FORLORN HOPE (through Dutch verloren hoop, from Ger. verlorene Haufe = "lost troop"; Haufe, "heap," being equivalent in the 17th century to "body of troops"; the French equivalent is enfants perdus), a military term (sometimes shortened to "forlorn"), used in the 16th and 17th centuries for a body of troops thrown out in front of the line of battle to engage the hostile line, somewhat after the fashion of skirmishers, though they were always solid closed bodies. These troops ran great risks, because they were often trapped between the two lines of battle as the latter closed upon one another, and fired upon or ridden down by their friends; further, their mission was to facilitate the attacks of their own main body by striking the first blow against or meeting the first shock of the fresh and unshaken enemy. In the following century (18th), when lines of masses were no longer employed, a thin line of skirmishers alone preceded the three-deep line of battle, but the term "forlorn hope" continued to be used for picked bodies of men entrusted with dangerous tasks, and in particular for the storming party at the assault of a fortress. In this last sense "forlorn hope" is often used at the present time. The misunderstanding of the word "hope" has led to various applications of "forlorn hope," such as to an enterprise offering little chance of success, or, further still from the original meaning, to the faint or desperate hope of such success.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)