‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall’ so the saying goes. History is littered with catastrophic failures and unsurpassed successes and the figures associated with those events reach fame or infamy because of them. But what of those whose careers might otherwise have been littered with success? What happens when, usually at the end of their career, they face catastrophic defeat? In some cases, their past successes are brushed over as they are presented as inept; in other cases they pass into legend and their failures forgotten. Here are some examples of otherwise successful people when they get it all wrong.
Xerxes’ military career was one of unbridled success. Yet at Thermopylae he met his match. Vastly outnumbering the alliance of Greek forces, Xerxes could have expected to sweep them aside and march on into Europe. Yet he did not count on Greek resilience or the highly trained Spartan soldiers holding the pass. It is said that Xerxes lost fifty men for every Greek that was killed. He would eventually be halted at Plataea, a Greek victory that owed much to the Spartan sacrifices.
2. James II of England
James could have expected a long and comfortable reign. He was the second king following the restoration of the monarchy in England after the collapse of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. Yet he was a very unpopular king for his Catholic beliefs and his attempts to restore Roman influence over England. By this time, the countries of Britain were profoundly Protestant. His reign lasted three years and ended with the Glorious Revolution that would see William III crowned king alongside his wife (and James’ daughter) Mary II.
3. General Custer
Custer’s military career was one of highs and lows. Despite finishing bottom of his class in military training, he was called to serve with the Unionists and due to favour from other commanders, gained himself a military commission. He did turn out to be a surprisingly effective cavalry leader during the Civil War. Yet it was at the Battle of Little Bighorn that his name would be made ‘ and not for anything positive.
4. Captain Smith of the Titanic
Smith was one of the most prestigious Captains to serve The White Star Line but his name has passed into legend as the Captain of the Titanic which sank on its maiden voyage. We will never know what happened or why the ship was proceeding with such speed through a known ice field but many books later published laid the blame at his feet, claiming he intended to make a name for himself and the ship. It was not the only major incident he was involved in. As Captain of the Olympic, his ship collided with a warship – the HMS Hawke.
5. Neville Chamberlain
Chamberlain enjoyed a long and prestigious career in politics in the United Kingdom from 1918 until 1940. He spent many years as Chancellor of the Exchequer (the man who holds the public purse strings and balances the books) and when he became Prime Minister in 1937, there was little complaint. However, his downfall came in 1940 when he played down ‘ rather naively ‘ the chances of war with Germany and delivered his now infamous speech of ‘peace in our time’. He was forced to resign shortly afterward and was replaced as PM by Winston Churchill.
6. Abraham Lincoln
Famous for ending slavery in the USA, winning a Civil War and then entering infamy for being assassinated by a Confederacy sympathisers, it is known by very few that his military career was disastrous. He entered the military as a Captain during the Black Hawk War but at the end of the conflict had been relegated to a Private for reasons that are not quite clear. Conflicting accounts refer to his leadership skills as positive from one perspective and negative from another but this loss of rank is not seen as an actual failure by all sources.
7. Hannibal of Carthage
Known as one of the greatest military commanders from history, he was in serious danger of ending the Roman Republic in its cradle. Most famously, he marched war elephants across modern Spain and France and into northern Italy. While there, he won three notable victories over the legions. At Tarentum, he seized the town but an inability to take the harbour allowed Roman reinforcements to land. Somehow, Hannibal managed to snatch defeat and lead to the surprising downfall of Carthage, yet at the start of the battle it looked as though victory was his for the taking.
8. Margaret Thatcher
‘Where there is error, may we bring truth’ was part of her famous speech when being elected to Prime Minister in 1979 with a landslide victory for the Conservative Party but some would say that she was unable to do just that when she sought to reintroduce a highly unpopular medieval tax known as The Poll Tax against all popular protests. Riots soon followed, bringing the country to a standstill and Thatcher would step down by the end of 1990.
9. Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon is one of the most successful military leaders of the modern era, taking France on a journey of imperialist expansionism during his period as Emperor. Until 1812, the war was at a stalemate with the British and French influence at a high point. Yet, a Russian campaign (which would prove a problem also for Hitler over a century later) would see the beginning of the end of his career; the coalition would turn the tables and invade France. Napoleon would be exiled a year later.
10. Publius Quinctilius Varus
He was a successful politician and military leader for many years under the late Republic and early Empire so it is no surprise that Emperor Augustus turned to this solid man to take three legions into Teutoburg Forest. What should have been a victory over the Germanic alliance of tribes ended in slaughter for the Romans and their Auxilia. Upon his return to Rome, Augustus is to said to have bellowed ‘Varus, give me back my legions!’
There are some interesting ‘failures’ of some otherwise noteworthy successful people demonstrating that even the best among us are prone to catastrophic error, low points in life and defeats that either make us or destroy us. Even the successful do not always experience success every moment of their lives. For some, the individuals or the countries that relied upon them never recovered from the disaster.