I love a good underdog story. Outnumbered: Incredible Stories of History’s Most Surprising Battlefield Upsets by Cormac O’Brien chronicles 14 underdog stories throughout history. The victors were normally two or three times smaller than their opponents.
O’Brien writes about such events as the Greek defeat of the Persians at Salamis in 480 BCE, the Swedish victory over the Russians at Narva in 1700, and the Japanese defeat of Great Britain at Singapore in 1942. O’Brien thoroughly explains the reasons for the underdog victories. Many times the victors were better led and equipped. For example, the Roman defeat of the Gauls at Alesia in 52 BCE can be directly attributed to Caesar’s leadership and the professionalism of his soldiers.
Many of the examples O’Brien uses are well known to history – the Carthaginian annhilation of the Romans at Cannae; the English defeat of the French at Agincourt; and the Confederate pounding of the Union at Chancellorsville. However, he also brings up some less well-known victories – the Roman defeat by the Parthians at Carrhae in 53 BCE or the German victory over the Russians during World War I at Tannenberg.
Each chapter highlights the strategic situation before the battle. O’Brien then explains the battle and the various factors that come into play – such as tactics or terrain. Interposed amongst the text is a variety of pictures and, in many cases, maps. At the end of each chapter, O’Brien explains the significance of the battle in the context of the war that it was fought in – many times the victors lost the war. For example, even though Hannibal destroyed the Roman Army at Cannae, the Romans were able to quickly rebound and eventually defeat the Carthaginians.
At 263 pages (average of 18 pages per chapter), the book is more of an overview of each battle. O’Brien does an excellent job of summarizing each battle. This book is well-worth a read.