Sometimes having more men on the battlefield doesn’t mean a sure victory! Check out these insane battles where thinking smarter with a smaller force actually helped these outnumbered armies crush their over-powered opponents!
English at Battle of Agincourt
For most of their histories as nation-states, England and France have enjoyed the shared popular pastime of murdering each other. But back in the fifteenth century, things were really heated between the two over the issues of legitimacy to the French crown and rule over French territories. Part of the Hundred Years’ War, the Battle of Agincourt would prove to be decisive- and the odds were not looking good for the vastly outnumbered English.
In August of 1415, the French told England’s King Henry V to stuff his territorial demands, naturally prompting the enraged ruler to invade Normandy with a force of 12,000 men. He laid siege to the city of Harfleur which would end up capitulating in six weeks. The siege however had been costly for Henry’s army, knocking about half of his army out of commission due to casualties and illness.
Nevertheless, Henry pressed the offensive but was unable to cross the Somme due to considerable French defenses. Forced to detour further upstream, the delay allowed the French to rally a massive army to counter-attack the English.
Near the village of Agincourt, Henry’s remaining 6,000 soldiers faced a force of between 20,000 and 30,000 French, though some estimates place them at only 12,000. A bloodbath was in order- but not quite the bloodbath the French had expected.
Henry’s forces were seriously weakened at this point. Not only had they lost half their strength, but the men were exhausted after a 200-mile (320 km) march. To add to their misery, most of the men were suffering from dysentery- prompting a persisting myth that the English fought with their pants off so they could relieve themselves mid-battle. Henry’s forces were also strategically disadvantaged- he had only 1,000 knights remaining to protect a force of 5,000 archers.
Henry’s forces may have been disadvantaged by composition, but the French made the blunder of allowing their enemy to pick the field of battle.
Henry chose to make a stand at the end of a freshly plowed field. The field was extremely muddy after a week of rain, and the forest on either side of the field made it impossible for French cavalry to maneuver for a flanking attack on the lightly armed archers. Further, the field narrowed considerably towards Henry’s position, having the effect of funneling the French into a relatively small front that Henry’s vastly outnumbered men-at-arms could easily defend.
At about 11 am the battle began and was an immediate bloodbath.
The French assault was spearheaded by heavy cavalry followed by knights on foot. The freshly plowed field however proved to be difficult for the horses to navigate and build up speed on, taking much of the momentum out of the assault. Slowed down by the extremely muddy ground, the cavalry was immediately under withering fire from the English longbowmen, only to run straight into a wall of sharpened stakes that the English had placed before their front line.
The English longbow was a terrifying weapon, and under these specific conditions, turned what would normally be a major strategic vulnerability in force composition into a deadly advantage. With a range of nearly 300 yards, the longbow could deliver an arrow at a great distance with enough force to punch through plate armor. It was such an instrumental English weapon of war that for a while every Englishman was required by law to train in its use.
With the cavalry mired down in heavy mud and unable to charge through the palisade of sharpened stakes, fighting devolved into hand-to-hand combat with the front line of longbowmen discarding their bows for melee weapons. Faster on foot in the thick mud than the armored cavalry, the French suffered immediate and heavy casualties- all meanwhile a second line of longbowmen poured withering fire upon more advancing French forces.
The third line of French infantry advanced to the front but was similarly mired down by the muddy field- made even worse now by the trampling of horses and the hundreds of corpses strewn about it. Trapped in thick mud the French offensive was easy pickings for the English longbowmen.
The defeat effectively broke the French army, with casualty estimates at about 400 for the English and 6,000 for the French. Perhaps most devastating for the French though was the loss of many influential noblemen. The resulting loss and bickering amongst French nobles would lead to the English taking Normandy and the French ending the war by marrying off a princess to the English king.
Our next incredible victory involved seven men taking a whole city.
Nazis Take Belgrade With Only Six Men
In 1941 Nazi Germany was driving deep into Yugoslavia- and immediately regretting it. The narrow mountain passes choked up units and the melting snows made travel a nightmare for mechanized forces. While local forces were no match for the advancing German army, the operation to secure Belgrade was eating up more time and resources than Hitler and his high command had planned for.
With the bulk of friendly forces miles behind him, Captain Fritz Klingenberg was tasked with reconnoitering a path for advancing Panzers. Enemy forces had sabotaged nearly every bridge and the bad weather had made roads difficult to traverse, thus Klingenberg’s intelligence was crucial for the advancing armored thrust.
Belgrade had been softened up by over 500 bombing sorties, inflicting an estimated 17,500 casualties on Yugoslavian forces and civilians. The Yugoslav army was on the verge of collapse- and yet German forces were so caught up in the narrow mountain passes and fighting off guerilla-style attacks that they were unable to move fast enough to seize the mostly undefended city.
Klingenberg was due to send back a report on the defenses of Belgrade within a day, and on April 11th he saw a chance to get a closer look at the outskirts of the city when one of his men discovered a boat. The Danube River was in a dangerous state at the moment due to snow runoff from the mountains, but Kingenberg and five other men navigated the treacherous river to get to the other side.
The two boat handlers were ordered to return and ferry the rest of the men, but the boat struck a submerged obstacle and quickly sunk, stranding Klingenberg on the other side with only six men and few supplies.
Resigning himself to his fate, Klingenberg decided that if he couldn’t return to friendly lines, he’d just have to go ahead and take the entire city himself.
The squad moved up and ambushed a group of 20 Yugoslav soldiers holding a German tourist prisoner. The German tourist was thoroughly inebriated and unaware of the fact that he was being held as a spy and would soon be put to death. After sobering up, he thanked his rescuers and worked as their interpreter.
Using captured Yugoslav uniforms and his growing number of prisoners, Klingenberg and his men pushed deeper into the city and past security checkpoints. As the city was expecting a lengthy siege, security was lax- nobody suspected that the Nazis would try to infiltrate the city with such a tiny force.
Eventually the gig was up, and Klingenberg and his men got into a running firefight with vehicles they had stolen. Fending off their attackers, they made their way to the city center where the civilian population was largely going about its business as usual. Marching up to the flagpost flying the Yugoslavian national flag, Klingenberg ordered it taken down and the German flag hoisted. Then he ordered his six men to begin strutting around on patrol of the local area.
Incredibly, the Belgrade mayor and city officials came to meet Klingenberg and inquire about terms of surrender. Bluffing, Klingenberg informed the mayor that he was the point for several armored divisions, and that he was expected to radio back a report on the city’s surrender within hours- otherwise the Luftwaffe would level the city and Germany infantry would kill every man, woman, and child left inside of it.
Klingenberg’s men tried their best to hide their shock- their radio had been damaged and could only receive messages, not send any.
With Klingenberg giving his word that no further harm would befall the city, the mayor accepted Klingenberg’s offer of surrender and ordered all Yugoslav forces to stack their weapons in the city square and billet themselves in four of the city’s hotels.
Klingenberg then posted a single guard at each hotel. As other Yugoslav forces arrived at the city, the mayor ordered them to also surrender their weapons and billet themselves in the hotels holding other surrendered Yugoslavian soldiers.
With six men, Klingenberg captured over 1,300 troops and 200,000 civilians. Two days later the main German army arrived, expecting a fierce battle only to be greeted by a fully pacified city.
Our next greatest victory over a superior foe could have been avoided, if an ancient Chinese emperor had thought twice about arming a hundred thousand slaves to fight for their oppressors.
Battle of Muye
In the 12th century BC the Shang dynasty controlled most of what would become China. However, the Wei River valley was occupied by various clans known as the Zhou. Rather than wage a costly war, King Di Xin of the Shang instead made the Zhou his vassals, appointing King Wen of the Zhou as “Count of the West”. This status quo remained until Di Xin feared that Wen’s power was growing. Fearful of revolt, he imprisoned Wen, though later released him.
Relations between the two however quickly soured. Wen immediately raised an army and began conquering other Shang vassal states, weakening the Shang. Di Xing however seemed almost uncaring about the threat to his kingdom, legend has it because he became completely engrossed with his beautiful consort Da Ji.
Wen would die before attacking the Shang directly, but his plans were picked up by his son, King Wu. Wu’s open revolt soon threatened the Shang capital itself.
With a force of about 50,000, Wu moved against a defending force of 530,00 (though modern estimates question the veracity of these numbers). Di Xing further strengthened his defenses by arming 170,000 slaves, whom promptly defected en masse to the Zhou army.
This was a crushing blow to the morale of the Shang army, and as the Zhou advanced entire units of Shang soldiers met the Zhou with spears held upside down- a sign of surrender.
Di Xing had by all accounts been a good ruler, but in his later years became corrupt and oppressive. Not wishing to fight for a corrupt dynasty, many of the Shang defected to the Zhou. This still left a significant number of defenders though, and one of the bloodiest battles in Chinese history ensued. The Zhou however were better equipped and trained, and enjoyed greater morale, ensuring their victory.
After the battle Di Xin adorned himself with precious jewels and then burned himself alive in a great bonfire. His consort was killed by Wu, though he spared many Shang officials and civilians not involved in the battle. Many of those officials in turn worked for his regime as he declared himself the head of the new Zhou dynasty.
Wu also immediately opened up the royal storehouses, releasing food to the starving population. For his mercy and kindness, King Wu would be proclaimed “father of the people”.
Our next stunning victory would prove that numbers are no match for superior equipment, training, and a desire for freedom.
This Is Spart- I Mean Marathon!
In 490 BC Persia was on the warpath. The massive Persian Empire had already pushed into Europe, but the Greek city-states were proving troublesome. The Greek had directly supported rebellion in Ioana, and King Darius I could no longer stomach the thorn in his side the Greek had become. Vastly superior in numbers and wealth, he sent envoys in 491 BC to secure Greek surrender to Persian rule. The Greeks responded by killing every last envoy.
Outraged at the murder of his envoys, Darius sent a force of 600 ships and 25,000 soldiers to crush the Greeks once and for all. They quickly destroyed the Greek city-state of Eretria, and gained assurances of compliance from other autocratic city-states who hoped to see the democratic state of Athens fall.
Athens responded by immediately dispatching its army, reinforced by a small contingent of Plataeans. In total, the Greek numbered at 10,000, versus between 25,000 and 30,000 Persians.
The Persians favored long-range attack, and thus were equipped accordingly. Their soldiers were lightly armored, with a heavy investment in archers who would lay down waves of fire on enemy formations.
Thus Persian infantry was armed with a lightweight wicker shield and short stabbing spear, as well as a light composite bow. Standard procedure was to lay down long-range fire as the enemy closed in, then switch to spears, daggers, and swords to meet in melee.
The Persians also brought light cavalry to the battle, armed with a bow and two javelins for throwing and thrusting. The cavalry was too lightly armored to lead charges against enemy formations, and instead was tasked with harassing the enemy’s flanks and engaging units which broke formation.
Making up the backbone of the Persian army was a force of several 1,000 strong elite aristabara units, spear-bearers with light armor- typically tunics with bronze scales or leather padding.
The Greeks took a completely different approach to battle than the Persians, and the difference would be decisive.
While the Persians favored mobility and long-range fire, the Greeks favored heavy armor and unit cohesion. Their men were armored in bronze breastplates, helmets, and shinguards, with an armored skirt providing protection to the legs while allowing for great mobility.
Each Greek soldier also carried a heavy spear and a short stabbing sword or dagger, as well as a massive bronze shield. Trained to fight as a unit, the Greek formed themselves into nearly impenetrable phalanx formations that presented a wall of bronze to the enemy, with long stabbing spears decimating enemy infantry from within the protection of the phalanx.
As the Persian force landed, the Greek were split on whether to defend or attack head on. Some insisted on waiting for the Spartans, who were delayed due to their celebration of the Karnia festival (a theme that would recur with annoying frequency). In the end, a decision was made to attack so as not to allow the Persians much time to muster themselves after disembarking from their ships.
The Greek drew up their battle line and advanced on the Persian-held bay. They had purposefully thinned their center to dangerously low levels- advancing with a center only four men deep. This was done to allow the Greek to expand their line to match that of the Persian line, as the Persians enjoyed vast numerical advantage. If the Persian line was allowed to envelop the Greek forces it would render the phalanx vulnerable and ineffective.
However, the Greek reinforced their flanks knowing that the Persians would place their most elite soldiers in the center- the last thing the Persians would expect would be for the Greeks to purposefully thin their center- thus allowing the Greek flanks to overwhelm the Persian flanks and envelop the Persian center.
As the battle began Persian forces launched volley after volley on the advancing Greek.
Due to their light bows and heavy Greek armor though the barrages of arrows were largely ineffective and produced at best only light wounds amongst the Greek. Seeing that their volley fire was having little effect, Persian morale dipped as the Greek line, light glinting off their bronze shields and armor, smashed into the Persian forces.
Fierce hand-to-hand fighting ensued, but Greek armor and phalanx tactics proved superior. The Greek center eventually collapsed, but by then the Persian flanks had been decimated with many fleeing for the ships.
As the Greek center retreated, it lured the Persian center forward, allowing the Greek flanks to envelop it. A slaughter ensued, with the Persians breaking and fleeing for the safety of their ships. The Greek pursued, capturing seven ships and slaughtering thousands of Persians.
Strangely, Persian cavalry was absent from the battle- perhaps either because the terrain was unsuitable or because it had been dispatched to try and take Athens while its army was away.
Whatever the reason, the surviving Persian forces retreated to sea, and immediately set sail for Athens hoping to take the city while the exhausted army was still miles away. In a feat of incredible endurance, the Athenians and their Plataean allies marched back to Athens, arriving that same night and discouraging the anchored Persian fleet from attack.
Losses for the Persians are estimated to number at around 6,400 dead, with only 192 Greek dead- though that figure is in dispute and believed to have been falsified for propaganda purposes.
The victory however rallied the Greek people and convinced them that victory against the vastly superior Persian empire was possible- directly setting the stages for the victories which would end the Persian attempt to conquer Greece.
Our next stunning victory is one of the least known- but most important- battles of the Greco-Persian wars.
The Thermopylae At Sea
After the humiliating defeat at Marathon, King Darius the First swore to crush the upstart Greek, but would end up dying before he could rally the troops and capital for a new invasion. His son, Xerxes, instead took up the task of crushing Greece into submission once and for all.
Once more Persian envoys were sent, with many Greek city-states offering submission. Athens and Sparta however refused, and led a coalition that vowed to resist all Persian attempts to conquer Greece.
On land, the coalition forces decided to hold the Persians off at the Vale of Tempe, but this location was soon judged as too easy to outflank. Instead, the Greek moved their defense to Thermopylae, a narrow strip of land flanked on one side by cliffs, and on the other by the sea. Here the vastly outnumbered Greek forces would be able to hold off against the Persian assault- as long as the Persian navy could be prevented from outflanking the forces at Thermopylae.
At sea, the situation was equally as grim for the Greek.
The Persians had invaded with a force of over 1200 triremes, and an unrecorded number of supply ships. Opposing them was a force of 271 Greek ships- most of them Athenian and led by Themistocles, who had been instrumental in constructing the Athenian navy.
Internal politics between the city-states saw many of them refuse to join the effort if an Athenian was placed in charge, and thus the fleet was led by Eurybaides, a Spartan. However, it would be Themistocles that would rally the fleet in the hard battles to come.
Persian numbers were overwhelming, but immediately acted against them. Unable to find safe harbor for their vast fleet, an estimated 400 triremes were sunk when an unexpected storm rose up overnight.
Another fifteen ships inadvertently sailed straight into the Greek fleet, immediately destroying them. However, the next morning they received 120 reinforcements from Thrace, heading into battle with an estimated force of 920 warships.
The next day the Persians set sail to meet the Greek fleet. As they neared the southern tip of Magnesia, the Corinthian contingent- with about 40 ships- turned tail and ran, abandoning the Greek fleet and reducing its number to 231 ships. The Euboean contingent requested permission to withdraw long enough to evacuate their families, but were declined and bribed into staying put.
The Persians sent 200 ships around Euboea to cut off a Greek retreat, reducing their numerical advantage to just over 2 to 1. Informed by a deserter that the Persian fleet was temporarily weakened, the Greeks pushed the attack. The Persians easily enveloped the smaller Greek fleet, which turned their ships to form a ring around which the Persians launched their attack.
Once more, better equipment and training proved superior to Persian numbers, and the Persians were forced to retreat, with an unknown number of ships destroyed and 30 of them captured in battle. Greek losses were not recorded.
After victory, the Greek made plans to catch up to the Persian contingent meant to cut off their retreat and destroy it before it could rejoin the rest of the fleet.
However another sudden storm forced them to seek shelter, while the Persians were caught at sea, losing most of their numbers. The next day 53 additional Athenian ships arrived to reinforce the Greeks, bringing with them news of the decimated Persian contingent that had been sunk by the storm.
That day the Persians launched an attack, but this was repelled by the heavier and better armed Greek fleet. On the third day they sought to overwhelm the Greek forces, forcing the Greek fleet to deploy in a half-moon formation. Losses were heavy on both sides, and yet the Greek fleet did not break.
However, during the day losses mounted and eventually word from Thermopylae reached the Greek. The defenders had been flanked through a mountain pass and had retreated. Those who remained behind to buy time for the rest of Greece to prepare itself for invasion had been killed almost to a man.
The Greek fleet no longer needed to secure Thermopylae from being flanked, and thus the order to retreat was given.
The fleet pulled back to the straits of Salamis, where narrower waters once more nullified the Persian advantage.
The Greek however were easily boxed in by the numerically superior Persians, who sent contingents to block off the strait from the Greek rear.
The Greeks feigned a retreat to shore, and lured the Persians in by the charge of a single Greek trireme. Lured into the narrower part of the straits of Salamis, the Persian numerical advantage was completely nullified, and the heavier Greek triremes inflicted devastating losses on the Persian ships.
In fierce ship-to-ship fighting, the Greek marines also managed to kill numerous senior Persian leaders and officials, throwing the bulk of the surviving fleet into disarray. With losses mounting and morale breaking, the Persian fleet retreated, earning the Greek a decisive victory. Fearful of his ground forces being outflanked at sea, Xerxes ordered a retreat from his conquest of southern Greece, as he himself departed for Persia.
The Greek naval victory ensured that Greece would stand, and eventually defeat the Persian invasion once and for all.
Featured image: Battle of Marathon, by Georges Rochegrosse, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons