I’ve been reading Edward Creasy’s 15 Decisive Battles of the World. It’s one of the big texts, historiographically speaking, one of the pioneering works on battlestudy. It’s laced with subtle racism though, with the author siding towards European victories over other cultures.
But it has dated a bit. I find myself disagreeing with many of Creasy’s choices of ‘decisive battle’. For me, a decisive battle is a fight that does one or more of the following:
1. Definitively ends a major war in favour of one side or alters it in an irrevocable fashion.
2. Includes some new technology or tactics that radically alters how wars are fought.
3. Is a major influence on a nation’s culture, society and conciousness.
Do Creasy’s 15 choices measure up? Let’s take them one by one:
1. Marathon 490 BC – Yes. It ended the first Persian invasion of Greece, highlighted how effective hoplite infantry could be against a less armoured opponent and essentially created the golden age of Greece, showing them they could stand up to and beat their massive eastern neighbour.
2. Syracuse 413 BC – No. The Peloponnesian war rumbled on for another decade, it was decided by flawed leadership and unreasonable aims, and it never became ingrained in the Athenian psyche.
3. Gaugamela 331 BC – No. Alexander’s war continued for decades, the Macedonian advantages were well established beforehand and the Greeks have never ranked it as high as their other battles.
4. Metaurus 207 BC – No. Didn’t end the Punic Wars, was won with traditional tactics, and is overshadowed in Roman history by Cannae and Zama.
5. Teutoburg Forest 9 AD – Yes and No. Ended Roman expansion into Germany…for a while. Showed how effective Germanic tactics could be on the Romans…but only with certain terrain advantages. Became one of the great Roman military disasters…but was overturned by the Aurelian conquests. The Rhine was always a better barrier anyway.
6. Chalons 451 – No. Widely exaggerated clash that had largely been decided by campaigns beforehand. One of the last Roman victories, overshadowed by its fall twenty years later.
7. Tours 732 – No. Very minor clash whose aims were significantly altered by commentators. No new tactics shown. Largely ignored by modern historians.
8. Hastings 1066 – Yes. Radically altered England on every level, was the last gasp of the shieldwall tactics, and is deeply connected with English history.
9. Orleans 1429 – Yes. Famous not for its result or operations but its notable participant, Joan of Arc. One of France’s most famous military success’ inspiring further resistance to England. The real turning point in the Hundred Years War(s).
10. The Spanish Armada 1588 – Yes. Prevented a Spanish invasion of England that could have radically altered history, began England’s dominance of the seas, became a major part of British military tradition.
11. Blenheim 1708 – No. Largely forgotten, demonstrated no new tactical operations, did not end Spanish succession crisis.
12. Pultova 1709 – Yes. Shifted the balance of the Great Northern War and contributed to Sweden’s decline from its role as a major power.
13. Saratoga 1777 – No. Didn’t get American independence and large parts of the battle have been re-written since (See Benedict Arnold’s role). More critical battles, most notably Cowpens, happened later.
14. Valmy 1778 – Yes. Preserved the fledgling French Empire, demonstrated new artillery tactics and kept the Great French Wars going.
15. Waterloo 1815 – Yes. No great tactical breakthroughs, but definitively ended the French Wars and is a major part of British, Prussian and Belgian military history.
In my opinion, there are many other battles that deserve inclusion in the realm of ‘decisive’. At some point soon, I’ll list some of my choices and expand on why I choose them. Till then, perhaps some of you might have your own battles you’d like to mention? Or perhaps you disagree with my assessment above? Please, feel free to leave a comment.