April 16, 2012

The Forlorn Hope

A forlorn hope was a group of soldiers who comprised the first wave of attack upon a fixed position. Their primary purpose was to establish a foothold in enemy defences so that reinforcements could be sent in. Since these men were the first wave in an assault, their survivability rate was very low.

The forlorn hope enters the bastion at Fort Erie
Members of the forlorn hope were chosen for their ferocity, bravery or criminality. Sometimes officers chose the undesirable individuals in their regiment to be part of the forlorn hope since it was unlikely that these men would survive. However, sometimes men volunteered to be part of the forlorn hope because those lucky enough to survive were often handsomely rewarded. Junior officers typically led the forlorn hope, and if these officers survived they would also be rewarded, often with a promotion.   

A massive explosion ends the assault on the bastion
Clearly in order to receive rewards from participation in the forlorn hope one must first survive. This can be difficult. Depending on the engagement, the chance of survival for members of the forlorn hope could be zero. One example of the poor survival rate comes from the Siege of Fort Erie.

On August 15th, 1814, the British launched an assault on the American held defences of Fort Erie. The British four-pronged assault culminated in massive casualties for the British. One of these assaults, led by Lieutenant Colonel William Drummond upon one of Fort Erie’s bastions, proved to be particularly devastating for the attackers. All members of the forlorn hope died during this assault. Most of the attackers never even made it into the bastion.

For more information on the Siege of Fort Erie, visit their website.

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