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Book Review: Outnumbered: Incredible Stories of History’s Most Surprising Battlefield Upsets by Cormac O’Brien

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“Americans love a winner — and will not tolerate a loser.” —  General George S. Patton

Apparently other cultures feel the same way.  In Outnumbered: Incredible Stories of History’s Most Surprising Battlefield Upsets, Cormac O’Brien recounts the history of fourteen cases in which the underdog came away victorious.

No, the ‘69 Mets aren’t included, nor the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.  What is included covers a period of time between 480 BCE (Salamis) through 1942 (Singapore).  Only one of the fourteen battles described is uniquely American — Chancellorsville, 1863, from the U.S. Civil War.  Also known as “The Wilderness” battle, Robert E. Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and J.E.B. Stuart won although outnumbered two to one.  Often considered as one of Lee’s greatest victories, Chancellorsville was the precursor to Gettysburg, Lee’s greatest loss and the turning point of the war in the East.

 

O’Brien opens with “Salamis”, a fascinating epic battle that preceded the Golden Age of Athens.  Readers may be more familiar with the Battle of Thermopylae thanks to the movie, 300.  In this chapter, O’Brien focuses on the naval battle that accompanied the land fighting in Thermopylae in which 375 Greek ships took advantage of the geography to win against three to one odds (1,000 Persian ships).

A 1964 movie that still stands proudly as a fine action film, Zulu, tells the story of the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, one of my favorite chapters in O’Brien’s book.  The fighting at Isandlwana left the mission at Rorke’s Drift defended by less than two hundred men against 4,000 Zulu warriors.  John Chard, an engineer with no combat experience, was in command and earned The Victoria Cross for his leadership.

Outnumbered: Incredible Stories of History’s Most Surprising Battlefield Upsets is lavishly illustrated with photographs, drawings, colorful maps, and reproductions of famous paintings (often highly romanticized) depicting fateful battles.  O’Brien offers thorough yet concise monographs of the fourteen battles he has chosen that exemplify upset victory against dreadful odds.  Outnumbered is the perfect gift for anyone who admires the victorious efforts of the underdog.

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