Battles fascinate us. But what constitutes important battles? What can they teach us about the influence of leadership, motivation and morale, tactics, terrain, and technology? What are the consequences for the wars in which they occur, and what if the battles had gone differently?
Some military engagements are memorable because they were the first, largest, or bloodiest of their kind. The Battle of Megiddo in May 1479 BCE, for example, was the first battle to be recorded by eyewitnesses. The confrontation between USS Monitor and CSS Virginia at Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862, marked the first time that two ironclad vessels squared off against one another. Many of the "-est" battles occurred during the long and costly campaigns of World War II. The Battle of Kursk (July 5–13, 1943), for instance, was the largest tank battle ever, while the Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 23–26, 1944) was the largest naval engagement in history. The Battle of Stalingrad (July 1942–February 1943) has the distinction of being perhaps the deadliest battle in human history, producing some 2 million casualties.
Other battles have achieved lasting fame because they were important military turning points. William the Conqueror's victory at the Battle of Hastings on October 14, 1066, proved the decisive victory in the Norman conquest of Britain, shaping relations between France and Britain for centuries to come. The Battle of Saratoga during the American Revolutionary War saw the surrender of an entire British army and brought France into the war openly on the American side. The First Battle of the Marne in 1914 denied Germany its best—perhaps only—chance to win World War I. The outcome of the Battle of Britain (1940) prompted Adolf Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union, drastically altering the course of World War II. Also during that conflict, the Battle of Midway (June 1942) largely wiped out the trained Japanese naval air arm and was, in the words of Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Chester Nimitz, "the engagement that made everything else possible." Because certain individual engagements can have such a profound impact on future events, historians often speculate about what the long-term consequences would have been had a particular battle gone the other way. If, for example, the Western Roman Empire and its allies had not been able to turn back the invading Huns at the Battle of Châlons in 451, would Western civilization as we know it today have managed to survive?
Battles can establish kingdoms and nation-states. The Battle of Gaixia in December 202 BCE installed the Han Dynasty in China, while the Battle of Pleven in 1877 can truly be described as the birthright of Bulgaria. Battles can also spell the end of vast and powerful empires. The Persian victory at the Siege of Babylon in 539–538 BCE brought the Babylonian Empire to an end. Some 200 years later, Alexander the Great's success at the Battle of Gaugamela dealt the Persians a similar fate. And, at the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BCE, the empire created by Alexander and ruled by his successors would, in turn, crumble.
The outcomes of particular engagements can highlight the merits of certain technologies and help spur the development of others. The Battle of Pavia on February 24, 1525, demonstrated the superiority of infantry carrying handheld firearms, while the Battle of Lepanto on October 7, 1571, underscored the importance of the gallease ship type and heavy cannon. The dropping of atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 conclusively demonstrated the destructive capabilities of nuclear energy.
Battles may also stand out because of the particular tactics used. Hannibal's double envelopment at the Battle of Cannae (August 2, 216 BCE), for instance, is still viewed as one of the greatest tactical accomplishments in history. During the Korean War, the defense of and breakout from the Pusan Perimeter in 1950 is seen as a masterful example of mobile defensive warfare. In this same vein, some battles are remembered for the ingenuity or personal courage of the leaders involved. These include Edward III at Crécy (August 26, 1346), Joan of Arc in the Siege of Orléans (1428–1429), and Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 2–4, 1863).
Some battles demonstrate tremendous human will and sacrifice, such as the sieges of Rhodes (1522) and Leningrad (1941–1944). The First Battle of Copenhagen (April 2, 1801), while a Danish defeat, is celebrated in Denmark for the bravery of the soldiers involved. Perhaps the best-known example of battlefield heroism is the stand of the 300 Spartan soldiers under King Leonidas against the Persian forces of Xerxes I at the Battle of Thermopylae in August 490 BCE.
There are many other reasons that particular battles remain memorable today. Some have unforeseen salutary consequences. Thus, the bloody Battle of Solferino (June 24, 1859) during the Wars of Italian Unification is notable not only for its impact in the creation of the modern Italian state but also because the suffering of the wounded after the battle prompted the establishment of the International Red Cross. Others leave a lasting psychological impression. The air attack on Guernica during the Spanish Civil War helped create a false impression of the impact of bombing civilian centers. Military engagements can also have significant religious ramifications; the Battle of Badr (March 15, 624), for instance, confirmed the Prophet Muhammad as the leader of Islam. In the case of the Battle of Marathon in August 490 BCE, the battle is by many today remembered less for its great military importance than for the long-distance race that bears its name.
Although historians and academics may cite many battles as important for any number of reasons, these events may not be that familiar or seem that important to the general public. There are, however, a select few battles that have become truly enshrined in popular memory. Some, such as the Siege of Troy (1194–1184 BCE), have passed into the realm of legend and myth. Others have played such a formative role in a nation's identity that they have been internalized by the average citizen, becoming part of a shared cultural history and memory. These include the Battle of Trafalgar (October 21, 1805) in Great Britain and the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863) and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) in the United States.
Spencer C. Tucker
|Spencer C. Tucker, PhD|
Dr. Tucker graduated from the Virginia Military Institute and was a Fulbright scholar in France. He was a U.S. Army captain and intelligence analyst in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, then taught for 30 years at Texas Christian University before returning to his alma mater for 6 years as the holder of the John Biggs Chair of Military History. He retired from teaching in 2003. He is now Senior Fellow of Military History at ABC-CLIO. Dr. Tucker has written or edited 36 books, including ABC-CLIO's award-winning The Encyclopedia of the Cold War and The Encyclopedia of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, as well as the comprehensive A Global Chronology of Conflict.
Herodotus. The History of Herodotus. Edited by Manuel Komroff. Translated by George Rawlinson. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1956; Melegari, Vezio. The Great Military Sieges. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1972; Fuller, J. F. C. A Military History of the Western World. Vol. 1. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1954; Creasy, Edward S. Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. New York: Harper, 1951.