To fight against the odds can mean many different things. It can simply represent a battlefield triumph of a much smaller force over one much greater in size. There are many examples through history where sheer numerical or material advantage has not been enough to secure victory. Against the odds can also describe a battle fought successfully against a famous military juggernaut, whose defeat few would have predicted.

The 1896 Battle of Adwa is depicted in this section from an Ethiopian mural painted in the 1960s. The battle resulted in the comprehensive defeat of an Italian colonial army.

When the Mongols were defeated at Ain Jalut by a Mamluk force, few observers would have thought the outcome likely. The Battle of Carrhae was fought against a large, well-organized Roman army by horsemen with military traditions from the Asian steppelands, and most contemporaries would have bet on a Roman victory. The Norse Vikings, who ravaged northern Europe in the early medieval world, carried a terrifying reputation before them, yet at Edington in southern England and Clontarf near Dublin, their conquests were halted in their tracks.

Against the odds has yet another sense as well

Against the odds has yet another sense as well. There can be many factors that stack the odds against one side or the other, whether it is material advantage, reputation, topography or betrayal. In most cases, the side with the odds stacked heavily against them, for whatever reason, loses the battle. But in other cases the menace of overwhelming odds can evoke a response – better planning, greater determination or outstanding courage – to compensate for adversity. Few would have imagined that the small garrison at Rorke’s Drift could hold out against a Zulu army, but the embattled men found reserves of desperate bravery to help them to do so. Soldiers or sailors with nothing to lose can evidently, under the right conditions, find the means to obstruct an enemy confident of victory. Indeed, high odds in your favour may even be an inhibiting factor if they induce overconfidence, careless operational thinking or a lack of the necessary psychological pressure to push that advantage home.

Cuba’s dictator

An imbalance of resources or men can be misleading, since there are cases where sheer numbers manifestly fail to give the advantage. The vast

Guerrilla leader Fidel Castro drives into the Cuban capital, Havana, following the victory of his irregular forces over the larger and better-armed Cuban army.

numbers facing the British-Egyptian expeditionary force in the Sudan in 1898 were overcome by fire discipline and machine guns. Fidel Castro’s revolutionary fighters on Cuba in 1958 had none of the sophisticated weaponry available to Cuba’s dictator, Fulgencio Batista, but they prevailed in large part because the government forces they faced suffered from a loss of morale in the face of widespread popular hostility to the regime and the crumbling confidence of the dictator himself.

Technical or moral factors can play an important, even decisive, part in tilting the balance back when, on paper, forces seem unevenly matched.

This phenomenon is common in the development of asymmetric warfare during the course of the twentieth century, in which a notionally powerful state finds itself unable to bring that power to bear effectively against an elusive or determined enemy. This imbalance was evident in the struggles to liberate areas from colonial rule or post-colonial dictatorship. French failure in Algeria and Vietnam in the 1950s, for example, was not a product of military weakness in any formal sense, but a result of popular hostility to colonialism and growing uncertainty among the French people about whether empire was any longer worth the military cost of defending it.

war on terror

The United States has enjoyed the world’s largest military budget for decades, but that has not made it any easier to project that power in Vietnam or Somalia, or in the ‘war on terror’ in Afghanistan. Here, too, the odds against smaller and less sophisticated forces can be compensated for by a variety of factors that inhibit the full exercise of power by the dominant state. It is possible to be too powerful as well as too weak. Nuclear weapons might well have transformed the war in Vietnam but they were unusable given the prevailing political situation; drone strikes are supposed to wear down the resistance of Al Qaeda but they have failed to halt the terrorism and invite wide condemnation. The 4,000-year history of battles shows that an apparently weaker or outnumbered force can, under the right circumstances, achieve much against the odds.