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
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
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
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
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
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
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.