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

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

William McLaughlin - May 10, 2017

Throughout the history of warfare, there have been multiple times when 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.

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

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

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

Backed Against the Wall: 5 Epic Military Victories from the 19th and 20th Centuries
Mexican Medics give aid to the French survivors at Cameron. Wikipedia

Battle of Camarón: The French Foreign Legion Earns its Legendary Status

The French Foreign Legion is an interesting branch of the French military. Composed of foreign troops with French officers and some other French troops, it stood out from other regiments. From the beginning, the Legion was known for its harder-than-average training and discipline as well as their strong sense of unity. Though this may not be considered a tactical victory, it was certainly a victory for the reputation of the French Foreign Legion and a look at the casualties of the Mexicans shows that the French fought exceptionally well.

Coming from a wide array of nations they all had their service to the Legion in common. They were already famous when they fought in several key engagements during WWI, largely because of one key battle against all the odds in the middle of Mexico.

The French intervened when a civil war broke out between a Mexican Republican faction and the Mexican Empire. Supporting the Empire, the French invaded and got a surprise when they were defeated in the battle of Puebla in 1862. The next year they would lay siege to the city.

A small group of the 3rd company, 65 men, was sent to escort supplies to the French at Puebla. On the way, they were attacked by several hundred Mexican cavalry. A walled Hacienda (villa) was nearby and the Legion under the volunteer command of Captain Danjou repelled two cavalry charges before they entered the walled courtyard, despite being outnumbered by the cavalry almost four to one

As the Legion entered the Hacienda, more Mexican troops arrived and they sent a request that the French surrender saying: “You will be needlessly slaughtered”. Captain Danjou was an experienced officer, sporting a wooden hand from when he had a musket explode on him. Resolved to fight to the death he had his men swear an oath to do the same. He sent a message back to the Mexican commander, Milan, saying “We have enough ammo and shall continue the fight.”

Backed Against the Wall: 5 Epic Military Victories from the 19th and 20th Centuries
Captain Danjou’s hand is still on display as a reminder of the indomitable spirit of the Legion. Wikipedia

When the main assaults began, the 65 men faced over 1,000 Mexican troops determined to win a quick victory. Furious attacks lasted about an hour as the gates to the courtyard were breached but the Mexicans were eventually repulsed, though at the cost of Captain Danjou, who was shot in the chest and killed around noon.

Lieutenant Vilain took command and was offered another surrender when Mexican reinforcements put their total at 3,000. Vilain refused and fighting resumed. By 2:00 in the afternoon, half the Legion remained and soon after Vilain was killed.

Lieutenant Maudet took command as evening came and about a dozen men remained. About a dozen more were captured and of these, nearly all had serious wounds. When five men were left, the legion had finally run out of ammunition but they were not about to run away from the fight. They decided on a bayonet charge.

Two of the five men were gunned down before the Mexicans held their fire and the three remaining legionaries stopped. Commander Milan requested their surrender one last time. To this, Lieutenant Maudet agreed on the condition that they keep their equipment and that the wounded receive immediate attention from the Mexican doctors. When Milan saw the three survivors of the charge he exclaimed “These are not men! They are demons!” These words cemented the legacy of the French Foreign Legion.

The Legion today has 7,700 men from over 140 nations. They commemorate the Battle of Camarón every year and proudly display the wooden hand of Captain Danjou. It may have been a defeat on paper, but the Legion did cause about 500 Mexican casualties by refusing to surrender, that’s over seven men per Legionary, a ratio seldom seen in any age or style of warfare.

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

Siege of the International Legations Boxer Rebellion: Western Cooperation in the Face of Annihilation

“The most exciting episode ever known to civilization” this was what the newspapers had to say about the multifaceted Boxer rebellion and siege of Peking/Beijing in 1900. Most of us learned what the Boxer Rebellion was in high school, but for most, just the odd name is all we remember.

China had some glory days in the ancient and medieval period, but could not keep up with Western powers in the age of sail and gunpowder. After decisive defeats in the Opium Wars, the Chinese had no choice but to allow Western Nations to set up spheres of influence through China, dominating trade and spreading Christianity, leading to resentment among the population.

Soon the Boxer Rebellion burst open throughout China as an anti-foreign group aimed at expelling or simply killing Westerners. They targeted churches and Chinese Christians as well. As Western power had already been proven against the Chinese government, western nations had only legations that acted in a similar role to embassies, with few guards.

As Boxer troops approached Beijing, a force of 400 soldiers from various European and American nations swept into the legations quarter to set up a defense (some Japanese officials and soldiers were present as well). The first few days saw cathedrals burned and suspected Boxers executed, raising tensions.

Soon the legations quarter, which butted up against a wall, had complete enough fortifications and the 800 total westerners, with 3,000 Chinese Christians seeking safety, stood ready for the 40,000-man army facing them. seeing the carnage leading up to the siege, the defenders were well aware that the Boxers would almost certainly slaughter all of them if they got the chance.

Backed Against the Wall: 5 Epic Military Victories from the 19th and 20th Centuries
The Legation quarter about a decade after the siege. Wikipedia

You might ask what the Chinese government was doing during this supposed rebellion. Well, they went back and forth several times before finally siding with the rebels, thinking it was a good opportunity to finally expel the foreigners. So many troops were with the Qing government as well as most of the commanding officers.

Though working with a hastily constructed defense, the 400 civilians were mostly well-educated officials of a wide range of backgrounds. Groups of doctors served as medics, translators helped all sides stay on the same page, and soldiers shared equipment.

Backed Against the Wall: 5 Epic Military Victories from the 19th and 20th Centuries
the layout of Beijing/Peking. Wikipedia

Heavy equipment was hard to come by, but the Italians dug up an old cannon that other nations brought to fighting condition with spare pieces they had, and crewed by men of all nations. The cannon was fondly dubbed “the International”. A British officer led the defense and an American diplomat oversaw logistics and construction of defenses.

The siege saw few direct assaults at first, with the Chinese trying to set fires and burn or smoke the foreigners out. superbly organized construction crews extinguished fires and repaired defenses so quickly that the Chinese soon gave up on this strategy.

The defenders recalled that the Chinese constantly shot volleys through the night or else set off fireworks periodically, just to force the defenders to stay awake. Eventually, the Chinese launched scattered assaults after slowly inching up their siege lines.

The defenders held more often than not, but on one occasion the Chinese took control of a German-defended section of the wall. A swift American counterattack against the Chinese siege line forced a retreat and the wall was retaken.

After almost three months of siege that saw half of the defending soldiers wounded or dead, the sound of machine gun fire was heard in the distance. The Chinese had no real automatic weapons at the time, so the defenders knew that their relief army must have arrived.

They were right, about 20,000 men from five nations stormed Beijing, each nation racing to the center to relieve the legations. The Americans even scaled the walls, but the British got lucky and found an unguarded gate and won the race to the legations. We don’t have good numbers for Chinese losses, but they were surely in the many thousands. Infighting between the Boxers and the reluctantly supportive Qing troops kept them from launching a coordinated attack. Leaders from both sides argued until the multinational relief force came in.

The Legations survivors were simply stunned that they hadn’t been overrun and were overjoyed when they finally saw the long-awaited help. The siege was an excellent example of cooperation among nations, though it simply reset China as a pawn in European power grabs until WWII.

Backed Against the Wall: 5 Epic Military Victories from the 19th and 20th Centuries
Like many other WWI battles, the Battle of the Yser had huge amounts of casualties and simply exhausted both sides. Wikipedia

The Battle of Ypres and Yser: King Albert and the Belgians Stand Firm Against the First Mass Gas Attacks of WWI

The Germans didn’t have the type of success in their WWI offensives as they would during WWII, but they still overwhelmed much of Western Europe with brute force and numbers. With all the tension between nations prior to the war, Belgium just wanted to stay out of it, openly declaring that they were a neutral nation.

This didn’t stop the Germans, however, as they decided to steamroll their way through Belgium as a way to get around the massive line of fortifications Guarding the French border. As Trench lines formed between the French and German forces, each side tried to maneuver north in order to flank the other. This was known as the Race to the Sea and the sea just happened to be near the Yser River in the extreme northwest corner of Belgium.

At the Battle of the Yser, the Allied forces fought with incredible bravery and desperation for slightly different reasons. The French wanted to preserve their flank and get a defensible position that had a chance to hold, as the Yser could be easily defended. The Belgians were fighting for the little sliver of land they had left, a few dozen square miles at most.

After fighting over bridges and crossings, the Belgians systematically destroyed bridges and eventually caused planned flooding. The Germans continued to attack until they finally realized that they could make little progress through what was quickly becoming marshland and Belgium survived.

The first Battle for the city of Ypres just south of the Yser cost 100,000 casualties in total with no real progress by the Germans. Resolved to take the city in the second battle, the Germans did the unthinkable and used toxic gas weapons in mass quantities for the first time in the war.

Backed Against the Wall: 5 Epic Military Victories from the 19th and 20th Centuries
Belgian troops with the simplest of gas masks. Chlorine gas could still be quite lethal through these masks. Wikipedia

The defenders, French, British and Belgian, were completely unprepared and had the most basic masks, if any, for protection. Chlorine gas was the main weapon of the battle. it is toxic when inhaled as the gas creates an acid when exposed to water. Eyes burn and lungs inflame and disintegrate, causing a death that has been described as a horrible type of dry drowning. Even survivors required constant care, struggling with each painful breath.

The Germans won this battle but were denied in the race to the sea. The entire royal family had also made it safely to what would be known as the Yser Front. King Albert personally commanded his troops and the line was almost exclusively manned by Belgians. Albert’s wife, Elisabeth, served as a nurse whenever she could. The protected chunk of Belgium was an immense source of pride and propaganda for the Belgians and the allied nations, especially considering the Belgians were a small nation that was suddenly attacked despite their neutrality.

Backed Against the Wall: 5 Epic Military Victories from the 19th and 20th Centuries
King Albert inspecting his front lines with some officers. Wikipedia

Belgium’s story also went a long way to swaying the isolationist Americans’ support to the Allies. Invading a neutral nation was already seen as despicable, but reports of horrible war crimes in occupied Belgium made Americans even more sympathetic. There were multiple instances of Belgian resistance, but the German retaliation occasionally consisted of rounding up and executing civilians.

The whole occupation was known as the Rape of Belgium, and it may well have been exaggerated to be better propaganda. Whatever the case, the Belgian stand, and German war crimes had a profound effect on Americans, who really didn’t have a side at the start of the war.

Backed Against the Wall: 5 Epic Military Victories from the 19th and 20th Centuries
German troops snugly in their fortified positions before the Argonne offensive. Wikipedia

The Lost Battalion: A pigeon saves countless lives in WWI

WWI was an exhausting war of attrition, pushes, and counterattacks that exhausted the major powers. When the Americans came into the war they and their exhausted allies were ready to go on offensives to finally put an end to the great war.

The push through the Argonne Forest was a departure from our modern view of trench warfare. hills, valleys and extremely dense forests were far from the barren no-man’s-land we normally think of. A three-pronged attack through the dense and hilly forest was planned and launched on October 2, 1918. The American 77th Division under Major Charles Whittlesey would be the central push with French and other Americans supporting the other prongs of the attack.

Well, the 77th was quite successful, the French and other Americans were not. This meant that the 77th pushed so deep into German territory that they were soon cut off as the allied prongs had been pushed back.

Backed Against the Wall: 5 Epic Military Victories from the 19th and 20th Centuries
A defensive structure in the Argonne from WWI. Wikipedia

The Germans had been steadily building networks of defensive fortifications for the entire war and it was all the 77th could do to secure a hill in the middle of it all. Whittlesey sent runners to either flank where the other allied forces should have been but these men were killed or captured as they ran straight into the German troops. Whittlesey soon realized that he had been surrounded.

German attacks came from all sides that afternoon. The condensed American position was subjected to repeated mortar attacks and snipers camped unseen in the thick forest. The Americans gave as good as they got and repulsed every assault, though with heavy losses on both sides.

Backed Against the Wall: 5 Epic Military Victories from the 19th and 20th Centuries
American Artillery at the time largely consisted of French-made guns, as seen in this French 75 now in the U.S. ordnance museum. Wikipedia

As the Germans realized the opportunity they had, they brought in more forces and renewed attacks over the next few days. The Americans sent out carrier pigeons, but these were shot down by snipers. After a few days, a pigeon escaped but either had the wrong coordinates or the American artillery was simply off, and Allied shells began raining down on the beleaguered Americans.

Whittlesey finally sent out a last desperate message with his only remaining pigeon, named Cher Ami. Cher flew off, but an exploding shell burst just beneath her, sending her falling to the ground. She recovered and flew off again with the Germans furiously firing after her. Cher Ami arrived at the artillery headquarters with a through-and-through bullet wound, shrapnel taking one eye and a leg dangling off. The message read:

“We are along the road parallel to 276.4. Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake stop it.”

Backed Against the Wall: 5 Epic Military Victories from the 19th and 20th Centuries
Cher Ami had the best retirement a pigeon could hope for. she became a mascot for the war, famous throughout the United States. Wikipedia

Cher Ami was worked on by the combat medics and made a full recovery, though sporting a wooden leg from then on. She had saved the Americans who now had less than half their force remaining unwounded. Groups of injured men kept up the fight as well and what started as a huge American liability was now a mighty thorn in the side of German defense, as multiple regiments were dedicated to forcing the surrender or wiping out the isolated Americans.

After a week of suffering, the 77th was finally relieved, having caused so many problems for the Germans that they were unprepared for the attack and were pushed back. Several medals of honor were awarded and the 77th got a well-deserved break, knowing they followed orders and helped win the war.