Outnumbered: Incredible Stories of History’s Most Surprising Battlefield Upsets, by Cormac O’Brien
In this reasonably short book there are some puzzles. It is, in the main, a book that provides an easy-to-read summary of the prelude, conduct, and aftermath of fourteen battles, most of which are familiar, where a heavily outnumbered force won a tactical victory against a much larger opponent. Yet there are several ironies in the choices made. For one, the author chooses to write mostly about battles that follow Hanson in positing a supposed Western Way of War, at least in some form, as there are references to a Roman way of war even as it was different in several of the battles where Roman soldiers fought. For another, this book is self-consciously a work on battle tactics, and yet it has few maps to help clear up the questions of battle maneuvers, instead focusing on textual explanations along with pictures. As a result, while the book is an entertaining read, it fails to inform as well as it could have done.
In terms of its structure, the book consists of fourteen short battle studies that demonstrate the qualities necessary for an outnumbered army to defeat a superior army on the field of battle. These battles include: Salamis, Issus, Cannae, Carrhae, Alesia, Tricamarum, Agincourt, Narva, Leuthen, Auerstadt, Chancellorsville, Rorkes Drift, Tannenberg, and Singapore. In many of these cases, there are some notable differences between the two armies apart from size that accounts for the outcome. Often on one side there is a vastly better tactical military leader than the opponents enjoyed–this was clearly the case when it came to such generals like Hannibal, Julius Ceasar, Frederick the Great, or Alexander of Macedon, or even Charles XII of Sweden. In other cases, battles were won because of issues of terrain and weather, as well as the greater mobility, focus, and cohesion held by the smaller army. In some cases, many of these factors were joined together, including such matters as logistics, where poorly fed soldiers led by incompetent leaders against competent enemies of smaller size led to notorious disaster.
Yet there is a way in which this book prompts more questions than it answers. As a book about battles, it seeks to put those battles into a larger context, most notably the wars in which those battles were a part. The author notes, apparently without comprehension, that many of the winners of these tactical battles lost the wars those battles were a part of. The object of an army is to win wars, or at least not to lose them, and yet many generals provoke wars with superior enemies and do not fight in such a way as to win in the larger scale. The related fact that many people prefer reading about battles than about wars, and lack an interest in such matters as logistics, diplomacy, or grand strategy mean that this book serves to lionize those leaders skilled in winning a battle, even while the author knows that an army that is outnumbered in battle is usually outnumbered for a reason, and that prolonged combat blunts the edge of any army, no matter how good, and often forces the combat to which side can marshal the most troops that are the best equipped to the decisive spot, all of which involves matters far wider than tactics alone. Glory comes to those who win battles, but winning wars is more important, more complicated, and far more difficult.