I'm wondering if any leader from any era said the phrase "We may have lost the battle, but not the war" that can be backed up with reputable sources.

The meaning of the phrase (by my interpretation) is:

You've have a few failures recently but there's a lot more to go, so focus on winning the next opportunities.

But, this can be taken literally too.

I'm not asking for the origin of the phrase, but rather if it was used by any leaders to maybe boost morale of their troops after seeing half their army dead, most injured, woman and children taken, villages on fire, etc.

  • Sun Tzu (although arguably not a leader) comes to mind, especially with tactics being to strategy what a battle is to war -- but I can't find a good quote to back that. "Sometimes we need to lose the small battles in order to win the war" seems to be attributed to Sun Tzu, but I could not verify it... Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 16:13
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    There's an unwritten law in this Stack Exchange, that only user @PieterGeerkens can post about Desaix, so I'm gonna restraint myself and post this only as a comment. At Marengo, Napoleon was losing the battle, until Desaix arrived with 6,000 men and said: "This battle is lost, but there is time to win another", before charging the Austrians. Desaix died while leading the counter-attack, but Napoleon won his battle.
    – Brasidas
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 19:47
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    Demonstrates minimal research.
    – MCW
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 20:49
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    Not an answer to the specific question, but still relevant, would be the converse: Pyrrhus' statement during the Pyrrhic War (as reported by Plutarch): "... Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such victory would utterly undo him."
    – Ray
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 0:27
  • It would be a bit weird thing to say - most wars had plenty of lost battles on both sides (and plenty of battles that achieved their strategic goals, but incurred too heavy a cost). Or at least, even though you wouldn't be surprised by it being said, you certainly wouldn't expect it to be found among famous quotes or something; it likely wouldn't even be recorded (unless, of course, the war was lost). It's fairly commonly used in "motivational leadership", though - for better or worse :P
    – Luaan
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 7:58

4 Answers 4


Charles de Gaulle, shortly before French surrender (The Appeal of 18 June - 18/06/1940): "France has lost the battle but she has not lost the war." (Source: The Lincoln Institute). Delivered from the BBC studio in Oxford Street, London. La France a perdu une bataille. Mais la France n'a pas perdu la guerre!

The main purpose of the speech was to rally as many French people as possible to the Resistance, which was not quite achieved at first.


An interesting correlary is:

In April 1975, after the war was over, the colonel was in a delegation dispatched to Hanoi. In the airport, he got into a conversation with a North Vietnamese colonel named Tu who spoke some English and, as soldiers do, they began to talk shop. After a while, Colonel Summers said: “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.” Colonel Tu thought about that for a minute, then replied: “That may be so. But it is also irrelevant.”

Strategic Communication

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    This sounds like a zinger anecdote.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 6:22

Guru Gobind Singh(The tenth Guru of Sikhs) lost The Battle of Chamkaur. He lost his elder two sons in the battle & only a few of his army could make out from the place. His other two sons(younger ones) & his Mother were captured & killed by Wazir Khan & his army. After this incident, Guru Gobind Singh wrote a series of letters to Aurangzeb which can be found on the Internet with the name of "Zafarnama" which means "Epistle of Victory". In these letters, he emphasized that though he might have lost the battle but he has not lost this war between good & evil and his army will rise again & will keep fighting till the evil empire of Aurangzeb is destroyed.

Following is a famous verse from Zafarnama :-

When all has been tried, yet Justice is not in sight, It is then right to pick up the sword, It is then right to fight

A lot from the original letters has been lost. But still it is worth a read. you can read it here

Then leaders from his re-united army swept the Mughals from Punjab(the Punjab before 1947). And rest is the history

Suggestion: Do read about Guru Gobind Singh & his Father who gave his life for the freedom to practice any religion, after you read Zafarnama. His father's writings were compiled into Sri Guru Granth Sahib(The holy book of Sikhs) by the name "Salok Mahala 9".

  • You probably mean "is destroyed". Commented Feb 4, 2017 at 16:10
  • @JonathanRosenne yeah, that's a typo over there. thank you for pointing it out : )
    – WhiteSword
    Commented Feb 4, 2017 at 17:09

Well, a quote like that would certainly befit Leonidas' battle against the Persians at the Thermopylae: the prospects were such that Leonidas only picked soldiers who already had sons as he did not expect any survivors. The Greek were heavily outnumbered, and we do have a famous quote from before the battle: after a first offer was refused, Xerxes sent a messenger telling the Greek to hand over their weapons, to which Leonidas replied "come and get them".

Which they tried at great cost for about a week before a Greek traitor showed the Persians the way to the Greek position.

The battle was seminal in creating the time slot for evacuating Athens and preparing the battle at Salamis where the Persian navy was destroyed, ending the Persian threat.

So while that battle is not actually good for the quote you are looking for, at least it is a demonstration of the concept.

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    The question was if anyone actually said it, not if anyone ever in history might have thought it.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 16:10
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    Although it didn't answer the question, it was a nice history lesson for me, thanks! I didn't know about this
    – ʰᵈˑ
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 16:26
  • You may want to look "300" (the film) if you want a rendition of it. Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 16:37
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    or perhaps herodotus
    – jk.
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 17:16
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    @Pierre.Sassoulas No. If you do want information about the Thermopylae you do not want to look "300".
    – SJuan76
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 17:49

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