below The Battle of Marathon, ‘the battle that saved Greek civilisation’, 490 BC. Some 26 miles from Athens, heavily armoured Athenian hoplites broke the Persian line to defeat a numerically superior army.

The myth of decisive battle

Ashley Cooper and Stephen Cooper question the hallowed notion of decisive battle.

Start

The fashion for writing about decisive battles in history began, perhaps, with the Ancient Greeks; but the modern genre was created by the British historian and lawyer E S Creasy, with his Fifteen Decisive Battles of the Western World (1850).

His successor in Britain was the former soldier and military theorist J F C Fuller, who greatly expanded Creasy’s list in The Decisive Battles of the Western World and their Influence upon History (1954-1956).

The American historian Cathal J Nolan, in his recent The Allure of Battle (2017), provides evidence of the popularity of the genre in a footnote that contains references to 18 recent works, all of which contain the word ‘battle’ in the title.

Creasy realised that the term ‘decisive’ was ambiguous. It could mean that the battle in question was conclusive ‘on the day’, or that it had significant consequences for the future – whether in the short, medium, or longer term; and he was clearly concerned with the second meaning.

Fuller and Nolan adopted the same approach; but the latter also subjected the entire concept to a radical critique, arguing that wars (and, specifically, modern wars of attrition) have more important consequences than single battles. We propose to take a fresh look at Creasy’s ‘fifteen’ in the light of modern scholarship in general.

below The Battle of Marathon, ‘the battle that saved Greek civilisation’, 490 BC. Some 26 miles from Athens, heavily armoured Athenian hoplites broke the Persian line to defeat a numerically superior army.
The Battle of Marathon, ‘the battle that saved Greek civilisation’, 490 BC. Some 26 miles from Athens, heavily armoured Athenian hoplites broke the Persian line to defeat a numerically superior army. Image: WIPL.

Marathon

Creasy began his list of decisive battles with three that involved the Ancient Greeks: Marathon (490 BC), where a force of Athenian citizens defeated a numerically superior Persian army some 26 miles from Athens; Syracuse (413 BC), where the navy of Athens and her allies was destroyed by the allies of Sparta; and Gaugamela (331 BC), where Alexander the Great’s Macedonian army crushed a much more numerous Persian army.

As Fuller pointed out, Marathon was a minor affair compared with the fighting between Greeks and Persians ten years later. Nevertheless, Creasy argued that it was Marathon which was decisive:

The day of Marathon is the critical epoch in the history of the two nations. It broke forever the spell of Persian invincibility, which had paralysed men’s minds. It generated among the Greeks the spirit which beat back Xerxes, and afterwards led Xenophon, Agesilaus, and Alexander, in terrible retaliation, through their Asiatic campaigns. It secured for mankind the intellectual treasures of Athens, the growth of free institutions, the liberal enlightenment of the Western world, and the gradual ascendency for many ages of the great principles of European civilisation.

Not for the last time, we feel that Creasy went too far here, in projecting the consequences of the battle into the far and distant future, when many other things had intervened. All we can reliably say for certain is that the Persians suffered a significant reverse as a result of the setback at Marathon.

Even then, the poet Robert Graves, who was no mean historian, thought that Marathon may have been a sideshow, so far as the Persians were concerned. In ‘The Persian Version’, he wrote that

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer’s expedition
Not as a mere reconnaisance in force
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece – they treat it with contempt.

– Syracuse and Gaugamela

One undoubted consequence of the Persian Wars was that Athens established a kind of empire in Greece, exacting tribute from her allies to pay for common defence, and thereby threatening the delicate balance of power between the city-states. This eventually triggered the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC), in which a Spartan-led alliance of oligarchic states formed to prevent Greece becoming dominated by Athens and her democratic allies.

The catastrophic defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse led to the temporary subjugation of Athens to Sparta. However, Creasy’s verdict on this battle (which might have applied to the war as a whole) was at first sight a puzzling one: ‘all danger from Athens to the independent nations of the West was now forever at an end’. Evidently, he admired Athenian democracy but disapproved of Athenian imperialism; but, whatever he was referring to, the supposed threat to the West seems once more to be far-fetched.

This brings us to Gaugamela, which in Creasy’s view, decided ‘not merely the fate of two armies, but the whole future progress of human civilisation’. Once more, this claim is exaggerated. Alexander’s conquest of the entire Persian Empire took 11 years and involved many battles and sieges. And Persian culture survived under the Seleucid Greek rulers who succeeded Alexander, with, in the course of time, new dynasties of Persian rulers supplanting the Greeks.

RIGHT The Battle of Teutoburg (AD 9) saw an alliance of Germanic tribes annihilate three Roman legions. Creasy’s contention that the victory secured ‘at once and forever the independence of the Teutonic race’ is certainly contentious.
The Battle of Teutoburg (AD 9) saw an alliance of Germanic tribes annihilate three Roman legions. Creasy’s contention that the victory secured ‘at once and forever the independence of the Teutonic race’ is certainly contentious. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Metaurus and Teutoburg

The Battle of the Metaurus (207 BC) saw the defeat of the Carthaginian general Hannibal by the forces of Rome. According to Creasy, this was ‘the determining crisis of the contest, not merely between Rome and Carthage, but between the two great families of the world’.

But, as Macaulay’s schoolboy used to know, there were three Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, in 264-241 BC, 218-201 BC, and 149-146 BC; and they ended with the complete destruction of Carthage at the end of the third.

The Battle of the Metaurus may have removed the Carthaginian threat to Rome during the second; but, even there, the battle was arguably overshadowed by another where the Carthaginians were also defeated, at Zama (202 BC).

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (AD 9) was essentially an ambush on a vast scale, in which an alliance of Germanic peoples led by â€˜Arminius’ (or Hermann) annihilated three Roman legions. Creasy considered this was victory ‘which secured at once and forever the independence of the Teutonic race’. Fuller went even further:

The whole course of our history would have been different. Had Germany west of the Elbe been for four centuries Romanised and roaded, there would have been no Franco-German problem, or at least a totally different one. There would have been no Charlemagne, no Louis XIV, no Napoleon, no Kaiser William II, and no Hitler.

This is simply absurd. Once again Creasy (and Fuller) make a connection between an event that happened almost 2,000 years ago and things that occurred in modern times.

They also exaggerate the importance of Teutoburg even in the medium term. The defeat may have made the Roman Emperor Augustus change his plan to bring Germany as a whole to heel, but it did not lead to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Just as Rome was not built in a day, it did not fall as a result of one battle. In fact, the greatest years of the Roman Empire (considered by Gibbon to be the Age of the Antonines in the 2nd century AD) were, as yet, far in the future.

If one wants to pick a single battle that may be said to have heralded the fall of Rome, it would be Adrianople in AD 378.

Moreover, racial theories about the German tribes – imagining them to be a ‘race’ or a ‘nation’ – reflected a 19th-century outlook, not one that existed in the 1st century.

Catalaunian Fields and Tours

In the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields (AD 451), the Roman general Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric defeated an army of Huns led by their warlord Attila. Creasy called it ‘the last victory of Imperial Rome’; but his verdict on its consequences was more subtle.

He thought that it ensured that the Germanic element in Western civilisation would survive, whereas a victory for the Huns would have meant a victory for the nomads of Asia. However, many historians see the breakup of the Hunnic Empire as resulting from the death of Attila two years afterwards, rather than from a single setback on the battlefield.

The background to the Battle of Tours (AD 732) was that, around 100 years previously, the Arabs had broken out of their homeland and conquered large parts of the Middle East, Egypt, North Africa, and even Spain.

At Tours, the Frankish leader Charles Martel defeated an expeditionary force despatched by the Arab-Islamic Caliphate. Creasy wrote that this ‘gave a decisive check to the career of Arab conquest in Western Europe’. This echoed the view of Edward Gibbon, who had described in dramatic terms what might have happened if the Arabs had won:

Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.

The Norman cavalry charge at the Battle of Hastings, 14 October 1066, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Did this the decisive engagement bring to an end the Anglo-Saxon era? Image: WIPL.

Fuller, on the other hand, argued convincingly that it was the failure of the Arab siege of Constantinople in AD 717-718 rather than the fighting at Tours 14 years later that really ‘saved’ Western Christendom; and the word ‘saved’, of course, embodies a significant value judgement.

Hastings and Orléans

Every English person knows that it was at Hastings in 1066 that the Anglo-Saxons went down to defeat at the hands of Duke William of Normandy; and Creasy assures us that ‘no one who appreciates the influence of England and her empire upon the destinies of the world will ever rank that victory as one of secondary importance’.

But Fuller’s assessment was even more fulsome:

Second only to the crowning of Charles the Great, William’s victory at Hastings, which led to his own crowning – also on Christmas Day – was the greatest event of the Middle Ages… it not only put an end to Viking dominance in the West, but by giving the West a new partner, it tended toward consolidating the West at the very moment when Eastern Europe was on the point of collapsing before Islam.

All this is pure hyperbole; in any event, there is an argument that the battle was preceded by, or was part of, a ‘War of the English Succession’, involving several crises in the 11th century, as well as the Battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge in the same year as Hastings.

The raising of the siege of Orléans (1429) by Joan of Arc seems a strange choice to make as a decisive battle, given the plethora of competing candidates during the so-called ‘Hundred Years War’, the leading contender from the English point of view being Agincourt (1415).

However, it is clear that Creasy, and likewise Fuller, thought that Orléans marked a real turning point in that war, because it inspired the French to do more. Creasy even wrote of ‘the struggle by which the unconscious heroine of France, in the beginning of the 15th century, rescued her country from becoming a second Ireland under the yoke of the triumphant English’.

However, there is a great danger in accepting the traditional story of Joan of Arc, whose claim to fame owes much to the First World War and her canonisation in 1920. In fact, her career (1429-1431) was exceedingly brief, and her role in liberating France from the English ‘yoke’ (which not all Frenchmen at the time would have recognised) was minor compared to that played by the French King Charles VII (Shakespeare’s pitiful Dauphin, known in France as ‘Charles the Victorious’).

The Spanish Armada and Blenheim

Creasy wrote about the defeat of the Spanish Armada of 1588 in the following terms:

The England of our own days is so strong, and the Spain of our own days is so feeble, that it is not easy, without some reflection and care, to appreciate the importance of that crisis in the history of the world.

He was right to point out that in the late 16th century Spain was enjoying its ‘Golden Age’, and her troops would probably have been able to sweep aside any English resistance, if only the Armada could have transported them from the Low Countries.

The Armada, however, was only one episode in the Anglo-Spanish War of 1585-1604. Other expeditions were sent against England, and all failed. But the so-called ‘counter-Armada’ that Drake mounted against Cadiz in 1589 was also a failure. The war as a whole was resolved by the peace policy of James I – and not altogether in England’s favour.

As for Spain, she remained a great power in Europe for over a century after 1588, and her enormous empire in South and Central America remained intact until the early 19th century.

The Battle of Blenheim in 1704 was only one of a number fought during the War of the Spanish Succession; but Creasy’s view was that:

Had it not been for Blenheim, all Europe might at this day suffer under the effect of French conquests resembling those of Alexander in extent and those of the Romans in durability.

Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim was certainly a great achievement in terms of strategy, logistics, and tactics. But he would be fighting the war for the best part of the next decade.

Louis XIV eventually agreed to make peace, nine years after Blenheim, not because he conceded defeat but because France was exhausted, financially and economically. In any event, the French king could be said to have achieved his main objective in securing the place of a Bourbon monarch on the Spanish throne.

For their part, the British were brought to the conference table by party politics, rather than Marlborough’s victories. The Tories, who had long been half-hearted about the war, won the general election of 1710, ousting the more bellicose Whigs, and voted to end hostilities.

ABOVE Battalions of British redcoats cross the Nebel stream to attack the heavily defended village of Blenheim on the far side. Despite Marlborough’s dramatic victory, he would be fighting for the best part of the next decade.
Battalions of British redcoats cross the Nebel stream to attack the heavily defended village of Blenheim on the far side. Despite Marlborough’s dramatic victory, he would be fighting for the best part of the next decade. Image: WIPL.

Poltava and Saratoga

The Battle of Poltava was a victory of Peter the Great (of Russia) over King Charles XII of Sweden’s forces in 1709. Creasy wrote:

The decisive triumph of Russia over Sweden at Poltava was all-important to the world, on account of what it overthrew as well as for what it established.

There is little to quibble about here; but Poltava was only one battle during the Great Northern War, which lasted 21 years (1700-1721). Whether it was the battle or the war which was responsible, this conflict ended a period of Swedish expansion and dominance and enabled Russia to replace Sweden as a leading power in Europe. This, however, was probably inevitable given geography and demography.

After the Battle of Saratoga (1777), an entire British army surrendered to George Washington. Creasy wrote:

The ancient Roman boasted, with reason, of the growth of Rome from humble beginnings to the greatest magnitude which the world had then ever witnessed. But the citizen of the United States is still more justly entitled to claim this praise.

We may, however, doubt the central importance of Saratoga in the British decision to seek peace in 1782, as well as its relevance to the dramatic expansion of the USA in the 19th century. Saratoga was not the only occasion on which a British army surrendered to the Americans: the same thing happened again at Yorktown in 1781. And both of these surrenders were largely due to Britain’s temporary loss of command of the sea.

In addition, party politics played an important part, once more, in bringing the war to an end. As for the expansion of the infant USA, by 1850 this owed a great deal to other events, in particular the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848.

Valmy and Waterloo

At Valmy (1792), an untested and motley French force met an invading and well-trained Prussian regular army and, unexpectedly, pushed it back. This was the first military success scored by the French revolutionaries, and Creasy wrote that:

The kings of Europe, after the lapse of 18 centuries, trembled once more before a conquering military republic.

But, once again, Valmy was only one of many battles. Moreover, while it may have seemed to Creasy in 1850 that the day of the common man had at last arrived, the late 19th century witnessed the disappearance of virtually all the republics in Europe, leaving the French Republic virtually alone.

Creasy’s verdict on Waterloo (1815) was far-fetched, too: ‘[Napoleon’s] defeat left nothing undecided in future events.’ As Nolan and others have pointed out, Napoleon had already lost an entire expeditionary force in Egypt, large parts of another in Spain, and an entire army on the retreat from Moscow in 1812, as well as losing decisively at the ‘Battle of the Nations’ at Leipzig in 1813, so that Waterloo came only at the end of a long war of attrition.

Nevertheless, it must be wrong to describe the battle as a mere ‘postscript’ to the main story, when the Duke of Wellington described it as ‘the nearest- run thing you ever saw in your life’.

below General Burgoyne surrenders the entire British Army to George Washington at Saratoga, 1777. It was with Yorktown one of two occasions on which the British surrendered an army during the American Revolutionary War.
General Burgoyne surrenders the entire British Army to George Washington at Saratoga, 1777. It was with Yorktown one of two occasions on which the British surrendered an army during the American Revolutionary War. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Nolan justifies his opinion by saying that, even if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo, he must inevitably have been defeated, sooner or later, because of the size of the forces arrayed against him. But, if history teaches us anything, it is that nothing is inevitable; and, in any case, we must always look at short-, medium-, and longer-term consequences.

Conclusions

We draw several general conclusions. First, Creasy and many others have written about battles, whereas Nolan proposes that wars are the proper focus of attention.

He quotes Stalin as saying in 1941 that the war would be won by the country that produced the most ‘motors’. And, during the Second World War, the USSR certainly produced many more tanks than Nazi Germany. But those Russian tanks had to engage German tanks in the field and destroy them, so perhaps there is a danger that battle is downplayed too much.

ABOVE The Battle of Waterloo, 1815. The ultimate defeat of Napoleon may have been inevitable, but Wellington described the battle itself as the ‘nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life’.
The Battle of Waterloo, 1815. The ultimate defeat of Napoleon may have been inevitable, but Wellington described the battle itself as the ‘nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life’. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Second, we all tend to look at history through the prism of what the world looks like in our own day. Creasy was a mid-Victorian English gentleman educated in the Classics. In his day, Britannia did rule the waves, as well as being the workshop of the world, while London was its financial and commercial capital. His view was Anglo-centric and Euro-centric. A modern list of 15 ‘decisive battles’ would look very different.

Third, Creasy chose to write about military history, while other historians may emphasise the importance of matters which appear to them to be more decisive – geography, demography, politics, economic and social development, and even chance.

The Battle of Kursk, an extensive clash of tanks between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the summer of 1943. Stalin took the view that the war would be won by the country that produced the most ‘motors’. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Consider Colin McEvedy’s memorable explanation of the way in which the Mongol advance through Europe in the 13th century was halted when their Khan, Ogodei, died, and they were recalled to Karakorum:

It is un-Marxist to suppose that a merely human event some 3,500 miles away could influence the inexorable progress of history, and it is unlikely that the Mongols had the resources to impose the Tartar yoke further west than Russia for any length of time. Most of us bourgeois, however, feel that the Khan’s demise saved Central Europe from a very nasty ravage.

Last, as we have seen repeatedly, Creasy and Fuller tended to propel the reader’s imagination too far into the future, so that the connection between battle and supposed consequence is lost. It cannot be right, for example, to make a connection between the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest and the rise of Adolf Hitler.

Perhaps the best objection to this kind of speculation was voiced by the great medievalist K B McFarlane, concerning historians who wrote about the social and economic effects of the Hundred Years War. He thought they risked confusing the effects of the war and the effects of the one hundred years. •

Ashley and Stephen Cooper are brothers.

Ashley is a scientist and co-author of more than 30 papers on NMR spectroscopy. Now retired after a career in industry, he has always maintained a keen interest in history and this has led to a number of co-publications with his brother.

Stephen read History at Oxford, before qualifying as a solicitor. After a lifetime in law, he retired and resumed his youthful interest. He is the author of a number of books on medieval and local history, including Agincourt: myth and reality (2014).