forlorn hope

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An illustration by William Barnes Wollen of Lieutenant Colin Campbell (1792–1863) leading the forlorn hope (sense 1.1) at the Siege of San Sebastián in 1813 during the Peninsular War.[n 1]

Sense 1 (“troop of soldiers picked to make an advance attack, or the first attack”) is a mistranslation of Dutch verloren hoop (literally lost troop):[1] verloren (lost, adjective) + hoop ((obsolete) unit of soldiers, contingent; heap, pile, stack), mistaking the latter word for the homograph hoop (hope). Verloren is the past participle of verliezen (to lose (possession); to be defeated, to lose (a game)) (ultimately from Proto-Germanic *fraleusaną (to cease to have, lose), from Proto-Indo-European *per- (before, in front; first) + *lewH- (to cut, sever; to separate; to loosen; to lose)), while hoop is ultimately from Proto-Germanic *haupaz (a crowd, throng; a heap, pile), from Proto-Indo-European *kouHp-nó- or *keHup-.

Sense 2 (“dangerous or hopeless venture”) is either an extension of the meaning of sense 1, or from the literal meaning of the words forlorn and hope.[1]



forlorn hope (plural forlorn hopes)

  1. (military, archaic)
    1. A small troop of soldiers picked to make an advance attack, or the first attack; a storming party.
      • c. 1609–1622?, John Fletcher, “The Womans Prize: Or, The Tamer Tamed”, in Comedies and Tragedies [], London: [] Humphrey Robinson, [], and for Humphrey Moseley [], published 1647, OCLC 3083972, Act II, scene v, page 106, column 1:
        Ped[ro]. Stand to your guard ſir, all the devils extant / Are broke upon us, like a cloud of thunder; / There are more women, marching hitherward, / In reſcue of my Miſtris, then ere turn’d taile / At Sturbridge Faire; and I believe, as fiery. / Jaq[ues]. The forlorn-hope’s led by a tanners wife, / I know her by her hide; a deſperate woman: [...]
      • 1726, J[ohn Durant] Breval, “Franche Comte”, in Remarks on Several Parts of Europe: Relating Chiefly to the History, Antiquities and Geography, of Those Countries though which the Author has Travel’d; [], volume I, London: [] Bernard Lintot [], OCLC 863445972, page 200:
        For Books and fine Pictures are the Forlorn-hope, as it were, of the Catholick Cloyſters and Convents; and as there are few of the Monks that underſtand either, upon any great Emergency they ſooner chuſe to convert theſe Moveables into Money, than to melt down their ſuperfluous Hoards of Plate; Treaſures which are oftentimes by far the leſs valuable.
      • 1728, George Carleton, The Military Memoirs of Capt. George Carleton. From the Dutch War, 1672. in which he Serv’d, to the Conclusion of the Peace at Utrecht, 1713. [], London: [] E[dward] Symon, [], OCLC 1155233229, page 23:
        Our Trenches were immediately open'd towards the Dauphin Baſtion, againſt which were planted many Cannon, in order to make a Breach; my ſelf as Probationer being twice put upon the forlorn Hope to facilitate that difficult Piece of Service.
      • 1751, [Tobias] Smollett, “He is Concerned in a Dangerous Adventure with a Certain Gardener; []”, in The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle [], volume I, London: Harrison and Co., [], published 1781, OCLC 316121541, page 49, column 1:
        [...] Pipes, who acted as the enemy's forlorn hope, advanced to the gate with great intrepidity, and clapping his foot to the door, which was none of the ſtouteſt, with the execution and diſpatch of a petard, ſplit it into a thouſand pieces.
      • 1880, Isaac N[ewton] Arnold, “Assault upon Quebec”, in The Life of Benedict Arnold; His Patriotism and His Treason, Chicago, Ill.: Jansen, McClurg & Company, OCLC 783455832, page 82:
        [Benedict] Arnold, therefore, as usual with him, led the forlorn hope, marching about one hundred yards before the main body.
      • 1885, G[eorge] B[ruce] Malleson, “Bharatpúr”, in The Decisive Battles of India from 1746 to 1849 inclusive. [], 2nd edition, London: W[illiam] H. Allen & Co., [], OCLC 1191021899, page 323:
        Lieutenant Templeton of the 76th offered to lead the forlorn hope. [...] So steep, however, was the ascent, and so continuous and well directed the fire upon it by the enemy from the bastion nearest to it, that but few men succeeded in reaching the summit. The first of these was young Templeton, the leader of the forlorn hope, but he was at once shot dead.
      • 1901 May, Winston Churchill, “A Strange Meeting”, in The Crisis, New York, N.Y.: The Macmillan Company; London: Macmillan & Co., Ltd., OCLC 757330, book III, page 433:
        He's the pride of our Vicksburg army. Not afraid of hell. A chivalrous man, a forlorn-hope man.
      • 1908 September – 1909 September, Jack London, chapter XIV, in Martin Eden, New York, N.Y.: The Macmillan Company, published September 1909, OCLC 4052119, page 117:
        He felt the stress and strain of life, its fevers and sweats and wild insurgences—surely this was the stuff to write about! He wanted to glorify the leaders of forlorn hopes, the mad lovers, the giants that fought under stress and strain, amid terror and tragedy, making life crackle with the strength of their endeavor.
      • 1922, George Edmundson, “From the End of the Twelve Years’ Truce to the Peace of Munster, 1621–1648. The Stadholderate of Frederick Henry of Orange.”, in History of Holland (Cambridge Historical Series), Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: University Press, OCLC 459296990, page 147:
        After exploding a mine, a forlorn hope of fifty English troops rushed out from one of the tunnels and made good their footing upon the ramparts.
      • 1939, Arnold J[oseph] Toynbee, “The Disintegrations of Civilizations (cont.)”, in A Study of History, volume VI, London: Oxford University Press; Geoffrey Cumberlege, [], published 1955, OCLC 1170224408, section C(II)(a) (The Relation between Disintegrating Civilizations and Individuals), page 177:
        There will be would-be saviours of a disintegrating society who will refuse to despair of the Present and will lead forlorn hopes in an endeavour to turn the tide and to convert the rout into a fresh advance, without being willing to 'retreat according to plan' for the sake of even temporarily breaking off contact with an enemy who has at any rate momentarily gained the upper hand.
      • 2001, editorial staff of the Military Order of the Purple Heart and Turner Publishing Company, compilers, “The Purple Heart Legacy”, in The Legacy of the Purple Heart, 4th edition, Paducah, Ky.: Turner Publishing Company, →ISBN, page 15:
        A detachment of 400 Continental soldiers waited anxiously outside Yorktown on the dark and bone-chilling evening of October 14, 1781. Pangs of uncertainty spread through the ranks, for these men were the advance party, the "forlorn hope," on the attack of the British fortifications at Yorktown.
    2. (obsolete) In the plural form forlorn hopes: the soldiers collectively making up such a troop; (by extension) a group of reckless adventurers.
      • 1539 April 9, Cuthbert Tunstall, A Sermon of Cuthbert Tonstall, Bishop of Durham, Preached on Palm Sunday, 1539, before King Henry VIII. [][1], London: [] [J. Compton, []] for T[homas] Rodd, [], published 1823, OCLC 54180191:
        [T]o make this realme a praye to al venturers, al ſpoylers, all ſnaphanſes, all forlornehopes, all cormerauntes, all reuenours of the worlde, that wyll inuade this realme, is to ſaye, thou poſſeſſyoner of any landes of this realme, of what degree ſo euer thou be, fro the higheſt to the loweſt, ſhalte be ſlayne and deſtroyed, and thy landes taken frome the by thoſe that wyl haue al for them ſelfes.
  2. (by extension) Any dangerous or hopeless venture.
    • 1794, Charlotte Smith, chapter XI, in The Banished Man. [], volume II, London: [] T[homas] Cadell, Jun. and W[illiam] Davies, (successors to Mr. [Thomas] Cadell) [], OCLC 741691310, page 226:
      From the tete-a-tete with Mr. Thomas Tough, ſhe goes to her deſk again, and begins to write "With what appetite ſhe may," in the forlorn hope of procuring from her bookſeller part of the money ſhe has been compelled to promiſe to the ſaid Thomas's peremptory demands, on behalf of Mr. Humphrey Hotgooſe.
    • 1841 June 23, Rutherford Alcock, “On Injuries of the Joints”, in Jerome V[an] C[rowninsfield] Smith, editor, The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, volume XXIV, number 20, Boston, Mass.: D. Clapp, Jr., [], OCLC 191121705, page 329:
      These cases form the forlorn hope in surgery; all saved are snatched from nearly certain death. [From the Medico-Chirurgical Transactions.]
    • 1842 December – 1844 July, Charles Dickens, “From which It will be Seen that Martin Became a Lion on His Own Account. Together with the Reason Why.”, in The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, London: Chapman and Hall, [], published 1844, OCLC 977517776, page 277:
      [A]s Mark, with all his vigilance, was unable to keep them [visitors] from the door; he resolved to go to bed—not that he felt at all sure of bed being any protection, but that he might not leave a forlorn hope untried.
    • 1876, George Eliot [pseudonym; Mary Ann Evans], chapter XL, in Daniel Deronda, volume III, Edinburgh; London: William Blackwood and Sons, OCLC 775411, book V (Mordecai), pages 186–187:
      [I]t would be a cruel rebuff to a being who was appealing to him as a forlorn hope under the shadow of a coming doom.
    • 1979, Allan Chapman, “Astrological Medicine”, in Charles Webster, editor, Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: Cambridge University Press, →ISBN, page 275:
      Astrological medicine for the sick, indeed, was often the forlorn hope of the art, and the wise man expected it to function primarily as a system of preventative and explanatory physic.
    • 1988, William Brinkley, “The Companion”, in The Last Ship: [], New York, N.Y.: Plume, published 2013, →ISBN, book III (The Search), page 171:
      [H]e was not so much stalking us as clinging importunately, frantically, a mortal cripple, to us, as his only distant forlorn hope of help, and by his very silence sending out an imploring Mayday stating that he could neither answer nor surface, was marooned in the deep.
    • 2014, Fred Schruers, “Living Here in Levittown”, in Billy Joel: The Definitive Biography, New York, N.Y.: Three Rivers Press, →ISBN, part I (Origins: The Ballad of Billy the Kid), page 15:
      Finally, on June 7, after steaming about in the vicinity of Cuba with some forlorn hope of gaining entry to a U.S. port, the ship began a return voyage.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ From Archibald Forbes; G[eorge] A[lfred] Henty; Arthur Griffiths [et al.] (1901) Battles of the Nineteenth Century, London: Cassell and Company, OCLC 1193477409.


  1. 1.0 1.1 forlorn hope, n.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1897; “forlorn hope, phrase”, in Lexico,; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.

Further reading[edit]