Top 10 Most Important Battles in History


While unfortunate, it cannot be denied that warfare has had a major role in shaping our world. It has defined our history, created and destroyed entire nations, and repeatedly altered society in both major and subtle ways for thousands of years. While history is replete with battles both large and small, there are a few that have had a bigger hand in shaping the course of history than others. only a hand full have had a major impact on the course of history.

The following list of the ten most important ones may not have been the largest battles ever fought in terms of numbers involved, and not all of them are even land battles, but each of them had major ramifications on history that continue to be felt today. Had any of them gone the other way, the world we live in today would look very different indeed.

10. Stalingrad, 1942-1943

German soldiers clearing the streets in Stalingrad

German soldiers clearing the streets in Stalingrad

This is the battle that effectively ended Hitler’s quest for world dominance and started Germany down the long road towards ultimate defeat in World War Two. Fought between July, 1942 and February, 1943, by the time it was over, 1.5 million men had been killed, captured, or wounded, with 91,000 Germans being taken prisoner and an entire German Army being wiped from the face of the Earth.

So bad were German losses that the German army never fully recovered and was forced to largely take the defensive for the remainder of the war. (With the possible exceptions of the Battle of Kursk in July, 1943 and the Battle of the Bulge in December, 1944, the German Army never mounted a major offensive again.) While it’s unlikely that a German victory at Stalingrad would have cost the Russians the war, it would certainly have extended it by many months, possibly even giving the Germans the time required to perfect their own version of the atomic bomb.

9. Midway Island, 1942

U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 "Dauntless" dive bombers from scouting squadron VS-8 from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) approaching the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the Battle of Midway, 6 June 1942.

U.S. Navy Douglas SBD-3 “Dauntless” dive bombers from scouting squadron VS-8 from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) approaching the burning Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma to make the third set of attacks on her, during the Battle of Midway, 6 June 1942.

What Stalingrad was to the Germans, the naval air engagement that raged between Japan and the United States for three days in June, 1942, was for the Japanese. Admiral Yamamoto’s plan was to seize Midway Island—a tiny atoll some four hundred miles west of Hawaii—which he planned to use as a springboard from which to attack the strategic islands later. Much to his surprise, he was met by a taskforce of American carriers under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz and, in a battle that could have easily gone either way, he lost all four of his aircraft carriers, along with all their aircraft and some of his finest pilots, to Admiral Nimitz’ smaller American fleet.

The defeat effectively spelled the end to Japanese expansion across the Pacific and dealt Japan a defeat she would never recover from. This is also one of the few battles in World War Two in which it was the Americans who were outnumbered and outmatched and yet they still won. Way to go, Chester!

8. Actium, 31 BCE

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Imagine how history might have gone differently had Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s fleet carried the day against the smaller naval forces of Octavian. In a sea battle of epic proportions, in the course of a few hours Antony and Cleopatra lost two-thirds of their fleet—about 200 ships—and any chance of ousting Octavian as Emperor of Rome once their soldiers got word of the defeat and began deserting in large numbers. Obviously not agreeable to being martyrs for a lost cause, the couple managed to escape the carnage and make their way back to Egypt to work on plan “B”—which apparently involved committing suicide. Makes you wonder why, if they were intent on ending it all anyway, they just didn’t just go down with their ships; that, at least, would have been the honorable way to lose.

7. Waterloo, 1815

In a total repudiation of Napoleon’s attempt to reclaim his previous glory after a brief vacation to the island paradise of Elba, an undersized force of British, Dutch and Prussian troops under the capable command of the Duke of Wellington threw back Napoleon’s army at the little Belgian town of Waterloo, thereby bringing an ignoble end to his much-touted comeback tour.

Of course, the “Little Corporal” had been on something of a slide since that unfortunate little affair in Russia a couple of years earlier, when he lost most of his army retreating from Moscow in the dead of winter, but this latest setback pretty much ended it for him and sent him packing for another vacation spot; some little place called St. Helena. Of course, it’s not a certainty Napoleon would have ultimately succeeded even if he had bested Wellington, but it’s a certainty losing put whatever plans he had for the future on permanent hold.

6. Gettysburg, 1863

Lose this one, and General Lee probably marches on Washington D.C., sending Lincoln and his staff fleeing and forcing the country to accept the existence of a Confederate States of America. This one was a must win for the Union and, fortunately, the man in charge, George Meade, proved to be up to the task—though just barely.

In a battle that raged for three sweltering days in July of 1863, the two massive armies pummeled each other into dust, but it was the superior Union position—they held the high ground—and Lee’s ill-advised decision to have General Pickett charge the center of the Union line that ended in the worst defeat in Confederate history to that time. While the Union losses were heavy too, the North could better absorb such losses. The South, on the other hand, never recovered from Gettysburg and was forced to begin increasingly fighting a defensive battle to stave off inevitable defeat against a much more populous, industrially advanced, and wealthier North.

5. Battle of Tours, 732

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Chances are you never heard of this battle, but had the Franks lost it, we might all be bowing towards Mecca five times a day and studying our Koran each night. The battle near the city of Tours pitted about 20,000 Carolingian Franks under Charles Martel against a Muslim force of up to 50,000 soldiers under Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi intent on bringing Islam to Europe.

Though outnumbered, Martel proved to be an especially able commander and routed the invaders, driving them back into Spain and, ultimately (through his son, Pippin the Great) off the continent. Had Martel lost, Islam would probably have become the predominant faith of Europe and, eventually, the main religion around the world today. How this would have impacted western civilization can only be guessed at, but chances are it would have taken a dramatically different tact than it did.

4. Battle of Vienna, 1683

In something of a remake of the earlier Battle of Tours (see no. 5) the Muslims were again on the march in an effort to claim all of Europe for Allah. This time, riding under the banner of the Ottoman Empire, somewhere between 150,000 to 300,000 troops under Kara Mustafa Pasha met a mixed force of some 80,000 troops under the Polish King John Sobrieski near Vienna one fine September in 1683 and somehow lost.

The battle proved to be the end of Islamic expansion into Europe and resulted in their commander, Mustafa Pasha, being executed by the Turks for his mishandling of the siege and battles for Vienna. How close were things? Had Pasha attacked when he first arrived at the city earlier that July, Vienna probably would have fallen; in waiting until September, however, he gave time for the Polish Army and their allies to arrive to break the siege and provide the forces necessary to send the Turks packing. Still, you’d think that with a 2 to 1 or even 3 to 1 advantage, they should have something to show for their efforts.

3. Yorktown, 1781

In terms of numbers, this was a pretty puny battle (8,000 American troops, supported by 8,000 French troops, against some 9,000 British troops) but by the time it ended on October 19, 1781, it changed the world forever. The indomitable British Empire, the super power of its day, should have easily defeated the rag-tag colonists under George Washington, and for most of the war, they generally had the upper hand. By 1781, however, the upstart Americans had learned how to fight and, having acquired the assistance of England’s arch enemy, France, had become a small but professional fighting force.

As a result, the British under Cornwallis found themselves trapped on a peninsula between the determined Americans on the one side and a French fleet on the other that made escape impossible and so, after a couple of weeks of fighting, they surrendered. In doing so, the Americans defeated the world’s premier military power and gained independence for some backwoods country in the new world called the United States of America.

2. Battle of Salamis, 480 BCE

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Imagine a sea battle today that involved over a thousand ships and one can begin to appreciate the magnitude of this single engagement between the outnumbered Greek Navy under Themistocles and the massive navy of King Xerxes of Persia. The Greeks had used guile to get the Persian fleet to sail into the narrow Straits of Salamis, where they were able to deprive them of taking advantage of their superior numbers, and dealt the Persians a humiliating defeat.

As a result, Xerxes was forced to withdraw most of his army back to Persia, thereby leaving Greece to the Greeks and preserving western civilization in the process. A number of historians believe that a Persian victory would have stilted the development of Ancient Greece, and by extension ‘western civilization’ per se, making Salamis one of the most significant battles in human history.

1. Adrianople, 718

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What The Battle of Tours (see No. 5) was for western Europe, and the Battle of Vienna (No. 4) was for central Europe, the battle of Adrianople was for eastern Europe in that once again, the armies of Islam were stopped in their tracks just as they were prepared to take all of Europe.

Had this battle been lost and Constantinople—at the time the largest city in Christendom—fallen to the Muslims, it would have allowed the armies of Islam to move practically unimpeded throughout the Balkans and into central Europe and Italy. As it was, Constantinople was to act like the cork in a bottle, keeping the armies of Allah from crossing the Bosporus and taking Europe in force—a role it was to play for the next 700 years until the city finally fell in 1453.

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  1. This is biased , be fair and mention all kind of war regardless the race or religion ? Have you heard of the defeat of persian empire by arabs ? No ? Read up
    Heard of defeat of istanbul(today) constantinbole (before ) ? How about the battle of saladin against the crusaders ?

    Iam just being fair mentioning one side battle is something and best battles all the time is totally something else .

  2. Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia was a decisive battle in the antiquity.

    • Responding to a whole bunch of folks, not just RIcky:

      In my opinion, measuring the significance of a battle should take into account its overall impact on history. With that in mind, I agree with the previous post which suggested removal of Midway. Yes, it was a major strategic victory, but eventually the US industrial and training capacity would have overmatched that of the Japanese, plus the Japanese would not have had the capacity to control the Pacific long term. Similiarly, the sacking of Constantinople doesn’t rate, even with the introduction of artillery and the spread of some intellectuals. The Byzantine Empire was effectively reduced to a city at that point. Finally, Thermopylae is in the same category, because while this battle may be the stuff of legends, it was merely a delaying action with no real consequence. In contrast, Plataea permanently eliminated the threat of Persian conquest of Greece. WIthout Salamis and Plataea, Western Civilization may have been snuffed. There would not have been a Greece, Rome, Catholic Church, and many other things, at least not in the form we understand. Similarly, Hastings completely altered world history. Borodino and indeed the entire Russian campaign under Napoleon rates very high on my list. Had he preserved his army, Napoleon may well have continued crushing all his opposition, thus altering the course of history leading up to the World Wars and atomic weapons. The German invasion of Russia, culimnating with Stalingrad holds similiar weight in my book. Had Germany kept the peace in the East, countless soldiers, aircraft, tanks, and artillery, not to mention finances and petrolum could have been brought to bear in the West. As for the commentary about US battles, I do agree that Yorktown doesn’t rate, but if we consider the long-term global impact, one can reasonably argue that Saratoga and Gettysburg do have some significance. Had either gone the other way, the US as we know it may never have existed. Consider how that impacts history. Maybe Europe would have been completey altered had the US not entered WWI and the warring parties had agreed to the trenches become the new borders. WIthout the crushing reparations, perhaps Germany wouldn’t have fallen to Hitler and the Nazis and at least the Western part of WWII may have never happened. I’m certainly not equating Saratoga with Plataea, but to me, the significance of a battle doesn’t have anything to do with size, new tactics/weapons, etc., but rather the long-term impact. And thanks to the folks who point out the Eastern battles. Unfortunately our “history” taught in the US conveniently ignores anything east of Persia unless you take a course specifically dedicated to Eastern culture. Your inputs were most appreciated.

  3. ibrahim_ragab on

    for those who think that Islam spread by force!!!!!!!
    what about now ????????????

  4. Put Yorktown on the 10 most important battle in the history is pure stupidity and brainwash… Only American care about that battle… Where is the battle of Thermopylae or battle of Gaugamela ? Yorktown is important only for American… Rest of the planet don’t care about Yorktown. It is extreme narcissism to pretend that any American battle is important in the history… 5000 years of battle all around the world and USA Has only 200 years… But 2/10 of the best battle in history are American ??? 18 000 American and allies vs. 9 000 British is the best battle American has done ? Or maybe that battle is there only because most American are brainwash as the greatest country ever…

  5. So… The list contains 0 battles of survival fought by the early Muslims, any of which had they lost, there would be no (and not 1 billion) Muslims today?

  6. This list is utter BS. Why? It does not include the battle of Yurmouk 636 AD. Heralded the spread of Islam and the last days of the Byzatine empire.

  7. The comments all tend to highlight the fact that this list is both western and US centric.
    Arguing about which pivotal moment in history is the most important is ultimately futile, as ultimately any apparently insignificant event (ie butterfly effect) can completely change the course of history. Like the one about the ww1 german corporal called Adolf who narrowly avoided death in the trenches…

    • I have always been puzzled by the inclusion of the battle of Actium on lists like these as the only thing it seemed to settle was who was going to assume the totalitarian legacy of Julius Ceasar.

  8. Errr, the allied army that fought Napoleon at Waterloo was not undersized, the French were actually hopelessly outnumbered, and it’s only becaue Napoleon managed to outmaneuver his enemies that the French lasted so long.

    As usual, the Waterloo campaign, as well as Wellington’s role, are being overly romanticized and exaggerated, the French and Napoleon never stood a chance.

  9. is it “top 10 most important battles in history” or “top 10 most important battles in european history”.completely biased,eurocentric and what not?

  10. No.1 has to be the battle of Teutoburg forest. 3 imperial legions wiped out by the Germanic tribes in 9AD. lead to the dam near collapse of the Northen boarder. Heavily increased Romes dependence on Germanic auxiliaries (massive stain on Roman economics). Halted roman expansion. Contributed to the withdrawal from Britain and eventually lead to the northern invasion and the collapse of the Roman empire, the migration period, medieval Europe and western civilization. Arguably a big deal.

  11. As expected…….This list is full of eurocentrism.All the battles that shaped asia be damned
    .The battle between arab and persia that ended ancient persian civilization,the battle of tarain that led to establishing of 800 yrs. of muslim rule in most of north india,The battle of rajasthan in which pratihara under nagabhata checked islamic expansion for some 300 yrs. or the battle of kalinga whose repurcurssions resulted in Ashoka the great’s massive campaign of spreading buddhism…..all these battles have greatly affected asia and world but still…….

  12. The funny thing is the second Punic War isn’t included even though it determined a roman-influenced western world

  13. 10 most decisive battles must be judged by one criterion: how drastically different the world would have been had the fight gone the other way. With all respect to the peoples of Asia, few if any of their battles were decisive in that sense. In China it was usually one dynasty replacing another; the lives of the vast majority didn’t change. In India much the same; the Europeans with advanced weaponry would have taken control in any case. You will probably accuse me of being Eurocentric, but the development of the world up to the start of the 21st century has largely been controlled by European or Western interests or activities. In short, my list of ten (in chronological order):
    1. Marathon. If Athens had lost, the Persians would have controlled the polis; thus no flowering of Greek (read Athenian) civilization. No Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, hundreds of etcs.
    2. Salamis. Yes it may seem I’m over-doing the Greeks, but a defeat of the Greek navy would have had the same result as above, a reversal of Marathon.
    3. Gaugamela. Alexander’s defeat of Darius Hellenized the entire Middle East. Had A lost, world culture would have been vastly different.
    4. Roman naval victories of the First Punic War. Yeah, I’m cheating a bit here, but Mylae, Ecnomus, and, especially the Agades Islands sent Rome on their way to the empire. Had the C’s retained command of the sea, Rome would have been hard put to supply or reinforce Sicily. By the way, I’m not putting any Hannibal here. After the 1st P.W., with Italy’s vast population and the loyalty of the socii, C never had a real chance
    5. Actium. Augustus; ‘nough said
    6. Teutoberg Forest. Hermann the German kept northern and eastern Europe from being Romanized. Imagine no German nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. By the way,, no “fall of the Roman Empire” here. It was bound to come crashing (slowly) down in those times anyway. BUT
    7 Mulvian Bridge. Had Constantine lost, Christianity would have been disgraced; few are going to follow a god who can’t win battles. It would have continued as one of a number of mystery faiths of the time, but never risen to top dog. Who then would have carried classical learning into the middle ages and beyond. Remember the Byzantines were Xian too.
    8. Yarmuk. Assuming everything earlier had gone as before, if the Eastern Romans had defeated the Arab armies in Palestine, Islam (probably) would have been confined to the peninsula.
    9. Death of Ogadai Khan. OK; I’m cheating again, but without the recall of the Mongols at that time, nothing Europe had could have stopped them.
    10. Armada. Yes, it was probably doomed to failure in any case, but we’re playing “what if” here. A Spanish conquest of England would have changed the political/religious history of Europe for centuries. You may be surprised I’s omitting Hastings. A good case could be made for it, but until the Tudors, it really didn’t have a great effect on the world as a whole (The French thinking of the 100 years might disagree)
    I have several more, but that’s enough for tonight. See you later.

  14. Hi. It’s the following night and I’m back again. I know I’ve listed ten, but the whole history of warfare can’t be reduced to ten; even Cressy listed fifteen, so here are my last five:
    11. Breitenfeld. This probably seems a strange one, but think about it. If Tilly had won, the Edict of Restitution would have been enforced all across northern Europe — Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark. Richelieu would have taken care of the Hugonots (sorry about the spelling) in France, and with the continent dominated by Catholicism The Stuarts would have controlled England with French help. (For you alternate history buffs I refer you Eric Flint’s 1632 series {unpaid ad}). thus no English Civil War (or Charles I winning), no glorious Revolution, and further Papistry under James II. This would have limited British overseas expansion; few American colonies and no British Empire as we know it.
    12. Saratoga. Without French, etc., help we might well not have won our Revolution. It was not only their money and arms, but a French army and especially their navy off Cape Henry. Saratoga proved we could win battles and that brought in the help we needed.
    13. The invasion of Russia. OK, I know, it’s not a battle, but the whole campaign needed to be cancelled. It wasn’t necessary; only Napoleon’s hubris brought it on. Had he not wasted half a million men and his magnificent cavalry mounts on the Stepes, he had enough forces to contain the “Spanish ulcer,” keep the Prussians and Austrians under control and defy England. Even assuming he wasn’t poisoned, he would have lived and reigned until 1821 — by which time the King of Rome would have been a teenager. He could have set up a regency or successor and the army would have kept them in power. How long the dynasty would have lasted is anyone’s guess, but the history or Europe and the world would have been changed. No German Empire for example.
    14 Battle of the Marne. This is shorthand for the failure of the Schliefen plan. Had Moltke the Younger had the guts of his uncle — especially not sending 2.5 corps to the East — this might well have been a German victory. Coupled with Tannenburg WWI would have ended in fall 1914 with a German victory. Wilhelm lived until ’42; Europe stable under German domination. Thus no Versailles Treaty, no rise of Hitler, no WWII and no final solution. Also no Russian Revolution (at least as it occurred) and with Lenin in Swiss exile, very different outcome. Also, with a whole generation of European youth saved from slaughter and European prestige undiminished, the European empires would have lasted considerably longer.
    15. and finally Moscow 1941. Many historians now agree that the allies greatest ally in WWII was Hitler. Had not screwed up by the numbers too many times to count, the Reich could well have won the war — isn’t that a pleasant thought! If he had waited until ’42, or especially if he hadn’t constantly altered the main direction of advance the Germans could have taken Moscow before winter.
    Stalin thought they could since he had his private train ready to head for the Urals. Whether he could have survived that flight is questionable since so many of the Soviets hated him. With Russia defeated or at least contained the Germans could have reinforced N> Africa; can’t you just envision what Rommel could have done with three more Pzdiv? The invasion of Europe couldn’t have taken place against the whole German army in 44; remember D-day was against only one-quarter of the Germans; the rest were on the Eastern front. This would have given the Germans time to perfect the Tiger, the ME262, more rockets and even — wouldn’t we love this — the bomb.
    Well, that’s my list; let me know what you think. Signing off.