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I'm interested in battles that were won by much weaker side or even lost by it, but for example making the stronger side to keep fight against this weaker force and thus providing it strategic victory. This might be by high morale, skills of the defending commander (of course also brave attacks of the weaker side are also accepted) or -- last not least -- just luck. I would like not to take into account battles, where "weaker" side was equipped in some devastating weapon, say two tanks against million of spear-men, so eg. conquest of Peru (ca. 1520-1530) with Spanish having muskets and horses is not accepted.

I'm also not interested in heroic suicides that were clueless and achieve nothing but great remembrance in national poetry (like Massada (ca. 72) or both Warsaw Uprisings (1943 and 1944)).

From my first research, the most known are:

  • Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), where Spartans kept resistance against much larger Persian army, being defeated eventually, but allowing other Greek forces to prepare to fight,
  • Battle of Crécy (1346) and similar battle of Agincourt (1415) where English forces, being outnumbered ca. 2:1, won with minimal losses, having better weaponry and combined with terrain advantages,
  • siege of Rhodes (1480) where Knights Hospitaller stood to much larger Ottoman army, being outnumbered at least 10 times,
  • Battle of Kircholm (1605) where outnumbered Polish hussars (ca. 3000) destroyed Swedish forces (11000), having minimal losses,
  • Rorke's Drift (1879), where the weaker side was better armed than stronger one, but in this case it was also high morale of defenders and use of available terrain,
  • East Africa Campaign (WW1) where combined German and native (askaris) troops managed to keep attention of large Allied forces during the war, surrendering few days after the Armistice, being the German longest-fighting unit,
  • cruisers of German Empire, like Emden and Dresden (in WW1 too), binding some part of Royal Navy for long time.

These pointed by me are the most popular in culture. Are there any less known, but in which the weaker side should be honored for its bravery?

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If you've mentioned Rhodes - then also the siege of Malta, of course. –  Felix Goldberg Jun 11 '13 at 21:33
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We shouldn't forget South Korea games against Italy and Spain during World Cup '02. Both won by much weaker side, with a big help of referees. –  Darek Wędrychowski Jun 12 '13 at 3:23
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Voted to close since this is asking for a list which will never be exhaustive and will always be argumentative. For example, Thermopylae was not a Spartan/Greek victory since they all died and the Persian army continued onwards. Arguably it was a pyrrhic victory for the Persians. –  Sardathrion Jun 12 '13 at 9:24
    
Because this question is about to be closed, and asking I was not expecting that there were so many battles won by weaker side, I kindly ask everyone for forgiveness. I think that answers are quite interesting and it would not be good to delete the question and lose them. I decided to accept John Craven's answer as I find it (for me) most interesting, as American Civil War is poorly known in my country, so I learned most from him, however, every answer is accurate for this question. Please excuse me once again. –  Voitcus Jun 12 '13 at 18:36
    
I hated voting to closet this interesting question that is not quite right for the site. Basically, battles won by the weaker side are unusual (percentagewise), but there's nothing special or rare about them; it happens from time to time. A good question must be more "restrictive," than this, and a way to do this is to impose additional restrictions. For instance, what are battles won by the weaker side led by a woman? Off the top of my head, I can think only of battles fought by Joan of Arc. That makes it a more suitable question with a very "short list" of answers. –  Tom Au Jun 12 '13 at 21:09
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closed as not a real question by American Luke, Sardathrion, Yannis Rizos, Mark C. Wallace, Tom Au Jun 12 '13 at 20:08

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7 Answers

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This is kind of a tough question because to some degree the side which wins a battle is kind of by definition the "stronger" side. That being said, a couple examples from the American Civil War:

  • Chancellorsville: Probably the best example of the bunch. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had a force of around 60,000 opposing a Union force led by "Fighting Joe" Hooker (120,000). Amazingly, in the face of these long odds Lee chose to split his army in two, having somewhere around 35k of his troops sit in the front and withstand a Union attack while the other ~25k went through a purportedly impenetrable wilderness and caught the flank of the opponents. That group, led by Stonewall Jackson, succeeded in "crossing the T", as they call it in the navy, and routed a huge chunk of the Union army.

  • Fredericksburg: This one wasn't quite as lopsided as Chancellorsville, but it was still a clear Confederate victory in the face of long odds at the end of the day. This time the Union army was led by Ambrose Burnside, a man probably best remembered for his facial hair (his name is the origin of the term "sideburns"). Burnside basically ran his men up a hill at the entrenched Confederate forces, suffering heavy casualties and gaining no ground at the end of the day.

  • Cold Harbor: This came a good year after the Fredericksburg/Chancellorsville debacles (also, Second Bull Run is in there, was also a Confederate victory against long odds, and I'm only leaving it out due to the Rule of Three), and the Union commander in chief was overall a lot better at his job. This was Ulysses S. Grant, opposed as ever by Robert E. Lee. Grant did much of what Burnside did at Fredericksburg, though, attempting a series of frontal assaults on entrenched positions which were bloodily repulsed. There was some method to this madness, as Grant knew that even if he lost troops at a 2:1 rate vs. Lee he'd eventually win, but in this battle casualties were worse than 3:1.

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A prime example would be the Siege of Malta by the Ottomans in 1565. The Ottomans outnumbered the defenders 5 to 1, according to the numbers given by Francisco Balbi di Correggio, but did not succeed in conquering the island.

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..............:) –  Felix Goldberg Jun 11 '13 at 21:36
    
@FelixGoldberg Been to Malta three times, it's my absolute favourite place in the world (from the little of the world I've seen). Couldn't resist posting the answer ;) –  Yannis Rizos Jun 12 '13 at 10:53
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Salamis, Tigranocertae, Pharsalus.

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Salamis was my first thought on the subject. –  Darek Wędrychowski Jun 12 '13 at 3:13
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Taking this to mean numerical inferiority and restricting to cases where the weaker side won, these are the biggest disparities I can find.

The easiest way to win while significantly outnumbered is to defend a strong fortress in a siege, as shown in Eger where 2100 to 2300 Hungarian defenders held out against an Ottoman force with 35000 to 40000 men.

In field battles, armies have to rely on superior arms, training and tactics. In the Battle of Watling Street, 10000 professional Roman soldiers crushed Boudica's rabble of 100000 or 230000 (depending on the source). Without the advantage of substantially superior arms, the 30000 men under Xiang Yu surprised and defeated Liu Bang's force of 560000 to recapture Pengcheng.

Amongst naval battles, Phormio's Athenian fleet of 20 defeated a Peloponnesian fleet of 77 at the Battle of Naupactus. This was particularly impressive given they were already down to 11 ships before inflicting any damage on the Peoponnesians.

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There are two episodes from WW2 in Russia come to mind.

Panfilov's Twenty-Eight Guardsmen

This is an episode every school kid from former Soviet Union studied in history course. The story is that 28 soldiers were able to withstand the attack of German tanks of Panzer Division while destroying many tanks and a lot of infantry. Almost all of them perished. That delay of German advance to Moscow outskirts provided much needed time for organizing of counter offensive that proved to be very successful.

Defense of Brest Fortress

This is another case of long-standing resistance against far more superior enemy forces right on the border between USSR and Germany (Poland and Belorussia's border presently). Brest's fortress was able to fight for several weeks after the war began and was doing so in isolation when the front line moved hundreds kilometers to the East. Strategic gain of that event was not immediate though for the war lasted for 4 years after that.

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But weren't the 28 guardsmen later shown to be a fiction? –  Felix Goldberg Jun 12 '13 at 13:45
    
There are two points of view, one is that event is blown out of proportion, another is that it is really happened albeit not exactly as school books teach. The debate is still not completely resolved to the best of my understanding. That circumstance puts that episode on the same level as say Thermopylae Defense - epic and legendary. –  Anvar Jun 13 '13 at 1:14
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The Battle of Strasbourg when the Roman army of Julian the Apostate fought the Alamanni in 357 AD. Outnumbered 2-1 the Roman army nevertheless routed their opposing army with minimal losses.

Also most of Belisarius' battles were fought against vastly larger forces.

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Belisarius (or rather his record of consistent skillful battles) could be more interesting to OP than any other commander mentioned here. –  kubanczyk Jun 12 '13 at 9:46
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How can you discount the "2 tanks vs. 1 million spearmen" and still take into account Rorke's Drift? A breech-loaded rifle is a very massive technological improvement over a spear, regardless of whether or not you're in favorable terrain (which the missionary station can HARDLY be counted as one)

In anycase, most of Britain's battles fit into your 'category', as vague as it is. The reason being that soldiery was seen as a punishment in Britain, so usually only the dregs of society were thrown in, where they bonded over their common backgrounds and harsh punishment. A few of their achievements come to mind:

  1. Battle of the Dunes 1658 (Turenne's right was mostly uncommitted, most of the action was done by the English against Spanish veterans)
  2. Battle of Minden 1759 (Six British and 2 Hannoverian regiments against the entire French left wing)
  3. Battle of Assaye 1803
  4. Battle of Plassey 1757
  5. Crecy, Poitiers and Agincourt
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