Whether on the soccer pitch or the field of battle, humans have a natural tendency to root for the underdog. Oursacred texts, medieval ballads, and regimental histories are filled with gut-wrenching tales of desperate men facing overwhelming odds. From the battle of Thermopylae to the siege of the Alamo, from the gunfight at Camaron to the clash at Rorke’s Drift, there is something about such lopsided contests that continues to exert a powerful sway over our collective imagination.
All too often, however, it is certain climactic battles-or flashes in the pan of martial history that capture our interest, rather than the more protracted and less cinematic struggles between two unevenly matched armies. An exception might be the campaigns of Quintus Fabius Maximus during the Second Punic War. The redoubtable Roman’s efforts have bequeathed to us something of an awkward nomenclature — the adjective Fabian — now used to designate nationally driven scorched-earth tactics or strategies of delay and progressive attrition.
There are countless other fascinating examples of Fabian warfare that could and should be drawn upon by contemporary strategists. Alfred the Great’s hit-and-run campaign against the marauding Danes, launched from his swampy sanctuary deep in the Somerset Marshes, provides one such example, as do the less fortunate attempts of Hereward the Wake (the Northern English Lord who inspired the legend of Robin Hood) to coordinate a region-wide resistance against the brutal occupation of William the Conqueror. The Duke of Wellington’s fostering of a Spanish “ulcer” during the Napoleonic Wars and Josip Tito’s war against Axis forces during World War II are both equally rife with lessons.
Yet one of history’s most dramatic tales of Fabian defense is found much further north, in the dark pine forests stretching beyond the Arctic Circle and in the mass graveyards that still dot the banks of the Karelian Isthmus. Karelia, renowned for its natural beauty, is one of those many bucolic but benighted stretches of territory that by the tyranny of geography have found themselves repeatedly ravaged by great power conflicts.
Finland’s Winter War with the Soviet Union, waged over the course of 105 days from November 1939 to March 1940, should be an object of study for all students of military strategy. Finland, a weak, sparsely populated, and diplomatically isolated nation, succeeded in imposing staggering costs on a far more potent aggressor. Indeed, the respective kill ratios and casualty rates are perhaps some of the starkest in the annals of 20th century warfare. While Helsinki is estimated to have lost approximately 25,000 soldiers during the Soviet offensive, the invader’s fatalities have been pegged at close to 200,000, with hundreds of thousands more crippled by frostbite. This was a war of extremes, whose battles were fought during one of the coldest winters on record, in snowbound woods where daylight only lasted a few hours and temperatures regularly plummeted far below freezing. In such conditions, any exposed flesh ran the risk of being immediately afflicted by frostbite, while stacks of bodies froze in minutes, acquiring the solidity of brick walls. Raging blizzards and howling winds regularly disrupted radio transmissions, prevented aerial reconnaissance, and deviated the trajectory of artillery fire. Finland eventually buckled under the weight of Stalin’s onslaught and found itself obliged to part with large tracts of territory. Its citizen army had so severely gored the Soviet bear, however, that the Nordic nation preserved its independence and was spared the grim fate of the Baltic states. The conflict also put a severe dent in the prestige of a Red Army still reeling from the savage leadership purges of the 1930s. Moscow’s pained post-mortem of the conflict triggered endless bouts of internal recrimination before eventually leading to some much-needed military reforms.
Read the Remainder at War on the Rocks