In war, when the chips are down and the odds are against a military unit, it can be time to defy common sense and get creative. Of course real life has been full of many instances of small, overpowered armies trying unusual tactics and getting destroyed, but since there’s no novelty value they quickly get forgotten by history. Which just makes it all the more amazing when some comparatively small or ill-equipped band of soldiers wins the day against what seems like an overwhelming force.
10. Battle of Gaugamela
This 332 BC battle was the last one between the Persian empire under the dominion of Darius III and Macedonia’s own Alexander the Great. Although those who’ve seen the films from the 300 series might be inclined to think that the Persian armies were overconfident and incompetent, Darius had at least planned this battle well. He chose a big, open area where his army of over 240,000 would not be cramped in any way and had the ground swept to help his 200 chariots function at peak capacity. When Alexander’s 47,000 person army approached, Alexander was intimidated enough that he called a halt for a day to plan his strategy.
The next day, the Greeks approached the Persians at a forty-five degree angle with the left wing jutting towards the Persians, knowing that it would entice the Persians to try to send all their cavalry around that wing, which they promptly did. Darius also sent his chariots at the Greeks, which were dealt with by the simple but effective method of literally stepping out of the way of them, waiting for the charioteers to stop and try and turn around, then descending on them en masse. Alexander left his camp with all of his supplies and booty unguarded, which induced much of the Persian cavalry to go raid it instead of fighting the Greeks, so Darius was drawn over to the left wing of the Greek army where hopefully he could regain control.
When he was within range, Alexander and his famous personal guard, the Companions, charged Darius’s personal guard and overwhelmed them, throwing such a scare into Darius that he personally fled the battle and sapped the Persian army of its fighting spirit, effectively turning control of the Persian Empire to Alexander.
9. Battle of Chancellorsville
During this 1863 American Civil War battle, the Northern army had 134,000 soldiers while the Southern Army had 62,000. As if that wasn’t enough advantage, bear in mind that this Southern Army was full of troops that were constantly hungry and a lot of them were barefoot. The two armies faced off across the Rappahannock River in Virginia (a few dozen miles north of the Southern capital of Richmond and basically instant victory for the North if they captured it). Then the Northern commander, Joseph Hooker, decided that he would keep half of his huge army in their current position to distract the southerners while 70,000 went far downriver, crossed in secret, then came up the rear of the Southern lines to hit them on the flank.
Lee’s response was basically to use Hooker’s own strategy against him. He sent about a third of his already tiny army to go behind the 70,000 soldiers that had just been coming up behind him. To convince the Northerners that their tiny flanking unit was actually the whole army retreating, the Southerners looped around and marched down the same route before making the twelve mile trek into the Northern army’s rear. When they attacked, it so unnerved Hooker that by the next day his army was already mostly in retreat.
It’s worth noting that the results of this battle were that it cost the life of Stonewall Jackson, one of their three best generals, and made General Robert E. Lee dangerously overconfident for the Battle of Gettysburg, where he effectively ruined the South’s last hope of victory. Sometimes the worst thing an army can do is be wildly successful.
8. Battle of Muret
Alexander’s strategy of drawing the enemy commander into a position of personal vulnerability was taken to another level during this 1213 battle near the city of Muret, between French under Simon Montfort and invading Spanish soldiers under Peter II. Since there were only less than French knights and more than 34,000 on the opposing side, conventional tactics were out of the question, so Montfort decided to go a much more direct route.
He ordered his knights that they could not linger, no matter how stiff the resistance was, that they must constantly press forward until they had killed Peter II himself. While Peter II spread his forces out for a conventional battle, Montfort went straight for Peter in a do or die proposition that paid off when the Spanish army melted around them after he killed the enemy king.
7. Battle of Singapore
At the start of the Japanese war with Britain during World War II in 1941, the group of islands called Singapore was considered impregnable against Japanese forces. It had a much larger defensive force (90,000) than the Japanese could throw at it (65,000, though some sources put it at much smaller). On December 9, 1941, Japanese land forces snuck onto the island through jungles and swamps while the main British force was expecting an air and sea attack and had placed their troops on the other side of the island, expecting a naval invasion.
To maintain speed at the risk of looking silly, their infantry travelled on bicycles when they reached solid land, stripping down in many cases to sports jerseys. They also found an abandoned British armored car which listed all their defensive positions in it, allowing the Japanese to hit their targets perfectly and capturing all their targets much earlier than they expected, including the valuable British airfields. When they did that, the Japanese planes were easily able to sink the warships that were sent to bolster the island defenses.
As the Japanese rode along, they quickly wore out the tires on their bikes and started riding on the rims, and even that worked to their advantage because the sounds of clattering, rimless bikes sounded to the British like tanks, and assuming that more Japanese tanks were coming led to more retreats. Ultimately, tens of thousands of British soldiers were taken prisoner and one of their most important bases was lost.
6. Battle of Sabine Pass II
For this 1863 American Civil War battle on the Texas coast, the North brought 4,000 troops and four ships with eighteen cannons. The South, by contrast, had six cannons and 44 troops, which was less an army than a chorus line. Also one of those cannons was in such bad shape that it was quickly out of commission. And the Northern cannons were powerful enough that they could bombard the tiny fort while staying out of range of the Southern artillery.
The Southerners went out and put out markers around the field where they knew the enemy was coming meaning for the Southerners could aim with uncanny accuracy. It wasn’t an act of clever planning but just because the Southerners were bored. It hugely increased the accuracy of their cannon fire when four Northern gunboats came within range and in only half an hour, they had sunk two of the attacking vessels and convinced the other two to retreat, which was enough to convince the Northern commander to call it off landing the rest of their troops. So the Southerners took three hundred prisoners. It was a good thing the thirty-six Southerners didn’t suffer any casualties or they probably wouldn’t have been able to handle so many.
5. Battle of Leuthen
Frederick the Great was one of Germany (then Prussia’s) most effective generals in addition to his abilities as a king. It was vital to the survival of Germany to this day since in Seven Years War in the 1750s Prussia was at war with Austria, Sweden, Russia, and France at once and his armies were outnumbered more than three to one.
In this 1757 battle he defeated an Austrian army twice the size of his through a method as simple on paper as it would be difficult to pull off in practice. He began by arraying his army in a long line, then marching towards the north wing of the enemy, compelling the Austrians to move much of their army up there despite their massive numerical advantage. Frederick then ordered his soldiers to turn to their right effectively as one, and then run down to the south in formations that instantly became columns, then run around the enemy on their left flank, catching the Austrians completely off guard with how fast they moved in formation.
The Austrian army was so large and bewildered that as they attempted to fold their line in half, their troops became a confused mess, which Prussian artillery could easily cut down. The victory in this battle was vital to keeping Prussia alive to the end of the war.
4. Battle of Longewala
While there certainly have been larger scale battles described in this list, the situation in this 1971 battle was no less dramatic than any of the others. It pitted thousands of Pakistanis with dozens tanks as part of a surprise invasion of India against less than 120 unprepared Indian soldiers with a jeep. The only hope the Indians had was a chance of air support if they held out overnight.
One of the tricks the Indians used to halt the advance of the Pakistanis was to lay phony “minefields” in the form of areas hastily ringed with barb wire, which was conventionally how minefields were designated. This allowed the Indians to funnel the Pakistanis into deep sands, which bogged down their tanks so much that some of them caught fire. These tactics combined to stall the Pakistanis until an air strike in the morning. The Indians only suffered an incredibly light two casualties while the Pakistanis lost hundreds of vehicles, completely halting their advance.
3. Battle of Auerstadt
Although Napoleon Bonaparte hogged pretty much all the glory the French military won in the first few decades of the nineteenth century as far as the public knows, their victory won at longest odds was won by his subordinate, Field Marshal Davout. In October 1806, Napoleon was preparing to attack what he thought was the main Prussian army while he sent Davout north with 26,000 men to cut off any desperate retreats by the Prussians towards the Russian army. It turned out he had it backwards, because the main Prussian army of 63,000 men was coming for Davout, with odds of much more than two to one.
Initially the French troops dug in as best they could and held off initial assaults, but after some time, Davout realized that if the Prussians were not attacking with their full force, there must be something with their organizational structure. So Davout ordered his final reserve troops instead to attack, which would have seemed like suicide at such great odds. But instead, it caught the Prussians by surprise and routed them.
Napoleon repaid Davout for his trouble by dismissing his victory. He claimed Davout had exaggerated the size of the Prussian army by saying he “saw double” (he didn’t, the Prussians own records attested to it) then taking years to give his best general any honors. Some people it just doesn’t pay to be loyal to.
2. Battle of Alesia
In 52 BC, the Roman Army numbering 50,000-60,000 under Julius Caesar confronted the 90,000 Gaulish (French) army under King Vercingetorix (who was sufficiently skillful that he united a bunch of Gaulish tribes for the first time in history) around the community of Alesia atop a big round hill. Vercingetorix had beaten Caesar during a previous battle, so Caesar was not about to just attack the Gauls in their stronghold. But the Gauls did not want to press the attack either as legions had also beaten them in numerous other battles. And anyway, Alesia was basically unassailable, so why risk it?
So Caesar instead built an array of defensive towers (as much as ten feet high), trenches, and obstacles around the village that stretched eighteen kilometers, as if Caesar had brought WWI to France a couple millennia early. Before the fortifications were completed, a group of Gaulish cavalry escaped and Caesar knew inevitably they’d be back with a large relief army. So he built a second, fifteen mile outer ring of defenses facing the other way, like a general trying to hold a castle while only controlling the outer wall with a huge army outside and the inner sanctum controlled by the enemy.
When the 100,000 strong relief army showed up and attack the Romans at the same time the ones inside the ring of defenses tried to attack as well. Each time it looked like the Gauls were about to break through, Caesar sent German cavalry to attack the attacking forces at any point of the line on the flank and rear until the Vercingetorix’s supplies were exhausted and he surrendered.
1. Battle of Saragarhi
This battle will be much different from the others, for in this case it ended up costing the outnumbered everything. But it was a huge, nearly impossible victory in a larger sense. It won a war.
During an 1897 uprising in Pakistan, Saragarhi was a communications outpost defended by twenty-one Sikh soldiers. It stood between Fort Gulistan, an undermanned but vital stronghold for the British presence in Pakistan and an army of 10,000 Pashtun rebels that were very determined to take Gulistan. After refusing offers to surrender at 9:00 a.m., they held off the attackers until well into the afternoon, when a breach in their defenses opened and the few surviving defenders had to retreat to a blockhouse. The Pashtuns ultimately didn’t finish off the final Sikh soldiers, needing instead to resort to burning the building down.
But at the end twenty-one soldiers had held off 10,000 long enough the at the main fort and prize was reinforced and defeated the attackers, meaning that overall the last stand had won the Sikhs the day even at the cost of their lives. Reports of the number of casualties the Sikhs inflicted vary, but the lowest of them is 180 and it came from their enemies who’d have little reason to exaggerate how effectively the Sikhs had fought against them.
Adam Koski and Dustin Koski finished their book Forust: A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong against odds that would seem impossible if you knew their writing habits.