Saturday 27 July 2013

Decisive Battles

There has been some debate recently here about decisive battles, and Chris challenged me to discuss this, so here goes.

What, exactly, makes a battle decisive?

To start with I looked at what is probably the earliest definitive list I could find of decisive battles, from Fifteen Decisive Battles of the Western World by Edward Creasy, which was first published, I believe in the 1850’s. It is free from Amazon on a Kindle, incidentally, which makes it even more suitable for this task.

Creasy’s list of decisive battles is instructive: Marathon, Syracuse, Arbela, Metaurus, Teutoburger Wald, Chalons, Tours, Hastings, Orleans, the Spanish Armada, Blenheim, Pultova, Saratoga, Valmy and Waterloo.

Now, I suppose that any list of battles claimed to be decisive would be arguable, but perhaps more interesting are Creasy’s reasons for choosing them. Firstly, he claims that it is not the size of the battle, nor the casualties, that make this set decisive. Nor, he suggests are to be considered battles which, although dramatic, had either limited effects (particularly geographically) or ‘merely confirmed’ already noted trends. Thus Plataea is not on his list because the trend noted at Marathon, of Greek military success over the Persians, is, he argues, the decisive one. Hence also the absence of Zama from his list and the presence of Valmy instead of other actions of the Revolutionary Wars.

Now, of course, this is a highly debatable issue. Every statement that Creasy makes could be disputed. I have discussed his ideas so much simply because they give a starting point to trying to understand what we mean as decisive. As I mentioned in a comment at the time, decisiveness seems to work at many levels.

Firstly, I think there is what we might term ‘tactically decisive’ battles. These are the ones with clear cut outcomes on the field. Classically, of course, up to the twentieth century (more or less), a decisive battle would be one where one side was left in control of the battlefield and the other had fled.

In ancient Greece, for example, the victors would put up a trophy, while the defeated would send a herald to ask for a truce while the dead were properly buried. This was an established custom, and serious repercussions could ensue if it was not followed. Of course, in some cases, it was unclear as to who the victor might be, in which case both sides could set up a trophy. But the dead were still buried.

The tactically decisive battle, however, may not actually resolve anything. Marathon, for example, only increased the Persian determination to invade Greece (or so Herodotus reports). It could also be argued that neither Salamis nor Plataea actually achieved anything very much apart from a local defeat of the Persians. Looked at from the perspective of, say, 360 BC, you could argue that the Persians had, in fact, won. This victory would not be a military one, per se, but that, by switching their money from one side to another, they could achieve a balance of power in Greece which gave them access to Greek mercenaries and otherwise kept the fractious cities from being too annoying.

At the next level up we have what I suppose we could term ‘operationally decisive’ battles. By this I mean battles which did, at least, terminate a campaign. An example of this could well be the complex of actions which led to Plataea and Salamis. These battles did, in fact, terminate the Persian invasion of Greece, even if the Greco- Persian wars continued. Another example might be El Alamein, which did at least (more or less) terminate the campaigns in the Western Desert.

At the top level are what I am going to call ‘strategically decisive’ or ‘politically decisive’ battles. These are the big ones, the ones which cause the fall of nations, the transfer of territory and so on. Actually, in that case, there do seem to be relatively few of them. Hasting, probably, is one of them, although I believe that historians can see increasing Norman influence in England significantly before that. Waterloo would be another good candidate, although again, given that Napoleon had already fallen it could be argued that it was simply a post-script to what had gone before.  Similarly, while Bosworth was decisive in terms of the switch from Plantagenet to Tudor dynasties, many historians today simply regard it as an aberration, for the “Wars of the Roses” had already finished and the only argument was who, exactly was to be king.

I would imagine that even the categories I have outlined above would be as arguable as Creasy’s criteria for deciding upon which battles were decisive. I suspect that the decisiveness of a battle depends more upon the time frame in which you consider it, and your interests, than by any objective criteria.

If you are interested in the rise and fall of dynasties, for example, then both Hastings and Bosworth are decisive. If you have a broader view history and tend to discount individual events, then, perhaps, Bosworth is a mere hiccough in the development of English monarchy and nation. Perhaps it is only because humanity likes to categorize things extensively that we land up with these sorts of discussions. Ultimately, the answer to the question ‘Was battle X decisive?’ depends on what you mean by ‘decisive’ and at what level you are looking.

So, finally, to the specific example that Chris and I were discussing. Was Solway Firth decisive? Well, obviously, at a tactical level, it was. The Scots were effectively ambushed and trounced by a fairly motley array of  English borderers.

At a campaign or operational level, I think that the answer is that Solway probably was decisive, given that the Scots Lords would not cross the border for another go. Whether the demise of James V was a consequence of the defeat is another question which, I suspect, history cannot answer.

Was Solway a strategically decisive battle? Probably not. The Scots and English were still fighting a decade later; neither had been knocked out nor been dealt a decisive blow. In fact, I think that few battles really count at this level of decisiveness.


  1. Just so. I think that any definition of decisive battle is going to be arguable, without throwing in the split of tactically or strategically decisive. Some battles, like Solway Moss, will be one and not the other.
    And there are some silly anomalies. Do you call Glenshiel a decisive battle? It probably fulfils both sets of criteria; one side was wiped out and it ended the 1719 rebellion. But was it really a battle?
    I think any of us naming, Creasey style, fifteen decisive battles would come up with a different list.
    Next up - the six greatest commanders in history. (Ducks thrown copy of Face of Battle.)

  2. Its interesting that several of these battles are decisive in a negative sense. That is if the winning side was reversed the consequences MIGHT have been drastic. So at Marathon, some Greeks were already in favour of making accommodations with Persia like their Asiatic cousins. If the Persians had routed the Athenian army and then sailed around and sacked Athens on their first try, there might not have been significant Greek and Persian wars or an Alexander.

    Likewise with Saratoga, if the campaign been executed as planned and been successful, it might have crushed the rebellion instead of fueling it and convincing France it was safe to join in.

    At Valmy, a French defeat SHOULD have seen the allies enter Paris and restore the monarchy leading perhaps to civil war with external interference or who knows what.

    The trick is, with the negative battles, we'll never know whether another battle would have reversed the decision or if it really did matter.

    Gaugamela is one that might come close since the issue was still in doubt before it was fought and not only was the Persian army destroyed as a fighting force but the empire crumbled with it.

    Antioch (Aurelian vs Zanobia) is another which not only destroyed the Palmyran army but also their state but were there long term effects for the rest of the world? Probably Lots more of those sort with local effects for those involved without changing the tide of human history.

    In any event, I have a hard time separating a battle from is campaign and war. Over here the Plains of Abraham 1759 is always described as decisive, the end of New France but British were already planning the march on Montreal and might well have been back by sea the next year if they'd lost. Command of the sea and caring about winning were more decisive than the particular battle.

  3. Ah, now there's a thing. The list of POTENTIALLY decisive battles must be even longer. Mention was made in an earlier blog of the proto-Crecy which never took place. If it had, and the French had won, the Hundred Years' War might never have happened. So the fact that the battle did not take place was pretty decisive in itself.
    Food for wargaming thought.

    1. Thank you for eminently sensible suggestions.

      I think a lot depends on perspective; as wargamers, one side wins the battle or not. We do not have to unpack the consequences. Some decisively won battles remain unexploited (as an example, perhaps, Marston Moor?). some indecisive battles are exploited (Cropredy Bridge) and so on.

      i think that on the original battlefields, it was unlikely that most successful generals would conuslt after and say 'By Gad, Tomkins, we've just won a decisive battle!'. Battles are more of a piece with the whole campaign and war.

      maybe there is such a thing as wargamer's myopia, where we just see the battle, and not the context?

  4. I think you are too hard on wargamers, it is a human condition to rejoice at victory without regard for long term results. The runner arrives, "rejoice, we conquer", the bells ring, people flock to the streets cheering, newspapers and tv celebrate how brave our boys were and how clever our generals. "We've taken Baghdad, the boys will be home by Christmas". and so on.

    It is the mark of the truly great generals that they usually tried to avoid fighting in situations where a victory was meaningless and when they did win a victory, instead of resting on their laurels they sprang in to action and pursued and exploited to the hilt. Look at Hastings, it wasn't decisive because Harold and a bunch of thegns and huscarles were slain, it was decisive because William rapidly spread out, pushing hard to overcome and disperse remaining resistance, seize London and be crowned, planting garrisons, bribing the nobles and generally preventing the opposition from coalescing. If he'd sat tight and feasted, odds are good that the Saxons would have rallied under King Edgar and a whole new campaign of conquest against an organized enemy would have had to be fought instead of 4 years of putting down scattered revolts.

    But all that happens beyond the tabletop. Wargames are more like football matches. Winning a match by 3 goals to none is an impressive win but if it was an exhibition match its less meaningful than winning the world cup in a shoot out and even that is only good until the next series starts.

  5. I suspect you are right, in that a lot depends on the follow up.

    Mind you, I'm not sure William counts as a great general, but let's not do that argument just now.

    The problem with wargamers, inasmuch as it is a problem. in trying to persuade them to look beyond the table top, towards the campaign and war. Not too many do campaign games, so the table top battle is there in a vacuum, with little or no context or consequences.

    And yet we still talk of 'realism'?

  6. Quite. I was reminded of William of Orange in 1688 who did the decisive follow up without the bother of fighting a decisive battle first. A couple of crappy skirmishes and help yourself to the crown.

    Incidentally I think Ross makes a good point about Quebec earlier. If that had gone the wrong way, the British would just have come back the following year for another go. (A bit like a contentious vote in Parliament - it's repeated annually until the right answer is reached.)
    So if the resources are available to one side it becomes not so much IF the decisive battle is fought as WHEN.

    1. I suppose that this shows the complexity of warfare. Even an operationally decisive defeat means little if the will and resources are present to have another go. If they are not, then decisive tactically can mean decisive operationally and politically too.

      So in 1688, James did not have the will to fight, even though he had the resources. A disunited body politic did not help, granted, but essentially he lacked the will to reduce the country to another civil war.

      So I think, resources, granted, but also will, or desire to come back and win next time. I suppose the various coalitions against Napoleon probably count here as well.

  7. Hi,
    I would add that a battle result is decisive or not just in a limited period of time. For instance Austerlitz was a decisive battle (I suppose most will agree), but its "decisiveness" lasted a little more than 3 years. Being french emperor in December 1805 we could surely say "That one is decisive". In April 1809 the saying could be "I suppose it was not decisive enough".

    1. Nice example. A lot does seem to depend on your time scale, although not everything.

      For another example, was Marathon decisive, or, from the perspective of Greece in, say, 480 BC, was it not decisive enough, or even too decisive? After all, if Athens had lost Marathon, the Persians probably wouldn't have invaded again.