The 6 Most Insane Underdog Stories in the History of Battle
As much as we'd like to believe what Braveheart and Return of the Jedi have told us, real-world battles are rarely won by the ragtag team of underdogs. Tanks beat horses, guns beat spears.
Yet, as we've found again and again here at Cracked, often history turns out to be more awesome than fiction.
The Battle of Morgarten
The Swiss are truly a slippery breed. With their endless supply of clocks, pocketknives and chocolates, they have managed to outlast just about every dictator/emperor/Hitler in history. What gives? What makes them too good for our friendship?
The rest of us non-Swiss have a long memory when it comes to Switzerland's neutrality.
In 1315, Duke Leopold I of Austria decided to put Europe's mutual hatred of the Swiss to good use by invading the country with a force of anywhere between 3,000 and 5,000 soldiers and cavalry. According to contemporary chronicler Johannes Vitoduranus, "The men of this army came together with one purpose, to utterly subdue and humiliate those peasants who were surrounded with mountains as with walls."
Because being a peasant wasn't humiliating enough.
Leopold's Austrian army was well-suited for battle, riding in with heavy mail and plate armor that could withstand all but the most piercing attacks. Along with heavily armored horses, the combined weight of these knights was expected to be enough to crush any pain in the ass innocent bystanders who got in their way ... which, of course, was exactly what they planned to do with them.
Their opponents were the Swiss.
The only thing the Swiss had going for them was the halberd, which was a bit of a mix between an ax, a spear and a meat hook that handled like all three weapons in one. You know ...
Like one of these.
But Austria was soon to learn exactly why nobody ever seems to want to fuck with the Swiss. On Nov. 15, 1315, Leopold's Uruk-hai army was greeted by a roadblock on a narrow point between Lake Aegeri and Morgarten, buttressed with a steep slope on one side and a swamp on the other. Before anyone figured out this might possibly be a trap, 1,500 Swiss confederates stationed in the cliffs above started hurling enough rocks, logs and Swiss army knives that the Austrians thought they were being assaulted by goddamned ewoks.
The Battle of Morgarten was not so much a battle as it was an absolute massacre. Whoever wasn't conked on the head with a boulder was forced off the road and into the swamp by Swiss footmen. For all the advances in armor plating during the Middle Ages, Leopold's army was undone by logs and rocks.
Also, by George Lucas running out of ideas.
The Battle of Valcour Island
In October 1776, just after the Revolutionary War broke out, a British flotilla of 25 warships sailed down the Hudson River with enough firepower and powdered wigs to blow New England all the way back to Regular England. Our Founding Fathers watched in terror, since their own navy was, at this point, still in tree form.
Yeah? Come over here and say that.
Fortunately, the U.S. was blessed to have a headstrong general named Benedict Arnold, who, as we've pointed out before, was basically history's answer to Rambo. Yeah, he turned on his country, but only because he thought they were being pussies. When Arnold saw the Brits coming, he decided he would beat the Brits back if it meant strapping together a bunch of logs and paddling out there himself.
Benedict Arnold: George Washington's George Washington.
The British forces consisted of 25 armed ships, 700 sailors and almost 2,000 redcoats, Indians and Hessian mercenaries, all equipped with the best training the British Empire could provide. Arnold, on the other hand, was a general, not an admiral, and he walked into this battle with about as many warships and hours logged in naval combat as you have.
Benedict Arnold did exactly what the A-Team would do: build an ad hoc navy in the lake out of whatever fishing boats and drift wood he could find. If it could float, and could remain floating with a cannon strapped to it, it became part of the first American navy.
Despite the fact that Arnold gave the boats badass names like Royal Savage, they weren't fooling anyone at the Battle of Valcour Island. He lost almost every one of his vessels. However, the general had an ace up his sleeve: being the sly bastard that made him notorious.
Arnold slipped past the British gunboats one night following the initial bloodbath, and forced the British fleet on a wild goose-chase along the Hudson River Valley. When the Brits eventually caught up with him and started sinking his ships, they were surprised to see Arnold didn't appear to give a shit. They were probably even more surprised when he burned the last few himself with their flags still flying, dusted off his hands and declared victory.
Arnold had completely outfoxed the enemy; his bullshit navy had successfully stalled them long enough that it was now too late in the year for them to continue their invasion. They were forced to retreat back to Canada, blaming each other the whole way.
By the admission of Baron Riedesel, commander of the Hessian mercenaries in the battle, the American Revolution should have ended with their invasion of the Hudson River that year. Even historians acknowledge that the U.S. would have been utterly screwed by the invasion had it not been for Benedict Arnold's insane gambit.
The Battle of Stirling Bridge
You've actually seen this battle, halfway through Braveheart. But contrary to whatever you think Mel Gibson taught you, William Wallace was not five-foot-nine, the Scots did not fight in kilts and the Battle of Stirling Bridge was actually fought on a bridge.
Mel had the bridge cut from the scene, claiming it was too "Jew-y."
The Battle of Stirling Bridge was fought on Sept. 11, 1297, we're guessing to the full knowledge of King Edward's equivalent to Dick Cheney. England expected Scotland to be such a pushover that they only bothered to outnumber them five to one -- 8,000 to 10,000 soldiers against 2,000 Scottish infantry, and 1,000 to 2,000 cavalry units against 300 Scotsmen on horses.
Please note that we said "Scotsmen on horses" as opposed to actual cavalry, since Scotland didn't have the expensive, quilted armor that made heavy cavalry the Sherman tanks of their time. All the worse for the Scots, they were up against English longbows, literally the most feared weapon in the world until the arrival of the goddamn repeating rifle 600 years later. All the Scots really had going into this battle was the that fact they were Scotsmen.
And that was enough.
Oh, and William Wallace, who by the way is described in the chronicle Scotichronicon as "a tall man with the body of a giant." Wallace knew there was no way his men could face the English cavalry on even terms, but his solution was as crazy as it was brilliant: They stood in a square formation, the best for minimizing the impact of the feared longbows, and forced the English into a choke point -- the narrow Stirling Bridge.
The bridge was only wide enough for two mounted units to cross at one time, so the Scots effectively forced the English into the tactic that bad guys always use against Batman -- line up and attack one or two at a time.
Nearly half the English army was butchered, including the English treasurer to Scotland, Hugh de Cressingham. He got off easily via decapitation in Braveheart, but in reality was supposedly flayed, and "in token of hatred," they "made thongs of his skin."
Yes, you read that correctly: He was made into thongs.
Some people don't play.
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.
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.
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.
And stop by Linkstorm to see what happened when Brockway and Seanbaby fought each other.
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