7 unstoppable armies (that lost the war against the weather)
Say you have an unstoppable army, and you’re itching to take it somewhere to do a bit of conquering on the weekend. What do you do to make sure it’s in tip-top shape to crush your adversaries?
If you put “check the forecast” on your prep-list, congratulations! You’re smarter and/or luckier than the military geniuses in charge of these seven armies who fought an epic war with Mother Nature, and lost so badly they made it into the history books.
7. 530s B.C.: The King of Persia loses an entire army in a sandstorm
Most people only know the Persian Empire as “those guys who lost to the Greeks that one time,” thanks to movies and popular culture. In reality, though, the Persians built the biggest empire the world had ever seen up until that point.
Its borders ranged from Pakistan and Central Asia aaaaall the way across to Turkey and some of the Greek islands. We’re not experts in empire-building, but we have to assume that doesn’t happen without knowing which way to point your army.
One of the empire’s kings, Cambyses, thought he’d build on the successes of his predecessors by adding Egypt to his many, many possessions. It wasn’t easy, but he pulled it off, taking the Egyptian capital and eventually killing the Pharoah.
Then, according to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, he put together 50,000 men and ordered them off to the famous oasis at Siwa to conquer the oracle there – and then promptly lost them in a massive sandstorm.
Every now and then, someone mounts an expedition to try find its remains, or at least make a documentary about them (like this one from Discovery):
They usually only yield mixed results. The army remains so lost, modern historians aren't even sure it even existed. Good job, Cambyses!
6. 1187 A.D.: A crusader king marches into the desert without any water.
You know, even if you live in an age where weather forecasting is a little spotty, you still have a few options – like looking out the window and seeing the desert you’re marching into is really, really hot.
See the guy paying homage above? That’s King Guy of Jerusalem, bowing before the Ayyubid sultan Saladin. A few days before, Guy was a powerful king at the head of an army of 20,000 men. Now he was the captive of his greatest adversary.
Why? Because Guy made a few minor tactical errors while marching. Like woefully underestimating how long it would take his men, dressed in full armor, to cross a patch of desert. Also, to save time, he ordered the water carts to be left behind.
Detail: This was July in the Middle East.
So, as Guy's men marched toward the freshwater Sea of Galilee in blazing heat, suffering from dehydration and heat exhaustion, they found Saladin waiting for them, with a well-prepared army well-acquainted with the great secrets of desert warfare (Secret #1: Don’t leave the water behind).
The fortunes of the crusaders would ebb and flow over the next few decades, but they would never really recover from this catastrophic defeat. Because apparently “deserts are hot and dry” wasn’t something they taught in Crusader College.
5. 1242 A.D.: Heavy armour is not appropriate attire for fighting on frozen lakes
Speaking of Crusader College, here’s something else they left off the curriculum: Don’t fight in heavy plate armour on a frozen lake in Russia.
That lesson wouldn't have been much use to our boy Guy, but the Teutonic Knights could have benefited from it. They’re part of a lesser-known sideshow of the Crusades focussed on conquering the Baltic countries.
For reasons which we’re sure must have made perfect sense at the time, these lads decided to invade Russia, which at the time was divided into several different states. One, Novgorod, sent a force to meet these heavily armoured invaders.
When they clashed, it was atop the frozen surface of Lake Peipus, and after a few hours, the crusaders tried to retreat.
The ice gave way beneath them. Apparently that plate armour was really, really heavy.
The Teutonic Knights didn’t try again, and the Novgorod leader, Alexander Nevsky, became a national Russian hero and symbol of Russian resistance to invaders from the West.
Not that anyone else tried to invade Russia in the winter.
4. 1274/1281: The Mongols try to invade Japan in a hurricane
In the 1200s, the Mongol Empire was at the height of its power, stretching from China to Persia to Russia and united under the most terrifying horde of horsemen the world had ever seen. But, you know, no one could come up with a compelling reason not to just keep on conquerin’, so the Mongols set their sights on nifty little Japan.
The Mongols were rooted in the steppes of Siberia. The weather in Japan is … not like the steppes.
Japan is so used to weather threats from the sea that two of the most well-known words in the Japanese language – tsunami and kamikaze – are related to the destructive power of the sea.
The last one (“divine wind”) has come to mean the famous suicide pilots of the Second World War, but they took their inspiration from the powerful typhoons that sprang up juuuuust as more than 100,000 Mongols were trying to cross over to take over Japan.
We’d be prepared to just dismiss it as bad luck or incompetence if it only happened the one time, but it happened twice within the space of a decade.
Either the Mongols are really lousy at predicting hurricanes, or the gods really, really didn’t want them to have Japan.
3. 1812: Napoleon picks a fight with General Winter
By 1812, Emperor Napoleon of the French was master of Europe. Germany, Austria, Italy and a half-dozen other countries were either part of his empire, or terrified of it.
The biggest exceptions: The United Kingdom and its unbeatable navy – and the Teutonic Knights’ old pal, Russia.
Like all great men, Napoleon had a few pet peeves, one of which was allowing anyone to not be a part of his empire, so he scraped together a paltry force of 600,000 men and started marching for Moscow.
He expected to wipe the floor with the Russians’ much smaller army. So did the Tsar of Russia, Alexander, which is why he mostly ordered his troops to retreat as the French advanced. It’s not like they didn’t have anywhere to retreat to.
That actually made it much worse on Napoleon, who didn’t get much of a chance to knock out the Russian army before he got to the capital – only to find it completely stripped of supplies. He tried to retreat, but it was too late: His army was already in bad shape from a long march through difficult country, and the soldiers had already taken everything there was to take on the way to Moscow.
And after a relatively late start, the Russian winter came at last, and it was devastating. By the time Napoleon’s great army limped to safety, only a little more than 100,000 men remained, and Napoleon learned a very valuable lesson: Layers, layers, layers.
2. 1814: A tornado rudely interrupts the burning of Washington.
If you’re Canadian, you know the story: After successfully repelling an American invasion of Canada, the British took the fight to them by sailing down to Washington and setting it on fire.
The Americans, we presume, don’t like to talk about it.
And when we’re telling the story, usually with a certain amount of satisfaction, we mostly don’t mention the giant tornado that sent the boys scrambling back to the ships.
Less than a day after dutifully putting the American capital's public buildings to the torch, a sudden thunderstorm sprang up and doused most of the fires. It also spawned a tornado that rolled through the downtown. The National Weather Service reports it blew off roofs, tossed cannon and damaged homes, as well as killing more British soldiers with flying debris than the American resistance managed.
The British fled, having held the city for only around a day. If you’re in the middle of something and you’re interrupted by a tornado, chances are it’s time to peace out.
1. 1941: Hitler forgets what happened to Napoleon
Sometimes it seems like half of Russia’s history consists of a bunch of guys trying to invade the place, and failing miserably because the Russians have a VERY different idea of winter than they did.
When the Nazi forces of Adolf Hitler marched into the Soviet Union, he was at the height of his power (where have we heard that one before…), and be brought literally MILLIONS of men, along with some of the most advanced military equipment of that age.
Not even talking about the fact he hadn’t done the right kind of planning, or that the Soviet army was in terrible shape after Stalin’s purges and almost losing a war against Finland (yes, really) his forces just weren’t equipped to handle the winter like the Russians were.
Advanced planes and tanks ground to a halt, with fuel and moving parts simply frozen. German winter uniforms just weren’t up to par against their Russian counterparts (worn by men who were used to this sort of thing).
Even the warm weather, when it came, was the enemy. Russian roads were mostly unpaved, so when the spring warm-up happened, they turned into huge quagmires. Sweltering summers made for a dusty mess.
The weather wasn’t the only reason the invasion failed, but it definitely dealt the deathblow to an army that totally didn’t know what it was getting into.
For some of the worst of today's weather from around the world, check out our Force of Nature gallery.