Forlorn hope

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Colin Campbell leading the 'forlorn hope' at the Siege of San Sebastián, 1813. Painting by William Barnes Wollen

A forlorn hope is a band of soldiers or other combatants chosen to take the vanguard in a military operation, such as a suicidal assault through the kill zone of a defended position, where the risk of casualties is high.[1]

Such a band is also known as the enfants perdus (French for 'lost children').[2]


The term comes from the Dutch verloren hoop, literally 'lost troop'. The term was used in military contexts to denote a troop formation.[3][4][5][6]

The Dutch word hoop (in its sense of 'heap' in English) is not cognate with English 'hope': this is an example of folk etymology.[7][8][9] The translation of verloren hoop as "forlorn hope" is "a quaint misunderstanding" using the nearest-sounding English words.[10] This folk etymology has been strengthened by the fact that in Dutch, the word hoop is a homograph meaning "hope" as well as "heap", though the two senses have different etymologies.[citation needed]


In the German mercenary armies of the Landsknechts, these troops were called the Verlorene Haufen, which has the same meaning as the Dutch term, the word Haufen itself being a general term for a company of Landsknecht. These men carried long double-handed swords, with which they had to hew their way through the massive pike formations opposing them. They also had to withstand the first wave of attacks when defending a breastwork. Members of the 'Verlorene Haufen earned double pay, thus giving them the name of Doppelsöldner ('Double-wagers'). Since there were not enough volunteers for this assignment, criminals who had been sentenced to death were taken into the ranks as well. As a field sign, the Verlorene Haufen carried a red Blutfahne ('Blood Banner').

By extension, the term forlorn hope became used for any body of troops placed in a hazardous position, e.g., an exposed outpost, or the defenders of an outwork in advance of the main defensive position.[1] This usage was especially common in accounts of the English Civil War, as well as in the British Army in the Peninsular War of 1808–1814. In the days of muzzle-loading muskets, the term was most frequently used to refer to the first wave of soldiers attacking a breach in defenses during a siege.

While it was likely that most members of the forlorn hope would be killed or wounded, the intention was that some would survive long enough to seize a foothold that could be reinforced, or, at least, that a second wave with better prospects could be sent in while the defenders were reloading or engaged in mopping up the remnants of the first wave.[1] That said, such soldiers were rarely suicidal or foolhardy: British troops of the forlorn hope at the 1812 Siege of Badajoz carried a large bag (5–6 feet (1.5–1.8 m) by 2 feet (0.61 m) in diameter) stuffed with hay or straw, which was thrown down into the enemy trenches to create a cushion and prevent injury as they jumped down.[6][11]

A forlorn hope may have been composed of volunteers and conscripted criminals, and were frequently led by ambitious junior officers with hopes of personal advancement: if the volunteers survived, and performed courageously, they would be expected to benefit in the form of promotions, cash gifts, and added glory to their name (a military tradition at least as old as the Roman Republic.[12]) The commanding officer was virtually guaranteed both a promotion and a long-term boost to his career prospects if he survived.[13]

In consequence, despite the grave risks involved for all concerned, there was often serious competition for the opportunity to lead such an assault and to display conspicuous valor.

The French equivalent of the forlorn hope, called Les Enfants Perdus ('The Lost Children'), were all guaranteed promotion to officer rank should they survive. Both enlisted men and officers joined the dangerous mission as an opportunity to raise themselves in the army.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Forlorn Hope" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ "enfants perdus". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
  3. ^ "folorn hope". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  4. ^ Kilian, Cornelius (1593). Etymologicum Teutonicæ Linguæ [The Etymology of Teutonic Languages]. Antwerp: Jan Moretus (cited in Oxford English Dictionary) – via Google Books.
  5. ^ "forlorn hope". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
  6. ^ a b "'Never Trump' Republicans could have their revenge". Lexington. The Economist. London. 9 August 2018. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 15 August 2018. The phrase “forlorn hope” entered English from Dutch and German in the 17th century. It referred to a suicide mission or, more often, the ambitious and condemned men chosen to execute it.
  7. ^ Newman, John B (1984). "On the Counterverbality of 'Nonverbal' as a Verbal Term". In Raphael, Lawrence J; Raphael, Carolyn B; Valdodinos, Miriam R (eds.). Language and Cognition: Essays in Honor of Arthur J. Bronstein. New York: Plenum Press. p. 203. ISBN 0-306-41433-3. Retrieved 15 May 2020 – via Internet Archive. So, for instance, "folorn hope", came into English because the Dutch expression verloren hoop (which means "lost troop") looked (to the eyes of readers of English) as though it meant "forlorn hope".
  8. ^ Todd, Loreto; Hancock, Ian (1990) [1986]. "Folk Etymology". International English Usage. London: Taylor & Francis. p. 488. ISBN 0-203-97763-7. Retrieved 15 May 2020 – via Google Books. Forlorn hope, for example, has been reinterpreted from the Dutch verloren hoop meaning 'a lost group'…
  9. ^ Attridge, Derek (1988). Peculiar Language: Literature as Difference from the Renaissance to James Joyce. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. p. 112. ISBN 0-415-34057-8. the Dutch phrase verloren hoop, the "lost heap"…became naturalized—and generalized—as forlorn hope...a quaint misunderstanding [from] folk etymology.
  10. ^ "The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language". Bartleby. 2000. Archived from the original on 6 March 2009. Retrieved 18 July 2011.
  11. ^ The London Journal, and Weekly Record of Literature, Science, and Art. G. Vickers. 1847. p. 155.
  12. ^ Crowns were bestowed after a Roman triumph by generals to soldiers who won personal victories in battle... [such as being] first to scale a wall. Dio Cassius: Roman History 6.21
  13. ^ Bertaud, Jean-Paul (1988). The Army of the French Revolution: From Citizen-soldier to Instrument of Power. Princeton University Press. pp. 23–37.