The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo by Edward Creasy

The Spanish Armada - One of Fifteen Decisive Battles (Thanks to Wikipedia)

History books always tell you a lot about the era in which they were written, and never was this more true than of this classic from 1851.  Britain's empire was at its apogee.  It would get bigger and richer, but at this point Britain's empire was at its most secure.   It was without a rival and without a care in the world. Edward Creasy took full advantage of the situation.  

He was able to combine a career in law, with a spell in the colonies, with a lifelong interest in history pursued for no other reason than that it was something that interested him.  His broad knowledge of military matters was drawn from reading books rather than serving in camps.  In fact mid-Victorian Britain was a somewhat odd superpower in that it spent a surprisingly small amount on defence.  It was not hard to imagine that history was pointing in the direction of handing power to enlightened, peace loving Europeans who were destined to manage the world along the lines their liberal inclinations led them to the general benefit of everyone.  And Creasy himself was a perfect example of the kind of high minded man who benefited from this process.

So in his classic book, we see him looking back on the decisive battles in the history of the world that led to the triumph of progress that he himself exemplified.  That his list and his accounts still seem interesting and sort of significant long after the worldview that informed them has vanished is strange.  But I think a good part of the appeal is simply that they are so well researched and written.  You read them and get taken off to another world when things were more certain and you could identify right from wrong.  It is also hard to resist wondering what the 15 battles were.  I recommend reading the book itself, but if you don't think you will ever get around to it here they are in full.

1.  The Battle of Marathon 490 BC - the Athenians in their capacity as forerunners of Western Civilisation defeat the Persian despotism thus setting the preconditions for Parliamentary democracy over 2,000 years later.  Lucky they did so well against pretty tough odds.  This battle remains well known and of course has popular sporting format named after it.  I still haven't read a better account of it, particularly the politics on the Athenian side.

2. Defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse, 413 B - was the decisive battle in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta.  Thanks to Athens losing Greek culture as a whole was weakened militarily allowing the Romans to replace them and so it was to be Latin rather than Greek that was spoken in the West.  A weak argument, but a great excuse for a dramatic story.  The arrival of the Corinthian captain, dodging the besieging Athenians to arrive at the council just as surrender was being debated is one of those great moments in history that you really want to have great significance, no matter what the logical half of your brain tells you.

3. The Battle of Gaugamela, 331 BC -  The Persians had been checked by the Greeks, but it took Alexander the Great to actually defeat them.  Once again, the Orientals show that they are no match for the Westerners.

4. The Battle of the Metaurus, 207 BC - If any war in history was determined by the grit and determination of one side rather than strategic or tactical considerations it was the Punic War.  It is very hard to pick out a decisive moment when one side or the other could have tipped the balance in their favour.  But this doesn't stop Creasy doing exactly that.  On top of that he adds the colourful idea that this was not just a decisive defeat of the Carthaginians by the Romans, but also a defeat of Semites by Indo-Europeans.  To be fair, Creasy is not an anti-semite or at least not what we think of as one.  He readily acknowledges the virtues of the Semites and respects their talents.  But he considers it axiomatic that they should be in conflict with the Indo-Europeans.  After the twentieth century these kinds of ideas are not comfortable ones to frame history with, and would have seemed equally alien during the time which s being described. But that doesn't stop it being well written and enjoyable.

5. Victory of Arminius over the Legioins under Varus, AD 9 The is also known as the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. This battle ended Roman ambitions of an advance into Germany and ensured that it would be German tribes that in the end overthrew the empire. Although it wouldn't be fair to call it inaccurate, this is certainly the most romantic chapter in the book with Arminius being portrayed as a German nationalist patriotically defending his country against a foreign invader.  More illuminating about the time it is written than about the time it is writing about, it is still surprising to realise just how closely an upper class Victorian gentleman could identify with his supposed tribal forebears.

6. The Battle of Châlons, 451 Long considered to be the decisive battle that turned Attila back from certain conquest of the western empire, this encounter between a Roman general with a largely German army has now been relegated to more of a tactical sideshow.  But it was the last great victory of Imperial Rome and any story with Attila the Hun as one of the protagonists has to be worth reading. 

7. The Battle of Tours,  732 Another engagement the significance of which is now downplayed by historians with their killjoy knobs turned up to 11.  What actually happened was a scouting party from a Muslim kingdom ran into a group of Frankish knights led by Charles Martell, who chased them off. Casualties on both sides are unknown but given that the Muslim side didn't even trouble to record the encounter they probably weren't very high.  But imagining an army of conquest being turned back by a handful of heroic defenders and saving Western civilisation in the process is a lot more interesting.

8. The Battle of Hastings, 1066 I don't think the significance of this date to British history has ever been seriously questioned by anyone. In Creasy's day the significance of England's history to world history would have been beyond doubt as well.  Even today I don't think the battle that created the the state that in turn developed the most widely used language in the world is one that can be considered not to be one of the most decisive ones.  We are treated to an almost fictionalised account where details are described that can only have come from the author's head.  But nonetheless it sticks in your mind.  I actually grew up not too far from the site of the battle and have visited it a dozen or so times.  It is always this version of the battle that I think about when walking over the ground where it took place.

9. Joan of Arc's Victory over the English at Orléans, 1429 Known as the Siege of Orléans. Joan of Arc remains a figure from history that interests people, but the wars between France and England in the Middle Ages don't have the same resonance that they used to.  Dynastic struggles are dynastic struggles and these ones took place long before nationalism was a powerful force, so they didn't really amount to battles for national survival.  I think this is the only one in the book that I have never reread.  

10. Defeat of the Spanish Armada, 1588 The Spanish Armada is one of the defining myths of English history. Spain was the world's first global superpower and the English did well to defeat them. Would history of been so very different if the Spanish had succeeded?  They were already overstretched and didn't manage to hold onto the Netherlands for much longer.  If the Spaniards had landed they may well not have stayed for very long.  But it is a great story, and it is told well.

11. Battle of Blenheim, 1704 In Victorian Britain Blenheim seemed a very large and significant battle. Two world wars later it seems like a charming archaic matter.  But it did play a big part in frustrating the French bid for hegemony over the continent in the time of Louis XIV so that is a reasonably important event. But whatever its place in geopolitics it was certainly a neat bit of generalship on the part of Marlborough.  

12. The Battle of Pultowa, 1709 This battle between Russia and Sweden is hardly one that resonates down the ages, but it is intriguing. In the eighteenth century Sweden was a major power in the north of Europe and presented a considerable block on the expansion of Russia.  This battle ended that power. The Swedish prisoners were later to lay the foundations, literally, of St Petersburg.  I think this is one where Creasy spots a genuinely decisive battle that is nowadays overlooked.  A large and powerful Sweden would certainly have made a difference to modern European history.

13. Victory of the Americans over Burgoyne at Saratoga, 1777 By the time Creasy was writing it was already obvious that the United States was well on the way to becoming a very significant force in the world indeed.  That Saratoga was the turning point in its war for independence was also not really in doubt. If things had turned out differently the US might have become a normal country like say Canada.

14. The Battle of Valmy, 1792 Nothing shows more clearly Creasy's generosity of spirit than his warm account of the battle of Valmy.  The French Republic was on the point of being extinguished, which had it happened would have saved Great Britain a heap of trouble and expense.  The success of the French army is attributed directly to their spirit and idealism, and their courage is noted as well.  Valmy created the conditions that allowed the rise of Napoleon so despite its relative obscurity to a modern reader, even one interested in this period, I think the case for making it a decisive battle in world history can still be made.  

15. The Battle of Waterloo, 1815 At the time this account was written, Waterloo as the most celebrated battle in history and it still one that everyone has at least some idea about.  Napoleon's abilities are praised to the skies, but maybe at least partly to provide a worthy opponent for the true hero of the day, Wellington.  It also enables the battle itself to be portrayed as a lot more decisive than it maybe truly was.  After all, had Napoleon won that day he still had at least another two armies to defeat and the British control of the sea and deep pockets enabled them to keep the war going until he was beaten.  But whatever,   it was still a day of high drama.  So much has been written about this single day of fighting that it has become a bit hackneyed but this version is as good as any.