. And he also seemed to have lacked the organisational skills necessary to put together an efficient relief column. It’s suggested that Wolseley attempted to shift the blame for failing to reach Khartoum in time onto others. I suspect it was, and no doubt still is, a not uncommon practice among military men.

Incompetence is bad enough, but when tied in with what might have been a form of madness¸ it can become terrifying. Roman Fedorovich von Ungern-Sternberg is not likely to be a household name, even among many historians. He was a relatively minor figure during the Civil War that swept across Russia in the years following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. He was a junior officer in the Russian army during the First World War. When Civil War started he fought for the Whites, the anti-Bolshevik forces that sprang up under different leaders and were eventually defeated by the Red Army. The Civil War was a particularly brutal episode, with both sides indulging in atrocities, but Ungern appears to have gone further than most in his application of terror as a means of obtaining compliance with his orders.

Ungern formed his own army which was never very large, but operating as it did along parts of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and in small towns and villages in Mongolia, achieved some minor successes. Unger had a dream of creating a form of Mongolian Empire which would in time have an army strong enough to sweep into Russia, defeat the Bolsheviks, and re-institute the monarchy. He was anti-semitic so pogroms against Jews were part of his strategy. And he was a strict disciplinarian when it came to his own men. It’s said that he had one officer who disobeyed him burnt at the stake. Ungern was never the most-capable of commanders, and as the Red Army became more powerful his grip on his soldiers began to slacken while his cruelty increased. Some of his officers plotted to overthrow him, but he escaped and tried to enlist help from nearby Mongolian auxiliaries. They, however, handed him over to the Reds who, after a brief interrogation, shot him.

Most of the chapters concern military leaders on land, so the diversion into naval warfare with an essay on Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty is useful. I think I might be forgiven for declaring a personal interest. My father joined the Royal Navy as a boy-sailor when he was sixteen in 1911. He served until 1925, and I grew up knowing the names of Beatty and Jellicoe. He was present at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, though he was below decks most, if not all of the time. And he was lucky enough to have been on board a battleship and not a battle cruiser, three of which were lost to enemy gunfire.

That was, according to Chuck Steele, Beatty’s fault. He was in charge of the battle cruiser fleet at Jutland, but though the ships represented the “largest concentration of cutting-edge naval technology”, Beatty appears to have lacked an awareness of what they were capable of. Steele says, “Beattie had not done well in preparing or controlling his forces”. There were poor communications between various ships, and “British gunnery was abysmal”.  It would seem that there was a campaign by Beatty and his supporters to blame Jellicoe for what happened at Jutland. Steele’s opinion is that, “Beatty proved himself to be not only a poor fleet commander but a thoroughly ignoble man for his efforts to escape accountability for his actions”.

What are we to make of some of the other examples of poor leadership and worse? Gideon J. Pillow was a lawyer with political ambitions, and, despite a lack of military qualifications, was appointed Adjutant General of the Tennessee state militia in 1833. He returned to his law practice in 1836. He appears to have been someone who knew how to cultivate the right people, including the future President, James K. Polk. When the United States invaded Mexico in 1846, Pillow was with the army and had the rank of Brigadier General, thanks to Polk’s influence. His incompetence was noted by other officers, one of whom remarked that Pillow’s command capability was “one of the smallest capacity that has ever been elevated to so high a command”. During one battle Pillow was found to be “more than a mile and a half away from his troops”, and it was suggested he rejoin his regiment. Later the same day he reported to headquarters and said that he’d been unable to find it.  

Pillow’s activities with the Confederate army during the Civil War didn’t improve his standing among officers on either side. He was shunted to recruiting duties, the authorities having realised that it was best not to have him around when there was any fighting to be done. Robert P.Wettemann sums him up in these words : “Gideon Pillow was the nadir of a martial system that valued personal ambition, party loyalty and the supposed innate martial abilities of the American citizen over military professionalism, general knowledge of military art and science, and the ability to inspire and lead men into battle”.

Or there was the leader, of whom it is said: “In a conflict notorious for failed generalship, Austro-Hungarian Field Marshall Franz Conrad von Hotzendorf repeatedly demonstrated that he was the worst of a bad lot during the First World War”.  Admired for his theoretical views as an “innovative tactical thinker”, he often advocated war against just about every other nation in Europe. When war did arrive in 1914 he showed little real talent for it and “habitually disregarded such crucial factors as proper force ratios, sufficient firepower, terrain, weather, logistics, intelligence, unit training and troop morale”.

I’ve only managed to pick out a few from the fifteen selected to represent the worst military leaders in history, and there are others I could have held up for examination.  General Nogi Maresuke was a ”semi-forgotten pensioner living in quiet retirement” who was brought back when the Russo-Japanese War started in 1904. His problem was that he tended to look down on technology and “engaged in full frontal assaults because he saw no other way”. In one engagement his losses amounted to eighteen thousand, around one-third of his total force. Japan did win the war, but at a cost. And General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, victor at the famed siege of the Alamo, managed to lose what later became Texas when his confidence in his military skills, and his contempt for the rag-tag-and-bobtail Texan army, led to his defeat at the Battle of San Jacinto. It lasted just eighteen minutes. It was siesta time and he and his troops had been caught napping.

The Worst Military Leaders in History is not definitive, and I’m sure a different group of failed leaders could easily be assembled to illustrate how wrong they were. It’s difficult to decide if any one characteristic was common to them all, but arrogance, a refusal to accept that they might not be right, could stand out. “You do the scouting, I’ll do the fighting” was what Custer is alleged to have said in response to one of his scouts attempting to alert him to the dangers of dividing his command when he had no information about the number of Indians he would be facing. His men died because he was certain that he knew best.