Historians always want to talk about how battles were won with a general’s brilliance or a unit’s bravery. Sometimes they are, but sometimes they are decided in somewhat less elegant ways. For instance, here are seven times alcohol played a major role in the outcomes:
1. A German officer loses key bridges on D-Day because he got drunk with his girlfriend
In his book, “Pegasus Bridge,” Stephen E. Ambrose of “Band of Brothers” fame details the night of drinking German Major Hans Schmidt had before his unit was attacked by British Paratroopers. His men were guarding two key bridges over the river Orne, and he was supposed to order their destruction if the allies came close to capturing them. The bridges were wired with explosives and could have been destroyed instantly with an order from Schmidt.
But, Schmidt was drinking the night of the attack and wasn’t there to give the order. When he sobered up, he tried to get to the battlefield and accidentally rode past the British lines. He was captured with his driver and the British held the bridges, protecting Allied paratroopers from a German counterattack.
2. A nearly crushed army survives because an enemy commander is too drunk to attack
On Dec. 31, 1862, the first day of the Battle of Stone River, the Confederate Army attacked the Union near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. General Braxton Bragg’s battle plan worked nearly as designed and thousands of Union soldiers were captured. The attack would’ve been more successful, but Maj. Gen Benjamin F. Cheatham’s brigades were severely late and disorganized after the drunk Cheatham fell from his horse while rallying his troops.
The Union Army nearly retreated, but the generals decided they had just enough troops left to hold the position, troops they likely wouldn’t have had if Cheatham had attacked as planned. The Federal soldiers held it together for two days before Union artillery wiped out 1,800 Confederates in less than an hour on Jan. 2, 1863. The Union gained the momentum and won the battle.
3. Ulysses S. Grant’s entire military career
Ulysses S. Grant had a well-documented alcohol problem, but historians think it may have actually made his career. James McPherson won a Pulitzer Prize for his book, “Battle Cry of Freedom.” In it, he says that Grant’s “predisposition to alcoholism may have made him a better general. His struggle for self-discipline enabled him to understand and discipline others; the humiliation of prewar failures gave him a quiet humility that was conspicuously absent from so many generals with a reputation to protect; because Grant had nowhere to go but up, he could act with more boldness and decision than commanders who dared not risk failure.”
Basically, Grant was already dealing with so much disdain because of his alcoholism that he didn’t care if he failed. This caused him to be more aggressive in battle than other generals were likely to be. Grant once cut himself off from everything but ammunition and medical supplies on purpose so he could attack Vicksburg. When the attack failed to take the city, Grant just turned the attack into a two-month siege (that ultimately succeeded). It should be noted, however, that Grant was absent for some of the siege since he was enjoying a two-day bender on the River Yazoo.
4. Samurai party so hard they don’t realize they’re under attack
Imagawa Yoshimoto, a powerful Japanese commander in 1560 with 35,000 soldiers, decided he wanted to try and take the capital of Japan at the time, Kyoto. On his way to Kyoto, Yoshimoto attempted to capture fortresses owned by Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga was only able to raise 2,500 samurai to face the opposing force.
Nobunaga marched with his forces to a fortress near Okehazama, Japan. When Nobunaga saw Yoshimoto’s forces drinking and partying, he ordered a small force to occupy the fortress and plant the flags of the army all around it. With the rest of his men, he slipped around the drunken samurai and approached from the rear.
Nobunaga’s fought against 12 to 1 odds, but the victory was complete. Yoshimoto reportedly left his tent to complain about the noise before he realized he was hearing an attack, not the party. Yoshimoto wounded a single enemy soldier before he was killed. Nobunaga and his forces killed all but two of the senior officers before the remaining samurai fled or surrendered.
5. Ottoman sultan loses his entire navy for some casks of wine
Ottoman Sultan Selim II drank so much his nickname was, “The Sot.” His love of wine is one of the most popular explanations for his invasion of Cyprus in 1570. Though the invasion went well at first, this play for the famed Cypriot wine would cost the sultan dearly.
As fortresses in Cyprus fell to Selim, Pope Pius V was trying to get European leaders to build a naval armada to attack the Ottomans. It took over a year for the countries to agree on the alliance’s terms, but Europe created a massive naval fleet that confronted the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. When the naval battle began, 300 Ottoman ships faced off against 200 Christian ships of greater quality. Historians believe 90 percent of ships in the Mediterranean at the time were involved in the battle.
Despite having roughly equal forces, the Christians stomped Selim so hard they made a profit. 12 European galleys were sank, and 8,000 Christian fighters died. But, Christians liberated 15,000 slaves and captured 117 galleys. The Ottomans lost most of their Navy both in terms of ships and personnel. Selim II did still capture Cyprus with his armies and was able to drink its famed wines to his content, but it probably took a lot of drinking for him to forget what he paid for it.
6. Russian troops get bored before a battle and drink too much to fight
In “A History of Vodka,” Vil’i͡am Vasil’evich Pokhlebkin details what Russian fighters drank while they waited for a small enemy force to arrive for a battle in 1377. It’s mostly mead, ale, and beer.
While the exact numbers of troops on each side are no longer known, the armies of five Russian warlords were assembled at the river. But, they were so drunk that the Mongols of the Blue Horde just showed up and started slaughtering them. The supreme commander of the forces, Ivan Dmitriyevich, drowned along with some of his staff before the horde even made it to him.
The river’s original name was lost to history because it became known as the River Pyana, meaning “drunken,” after the defeat.
7. The Trojan Horse
It’s definitely the best known of the entries on this list. The prince of Troy claimed a Greek king’s wife as a prize owed to him by Aphrodite. The wife, Helen, agreed and was married, kicking off a war between the Greeks and the Trojans.
After nine years of war, a Greek general came up with a plan of faking a retreat and leaving an offering of a giant wooden horse. Greek soldiers hid out in the horse. The horse was towed into the city and the Trojans began a night of epic celebrations.
They drank, sang, and feasted until they passed out. That’s when Greek soldiers crept from the horse. opened the gates, and slaughtered every Trojan they encountered.