Mankind’s history is replete with conflicts and wars, so much so that a few cultures had adopted themselves to the ‘daily’ travails of warfare. However, there are also rare cases when military victories were achieved against overwhelming odds without the implication of grand strategies or stately drills. In essence, many of such singular battles were won due to tactical brilliance of the commander, or deft use of topography, or just sheer courage and determination of the troops involved. So, without further ado, let us check out ten of such remarkable battles from history that were won by forces in spite of being outnumbered beyond the element of conventional expediency.
*NOTE 1 – These 10 battles were chosen to reflect different forces and scenarios from history, and so there might be other good examples of victories achieved against overwhelming odds – but we had to unfortunately leave them out. Furthermore, as the old dictum suggests – winning the battle doesn’t mean winning the war; so, many of the incidences mentioned here may not have led to long term strategic dominance.
*NOTE 2 – Most of the figures mentioned in the battles are taken from earlier sources (some Medieval) – many of which might not have been fully precise with the numbers. Still we have tried our best to present unbiased moderate estimates of such figures.
1) Battle of Carrhae (6 May, 53 BC) –
We start off the list with a Roman defeat – and, it was not just any defeat. The battle marked the death of the much despised and probably the richest Roman of his time – Marcus Licinius Crassus (the very same general who subdued Spartacus). As for the conflict itself, it was the Parthians (from north-eastern Iran) who were pitted against the Romans, in the arid region of Carrhae, in Upper Mesopotamia (present-day along the borders of eastern Turkey). In terms of figures, the Romans had seven legions along with seven thousand auxiliary forces and a thousand Gallic crack cavalrymen; which came to around a total of 45,000 to 52,000 men. On the other hand the Parthians had around a total of 12,000 soldiers with at least 9,000 of them being horse archers recruited from Saka and Yue-Chi people, and 1,000 being cataphracts (super-heavy cavalry).
In fact, the Battle of Carrhae can be counted among the first instances when the Romans came across the might of heavy cavalry, which was certainly a departure from infantry-dominated European battlefields of ancient era. And, in many ways, the battle proved the superiority in mobility of horse archers, as they unleashed a rain of arrows upon the constrained formations of the legionary forces. The final ‘coup de grace’ was delivered by a 1,000 tightly-packed cataphracts atop their mighty Nicean chargers – when they broke the ranks of the disarrayed Romans, who were already afflicted by the elusive horse archers of the steppes. Unsurprisingly, the unexpected defeat had long drawn repercussions, with the Romans in time adopting many of the shock cavalry tactics of their eastern neighbors.
2) Battle of Agincourt (25 October, 1415 AD) –
We chose the famous Battle of Agincourt in this list not just because of the figures involved. In many ways, the renowned engagement from the Hundred Years War, demonstrated the superiority of tactics, topography and archery over just heavy armor – factors that were obviously rare during the first decades of the 15th century. As for the battle itself, it pitted around 6,000 to 9,000 English soldiers (with 5/6th of them being longbow archers) against 20,000 to 30,000 French forces, who had around 10,000 heavy armored knights and men-at-arms. The haughty mindset of the French nobility participating in the battle could be somewhat gathered from chronicler Edmond de Dyntner’s statement – “ten French nobles against one English”, which totally discounted the ‘military value’ of archers from the English army.
As for tactical placement, the English army commanded by Henry V, the King of England, placed itself at the end of a recently plowed land, with their flanks covered by dense woodlands (that practically made side cavalry charges nigh impossible). The front sections of the archers were also protected by pointed wooden flanks and palings that would have discouraged frontal cavalry charges. But in all of these, the terrain proved to be the greatest obstacle for the armored French army, since the field was already muddy with recent occurrences of heavy rain. In a twist of irony, the armor weight of the French knights became their biggest disadvantage, with the mass of packed soldiers fumbling and stumbling across the soggy landscape – making them easy pickings for the well-trained longbowmen.
And, when the knights finally reached the English lines, they were utterly exhausted, while also having no room to effectively wield their heavy weapons. The English archers and men-at-arms still nimble-footed, switched to mallets and hammers, and delivered a crushing blow in hand-to-hand combat on the frazzled Frenchmen. At the end, it is estimated that around 7,000 to 10,000 French soldiers were killed (among them there were more than a thousand senior noblemen), while the English losses were around the paltry 400 mark.
3) Battle of Vítkov Hill (12-14 June, 1420 AD) –
One of largest battles fought during the Middle Ages, the Battle of Vítkov Hill pitted 12,000 Hussite forces under Jan Žižka against more than 50,000 crusaders (some estimates even cross 100,000), who were recruited by the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. The Hussite traditions in itself related to one of the preliminary Christian movements before Protestant Reformation, and as such these primarily Czech peasants were sworn enemies of both the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire. After the execution of their leader Jan Hus, the Hussites fought an extended war of over 14 years, which more or less started from many small victories achieved over disjointed Catholic forces after March of 1420.
As for this particular battle, the Hussite forces had triumphantly entered the city of Prague – but soon found themselves under siege from the numerically superior crusaders. The Hussite leader Jan Žižka (or John Zizka in English) made a strategic decision to defend a vineyard that was protected naturally on the northern side by a steep cliff. The Vítkov Hill was further fortified with timber, stone and clay boundaries along with moats. The Hussite peasant soldiers fanatically defended these points with guns, flails and even pointed sticks – which pushed the crusading army down the sharp northern cliff. The resulting panic from the ‘fall’ led to over 300 knights being killed, which ultimately routed the army. The demoralized Catholic soldiers were forced to retreat in a disorganized manner, after which some of them took part in local guerrilla campaigns against the Hussites.
4) Second Battle of Acentejo (25 December, 1494 AD) –
Fought between the 700 Spanish forces who had invaded the island of Tenerife, and the native forces who numbered beyond 6,000, the Second Battle of Acentejo was an apt example that demonstrated the brutal effectiveness of firearms during their initial large-scale adoption in the battlefields of Europe. Interestingly, in prelude to this battle, there was another engagement in very same site during 31 May, 1494 – that pitted the native Guanches against an European alliance; and the Gunaches emerged victorious by killing almost a thousand soldiers out of a total force of 1,120. So, Acentejo was also known as La Matanza (“The Slaughter”) by the Spaniards, and the first battle was the greatest defeat suffered by Spain during her Spanish Atlantic expansion phase.
However, after almost 6 months of the defeat, the Spaniards under Alonso Fernández de Lugo (who was wounded, but survived the first battle) regrouped and took up advantageous positions near the familiar site. They also divided up their forces into two lines, in a bid to make their firing salvos more effective. And effective they were – since the Spaniards routed the natives in a matter of just three hours. After the momentous triumph, Fernández de Lugo established a hermitage on the site, while a nearby settlement with the name of ‘La Victoria de Acentej‘ also cropped up, commemorating the battle.
5) Great Siege of Malta (18 May – 11 September, 1565 AD) –
Voltaire once said – ‘rien est plus connu que la siege de Malte’ (or ‘nothing is so well known as the Siege of Malta’). In many ways, the statement epitomizes the heroism and sheer willpower of the defenders of the tiny island-nation of Malta against the world’s superpower during that period – the Ottomans. As for the number game, the Maltese forces led by Jean De Valette (the Grandmaster of the Knights Hospitaller) had around 8,500 men in their ranks, with just 2,500 among them being professional soldiers (and rest being armed civilians and slaves). On the other hand, the Ottomans had around 45,000 well-drilled troops at their disposal, with at least 6,000 of them being Janissaries – the elite infantry of the Turks.
The Maltese had the advantage of imposing fortifications, while the Ottomans were known for their expertise in taking out fortifications. And the vicious tone of stubborn defense and heavy cannon-fire was set by the first engagement of the siege – the capture of St. Elmo fort by the Turks, which cost them more than 6,000 men, including half the elite Janissary forces. Many of such mini-sieges and bottle-necked engagements followed after that, which ultimately drained the Ottomans of their initiative as well as moral. In the ensuing end result – the Turks suffered in the range of 10,000 – 30,000 men (from both combat actions and disease); the ‘successful’ defenders lost one-third of their men; while it is estimated that there were 130,000 cannonballs fired during the entire course of the Great Siege.
…continued on next page.