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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, or the first men to climb a scaling ladder against a defended fortification, or a rearguard, to be expended to save a retreating army, where the risk of casualties is high.[1][2] Such men were volunteers motivated by the promise of reward or promotion, or men under punishment offered pardon for their offenses, if they survived.


The term comes from the Dutch verloren hoop, literally "lost heap". The term was used in military contexts to denote a troop formation.[2][3] In the 16th century, when English-speakers first encountered the phrase, it was misheard as "forlorn hope", giving an added meaning to the term. While verloren is correctly identified with the English "forlorn" (both words stemming from the Proto-Germanic ferliusan), the Dutch word hoop (in its sense of "heap" in English) is not cognate with English "hope": this is an example of folk etymology.[4] This folk etymology has been strengthened by the fact that in Dutch, the word hoop is a homograph meaning "hope" as well as "heap",[5] although the two senses have different etymologies.[6]

In German, the term was Verlorene Haufen,[7] which has the same meaning as the Dutch term (i.e., lost heap), the word Haufen itself being a general term for a company of Landsknecht.

In French such a band was known as les enfants perdus— "the lost children".[8]


The notion of a band of volunteers undertaking a near-suicidal mission to lead an advance or guard a retreat is possibly as old as warfare itself; the story of Horatius at the bridge, in Roman times, is an early example. With the rise of a professional soldiery in the Middle Ages, the idea of troops undertaking such tasks for reward gave rise to their description as a "forlorn hope".

In the New Model Army of the English Civil War, the "forlorn hopes" could lead a storming attack, be positioned in advance of the vanguard, or be left behind to protect the rearguard. Men were assigned to these roles by the drawing of lots, on the principle that divine providence would intervene in the selection and also decide the fate of those selected. The royalist forces also used the tactic.[9]

In the German mercenary armies of the Landsknecht, these troops were called the verlorene Haufen, and carried long double-handed swords, with which they had to hew their way through the massive pike formations opposing them. Alternatively, a small force of verlorene Haufen could be used as "bait", to draw forward enemy formations and so expose them to the main force of Landsknecht behind.[10] 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').[11] 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').[12]

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.[13][14]

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[15]). The commanding officer was virtually guaranteed both a promotion and a long-term boost to his career prospects if he survived.[16]

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 should they survive. Both enlisted men and officers joined the dangerous mission as an opportunity to raise themselves in the army.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Forlorn Hope" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ a b "forlorn hope". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  3. ^ "forlorn hope". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
  4. ^ 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'…
  5. ^ a b Edwards, John (2002). "Forlorn hope?". In Wei, Li; et al. (eds.). Opportunities and Challenges of Bilingualism. The Hague, Netherlands: De Gruyter. pp. 25–26. ISBN 3110173050.
  6. ^ The Dutch hope, meaning "expectation", derives from the Old Low German tôhopa, whereas in the sense of "heap" or "pile", it is from Old Low German hôp: Oxford English Dictionary, respectively "hope, n.1" and "heap, n".
  7. ^ Blau, Friedrich (2016). Die deutschen Landsknechte. Paderborn: Salzwasser-Verlag. p. 47. ISBN 9783846013687.
  8. ^ "enfants perdus". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Retrieved 15 May 2020.
  9. ^ Waddington, Raymond B. (2012). Looking into providences: designs and trials in Paradise Lost. Toronto: University of Toronto press. p. 75. ISBN 9781442643420.
  10. ^ Axelrod, Alan (2014). Mercenaries : a guide to private armies and private military companies. Thousand Oaks, California: CQ Press. p. 56. ISBN 9781608712489. Bait, essentially sacrificed to the enemy onslaught
  11. ^ Nolan, Cathal J. (2006). The age of wars of religion, 1000-1650 : an encyclopedia of global warfare and civilization. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. p. 227. ISBN 9780313337338.
  12. ^ von Reymond, Moritz [in German] (1893). Weltgeschichte. Neudamm: Julius Neumann. p. 61. OCLC 177318251.
  13. ^ "'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.
  14. ^ The London Journal, and Weekly Record of Literature, Science, and Art. G. Vickers. 1847. p. 155.
  15. ^ 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
  16. ^ Bertaud, Jean-Paul (1988). The Army of the French Revolution: From Citizen-soldier to Instrument of Power. Princeton University Press. pp. 23–37.