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.
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.
The Battle of Julu in 207 BCE marks the end of the military superiority of the Qin dynasty in China. Through the course of 208 BCE, the Qin army, under the command of Zhang Han, attacked a number of provinces to expand the lands controlled by the Qin emperor. Zhang Hang attacked Zhao Xie, the King of Zhao. Zhao Xie retreated to the besieged town of Julu, modern-day Xingtai. Other rebel provinces came to the aid of Zhao Xie.
Xiang Yu commanded the army that came to Zhao Xie’s aid. Between his own army and other rebel forces, Xiang Yu likely had 120,000 to 130,000 troops at his disposal. In total, the Qin army present at Zulu numbered well over 200,000. Casualties on the Qin side were immense, certainly totaling more than 100,000 individuals killed, with significantly fewer killed in Xiang Yu’s army. Zhang Hang later surrendered and his army was, according to historical records, buried alive after the surrender. The Qin generals who surrendered were spared, and given significant rank in the new governments of Xiang Yu.
The Battle of Badr was fought on March 17, 624 CE. The Battle of Badr is a key moment in the early history of Islam. Two years earlier Muhammad and his followers had left Mecca, moving to the city of Medina—this is commonly called the Hijra. There had been a number of small skirmishes between the Qureshi tribesmen of Mecca and the community of Muslims; however, Badr is the first significant battle.
Muhammad and his followers gathered some 313 men to fight in Badr, planning an attack on a caravan funded by the Quraysh. Word reached the Qureshi, and an army of 900 to 1000 was assembled to defend the caravan. The Qureshi army was relatively disorganized, and there was conflict among the leaders.
Upon meeting in battle, Muhammad’s forces from Medina first engaged in ranged combat, firing arrows, then rushed their opponents. Only 14 men from Medina died, while approximately 70 of the Qureshi fighters were killed in the fighting. The decisive victory at Badr helped to propel the success of Muhammad and Islam in the coming years.
On November 15, 1315, a group of some 1,000 Swiss farmers defeated a trained Austrian army numbering at least 3,000. Relatively little is known from historical records about the battle. It is believed that the conflict was triggered by a dispute over the border between lands controlled by Duke Leopold I of Austria and the nearby Swiss, possibly involving a raid on a Benedictine monastery located along the border. Duke Leopold formed an army with the intention of subduing the Swiss peasants.
Aware the Austrian forces were coming, the Swiss created a bottleneck to limit the fighting abilities of the Austrians, relying upon a narrow road along Lake Ageri. The Swiss had built a wall to stop the Austrian troops, and waited on a narrow wooded ridge. The Swiss pelted the Austrian troops with rocks from the ridge, while Swiss foot soldiers attacked with halberds, a type of staff weapon with an axe-like head. The Swiss killed approximately 1,500 Austrian soldiers, while sustaining few losses on their own.
The Battle of Morgarten was one of the key moments in the formation of the Swiss state. Their success rallied other small democratic rural communities to work together to form a confederacy of these states. The Swiss success at the Battle of Morgarten helped to create the remarkable reputation of the Swiss halberdiers that continued for several centuries.
The Battle of Agincourt, fought on October 25, 1415, was only one of many battles in the Hundred Year War, fought between the French and the English. Henry V had landed in Normandy two months earlier, but had lost approximately half of his 11,000 troops to disease and casualties in battle at the siege of Harfleur.
Henry V had only 5,500 men when he faced the French army of 20,000 at Agincourt. Several factors played to Henry’s advantage. The battle took place on a relatively small field, flanked on either side by woods, and the English had Welsh archers armed with longbows, capable of firing arrows over a much longer distance. The archers were protected by a wall of pointed sticks. They decimated the French forces, before the French cavalry could reach the archers. The English lost only 400 men to 6,000 French casualties.
Several years after the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V was recognized as the heir to the French throne; however, he died only two years later, in 1422.
The conquest of the Aztecs by a small band of conquistadores, led by Hernan Cortes, is another example of a very small army that defeated a much larger one. The Cortes expedition set out in February 1519. Accounts vary of the intention of his expedition—the Spanish governor of the region may well have intended only trade and exploration; however, Cortes had distinctly different ideas.
When Cortes reached the Yucatan Peninsula, he began working to form alliances. Cortes had the support of many local tribes who opposed the power of the Aztecs and welcomed the Spanish. The war with the Aztecs began with a confrontation with Aztec forces at Cholula, resisting the oncoming Spanish. Cortes, accompanied by a small number of additional troops, successfully massacred many of the citizens of Cholula, including the nobility.
On November 8, 1519, Cortes and his forces reached the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, and were initially welcomed. The city of Tenochtitlan was, by the standards of the time, massive; records suggest that the population numbered between 60,000 and 300,000 people. Fairly quickly, Cortes took the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma, prisoner, while enabling him to continue to rule.
By the summer of 1520, the conflict between the two parties had escalated. A force of only 3,000 Spanish and native warriors eventually took the city of Tenochtitlan, aided by a plague of smallpox that decimated the population of the city.
The First Battle of Panipat marks the beginning of the Mughal Empire in India. Fought between the invading forces of Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan, and the Lodi Empire, the battle was also one of the first instances of the widespread use of firearms.
Babur sought to take control of the Punjab, defended by the forces of Sultan Ibrahim Lodi. Ibrahim’s defending army numbered 100,000 soldiers and 1,000 war elephants. Babur commanded approximately 12,000 troops. Babur created a wall of carts, secured together by ropes, with gaps to allow horsemen to travel through the line of fortifications. The two armies faced one another for a week before the battle commenced.
Babur used the flanks of his forces to attack Ibrahim’s troops, eventually killing the Sultan and causing Ibrahim’s troops to retreat. While Babur did use artillery, his archers were credited with much of the victory over the Sultan. Accounts of the battle suggest that as many as 40,000 of Ibrahim’s troops were killed in the battle. Babur’s legacy would continue for nearly 200 years.
In the War of 1812, the United States had suffered a significant defeat at the hands of the British at the Battle of Chrysler’s Farm. Following the defeat, U.S. Major General James Wilkinson retreated to winter quarters in French Mills, New York. Wilkinson’s failure was likely to lead to his removal from a position of command, so he made a plan to gain some victories and repair his reputation.
Near the border between Canada and the United States, along the Lacolle River, British forces maintained a small garrison at Lacolle Mill. Wilkinson attacked the outpost on March 27, 1814 with a large force of American troops, made up of 4,000 soldiers and artillery. The weather and conditions proved troubling, as artillery could not be moved near Lacolle Mill.
Wilkinson attacked the outpost, but the British successfully responded, using Congreve rockets. Additional British and Canadian troops heard the gunfire and responded. Wilkinson and his troops retreated that evening, having failed to defeat the small garrison of troops at Lacolle Mill. American losses totaled 154 men. The British and Canadians lost only 60 men to the battle.
The Winter War was a war between Finland and Russia for some five months, between November 1939 and March 1940. The Finnish state was quite small, and maintained only a minimal peacetime army and small reserve forces, as well as very limited artillery. The Finnish forces were immensely outnumbered by the Russian army. Russia sent some 810,000 troops to invade Finland; however, Finland was intensely nationalistic and its troops knew how to operate in small groups in Finland’s heavily wooded landscape. Russia’s army was used to fighting on open ground, and could not operate independently.
The Finns were effectively able to pick off Russian tanks, and to take down Russian convoys by blocking the roads and attacking from the back and sides. The small Finnish force effectively controlled the war from November 1939 to January 1940 in a number of engagements.
While the small Finnish army won many of the battles of the Winter War, they did not win the war. The Winter War ended with a peace settlement, the Treaty of Moscow, in March 1940 after significant Finnish concessions.
The Six Day War was fought between June 5 and June 10, 1967, between the state of Israel and neighboring countries, including Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. Also known as the June War, the Six Day War was one in an ongoing serious of tense interactions between Israel and neighboring states. Relations between these countries had not normalized following the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
The relatively small Israeli state quickly gained the upper hand in the war by using air strikes. Israel attacked preemptively as tensions increased, effectively destroying most of Egypt’s military. This was followed by a rapid and effective ground offensive into the Sinai and Gaza Strip. Largely defeated, Egypt asked for assistance from Syria and Jordan.
Israel successfully seized East Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan, then Golan Heights from Syria in the days that followed. In total, the land area under Israeli control tripled in the Six Day War. Israel succeeded in the Six Day War through the use of smart tactics, including the preemptive air strikes. The Six Day War created a significant refugee crisis, and led to the expulsion of Jews from many Arab countries. The tensions that led to the Six Day War continue in Israel today.