The 6 Most Insane Underdog Stories in the History of Battle

#3. Battle of Isandlwana

If you were to hold a worldwide popularity contest of all the armies in history, you'd be hard-pressed to find the British Imperials on the top of anyone's list. With all its mustaches, technologies and "white man's burden" mentalities, the British Empire forced its way into the record books as both the largest and most annoying empire in history.

This is honestly how they viewed themselves.

On Dec. 11, 1878, the British Empire sent the African Zulu king Cetshwayo an unfair ultimatum with the intent of using it to provoke war. Sure enough, Cetshwayo refused the offer, and the British immediately went after the primitive tribe with a force of 8,000 mustachioed warriors.


The Battle of Isandlwana was the first major encounter of the Anglo-Zulu War, and it took place on Jan. 22, 1879, in Isandlwana, South Africa. It was not a technological mismatch so much as a dick-measuring contest. The Brits came in with the best of everything any army at that point had ever seen, which was kind of overkill when you consider they were fighting dudes with iron thrusting spears, throwing spears, clubs and shields made out of cow hide.

As it turned out, their superior technology made the Brits a little overconfident. For all the technology and lavish costumes the Brits went to war with, it goes without saying that, when this marches over the horizon ...

... the battle is not going to go well for the guys that showed up dressed like they were there to deliver a singing telegram.

The British Empire, of course, was accustomed only to polite, orderly warfare fought against the sound of a whistling teapot. The chaotic nature of their misadventure into Africa resulted in a massive siege for which they were completely unprepared, leading to the single worst defeat ever suffered by the British army against a technologically inferior opponent.

Somewhere right now, a teapot is piping.

As for the spoils of war, the Zulus walked away like they had just won a game show. They captured almost 2,000 draft animals, 130 wagons, two cannons, 1,000 of those fancy Martini-Henry rifles, 400,000 rounds of ammunition, tents, tinned food, beer, biscuits, God only knows how much tea and perhaps the most lavish costumes anybody of any continent had ever seen.

#2. The Battle of the Ice

The early 13th century was a rough time to be Russian, because for some reason, every other nation on Earth decided to take turns picking on them. They were attacked first by the Mongols and then by the Swedes, so their forces were already desperately depleted by 1242, when they answered a knock at the door and found the goddamn Crusades waiting for them on the other side. Apparently, the West had decided that the Russians' Eastern Orthodox Christianity was the wrong kind of Christianity.

Going into this battle were some of the most heavily armored knights of the Middle Ages, among them the prominent Livonian branch of the Teutonic Order. As demonstrated by the harsh hit-points they dished out in Age of Empires II, Teutonic Knights were among the most elite, best-financed and overburdened assholes on the planet, wearing head-to-toe armor that made them the closest thing to Iron Man without being Iron Man.

This is seriously what they looked like.

Opposing them was the rabble of the Novgorod Republic, one of the few Russian principalities still breathing in the aftermath of the Mongols. All they could face the Crusader army with were some poorly armed local militia, two princes, and some of their royal bodyguards.

But there is a harsh however simple lesson in warfare that western Europe seems to keep forgetting again and again -- do not attack Russia in winter.

Are you listening, Germany?

The Battle of the Ice took place on April 5, 1242, on the frozen straits between the northern and southern parts of Lake Peipus. This ice did not lie flat in the winter, but jagged, like the Fortress of Solitude. Nevertheless, the Crusader army charged across the lake like a bunch of football players, apparently not realizing that doing any kind of fighting on a slippery surface is a bad idea, never mind when you're an army decked out in the heaviest armor in the world.

We still can't take our eyes off the dude with the horns.

The Crusaders ended up fighting hand-to-hand combat for hours on the ice's slippery surface against Novgorodian militiamen standing safely on a beachhead, until someone finally said, "Hey, how about fuck this."

When they tried to retreat, though, the ice supposedly broke from underneath them. Though it should be noted that this tidbit comes from the Novgorod chronicles of the life of Alexander Nevsky, aka the single most badass Russian in history. As such, there's a chance that the part about the ice breaking under the Crusaders may have been added just to make for some cooler pictures.

Which you bet your ass it did.

#1. Native Americans Defeat the Vikings

Christopher Columbus was not the first pale-faced invader from across the seas that the Native Americans had to deal with. Norse colonists had already staked their claim as many as five centuries earlier, as proven by archaeologists and by Norse legends of a place they called "Vinland," which turned out to be Canada. Incidentally, we would all be speaking Norwegian right now if the Native Americans hadn't sent them packing sometime around 1000 A.D.

Hooray for history!

"Skraeling,," or "weakling" was a derogatory term used in the Icelandic Sagas to describe the Native Americans the Vikings encountered during their brief squat in North America. It really wasn't anything personal -- at the time, every other civilization in the world was a weakling compared with the Vikings. This reputation was tarnished when the Native Americans went up against one of the Vikings' most notorious badasses, Eric the Red, and won.

Not even his mustache could save him.

Although they lived in peace for a short time, a Skraeling was eventually killed by a Viking over a dispute that boiled down to "He tried to steal my sword. You all saw it!" First blood was drawn, and the Skraelings were pissed.

A skirmish erupted between the two camps, killing two Vikings and four Skraelings. That's when things got a little weird. During the battle, the Skraelings deployed a weapon launched from poles described as a large, blue ball that emitted a "hideous sound" at the Vikings. This may only be hearsay, but the ultimate result was that the Vikings, with their iron armor, shields, steel spears and axes, were driven out of the entire hemisphere by Native Americans wielding weaponry made of wood, stone and animal parts. As documented in The Saga of Eric the Red: "[The Vikings] realized that even though this was good land, their lives here would always be dominated by battle and fear."

That, friends, is the highest compliment a Viking can pay you.

Make sure you learn about some little guys that won, in Underdogs of War: 6 Tiny Nations That Kicked Ass. Or find out about some final fights that put the Alamo to shame, in The 7 Most Badass Last Stands in the History of Battle.

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