There was an interesting exchange in October 2021’s History Today magazine, entitled ‘How Important Was the Battle of Lepanto?’ As every wargamer will know, the 450th anniversary of the battle was in October this year; hence the articles.
Most wargamers would probably answer ‘Of course Lepanto was important; it turned back the Ottoman tide and victories matter.’ On the other hand, as Geoffrey Parker notes in his article, Lepanto did not matter as the Venetians had already lost Cyprus, which was the point of the campaign in the first place.
Kate Fleet argues that Lepanto really did not change anything, as the Ottoman naval strength was not undermined and they continued operations in the Mediterranean theatre for several years, reconquering Tunis in 1574. The real factor, according to her, was the Ottoman defeat at Malta in 1565 and the turning of Ottoman resources to land warfare with Hungary and Iran. This was compounded by economic difficulties.
Kiril Petkov notes firstly that novel technology (presumably the impact of gunpowder, although this is not defined) can be decisive against sophisticated, seasoned, and formidable opponents. Further, Lepanto was perceived as being important and psychological factors are vital. The Ottomans had been thought of as irresistible. Now it was seen they could be defeated.
Finally, Roger Crowley notes that the battle was devastating to those involved but the victory did seem to go nowhere. The Ottomans replaced their fleet over 1571-2 but it was expensive and skilled men had been lost. The real upshot of this was to show that galley warfare was unsustainable; with human-powered vessels command of the sea was unwinnable. In 1580 Spain and the Ottomans disengaged; both sides were more or less bankrupt.
As wargamers, battles are important to us. As such, of course, we accrue the derision of many ‘serious’ historians who argue that really the important things are the history of ideas, economies, and history from below, the real people who went through all the traumas of life. Winning battles is a minor part of history and is largely ignored in modern historiography. From history’s point of view, battles do not matter; treaties, formalising who won, do and are worthy of study.
Well, nearly, but not quite. There is interest in battles and it is, slightly, on the increase. This is because of the movement towards ‘history from below’. Partly this is because the memoirs of ordinary soldiers are available, and their experiences can be (after a fashion) accessed. Of course, the reason they wrote was because of the extraordinary events they had been involved in, that is, in campaigns and battles.
Austin Woolrych once noted that surely who won the battles was rather important. As a consequence how they were fought and why was also important, and so the study of military history is a component of understanding who won and why. After all, if history is written by the victors, working out how and why they won is fairly important. Historians, on the whole, do not seem to be very comfortable with this as an idea. The messy business of sticking pointy sticks into people to prove some sort of point is often ignored for rather more pleasant understandings of warfare, often related to who had to money to win.
Partly the upshot of this is that military history gets denigrated and sidelined. In the pages of History Today, in interviews and book reviews often the least favourite historical genre is military history. Often it is regarded as poorly done, methodologically inadequate, and often false. That, of course, might be a consequence of the fact that historians are uncomfortable with the whole idea of chronicling military operations. The legacy of the ‘drums and trumpets’ sort of military history lives on.
Thus we land up with a circular problem. Military history is poorly done because ‘serious’ historians do not want to engage with it. Thus ‘amateur’ historians write about it and because they are not academically trained historians they make a rather poor job of it and hence the genre gets a worse name. And so on. There are, of course, some notable exceptions to this, but these seem to be the impressions and views which get propagated.
Woolrych’s view was, of course, that battles in the English Civil War, at least, did matter. Marston Moor lost Charles I the north; Naseby lost him the throne and Preston lost him his head. Even a winning draw, such as Second Newbury had its importance, as it was part of the process of creating the New Model Army under a more radical leadership determined to actually finish the war. I think it would be rather hard to argue against the fact that these battles and their consequences were important. Perhaps that is why many historians of Seventeenth-Century Britain prefer to examine the Protectorate or the Personal Rules of Charles rather than the civil war itself.
So did Lepanto matter? Geoffrey Parker probably gets it right. While Cyprus was lost and the Ottomans replaced the fleet, the loss of the fleet meant that operations could not start again from the Gulf of Lepanto in 1572. Operations against more Venetian outposts in the Adriatic were not possible, nor was an attack on Crete. And that may well have mattered. If the Ottoman navy had been intact in early 1572 the war may well have dragged on, if not hotted up. Spanish and Ottoman resources would have been poured into the Mediterranean theatre. In the former case, possibly to the detriment of operations in the north against the rebel provinces, or indeed to the 1588 Armada. We cannot, of course, know what would have happened. History is not a natural science; the experiments are not repeatable.
As wargamers, we can seek out the broader context of our battles and buy and read the better sort of military history. We can leave the less good books, such as the endless tomes on belt buckles of the Third Reich where they belong, in the remainder bin of history.