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Friday, May 30, 2008

Forlorn Hope

Forlorn hope is a military term that comes from the Dutch verloren hoop, which should be translated as "lost troop". In the days of muzzle-loading muskets it was most frequently used to refer to the first wave of soldiers attacking a breach in defences during a siege. 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.

A forlorn hope was typically led by a junior officer with hopes of personal advancement. If he survived, and performed courageously, he was almost guaranteed both a promotion and a long-term boost to his career prospects. As a result, despite the risks, there was often competition for the opportunity to lead the assault. The French equivalent of the Forlorn Hope, called Les Enfants Perdus or The Lost Children, were all guaranteed promotion to officers should they survive, and on both sides men took up the suicidal mission as an opportunity to raise themselves in the army.

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. 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.

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