I understand it happened more than once where a general arrived by sea and shortly after landing ordered the ships to be burned, so that retreat would never be an option.

Which military commanders/generals did this, and under what circumstances?

EDIT: From searching online, I've found : Agathocles of Syracuse in 310 BC, Emperor Julian in 363, William of Normandy in 1066, and Cortez in 1519; I don't if any of these are accurate.

  • This has the potential to be a very interesting question, but perhaps try to bring some source material about the burning of ships, and narrow down your timelines somewhat. Your question as stated is very broad and unsubstantiated. We like questions that show that some effort was put in before the question was posted. – user2590 Jul 12 '14 at 23:23
  • The only such incident I am aware of is at the start of Cortez's 1518 Conquest of Mexico, perhaps partially due to his command having become a mutiny against the incumbent governor of Cuba: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Pieter Geerkens Jul 13 '14 at 0:40
  • Would Fletcher Christian count? – CGCampbell Jul 13 '14 at 2:42
  • It's "Hernán Cortés" or "Hernan Cortes", but certainly not "Cortez". Is everybody here a fan of Neil Young or what? – Brasidas Jul 4 '16 at 13:34

(1) One account of the Danaan invasion of Ireland has it that upon landing, they burned their ships, causing a great mist to rise up and terrifying the inhabitants who thought the Danaans arrived in a cloud.

(2) In Book V of the Aeneid, the Trojan women attempt to burn the ships after they arrive on Sicily, but a rainstorm thwarts their plans.

(3) In 351 BC, Sidon rebelled against Ochus, the King of Persia. They burned all the ships in the harbor to prevent anyone from fleeing. When it became clear that the city had been betrayed and the Persians were entering, they set fire to their own homes and the entire city was obliterated.

(4) In 296, the Praetorian Prefect, Asclepiodotus, commanded an army belonging to the emperor Constantius Chlorus, and led it against the usurper Allectus. Having arrived in Britain to confront Allectus, Asclepiodotus burned his own ships to prevent his men from retreating.

(5) In 363, Julian the Apostate, Emperor of Rome invaded Persia. After his army crossed the Tigris he had all the pontoons and barges burned so there would be no thought of going back.

(6) In 711, Tariq ibn Ziyad, for whom Gibraltar is named, landed there, burned his ships and embarked on the conquest of Spain.

(7) Some accounts claim that William the Duke of Normandy burnt his ships on arriving in England in 1066.

(8) In 1169, a group of about 250 English freebooters under the bastards Robert Fitz-Stephen, Meiler Fitz-Henry, and Meiler Fitz-David, along with a vassal of king Henry, named Hervey Montmorency, raided Wexford, and having been repulsed they were so ashamed, they burnt their ships and determined to succeed or die trying.

(9) Hernando Cortez supposedly burned his ships in 1519 to prevent anyone returning to Cuba and reporting his mutiny to the Spanish governor there.

(10) According to a book published in 1689, which purported to be the journal of a pirate named Raveneau de Lussan, he at one point led his men across the isthmus of the Americas through Honduras after first burning their ship to prevent anyone from defecting.

(11) In 1779, during the celebrated battle between John Paul Jones and the English ship of the line, Serapis, rather than flee or surrender Jones desparately kamikazeed his sinking ship into the Serapis and captured it va banque.

(12) In 1789, sailors serving on the HMS Bounty under the notorious Captain Bly mutinied and sailed to Pitcairn Island where they burned the Bounty.

| improve this answer | |

Tyler has given a very interesting long list. There is no doubt that the motive of an admiral burning his own ships to pre-empt any thought of retreat is an ancient and wide-spread narrative topos. But I think it is difficult to find any examples where it is reliably documented that this actually happened. Maybe only the story about the “Bounty”.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    yah. Burn your ships when you can use the wood for more productive things like building siege engines, shelter for your people, wagons to transport your supplies? Seems like a terrible waste of good solid wood... – jwenting Jul 14 '14 at 9:21
  • 1
    An ocean going sailing vessel's wood would make a poor siege engine. It would also take an inordinate amount of time to disassemble any vessel well built enough to carry forces. The idea of burning one's ships is to dissuade your own forces from being able to use them. If you have 10 ships you could not disable them all fast enough to stop forces from using the remainders. – CGCampbell Jul 15 '14 at 0:25
  • Wasn't the Bounty burnt to avoid discovery rather than prevent retreat? There was nobody on Pitcairn. – WW. Jul 27 '14 at 17:15
  • I think you are right. – fdb Jul 28 '14 at 13:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.