This large format, colorful paperback book about overcoming the odds is extensively researched and beautifully illustrated with maps and illustrations, photographs (where relevant) and paintings of the events described.
Author Cormac O'Brien has written many popular books on historical subjects, such as Secret Lives of the US Presidents and The Forgotten History of America, and is a presenter on NPR. The title and subtitle of this book tell its content. Fourteen battles are detailed as well as can be known from sometimes ancient documents and reports. All involve victory by a small number of combatants against a markedly larger force, sometimes superior in obvious ways over their ultimate conquerors.
An example is the Battle of Agincourt. Shakespeare focused on this in his play
Henry V in a moving and oft-quoted speech:
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
Of course, Shakespeare was writing 200 years after the fact, and no one knows what if anything Henry V said that day, but it is known that he led and fought alongside his small ragged “band of brothers” – men of all social classes who had been on the march in near-starvation conditions for weeks prior to St Crispin’s Day, many of them suffering from the ravages of dysentery – in one of the decisive battles of the
Hundred Years' War.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
O’Brien offers this vignette:
“Those Frenchmen may well have smelled the English coming long before they saw them. Even as they were wracked by dysentery and deprived of proper food, Henry’s men had been ordered to remain in a state of readiness on the march for fear of imminent battle. This meant that men-at-arms accustomed to riding with their kit in tow now rode fully armored in the saddle for days – weeks – at a stretch, trapping their suffering bodies in a kind of prison. Under the rain, corrosion began to appear where normal care had become impossible, allowing rusty water to creep into clothes and over flesh that had grown mephitic from neglect. The stench must have been insufferable.” It is these minute details that make this book so readable, even for those who are unfamiliar with the particular conflicts described.
The English at Agincourt had three things on their side: excellent leadership; the longbow, a fearsome weapon whose use they had been perfecting for a generation or more; and an indomitable will that had been growing, not diminishing, during their frustrating march. The French were arrogant, their leadership scattered and unprepared for real resistance, making the assumption that mere force of numbers would carry the day. Using the longbows, shooting from the woods where the French battle tactics were nearly useless, and setting up deadly wooden stakes to overturn the charging cavalry, the English forces stood firm, obeyed orders, and killed with savage glee.
Other battles included in the book include classics like Salamis and Cannae;
the Civil War confrontation at Chancellorsville; Rorke’s Drift; and the battle for control of Singapore in 1942. O’Brien sagely comments that both luck and tactics play a role in who wins and who loses: “Battle is the (often futile) act of finding order in chaos, an unavoidable fact that underpins everything in the hellish, murderous confusion of mass killing.”
Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Barbara Bamberger Scott, 2010