** war and social upheaval: decisive battles

War and Social Upheaval: The Decissive Battles of History

Figure 1.--The American battles of the Civil War like Antitem and Gettsburgh were considerd by many Europeans at the time as a largely domestic American affair. It came at a time when Prussia was preparing its showdown with France. And feeling in Germany was that the conflict in America was not up to European standards, despite the massive battles, weaponry, and size of the armies. The British took a different view. Those attitudes would in large measure determine the fate of Western civilization in the 20th century. Britain recognized America's potential power and the need to forge an alliance. Germany in two great world wars dismissed America's military potential. Churchill cut to the quick, "The United States is like a giant boiler. Once the fire is lighted under it, there is no limit to the power it can generate."

History details countless battles fought over the ages. Many of these battles were of considerable importance, but were not decisive. The British in the American Revolution to their frustration won almost all the battles, but lost the War. The Americans in Viet Nam did win all the battles, but lost the war. There are a small number of battles that have played truly epic or truly decissive roles in determining the history of civilization. Edward Creasey published a thought provoking book in which he identified 15 decisive battles which determined the course of history (1851). He began with Marathon (490 BC) and ended with the land battle Waterloo (1815) ending the Napoleonic Wars. Historians debate his choices as well as his analysis of the battles. His book is, however, a good starting point for selecting the major battles of world history. Since Creasey's time we might add a few additional battles, although the selection is subject to considerable historical debate. Antitem (1862), Sedan (1870), Verdun (1915), Battle of Britain (1940), Soviet Winter Offensive (1941), Pearl Harbor (1941), and D-Day. Our list of more recent battles is heavily weighted with World War II because so much was at stake. These battles determined the defeat of totalitarian powers that would have created a radically different and in many ways horific world order that would have destroyed Western civilization. Perhaps no struggle was of greater importance since the Mongul Invasions of the 13th century.

Ancient Battles

Many great battles were fought in the ancient world. Some are lost to history. Others are known, but setails are lacking. In most cases the information comes from the victors, thus our information is often biased. Ancient accounts site huge numbers of combatants. These may have been used primarily for literary affect. While these battles occurred in some cases over two millennia ago, they had a powerful impact on shaping our modern world. We have information about some of these battles about these battles as a result of a variety of sources. The first battle we know of recorded in history is Megiddo (1479 BC), although details of sparce. The first battle for which relatively detailed informtion exists is Qadesh (1274). Quite a bit of information is available on the battles of the Greek and Roman era. We assume that information on Chinese battles is available, but here we are not yet familiar with the literature. The relative isolation of China is notable, although China did influence developments in Central Asia which would affect the West. The trajectory of these battles with a complicated up and down pattern layed the foundation for the future rise of the west, although we end the ancient era ih the fall of Rome. Two areas rmained outside the general thrust of history. The Indian suncontinent was only tagentky tied into world history and Native Americans in the New World completely isolated.

Medieval Battles

The Medieval era streches for essentially a millenium. During that era there were countless battles. The Medieval era can be defined chronolgically in different ways. It is difficult to define the beginnin and end of the medieval battles. We tend to view them with disappearance of the Eastern Roman Empire (5th century AD) and the increasing use of gun powder weapons (16th century). The most famous battles of the Medieval era are those fought in Western Europe, esentially because people are most interested in the history of their own people or country. Many of these battles though well known, such as Hastings, were largely dynastic struggles of varying significance. Other battles largely familiar only to hisorians seem far more important in terms of the consequences to the modern world. The battle of Yarmuk (636) in the Middle East is not well known to the average reader, yet it had profound consequences. The Arabs at Yarmuk decisively ended the Christian Byzantine hold on the Middle East and within decades Muslim armies had entered Europe, conquered Spaoin and threatened France, a threat defeated at the battle of Poitiers (732). We will list here the Medieval battles that seem to us of greatest importance.

Modern Battles

Here are some of the decisive battles of modern history. We have selected air, land, and sea battles. Of course military historians will argue about which battle in a war is the most important. Often but not always it is the last battle. While we realize that historians will take issue with our selection here. We think, however that few historians will take issue with our selection of these battles as of pivotal importance. Interestingly, it is not always winning the battle that proved decisive. The spectacular Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor doomed the Japanese Empire and the NAZI Third Reich because it brough America into World War II. And several of the battles were decisive because they were standoffs: Antitem (1862) and Jutland (1916).


Creasey, Edward. The Fifteen Decisive Battles of The World from Marathon to Waterloo (London, 1851).


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Created: 7:41 PM 7/12/2004
Last updated: 2:20 AM 2/12/2020