When David Beat Goliath: 10 Small Armies that Defeated Large Ones

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The Battle of Marathon, 490 BCE

The Battle of Marathon is one of the earliest recorded battles in history and took place in 490 BCE. In September of 490 BCE, some 600 Persian ships, carrying more than 20,000 Persian soldiers landed on Greek soil. The Greeks were unprepared for the invasion, and were only able to rally a force of 10,000 hoplite warriors. The two armies met in Marathon, some 26 miles north of the city of Athens.

Plain_of_Marathon_1
By Chroniques d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet (early 15th century) – Antoine Leduc, Sylvie Leluc et Olivier Renaudeau (dir.), D’Azincourt à Marignan. Chevaliers et bombardes, 1515-1515, Paris, Gallimard / Musée de l’armée, 2015, p. 18-19, ISBN 978-2-07-014949-0, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10026708

The Greek General Miltiades ordered the troops to form a line equal to that of the Persian invaders and to charge into the fight, maintaining the line, at a full run. The strategy was successful. While the Greek line weakened in the middle, they were able to surround the Persian troops. Greek losses numbered only 192 hoplite warriors, while the Persians lost some 6,400 troops. The remaining Persian soldiers retreated.

Outnumbered two-to-one, the Greeks opted for a daring and successful strategy to overtake a larger force, and succeeded with only minimal losses, while inflicting serious harm on their opponent. On their ships, the Persians set out for Athens; however, the Athenian force reached the city before the Persian ships, and quickly turned away Persian forces.

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  • richard griffiths

    it was welsh archers not english archers

    • Michelle Powell-Smith

      You caught me. I had to re-check my facts, and while there’s some dispute to the role of Welsh archers here and there, I’m editing to incorporate that.

      • Craig

        The Agincourt muster role shows only a couple of Hundred men in Henry’s army came from Wales and the welsh borders. The English army was also around 7000 strong at Agincourt (the strength at the beginning of the campaing was 10,000). There were around 2500 men of name (knights, nobles, men at arms etc) at the start of the campaign, they cam from all over England with a few coming from Wales too, all of them when answering the muster were required to bring a certain number of archers based on their class and wealth (in other words, what they could afford), they would recruit local men (those who lived on the estates owned by that noble of knight) and bring retainers already in their service. So if a knight owned land in Lincolnshire….his company of Archers would be from Lincolnshire for example. The Agincourt muster role is available here http://www.medievalsoldier.org/database/maindbsearch.php

      • Mark Andrews

        im pretty sure one or two of them may have been English the ability to fire a bow or a longbow even is not exclusive to welsh DNA, nevertheless they were commonly known as welsh bowman under the subjugation of the English

      • Michelle Powell first time i see editor going back to communicate with reader… maybe it is this site, but it is resulting in good work because proves research, not just copy/paste with obscure title. Also you have chosen an interesting topic! History of Europe needs to be rewritten. Its full of wrong interpretations and much older than we expect.

  • Mindaugas

    What about Kircholm?

    • Michelle Powell-Smith

      Kircholm made it to my notes, but not the final draft, but I do agree, it was a great example!

  • Tomek

    Battle of Hodow mate!!

    • Michelle Powell-Smith

      You got me! I had to look that one up.

  • Paul C

    Interesting, but the 1814 one was only really a skirmish with an inconclusive result. If you want a classic example, what about the battles between British and Italian forces in late 1940-early 1941? A relatively tiny British Army in Egypt took on and comprehensively destroyed an Italian force ten times its size, first reversing the Italian invasion of Egypt then taking the war into Italian Libya, encircling, wearing down and defeating the Italians. 36,000 British troops took 133,000 Italian prisoners. (We weren’t so good at thinking strategically: rather than continue the defeat of Italian North Africa, a large part of the winning army was diverted to a useless and unwinnable war in Greece. Allowing time for Rommell’s Afrika korps to get there and to extend the North African war to May 1943 – when we could have wrapped it up by spring of 1941).

    • Michelle Powell-Smith

      I actually thought seriously about this one, but was trying to cover a wide spread of history, so skipped it. I do think it’s an excellent example though.

  • alan jackson

    What about the Battle of Britain?

  • alan jackson

    What about the Battle of Britain in and around 1940?

  • Geraint

    Why not Rourke’s Drift? 100 vs 4000 around 7-8 casualties to 500-2000. Seems a much larger difference than most of these and the larger force had more rifles than the smaller army…

    • Michelle Powell-Smith

      You’ve caught one I wasn’t aware of–that would have been a good addition.

  • John

    Why do we have to see BCE? What common erz started at 0?

    • Michelle Powell-Smith

      BCE/CE are becoming the common choice among historians; I feel comfortable following the same.

      • John

        No, it is political correctness, a reason not to visit the site again.

  • Cody

    This is Dumb. how about the most famous battle in history? The Battle of Cannae when Hannibal was outnumbered by close to 25,000 and that is not including the 10,000 the Romans left behind to attack their supplies. The fact that Hannibal only lost a little under 6,000. They decimated Paullus idiotic decision to stay on the Calvary instead of commanding. This should be number one.

  • Sam Hope

    Interesting read, I would have thought it’d be interesting to note some of the battles that occured in Vietnam.

    Battle of Long Tan was the one that sprung to mind, an infantry company (108) fended off a regimental attack of between 1500 and 2500 Vietcong. The ATF were not again challenged in the province.

  • Cheezeburger Eddie

    Cannae? the greatest battle ever with a literal encirclement of a larger force by a smaller one.

  • Lars

    What about Narva, Fraustadt and Lund?

  • Victor Ramirez

    No mention of the Yom Kippur War? The ratio of combatants was about the same as in The Six Day War.

  • Pavlos

    Good job Michell. Congratulations! The only objection is that you missed the epic battles of Greeks against the Italians in 1940.

  • 1967 mideast war was preceded by 1956 Invasion by Israel,UK and France on Egypt. In interim Israel was conducting sabotage operations (Lavon AFFAIR) on Egypt .Wolfgang Lotz’s, Champagne Spy is good background on MOSSAD operations in Egypt leading up to 1967 seek ATTACK. Conveniently left out of piece.

  • Eduardo

    What about the Battle of Cartagena de Indias? And also the Battle of Empel. Both of them are good examples.

  • Tom Hawthorne

    Look up Badger’s Mouth. Genghis Khan had around about 90,000 cavalry soldiers. The Jin Dynasty had 150,000 cavalry and 350,000 foot soldiers. The numbers didn’t help them and they were decimated. In fact, pretty much every battle the mongols fought in involved them being outnumbered, and then somehow winning.