John Lyly’s proverb “All’s fair in love and war” hasn’t resonated so much since he wrote it in his 1578 novel Euphues for no reason. A commander would be in a pretty difficult situation if they had to explain that they let an enemy inflict losses on them out of some abstruse sense of fairplay. Still, for many people, there’s some innate inclination to side with the underdog, so the smaller, less well-equipped army sometimes gets sympathy just for standing up to long odds.
Unlike previous TopTenz lists, this one will not merely be stories of armies triumphing over seemingly insuperable adversity. Sometimes the little army will pull it off in the end. Sometimes they will be defeated by overwhelming force. At least that makes the cases a little less predictable. Another factor is that it won’t merely be a matter of there being more troops on one side than the other: There are such matters as terrain, equipment, or morale as complicating matters.
10. Battle of the Persian Gates
In 330 BC, Alexander the Great’s war against Persia was still any man’s game. The Greeks had defeated Persian Emperor Darius III at Issus, but the Persians could still raise another army and fight again if they had time. Time that it befell Ariobarzanes, the commander of Persian garrison at the mountain pass known as the Tang’e Meyran, to provide. With a force of between 700 and 2,000, he stood against Alexander’s more than 40,000, a sort of reverse of the Battle of Thermopylae as depicted in 300. But it wasn’t just a matter of numbers: Greek historians said the Persian forces were so hastily assembled that many of them came to the battle unarmed.
So the Persians, turned to throwing rocks at Alexander’s forces, armed themselves in a bolder manner: running up to the Greeks, pinning them to the ground, then confiscating their weapons. It was as if the Persians were answering King Leonidas’s famous “come and get them” challenge at Thermopylae in the grandest style. Alexander was so flummoxed with the ferocity of the resistance that it took him a month to take down the Persian troops. By some accounts, the battle mirrored the famous battle of Thermopylae even closer because Alexander had to rely on local guides for a path onto the Persian flanks. Many historians also agree that Ariobarizanes fought to the bitter end, personally charging into the Greek ranks. It was also said the Persians at the gates inflicted the largest number of casualties on the Greeks that any force did during the conquest of Persia. Though it was overshadowed by Alexander’s subsequent victory against incredible odds at Gaugamela, it must have gone a long way to raise the esteem of the Persian military despite numerous humiliating defeats at Greek hands.
9. Battle of Fei River
In 383 AD, the Qin dynasty and the Jin Dynasties were engaging in one of Ancient China’s many civil wars. Their armies were nothing like even matched, as the forces of the Qin Dynasty had recently conquered the city of Xiangyang and thus their strength was at a height that they could call on mercenary troops from an array of provinces, particularly cavalry units from Xianbei and Xioungnu. The reported numbers were that the Qin brought 870,000 soldiers to the banks of the Fei River for a confrontation while the Jin brought 80,000, which surely exaggerates the Qin numbers but nonetheless gives some idea of the overwhelming force brought to bear. Still, the Jin sent a message to Qin commander Fu Jian that they intended to cross the river and do battle.
Despite his overwhelming numbers, Fu Jian turned to trickery. To ensure the Jin army committed to crossing the majority if not the entirety of their strength across the river instead of a token force, the Jin army would fall back and then launch an attack that trapped the main strength of their enemies against the river. The strategy turned out to be practically the definition of “too clever for its own good.” Fu Jian’s army being composed largely of foreign soldiers, there were extreme communication breakdowns as to where units were supposed to retreat. Some didn’t even know it was a strategic retreat instead of a capitulation. As a result paths became jammed, some soldiers left the field entirely, and the Jin were able to seize the opportunity and attack their numerically superior but hopelessly confused foes and turn the debacle into a rout. Thus was the Jin Dynasty saved as the Qin Dynasty collapsed into years of civil war, delaying the unification of China by centuries.
8. Battle of Karbala
From the beginning of their history soldiers marching under the banner of Islam have fancied themselves the underdogs. The first battle organized followers of Muhammad ever fought was the 624 AD Battle of Badr, which they won while outnumbered three to one. So in a similar spirit in 680 AD the children of the murdered fourth caliph rode to Al-Kufa with 72 soldiers, led by Husayn ibn Ali, to organize a rebellion. Unfortunately for them, word of their approach got out and the accused usurper Yazid was able to assemble an army of thousands to meet them. Which compelled the loyalists of the fourth caliph to turn to a bold strategy…
…which turned out to be suffering such a crushing, one-sided defeat that historians like Sharon La Boda would claim it was less a battle than a massacre. Every man was killed and every woman accompanying them became a prisoner. Husayn’s head was delivered to Yazid. Still, history has been kind to the followers of the fourth caliph. Among the Shi’ite community they are held up as holy martyrs and both the site of the massacre and Husayn’s tomb are pilgrimage sites.
7. Battles of Lacolle Mill
Situated as it was in the timeline between the dramatic Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the War of 1812 tends to be overshadowed in American history. Yet it was one of the momentous events in Canadian history. The tone was set for it when a column of 650 American troops with Native Americans in support invaded as part of a campaign to conquer Montreal, Quebec. The Canadians only had forty soldiers to stop them and withdrew from the area of Lacolle, which the Americans subsequently burned down. The Americans then moved to the border for the main invasion, and the situation became hopelessly confused when uneasy American militiamen fired on them.
Unusually for military history the Americans got to declare something of a do over. In 1814, Major General James Wilkinson marched on Lacolle, this time with 4,000 soldiers, a good mix of which were infantry and cavalry, and 11 artillery pieces. Initially there were only 180 soldiers facing them, including a contingent of rocket troops, an experiment from the Napoleonic Wars. Even with 650 soldiers coming in reinforcement, the British were badly outnumbered.
Like Fu Jian before him, Wilkinson attempted to be too clever for his own good and sent a 1,200 man flanking unit around the Brits. Unfortunately for them, bad weather and unfamiliarity with the terrain meant that the contingent were only able to put part of their artillery in place and allowed the British reinforcements to drive them back. The Canadians pressed their initiative, and although the US numbers pushed them back by the end of the battle, it was only after the artillery had fallen into Canadian hands and was damaged beyond repair. Thoroughly disheartened, Wilkinson retreated and Canada was saved.
6. Retreat from Kabul
Afghanistan is known as the “graveyard of empires,” and this event begins in 1839 when it was earning that nickname. Fearing that the mountainous nation would fall to the Russian Empire, the British empire sent roughly 18,000 soldiers to Kabul, many of them from India. Depending on who you asked they were either invading the country or propping up the Shah. The general population made their opinions clear when the Shah was assassinated in 1841 as part of a rebellion. In the outlying city of Charikar, the garrison was completely massacred. In Kabul the situation was so hopeless that less than 5,000 soldiers were able to escape on January 6, 1842 into the Afghan winter. As if that weren’t a sufficiently harrowing situation, they were also accompanied by more than 10,000 non-combatants in the forms of family and various refugees. They faced a 90-mile journey through mountainous terrain.
Initially advanced pursuers of the rebellion harried them, but soon the greater problem in the trek through the mountains was the mountain brigands that would take pot shots at the freezing, starving columns. That was until a large unit of Afghan troops intercepted them at the Khurd Kabul pass and began obliterating the fleeing group with no mercy. For a long time the only known survivor was Assistant Surgeon William Brydon, who rode a staggering wounded horse to Jalalabad and safety. Later research pointed out that dozens of British officers and family members along with thousands of Indian troops would eventually turn out to have also survived. Still, there was little denying the staggering defeat, an ominous sign for the British Empire’s plans in Afghanistan.
5. Battle of Lucas Bend
By far the best known naval battle of the American Civil War was the clash of the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads, since it was the first time in World history that two ironclad ships fought and supposedly made “every other fleet obsolete.” While the battle between the ironclads was technically a draw, the fact that the day before the Virginia had ruined two major wooden Union ships and crippled a third while barely being dented itself showed just how outmatched a wooden ship could expect to be by an ironclad. So take the first battle of the American Civil War, the January 11, 1862 Battle of Lucas Bend in Missouri. That involved two Union ironclads, specifically the USS Essex and the USS St. Louis. The Confederates had three ships, and the best they could do was to “cottonclad“ them, which amounted to having bales of cotton stacked on the ship. Which sounds less like a form of armor than a fire hazard.
Fortunately for the Confederates, the war was less than a year old at the time and most Union naval crews were still pretty green. So they were able to escape. However, within a few weeks the ironclads would go on to prominent roles in the Battles of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, vitally important Union victories which brought in more than 12,000 prisoners and paved the way to Union control of the Mississippi River. Both ships were severely damaged in the battles, but no one said glory comes cheap.
4. Battle of Cherbourg
This conflict wasn’t so much unfair because of seemingly disproportionate strength, and among naval battles of the American Civil War it was unusual. It was fought between the Confederate ship Alabama and the Union ship Kearsarge on June 19, 1864, two ships which on paper had approximately equal armaments. The Alabama had been making a name for itself raiding Union merchant ships, capturing or sinking more than sixty of them in places as remote as South Africa. But when the Kearsarge caught it outside of France, it had been at sea nearly two years and many components were in bad repair, particularly the partially the boilers which were suffering from salt water damage.
Throughout battle, the Alabama gun crews landed hits with explosive shots that should have sunk the Kearsarge by themselves, particularly one which landed in the stern. But the gunpowder in the Alabama’s shells had deteriorated from being out at sea too long. As Captain Raphael Semmes put it, he should have won the battle in 10 minutes but instead, his ship went down. To add to the frustration over how unfair it was, a crowd of 19,000 French civilians had gathered on the coast to watch the battle. Many of them placed bets on the battle’s outcome with the Alabama being the favorite.
3. Battle of Acosta Ñu
The War of the Triple Alliance was surely the costliest war for a single nation of the 19th Century. That nation was Paraguay, which had the misfortune of being led by the extremely arrogant and aggressive Mariscal Lopez. When the White Party was overthrown in Uruguay in part by support from Brazil in 1864, Lopez declared war on both nations and then, because its government would not allow the Paraguayan Army to pass through their territory, also Argentina. The folly of this became apparent when Paraguay’s 50,000 person army found itself outnumbered ten to one. While Lopez’s troops would pull off some startling victories, over the course of six years it was largely a matter of grinding the hopelessly outmatched nation down.
By 1869, Lopez’s army was forced to make a stand in Acosta Ñu with only about 3,500 to 4,500 troops. They faced roughly 20,000 Brazilian troops, but the situation was actually much more dire than even that makes it sound. The Paraguayan Army had been reduced to largely depending on child soldiers 15-years-old or younger, and according to legend a number of them had painted on false facial hair. The confrontation was again regarded more as a massacre than a battle. When the war concluded, it had cost the Paraguayans more than half their people and reduced the male demographic to under 20% of the population. In no small part the staggering losses were because Lopez had tortured and killed a large number of his own people to keep the population in line in addition to all the starvation and disease from blockades. Rarely has an underdog story had a less inspirational ending.
2. Battle of Jadotville
In 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo declared independence from Belgium, and the following year, the Katanga Province declared independence from the new nation. The United Nations dispatched peacekeepers to try and assist the government as it set up an infrastructure, including 157 Irish soldiers that were sent to the mining town of Jadotville to protect Belgian settlers. Sensing an easy win and opportunity to take dozens of prisoners, on September 13 a 3,000 mass of Katagan troops supported by French and Belgian mercenaries attacked. Beyond the staggering numerical advantage, the attackers had artillery pieces and a training jet in support with very real weapons on it that were used to straff the position.
With all this arrayed against them, the UN peacekeepers were amazingly able to hold out for days while suffering five casualties, none of which were deaths in action. The attackers suffered around 300. Nevertheless, the Irish surrendered. Fortunately the UN was able to negotiate their release, and by December they were back home. Unfortunately and extremely unfairly, they were largely denounced for surrendering at all despite the circumstances. Between their treatment and the psychological toll of the struggle, five of the soldiers took their lives, meaning that the aftermath was far deadlier than the combat. Even belated honors such as the 2016 movie The Siege of Jadotville wouldn’t make up for that.
1. Hill 3234
In the Western Hemisphere, the focus of the nine-year Soviet-Afghan War is that it contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union (again, Afghanistan being the “graveyard of empires”) and that the US support for the Mujahideen came back to grievously bite the US on September 11, 2001. Yet for the Soviets there were moments of great heroism against incredible odds, even during the withdrawal. One of the vitally needed supply routes was outside the city of Gardez, and on January 7, 1988, 39 members of the 9th company of the 345th Guards Airborne Regiment deployed on Hill 3234 just in time to be attacked by about 400 Mujahideen fighters.
The firefight would last most of the day and would leave six of the Soviet paratroopers dead and twenty-eight wounded. But they inflicted heavy casualties and lasted until they were reinforced by a reconnaissance platoon and able to successfully counterattack. Two of the fallen would be given the honor Hero of the Soviet Union. The battle would be commemorated with the 2005 film 9th Company, which a number of veterans criticized as being inaccurate and “like Rambo.” If veterans are going to be treated unfairly after a war, we’ve seen that there could be much worse ways.
Dustin Koski wrote A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong.