Having the latest and greatest weapons is usually a pretty big advantage in combat, but it’s not the only factor in determining the victor. Sometimes the stronger side makes an unforced error that throws away victory; sometimes deception evens the odds. Even vastly superior technology is not immune from disaster. Although colonial powers often came up against tribes centuries behind them in military tech, they could still be beaten.
From the ruse that crushed an American patrol in Wyoming to the terrible time the British had in South Africa, this collection looks at those instances when clever tactics won out against advanced technology.
- 1123 VOTES
The Boers Crushed The British With Inferior Weapons But Superior Tactics
The British Army suffered some of its worst-ever losses in South Africa in the late 19th century. In the First Boer War, British soldiers armed with the latest weapons and artillery were decisively beaten by the citizen militia of the Boers. The battle of Majuba Hill was the third in a series of disastrous losses in 1881. The Boers were armed with little more than rifles and the clothes on their backs, but what they lacked in modern equipment, they made up for in skill and tactics.
At Majuba Hill, they utilized vuur en beweging (“fire and movement”) to advance on the British position atop the hill. Experienced marksmen kept the British soldiers pinned down while the younger troops, some little more than teenagers, crept around the sides of the British position. Clad in red, the British were easy pickings for the Boers, who remained all but invisible to their enemy from a distance.
With their position encircled, and unable to see the enemy, the British lines collapsed and the panicked troops abandoned the hill. The British commander, General Sir George Colley, hesitated at the crucial moment when the battle could still have been rescued and was shot in the ensuing panic.
The remnants of the British army were only rescued from complete annihilation by their artillery stopping the Boers from advancing further. Though a relatively small battle, the nature of the loss on the back of two other terrible losses prompted the British to sue for peace. They would return in far greater numbers, and in khaki rather than red, within the decade.
The Fetterman Massacre of 1866 was at the time the worst defeat suffered by the US Army in the Great Plains. A combined force of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors overwhelmed an American detachment commanded by William Fetterman near Fort Phil Kearny, WY. The fort was one of several built along the Bozeman Trail that illegally cut through Native American hunting grounds. Hostilities erupted in the aftermath of the Sand Creek Massacre, where some 750 Cheyenne and Arapaho were slain by American troops.
The most prominent of the trail forts was Fort Phil Kearny, and it was here that warriors led by Crazy Horse and Red Cloud concentrated their efforts. Multiple small skirmishes were fought in the vicinity of the fort, with 79 soldiers and workers slain in November and December 1866. When Crazy Horse successfully baited a small group of American troops into a deadly ambush by dismounting his horse and running away, he and Red Cloud reasoned the same plan could probably work on a larger scale.
On a bitterly cold December morning, Crazy Horse and nine other warriors attacked a work party of woodcutters near the fort; Fetterman and 80 American soldiers were dispatched to deal with them. Crazy Horse and his men taunted the Americans and drew away the few mounted troops. Fetterman and his infantry followed behind and right into the trap laid by Red Cloud and Crazy Horse. Assailed from all sides, the unmounted Americans might have had modern firearms, but those weren’t much good against the hail of arrows unleashed from mounted troops on all sides. Several Native American casualties that day were actually from one another’s arrows. Not a single American soldier survived.
- 390 VOTES
The Rifs Drew The Spanish Into Disaster At Annual, Morocco
The worst-ever defeat by a European colonial power was the unmitigated disaster suffered by the Spanish army at Annual (a town in northeastern Morocco also called Anwal) in 1921 during the Rif War. What made the loss all the more shocking was that the modern Spanish army was routed by a much smaller Rifian force. The Spanish had modern artillery, machine guns, and aircraft, while the Rifs lacked modern firepower and formal training. What they did have in abundance was courage and resolve, and a leader who could take advantage of the hubris of the Spanish.
Mohammed Ben Abd al-Krim knew a head-on attack against the over 20,000-strong Spanish would be foolish. Rather than engage, his forces pulled back to draw the enemies in. The Spanish troops were poor conscripts who couldn’t afford to buy their way out of the army. As the Spanish army advanced, the forces were dispersed to garrison several poorly constructed blockhouses. As the army under Manuel Fernández Silvestre advanced deeper into the mountains, the supply lines became stretched and the low morale of the troops plummeted further. Abd al-Krim warned him not to advance any further - a warning Silvestre dismissed.
Most of the forts lacked access to water and supplies, a misstep brutally exploited by the Rifs. As forward garrisons were overwhelmed and the army pulled back to the fort at Annual, Silvestre had a nervous breakdown as the situation spiraled out of control. An attack on the fort prompted Silvestre to order his men to withdraw. One report even suggests the general was seen atop the ramparts, screaming:
Run, run, the bogeyman is coming!
The Rifian fighters piled on the pressure and the withdrawal soon became a rout. Smaller tribes joined the fray to hunt down the fleeing colonial troops. Spanish pilots who witnessed the chaos from the skies spoke of the sorry sight of the lands below them strewn with the bodies of their compatriots. Silvestre’s body was never found.
- 475 VOTES
The Tuaregs Picked Their Moment To Defeat The French At Bir el-Garama
As the French looked to strengthen their grip on Algeria in the 1800s, they explored the possibility of completing a trans-Sahara railway. A colonial officer named Paul Flatters led two expeditions deep into the desert to reconnoiter the route. Of course, nobody asked the local tribes what they thought of this scheme.
The Tuareg are a group of people who have made a living in the harsh lands of the Sahara for centuries. Accounts of the “blue people” (so called because of their use of dyes) of the desert stretch back thousands of years. Flatters’s first expedition, in 1879, ran into difficulties and was forced to turn back after a few weeks. The second venture was better provisioned, but several members of the first expedition wisely refused to go out for the second.
Unbeknownst to Flatters and his band of men as they set out again in 1880, they were being followed just out of sight by the Tuareg. The desert tribesmen lacked the modern weapons carried by the French - a handful carried old muskets, but most carried only takoubas or lances. Had they confronted the expedition on open ground, they would have had no chance. But they knew the lay of the land, moved quietly, and waited patiently.
The Flatters expedition got as far as Bir el-Garama, passing an ancient Roman monument along the way. The local guides were actually working for the Tuareg and led the French off course and into the trap. As Flatters took a group with him to Bir el-Garama, the division created the chance the Tuareg had been waiting for. Flatters was deceived by the speed and ferocity of the ambush as he and his men were cut down within moments.
Those left behind in camp learned of the massacre and chose to turn back, lest they share the same fate. The Tuareg used traders to sell the survivors tainted milk and fruit to weaken them even further. The column became strung out and ragged as the Tuareg picked off the stragglers one by one. The railway was never built.
The Anglo-Zulu War was a conflict instigated in 1878 by the British High Commissioner Sir Bartle Frere, who sent an outrageous ultimatum to the Zulu King Cetshwayo to use its inevitable rejection as a pretext for an invasion of Zululand. The British drastically underestimated the capabilities of the Zulu; the initial expeditionary force numbered fewer than 8,000.
The Zulu were primarily armed with short spears and clubs and protected with little more than cowhide shields, while the British carried modern firearms and artillery. Despite this huge gap in technology, Zulu battle tactics held the answer. The Zulu Impi drew up for battle in a formation resembling the head of a buffalo. While the chest engaged the enemy, the horns of young warriors would run around the flanks to encircle the opposing force. The Zulu King Shaka added a reserve - the loins - to wait behind the main force with their backs turned. This was intended to keep the warriors calm and ready to enter the battle as directed.
At Isandlwana, the Zulu used a diversionary force to draw part of the British army away, leaving the camp vulnerable to attack. While the center’s attack wilted under modern firepower, the left horn got through the British right flank, which was defended by poorly armed colonial troops. As the horns made headway, the reserves were committed to the fight. The British line collapsed under pressure and was overwhelmed.
The appalling nature of an apparently primitive native army defeating a modern European one sent shock waves across the world. Although Cetshwayo repeatedly sought peace in the wake of the battle, the British were determined to avenge the defeat. The Zulu were unable to fully capitalize on the victory at Isandlwana, and a second and much larger British expeditionary force succeeded where the first failed.
- 665 VOTES
German Tribes Used Cunning And The Land To Beat Roman Might In Teutoburg Forest
The Romans were a cut above their contemporaries in civilian and military developments. The legions were a very well-equipped professional outfit supported by lethal artillery and thousands of auxiliaries. To take on such a force in an open field was a seriously bad idea (except for the Parthians of course), so for most tribal states to stand a chance against the Romans, a clever plan was needed first and foremost.
That scheme was the brainchild of Arminius, a German noble who spent his youth as a hostage of Rome. He later served in the Roman army and helped put down the Illyrian Revolt, witnessing firsthand the awesome might of Rome. But he also saw some cracks in the Roman army and never forgot his roots. When he was summoned to serve under Publius Quinctilius Varus to pacify the remaining German tribes, he hatched a plan.
The Romans relied on local auxiliaries like Arminius to guide and protect the flanks of infantry. Arminius secretly plotted to lead the Romans right into an ambush in the dense forests at Teutoburg. The element of surprise and difficult terrain would negate the Romans' superior technology and weapons.
After the first successful attack, the Romans rallied and made camp. However, they were assailed continually over the course of three torturous days in the forest. Three Roman legions were shattered, and Varus took his own life. According to one (admittedly dubious) ancient source, the Roman emperor was so dumbstruck by the defeat that he could only bang his fists against the palace walls and repeatedly shout:
Quintilius Varus, give me back my legions!