Backed Against the Wall: 5 Epic Military Victories from the 19th and 20th Centuries

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Throughout the history of warfare, there have been multiple times where the few defeated the many, but when the odds stand at five to one or even up to ten to one, the defenders usually settle in and prepare for death.

Something about being surrounded, outnumbered, and essentially doomed to die, can make one man fight with the fury of many. This, combined with extraordinary leadership, stout defenses and often the mistakes of the attackers can lead to some truly epic victories against terrible odds. Some may not technically be victories, but men survived and some sort of strategic victory was accomplished. Here are three of the greatest from the 18th century to WWI:

Rorke’s Drift: A Crushing British Defeat and Ends with a Heroic Victory

The Age of Exploration and Colonization led to several violent culture clashes. Conquistadors and the Aztecs, The British Steamships against Chinese Junks of the Opium Wars and the Western powers’ involvement in Africa, notably the push into Zulu territory by the British that sparked the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879.

British troops were very thankful to have stockpiles of corn to use as a wall. Without it, the deadly Zulu would have overrun the camp in minutes. Wikipedia

The first major battle, at Isandlwana, saw a small, but confident, British force subjected to the very advanced tactics of the Zulu warriors. The Zulu were not far removed from the teachings and discipline instilled by one of the most famous African kings, Shaka Zulu. The Zulu attacked the British position with about 15,000 warriors in a pincer formation. They were armed with just a handful of older muskets and mainly throwing and stabbing spears with hide shields and annihilated the nearly 2,000 British there.

A few survivors stumbled into Rorke’s Drift, an old river trading post on the border of British and Zulu territory. A detachment of about 4,000 Zulu had swung wide and around the battle at Isandlwana and prevented most of the survivors from heading to the drift. These 4,000 now had their sights set on the valuable river crossing and the roughly 150 men defending it.

About 40 men were at the drift as hospital patients. It was decided that a retreating column would be quickly overtaken by the swift Zulu army, so defensive preparations commenced. No one could have thought that Rorke’s Drift would need to be a castle against thousands of soldiers, but luckily they thought it was good enough to store hundreds of bags of maize/corn.

The defenses at Rorke’s Drift. Wikipedia

These mealie bags were used as sandbags to form a wall enclosing the small hospital, trading store and stone corral in a long oval. Shooting positions were knocked into the walls and furniture barricaded outside doors and weaker walls. The Zulu had some muskets, but their guns, powder, and shot were all poor quality and the Zulu were experts in spear attacks, not guns. This gave the British a buffer zone, but with over twenty times the men, the Zulu were sure to close the gap quickly.

Less than a decade old, the Martini-Henry was the cutting edge tech that helped the British to win the day. Wikipedia

The battle started with a small group of British allied native cavalry being quickly driven off of a nearby hill. This caused panic in the garrison and some men tried to flee. British officers actually fired at these fleeing men, killing one of them, a sign of their absolute resolve to defend or die.

As the battle commenced, hundreds of Zulu were gunned down on their approach but quickly butted up against the mealie walls. They attempted to jab their spears up and over and the few with muskets tried to fire through weak points in the wall, actually killing several men with this tactic.

The battle in the hospital was frantic and claustrophobic. The Zulu tried to rip through the gun ports and threw volleys of spears through windows. Sustained attacks slowly broke through walls and the defenders had to hack through interior walls themselves as they retreated room by room, leaving piles of bodies as they went.

Eventually, the hospital caught fire and most of the men escaped, save for a few too sick to move. As night fell the corral had to be abandoned. Zulu were now using the piles of their fallen comrades to leap over the barricades as a ring of the remaining able-bodied men formed a shrinking circle around the growing wounded. The Martini-Henry rifle absolutely proved its worth as the tremendous stopping power and quick reloading kept the British in the fight.

Attacks continued through the night with direct assaults only stopping around 2:00 a.m. and Zulu muskets firing until 4 am. Expecting a dawn attack, the exhausted garrison was at the ready, but the Zulu force had already marched for days with inadequate supplies and suffered almost 1,000 casualties, so they had retreated.