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Historical Battles That Proved Quality over Quantity

Updated on June 9, 2013
Fictional battle of Helms Deep
Fictional battle of Helms Deep | Source

From a very young age people are taught that in almost every walk of life bigger is better. There is a never enough of anything. The more one has at his or her disposal, the more superior he must be. However, there are many examples throughout the course of history that shows the advantage of size and number to be highly overrated and sometimes even burdensome. Nowhere was that clearer than on the battlefield. Many times over the centuries armies proved that having disciplined soldiers and a few other advantages made overwhelming numbers practically pointless. The lessons they teach is one people today can often take for granted. Sometime quality is preferable to quantity.

Battle of Thermopylae - 480 B.C.

Greeks hold the pass at Thermopylae
Greeks hold the pass at Thermopylae | Source
Spartans are cut down on final day of the battle
Spartans are cut down on final day of the battle | Source

Due to the face that this battle took place so long ago it is difficult to provide any accurate estimates about the size of the two armies. By that point in time the great Persian Empire was at its height. It oversaw the largest landmass in the known world and had the army to match. Collected from lands all across the modern Middle East and India, the Persian army was a massive, ruthless and mobile force perfected over years of fighting in wide open lands. Yet ten years early this mighty force was given a bloody nose on a barren strip of land called Marathon in modern day Greece. There, the army of a small city state called Athens and its allies fought to defend their lands after angering the Persian king Darius I for helping the people of Ionia, a Persian province, revolt. Though outnumbered the Athenian felt they had no choice but to attack since another enemy force was sailing along the coast to attack Athens. The resulting battle was a stunning route of the Persians, who clearly were overmatched by the more heavily armed and armored Greeks.

The humiliation struck Darius deeply and he vowed revenge. Unfortunately he died before getting the chance. So his son Xerxes, next in line for the throne, took up the torch of fulfilling his father's promise to burn Athens to the ground. Ten years later the army he had marching towards Greece was believed to be ten times the size of the first. The Greek philosopher Herodotus claimed a number of 2,600,000. Those number seem somewhat inflated given the limited logistical possibilities of the time. Fellow historian Ctesias claimed the total more around 800,000. Modern experts believe both numbers are biased since they come from Greek historical perspectives. The best guess of historical and archaeological study puts the number at no higher than 300,000.

Regardless everyone agrees the force was massive, well trained and well equipped. This time the Athenians weren't the ones opposing them first. A scantily collected force of just over 7,000 soldiers from all over Greece was marching to meet them. At their head was a small company of 300 Spartans, the most revered warriors over that era. Spartans were notorious for their militaristic society, their boys trained from the age of seven to become career soldiers. While there were not many of them at the battle, their presence gave the other Greeks backbone.

King Leonidas of Sparta, who was in overall command of this army, realized they had no hope against the Persians on open ground. Xerxes' troops were lightly armored and therefore faster and more maneuverable than the Greeks. This meant if he had any hope of stalling for time so the rest of Greece could prepare for war, then he needed to pick his spot carefully. His selection was a shining example to present-day military historians on the values of ground. The Greeks settled on a narrow stretch of land called Thermopylae. It sat between sheer cliffs on one side and the deep MalianGulf on the other. What made it such a brilliant position was the Persians would have to go through that pass if they wanted to reach Greece.

It became clear from the outset that Xerxes was no prepared for this. Believing his army irresistible, he ordered a massive assault on the Greek line preceded by a storm of arrows. The barrage had little impact on the heavily armored "hoplites", the term for Greek soldiers of that period. When the Persian attack went in, somewhere around 10,000 men, they were instantly blunted by the Spartans and their allies. The Greek battle formation, called the phalanx, which was a line formation of overlapping shields and long spears, made a frontal attack impossible. As the day wore on the lightly armed Persian made no progress at all. Every attack was cut to pieces with only a few Greek dead to show for it. So Xerxes decided to quit toying around. He assembled his best troops, the Immortals, to pursue the Greeks who after the first attack appeared to be falling back through the pass. Those 10,000 elite troops soon learned it was a ruse by Leonidas who turned and cut their lines up every bit as badly as the earlier forces.

Things went no better for the Persians on the second day. Attack after attack was driven back by the Greeks who seemed to gain confidence with each success. They felt if they held out long enough the sheer size of the Persian force would force Xerxes to withdraw. Indeed the king had no answers for the failures. However, he caught an almost divine break when a Greek citizen named Ephialtes promised information on how to outflank the Spartan line in exchange for a reward. Xerxes seized the chance and sent a large force of Immortals up a narrow path that wound around Thermopylae into the rear of the Greek lines.

By the third day Leonidas realized his army was undone. At a council of war at dawn he recommended or order the other contingents of the army to retreat and warn their homelands. Bound by Spartan law to never do the same, he and his remaining troops would stay to buy time. When the Persians finally surrounded the Greek position, Leonidas ordered an attack. Led by the Spartans, they savagely mauled several Persian formation, even killing two of Xerxes' brothers. Soon exhaustion and the numbers began to tell. Leonidas himself went down in a hail of arrows, and after a fierce battle for the body, the surviving Greeks made a last stand.

Results

While some can claim Thermopylae was a Persian victory, it cost them three days, 20,000 men and an aura of invincibility to achieve it. Meanwhile the time bought by Leonidas allowed the rest of Greece to prepare. Athens made their stand near the island of Salamis where they destroyed the Persian fleet, forcing Xerxes to send a large part of his army back to Persia. This allowed a second Greek force led by the Spartans to march to battle, where they won a decisive victory at Plataea. Such was the impact of what Leonidas accomplished.

Rorke's Drift - January, 1879

Zulu attacks against Rorke's Drift
Zulu attacks against Rorke's Drift | Source
Source

At the height of the British Empire the lands of Africa had become a rather bothersome spot for the United Kingdom. Everyone remembers the Boer Wars starting in 1880 when Dutch settlers in southern Africa rebelled against the British. However, what many people forget was another conflict took place a year earlier. Back then the Kingdom of Zululand was delivered an ultimatum by British leadership, without the consent of Parliament, in order to insight a conflict or compliance from the Zulu people. Their king, Cetshwayo, was forced to reject the demands and accepted war. His commands were clear. Only fight if attacked first. The British soon obliged, sending a force of 15,000 men to invade.

It seemed like a cakewalk. Zulu warriors were primarily armed with spears and shields while British regular had rifles and cannons. However, their knowledge of the terrain and excellent conditioning gave the Zulus advantage in mobility. This became clear almost immediately when they were able to split the center column of the main British force at Isandlwana using diversionary tactics and fell on the 1,800 men guarding the camp with 20,000 warriors. It was a crushing slaughter. The center column was routed and retreated out of Zulu territory. This emboldened the Zulu commanders who felt another victory might really gain them momentum towards ousting the rest of the British invasion. Their target of choice was a small outpost guarding a key river crossing called Rorke's Drift.

The station was guarded by no more than 400 British and colonial troops under the command of Royal Engineer John Chard and infantry Lieutenant Gonville Bromhead. When word reached them of the disaster at Isandlwana and the advance of the Zulu army they were given a choice. Either they flee or hunker down to fight. At the time the station was centered around a hospital filled with sick and wounded. If they ran it was believed the much faster Zulus would overtake them on the march. So it was best for them to stay and wait for reinforcements.

Defenses were quickly prepared, using the surrounding buildings, overturned wagons and large walls of mealie (corn) bags to encircle the camp. Holes were knocked in building walls to give the men extra avenues to fire their rifles. Late in the day everything was ready. None too soon. Word came that a force of 4,000 Zulu warriors were crossing the river and descending on the station. This army was not under orders to attack but felt cheated after sitting out the glorious victory at Isandlwana. They intended to gain their own victory by taking Rorke's Drift.

Things did not start well for the British. Before the battle had barely begun, a large chunk of the garrison, mostly colonial troops, chose to flee for the safety of deep British territory. This cut the number of defenders from 400 to just over 150. Chard and Bromhead had little time to compensate. The Zulus attacked from the south and then swung around to the north. At the same time they began using rifles looted from the camp at Isandlwana to harass the station further. The battle degenerated to hand-to-hand fighting but the early preparations including the mealie bag walls made their attacks fruitless.

The most critical part of the battle soon followed when the Zulus managed to gain entrance into the hospital. Fighting was ferocious inside and grew desperate as the roof caught fire. British troops inside burrowed through the walls of the building towards the inner part of the camp and managed to save nine of eleven patients while only losing four men. This effort shortened the British perimeter and made it easier to defense, but the Zulu attacks were not stopping and only getting stronger. By morning of the next day the survivors were collected in a small bastion at the heart of the station. Incredibly the Zulus ceased their attacks, largely due to exhaustion and lack of food. At 8:00 a.m. British reinforcement arrived, ending the battle.

Results

Chard and Bromhead lost 17 men in the fighting while killing at least 350 Zulus. This victory erased much of the stain from the disaster at Isandlwana. Eleven of the defenders won the Victoria Cross, the highest honor in the British military. The war went on for another five months before the Zulu nation finally went down in defeat that July. It was a victory bought at a far steeper price than expected, and could've gone much worse if not for the timely action at Rorke's Drift

Chosin Reservoir – December, 1950

Chinese forces attack at Chosin
Chinese forces attack at Chosin | Source
Chosin battle map
Chosin battle map | Source

Korea is widely called the Forgotten War since it never actually came to any decisive decision despite three years of conflict. That doesn’t mean that the battles fought there were meaningless. During the last stages of the first year in 1950 it seemed a U.N. victory was assured after they’d routed the North Korean forces following the Battle of Inchon. From that point the army, spearheaded by American troops pushed north. It appeared things were ready to conclude despite warnings from many sources that the People’s Republic of China planned to enter the war if the U.N. did not stop its advance north. General Douglas MacArthur didn’t believe the reports and told his troops to continue the rapid advance.

Only one division refused to obey those orders. The 1st Marine division, under the command O.P. Smith, a World War II veteran who fought at Okinawa, kept their advance at a steady pace, allowing units to consolidate supply points, airfields and stay in contact. He was also dismissed for these precautions. As the temperature began to fall below zero in late November his preparations were about to get tested. Chinese forced crossed into Korea just like MacArthur thought they wouldn’t and stunned U.N. troops near the Chosin Reservoir. Most of the American and Allied troops were caught completely by surprise and soon a brutal battle began to unfold.

The 1st Marines and parts of the X Corps were caught in a Chinese trap inside the reservoir. Smith’s division was opposed by ten fresh enemy divisions. The Chinese commanders had assumed the Marines were in a similar state as the rest of the U.N. forces, overstretched and not at full strength. When they realized Smith’s caution had brought the entire division into the fight, they were compelled to stop their repeated assaults on the marine positions. As the weather grew more and more bitter the American troops understood they couldn’t stay where they were. The Chinese already outnumbered them 2-to-1 and would have far more coming across the border soon enough. MacArthur ordered the trapped forces to retreat to the coast where they could be evacuated at the port of Hungnam.

Spearheaded by tanks and covered by determined air cover, the marines switched over to the attack on December 1st. It took five days and very heavy fighting against determined Chinese troops to take the hills and roads necessary. Everything happened in that span from friendly fire to blizzard battles to clashes at night. Casualties were heavy on both sides. Soon the U.N. forces had secured the main road out of the reservoir. It was said the Marines suffered over 4,000 killed and wounded in the fight. Yet their sacrifice resulted in over 30,000 Chinese losses and opened the door to Hungnam. Frozen, battered and exhausted the Allies escaped the trap and evacuated to sea on Christmas eve.

Results

By questioning his orders and following proper protocol, Smith had saved his division. The 1st Marines turned out to be the lynch pin that kept the entire U.N. front from collapsing under the weight of the massive Chinese invasion. After retreating back into South Korea the Allies stiffened their defense, with help from the forces who survived at Chosin. This settled the war into a back-and-forth killing match for the next two and a half years. The stand of the 1st Marines was eventually forgotten, as was the rest of the war after it ended.

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    • EJ Lambert profile image
      Author

      EJ Lambert 4 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Happy to, lions. I'm a huge history buff and military history is my favorite. Korea was such an amazing sequence of events fought by great men yet are somehow forgotten. I'd rank the Chosin Reservoir right up there with Dunkirk in World War II for the brave resistance and miraculous escape.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 4 years ago from Auburn, WA

      Great job, EJ. Glad to see you've highlighted the Chosin Reservoir. Those men are forgotten so often. What the Marines did in those ten days was amazing. Thanks.

    • EJ Lambert profile image
      Author

      EJ Lambert 4 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Very much so.

    • nuffsaidstan profile image

      nuffsaidstan 4 years ago

      Yeah it was a great performance by James Booth.

    • EJ Lambert profile image
      Author

      EJ Lambert 4 years ago from Chicago, IL

      I always got a kick out of Hook and his antics to get excused from duty.

    • nuffsaidstan profile image

      nuffsaidstan 4 years ago

      Great hub, contrary to what is shown in the film most of the soldiers at Rorkes Drift were from the Warwickshire and Worcester Regiments not welsh ones as shown, as a Warwickshire lad that is quite important lol.