Which battles of the world were the most decisive to history? Men are fascinated by battle. It at once conjures up powerful imagery of both the best and the worst aspects of human nature. By dragging the human condition to its extremes, battles and warfare reveal our character and our worst vices, in acts that rivet our attention forever. So we inevitably ask again: “which battles of the world were most decisive?”
Sir Edward Creasy first attempted to answer with his famous Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World in the mid-19th century. Still a classic in its field, Creasy listed the 15 battles that he considered most decisive and went into nearly poetic detail as to why and how they were fought. It was notable that Creasy had decided to write his classic during a time of peace and prosperity, as the decades after the defeat of Napoleon saw comparatively little warfare.
Fast forward about 110 years later and the times were very different. The world had witnessed in the span of less than 50 years two terrible world wars and the prospect of nuclear annihilation. Thus, writing in 1964, Joseph B. Mitchell, with his successor work, Twenty Decisive Battles of the World, was decidedly more cautious. The object of Mitchell’s labor was to update the list of decisive battles with five more that had taken place since the original and also to update Creasy’s work according to more recent scholarship. The result is an excellent introduction to the field (I first read it when I was 16), one which tells all the tales of glory and carnage that warfare had produced over some 25 centuries, and the course history took as a result.
The Decisive Battles of the World Are…
- Marathon, 490 B.C.
- The Siege of Syracuse, 415-413 B.C.
- Gaugamela/Arbela, 331 B.C.
- The Metaurus, 207 B.C.
- Teutoburg Forest, 9
- Chalons, 451
- Tours/Poitiers, 732
- Hastings, 1066
- The Siege of Orleans, 1429
- The Spanish Armada, 1588
- Blenheim, 1704
- Poltava, 1709
- Saratoga, 1777
- Valmy, 1792
- Waterloo, 1815
- The Vicksburg Campaign, 1863
- Koniggratz/Sadowa, 1866
- The First Battle of the Marne, 1914
- Midway, 1942
- Stalingrad, 1942-3
The first thought you’ll inevitably have when seeing that list is to disagree with some of the battles. As Creasy and Mitchell remark, “no two historians would entirely agree on a list of decisive battles of the world.” Feel free to quibble. It’s part of the process. Some of these battles, like Marathon, inarguably belong on any list of 20 decisive battles of the world. Others, such as Teutoburg, Chalons, or Blenheim could be argued to belong, but a good case can be made to not rank them in a list of top 20 decisive battles to world history, important as they were. Syracuse and Waterloo, in my opinion, shouldn’t be on the list of top 20 at all. You’re free to disagree, of course.
One of the virtues of Twenty Decisive Battles of the World is that the title itself will provoke spirited debate and critical thinking in readers. Why was this battle included and not some other famous battle? You’ll find yourself wanting to learn about not only these battles that were listed as most decisive, but other potential decisive battles to the history of the world.
For instance, a great deal of people wonder why the famed Battle of Vienna in 1683 wasn’t listed (I personally don’t think it should be on a list of 20). If I had the choice (and perhaps I do, since a similar work of my own has been planned for some years), I would probably list the 1509 Battle of Diu in the top 20 decisive battles to world history, as it essentially won control of the Indian Ocean and thus global trade for Europe, small as the encounter may have been. To Creasy and Mitchell’s credit, they recognize that it is not the size of a battle that determines whether it’s “decisive” to the world. Diu was small, but its effects over time were tremendous.
These are the kinds of debates you’ll have with yourself and others by simply looking at the title and the battles listed. Twenty Decisive Battles of the World makes the case for its chosen battles eloquently, but the very nature of the enterprise means you’ll be forced to become a critical, skeptical thinker. That is a major strength of the book.
Character and Virtue
Another major asset of this book is that each decisive battle has its own colorful cast of characters, as if in a drama. Creasy and Mitchell do their jobs as playwrights almost as well as they do their jobs as scholars and military historians. Each battle had its own actors, and each battle was a decisive moment on the stage of the times that they were fought.
From the Duke of Marlborough’s bold and courageous move to march to the Danube against his orders in the Battle of Blenheim to Miltiades’ inner confidence which led to his impassioned plea to engage the “invincible” Persians on the beach of Marathon, Twenty Decisive Battles of the World shows us, as ever, that character matters in the shaping of history. Modern historical study has often tended to ignore character in favor of other forces, but important as those forces are, the characters of the people interacting with them are crucial in shaping the role that history would take, and nowhere is this more visible than on the battlefield. If Helmuth von Moltke the Younger had been a bit braver, just a bit less cautious, the Germans would probably have won the Battle of the Marne, captured Paris, and quite possibly have knocked France out of World War I, thereby drastically changing the entire course of the 20th century. If the Duke of Brunswick had been more aggressive, the First Coalition would have in all likelihood captured Paris in 1792, restored Louis XVI to power, and crushed the French Revolution in its infancy. Instead by doddering about, he allowed the French to hallucinate that he had been defeated at Valmy, and that hallucination quickly created a firestorm that would eventually result in Napoleon’s empire.
The best example of character mattering in history, I think, was during the Siege of Orleans. It occurred during a time when French fortunes were at their nadir. Defeat followed defeat. Nothing seemed capable of stopping the English invaders. What was to save France was a peasant girl from a small village, and her inspired, patriotic, irrationally self-confident character:
Early in the morning of the 7th of May some two thousand French soldiers assailed the fort on the south bank. It and Les Tourelles were defended by Gladsdale and five hundred of the best archers and men-at-arms in the English army. The Maid planted her banner on the edge of the moat and then springing down into the ditch began to mount a ladder. An arrow pierced her armor, wounding her severely between the neck and the shoulder. She fell bleeding from the ladder; the English leaped down from the walls to capture her, but her followers succeeded in rescuing her. Carried to the rear, she sat up and with her own hands drew the arrow out, had her wound dressed, and returned to the charge.
Meanwhile, the English had repulsed the oft-renewed efforts of the French to scale the wall. Dunois, who commanded the attacking force, was at last discouraged and suggested abandoning the effort until the next day. Joan urged him not to despair. “By my God,” she said, “you shall soon enter in there. Do not doubt it. When you see my banner wave again up to the wall, to your arms again.” The faintness caused by her wound had now passed off, and she led the French in another rush against the fort. The English, who had thought her dead, were alarmed at her reappearance, while the French passed furiously and frantically forward. (pg. 144)
It was the character of Joan of Arc that turned the tide of the Hundred Years’ War and saved France at this decisive epoch in world history. No other explanation is satisfactory.
Twenty Decisive Battles of the World also shows us just how much chance matters in the shaping of history. What if Hitler had actually invaded Russia, as planned, in May instead of June, 1941? Those three additional weeks might just have given the Wehrmacht the time it needed to concentrate against Moscow, destroy the Red Army in front of it, and cripple Russia’s ability to wage offensive war. Given how close the Wehrmacht came despite Hitler’s numerous blunders in the campaign, this seems likely. Instead, the decision to invade the Balkans and Greece, delaying the Russian campaign until June, meant the onset of the chilling Russian winter and the blunting of the German offensive’s momentum, ultimately leading to Stalingrad and the shattering of the Wehrmacht beyond recovery.
What if the excellent soldier Demosthenes instead of the quarreling Alcibiades, Nicias, and Lamachus had initially been placed in command of the Sicilian Expedition in 415 B.C. instead of much later in the effort? The result would in all likelihood have been the prompt reduction of Syracuse and the continued dominion of Athens, at least for a while longer, which could have affected history in numerous complex ways, even if I personally don’t believe, as Creasy and Mitchell seemed to, that Athens would have stopped Rome’s rise if this battle was won (it is in these situations that Twenty Decisive Battles of the World once again forces the reader to engage his critical thinking capabilities). Instead, because the expedition was so poorly led and planned for so long, and because a completely chaotic night battle threw the final Athenian plans into confusion, Athens was crushed beyond repair, and Greek history took the course that it took.
Battle and warfare is the ultimate realm of chance. One simple force for which not even an Alexander could have planned can severely disrupt the entire course which had been planned for so long. How much has history been altered because of sheer, blind luck?
So much of life is luck, no matter how strongly you plan. Fortune is chaotic and whimsical. Twenty Decisive Battles of the World shows us this factor and warns us that we must prepare for it. The best way is to concoct systems that can react automatically to almost any situation. Marlborough did this with his constant seizure of the initiative and his excellent system of logistics, keeping his army better prepared and in higher spirits than his enemies, allowing him to win battle after battle even if not in the best of circumstances. In the Battle of Midway, it was the interception of the Japanese communications and the breaking of their code that allowed the American commanders to anticipate the attack, position their fleet in the best way, and thus be in something of a position to catch the Japanese at their most vulnerable point – when many of their carrier-based aircraft were switching armaments from torpedoes to bombs. Caught defenseless, four Japanese carriers wound up sinking in that most decisive battle to history.
Twenty Decisive Battles of the World is an excellent introduction to military history, but far more than that, a calling to commune with some of the greatest (and worst) characters in history, to learn from the triumphs and mistakes of the past, and to develop your own character and thinking abilities to take the best advantage of fortune. I often advocate that men, especially the young, study the history of warfare and the themes in fiction surrounding it because it puts the best and worst of the human condition on naked display, a tradition I’ll continue In The Red War. In the meantime, pick up this book and get started. You won’t regret it!