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  • Against All Odds May 26, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

    Another in the Weird Wars series: what victory in military history was achieved against the greatest odds?

    First some ground rules.

    1) The two armies have to have comparable technologies. So the British and Empire troops at Rourke’s Drift (1879) were outnumbered by something like twenty to one by their Zulu adversaries. However, the British were given ‘the edge’ by the fact that they were fighting a tribal army with their own nineteenth-century weapons. (Note tanks are automatically a technological level above any form of infantry.)

    2) This one should go without saying but the winners have to, well, win. No nonsense about ‘moral victories’. The Spartans (and their allies) at Thermopylae (480 BC) were outnumbered by a minimum of thirty to one and possibly many, many more times that. But Leonidas and his men died there ‘according to their laws’. No one walked away…

    3) The numbers of the armies involved have to be reasonably well established. Agincourt (1415), for example, the English ‘miracle’ on French soil is much argued over. Henry V’s exhausted army included between five and ten thousand men. The French had between twelve and thirty six thousand soldiers. Play about with these numbers and you can come up with wildly different magnitudes of divine intervention. In fact, there is a strong whiff of cobblers about many numbers given for ancient and medieval and even early modern battles.

    4) No naval or air victories/defeats. They are different… No sieges either.

    5) The smaller force has to be at least 500 strong, otherwise we get into the territory of ambushes: interesting but not really a battle.

    Beachcombing is something of a romantic and thought that he would be choosing between battles where tiny but determined forces had defeated enemies outnumbering them forty or fifty times over. But there is a complete deficit of such melees – at least if the rules above are applied. So many military legends are actually just 2.1 (Chancellorsville 1863) or 3.1 (Tannenberg 1914)  or 4.1 (Carrhae 53 BC) or 5.1 (Narva 1700).

    Impressive, yes, incredible, no…

    There must be well attested battles where technologically comparable forces have fought at odds of over 5.1 and where the smaller has come away victorious, but Beachcombing has not been able to find a single example. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    Even the most legendary war-leaders, a Rommel, a Stonewall Jackson or a Montrose never overcome greater odds than these. What makes them stand out is that they repeatedly defeated armies that were bigger than them and, also, the crucial and hidden variable, when they defeated enemy armies they did great damage to their foes and, yet, did not lose too many men while doing so.

    In fact, in many ways the most interesting odds are those for a campaign rather than in one battle. After all, these are the true measure of military victories and defeats. Armies that are capable not just of defeating the enemy but of doing it again and again, and, crucially, making those victories count: taking prisoners, killing large numbers of the enemy, demoralizing those on the other side…

    The kill rate in the Winter War, for example, was an extraordinary 35 Soviets for every Finn. In post-war times the achievements of the Israeli army come close to this in some of its wars for survival.


    26 May 2011: Pat from Military History nominates Fallujah and has some interesting thoughts besides. ‘I would say that your criteria aim too high.  I cannot think of any decisive battles off the top of my head in which a smaller force defeated a larger when faced with odds of 5-1.  Those odds have been reached in small firefights, but you have the problem in small fights that the tactical ability and skills of the combatants plays a greater role despite the level of armament.  The 2004 battle of Fallujah is a good example, a force of 2-3,000 marines and soldiers defeated an insurgent force of 40-50,000 there.  The basic infantry weapons were very similar and the US did not use its superior airpower for anything but interdiction, we did not bomb inside the city, we did have armor inside the city for interdiction though.  However, the tactical skills of the marines were such that in pure infantry fights the insurgents were totally outclassed and defeated on a regular basis at odds of up to 12-1 at the point of contact. I will continue to think about it, but I don’t think there are any major battles where technically comparable forces were defeated at such great odds.  The whole point of warfare is to not have a fair fight.  As my dad always told me as a kid, ‘there is no such thing as a fair fight.’ You may be onto something with campaigns but there, so many factors come into play that force ratio is not as important.  Maneuver, distance between units, state of supply, state of morale, among others are more determinative than pure numbers.  In the end it all comes down how many troops you get to the point of contact.  To paraphrase Clausewitz the ratio of troops at the ‘decisive point’ makes the difference. ‘ Meanwhile James the Pimp (!) writes in to say that ‘I remember a battle from the end of the Roman Empire where a small group of cavalry relieve a city besieged by the Goths’. Beachcombing is almost certain that this relates to the description from Sidonious Apollinaris’ letters when 19 Roman cavalry attack the Goths (numbering in hundreds or thousands) besieging Clermont in 471. Incredibly the Romans win! Surprise and a night attack seem to have decided the issue and to have convinced the Goths that they were being overrun. This doesn’t respect the more than five hundred rule nor do we know the number of enemy, but it is certainly an extraordinary moment in military history and worth remembering.Thanks Pat and thanks James!!!

    27 May 2011: Jacky Brown writes in with the Battle of Longewala (1971) where 120 Indian soldiers with a handful of big guns held off 2800 Pakistani soldiers and 65 tanks. Two Indians and two hundred Pakistanis were killed. The Pakistanis also lost half of their tanks! This is smaller than Beach’s rules allow but as Jacky notes there was no element of ambush. Ricardo R remembers the Toyota War of the late 1980s between Chad and Libya. Thanks Jacky and thanks Ricardo!

    28 May 2011: Brett from Airminded writes – ‘The only example which I can summon to mind at the moment, though – reflecting my national biases – is Long Tan in 1966, Australian Army vs Viet Cong, where the odds were at least
    15 to one. But that fails your rule 5 as there were only about a hundred Australian soldiers, though it was more of a Rorke’s Drift situation than an ambush. The Dupuy Institute’s databases would surely have the answers, but they don’t give them away for free!’ Thanks Brett!

    28 June 2011: Judith from Zenobia suggests Marathon. The only problem with Marathon is (as Judith acknowledges) while the numbers given for the Athenians and their Platean allies are probably reliable the number of the Persian forces are much debated. The odds could have been as low as 2.1 or as high as 8.1 or 10.1. Marathon stands out though for another reason: if the low Athenian casualties – seemingly confirmed by archaeology – are correct then the kill rate of Greek to Persian was extraordinarily high. Thanks Judith!

    30 July 2011: TF writes in ‘I’m not sure if this qualifies, as I’m not sure of the relative tech levels, but Roger I of Sicily defeated a Muslim army which was besieging him at Cerami in 1063. Wikipedia gives 137 knights + 822 men at arms vs 50k Muslims so 52:1, which I imagine is probably incorrect on all sides, but maybe someone else has a good source?’ Thanks TF!

    23 Aug 2011: Author Mike Dash writes in with another Italian example or rather an example from Italy. ‘With regard to victories against impossible odds the example that immediately leapt to mind was the achievement of Belisarius in reconquering Italy from the Goths in 544-49. This fails to meet your conditions insofar as we have no accurate figures for the Goth forces, but we are told that Justinian, insanely jealous of his general as always, allocated Belisarius an astonishingly meagre force of 4,000 men and that with these (and presumably whatever remained of any local levies) he was able to defeat Totila and reassert Byzantine control over the entire Italian peninsula. Personally I find it hard to believe that the Goth army in this instance could have numbered less than 20,000, since it achieved the same thing on the overrunning side of things, but I cannot prove it. This was very much a case of the superiority of generalship, as Totila was immediately able to reconquer Italy when Belisarius was recalled in 549. B. was without question one of the most able generals of all time, and it is sobering to think what he might have achieved had he been more generously supported by his emperor. With the assistance of Narses, the great 90-year-old eunuch (and there’s another topic for you – I’d guess this may make N. the most elderly field commander known to history), he resecured an empire that was in some danger of disintegration; and Narses learned his battlecraft from Belisarius. Result: another 900 years of Byzantine history.’ Thanks Mike!

    7 Nov 2011: Radko writes in with some battles from the Hussite wars. ‘I am aware that not many people outside of central Europe know much about the subject and that there isn’t much English literature on the subject. I find it surprising since it was the Hussite movement that in essence started wave of church reformation movements in Europe. While the Hussite church reform didn’t spread beyond Czech borders, for the most part, even the US is lucky enough to have offshoot of it in the Moravian church. The Hussite wars were also notable for widely employing gun powder weapons and groundbreaking warfare tactics thanks to Hussite military leader Jan Zizka. There were a few battles I can think of that would fit into your rules for “against the odds” battles. True, in some of them the smaller force was 400 people but there is no question that the battle was a real battle and not an ambush.  1. Battle of Sudomer – Hussites  (400 strong – men, women, children included) against 2000 catholic cavalry  2. Battle of Vitkov – Hussites (12,000 strong) x Crusaders (50,000 – 100,000+) 3. Battle of Domazlice – Hussites (30k – 50k) x Crusaders (100k – 120k) – this wasn’t much of a battle, more of a slaughter. Also notable is Battle of Tachov about which historians still don’t agree whether it actually happened or not because much like in battle of Domazlice the Crusaders started running as soon as they heard the Hussites sing.  4. Battle of Nemecky Brod – Hussites (400) x Crusaders (2,000) ’ Thanks Radko!

    Leif writes, 31 Oct 2017: Dr. Beachcombing seeks examples of battles where a greatly outmatched army prevails ?against all odds?. We can think of one modern battle that matches most but not all of the Beachcombing criteria and at least deserves an honorable mention. Dr. Beachcombing mentions the Winter War, reminding us of the Battle of Suomussalmi?7 December 1939 – 8 January 1940. We?ll discuss the points in favor of the Finns first (our calculations assume the midpoint of the data ranges published in Wikipedia): 2) The winners have to, well, win. The Russians suffered a casualty rate of nearly 50% and withdrew. The Finnish casualty rate stood at 6.5%. On returning to Russian territory Commander AI Vinoradov was summarily executed, never a good sign. ?Check 3) The numbers have to be reasonably well established?Check. 4) No naval or air victories/defeats. No sieges either?Check.5) The smaller force has to be at least 500 strong?Check. There were 4.3 Russians for each Finn, possibly the highest ratio you?ll find in a modern battle ending in an upset. The only sticking point is the first: 1) The two armies have to have comparable technologies? (Note tanks are automatically a technological level above any form of infantry.)? The Russians invaded with aircraft, artillery, and a tank brigade. The defenders had only a few trucks and (if memory serves) a single artillery piece dating from the 1880s. One might contend that we should give the Finns this one, because they ended the battle with a considerable number of tanks and artillery pieces, but this argument is disingenuous? it was all captured equipment, promptly sent to the south. By any fair assessment the Finns fail on this point, and miserably. Field Marshall Mannerheim (via seance) wonders whether the first point actually expresses what our good Doctor intended. He reports that Colonel Siilasvuo is very upset about not making the list, but should calm down in due time.