Four Battles Where The Underdogs Won Against All The Odds

Outnumbered and outgunned, the underdogs that defeat their enemies through strategy, cunning or pure luck often give us the most compelling stories. Although numerical strength and superior weaponry is usually the key to victory, there are throughout history some remarkable examples of tiny armies managing to see off much larger forces in a number of ways.

Using everything from the weather to the superior size of an enemy’s army to gain an advantage, here are four underdogs who won against all the odds.

The Battle of Morgarten

On the 15th of November, 1315, the confederates of Switzerland won a remarkable victory. The battle that preceded it saw no more than 1500 Swiss soldiers taking on an Austrian army of 8000 men. Vastly outnumbered, defeat would have been almost certain had the confederates met their opponents head on, but with a superior knowledge of the terrain and some cunning strategy, their chances of success were improved considerably.

The Battle of Morgarten

Choosing their moment carefully, the Swiss waited until the larger Austrian force was on the move beside Lake Ägeri, with water on one side and steep forested slopes on the other. The road had been blocked with heavy wooden barricades, and with the Austrian troops stretched out and trapped on the narrow path, the confederates launched their attack.

Raining arrows and rocks down on their enemies from the slopes, the Swiss threw their enemies into disarray. By the time their soldiers had stormed down to the road to engage with the Austrians hand-to-hand, the invading army was collapsing in on itself. Soldiers found themselves crushed in the throng, or backed into the water where they were picked off by archers. Some of them managed to fall back along the road, but the army at large was decimated.

Battle of Salamis

The Battle of Salamis

While the heroic stand of Sparta’s 300 at Thermopylae has become perhaps the most well-known chapter in the wars between Greece and Persia, another instance of an outnumbered Greek force battling an enormous invading force occurred soon afterwards. In this case, the defenders actually won, despite the poor odds.

Subsequent to the annihilation of the 300 Spartans, several more engagements were lost and Athens was abandoned. The Greek forces fell back, while Persian emperor Xerxes pressed forward towards what looked to be a clear victory. However, the tides were about to turn. Despite their numerical inferiority, the Greeks planned another battle, this time on the sea. Luring the over-eager Persian ships into the Straits of Salamis, the small Greek force launched their attack.

Although the invading navy consisted of roughly three times as many ships as the defenders’, their numbers proved to be a hindrance in the narrow straits. While Xerxes’ ships struggled to maneuver effectively, smaller and more nimble Greek vessels moved among them, ramming their hulls. Soon the enemy was in disarray, taking heavy losses and struggling to maintain any kind of counter-attack. Following their resounding defeat on the ocean, the Persian invasion began to falter, and was ultimately repelled.

The Battle of Watling Street

The statue to Boudica on Westminster Bridge at the heart of London. By David Precious – CC BY 2.0
The statue to Boudica on Westminster Bridge at the heart of London. By David Precious – CC BY 2.0

From the Thermopylae pass in Greece to Stirling Bridge in Scotland, there is a long history of small forces using the terrain to funnel a larger army into more manageable formations. One particularly good example of this saw a tiny Roman force facing off against an enormous force of British rebels.

With Boudica’s uprising progressing rapidly, a small group of Roman soldiers positioned themselves in a narrow gorge, backed by a thick forest. This latter feature was essential in deterring Boudica’s troops from attempting to circle around behind their positions. Instead, the rebels attacked directly along the gorge, confident that their superior numbers would be enough to break the tight defending formations.

After volleys of Roman javelins tore through Boudica’s front ranks, the legionaries began to push forward in small wedges, backed up with powerful Roman cavalry units. Before long the disorganized and poorly equipped Britons were falling back from the gorge, only to be trapped by a line of their own wagons, which they had left behind them. Trapped before these and the advancing Romans, Boudica’s troops were slaughtered.

Battle of Narva

The Battle of Narva

In late November 1700, Russian troops laid siege to the city of Narva, in Estonia. The region belonged to the Swedish Empire, but the defending forces were vastly outnumbered. The king of Sweden, Charles XII, led an army of 8000 men – at least three times less than the besieger’s forces – to defend the city. He positioned his men outside Narva, opposite the Russia’s army, and waited.

Immediate engagement was impossible for either due to a severe blizzard, so the two armies held back at first. However, as the day went on, the wind changed and the snow began to blow directly into the eyes of the Russian soldiers, leaving their line of sight severely impaired. Seeing that this was his best chance at victory, Charles XII advanced quickly, with his men in two columns. They were able to creep right up on the enemy undetected, cutting the larger force into three smaller groups, which could then be systematically broken. The Russian army was crushed, and those who weren’t slaughtered quickly surrendered.

Malcolm Higgins

Malcolm Higgins is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE