Saturday 27 November 2021

Do Battles Matter?

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.


  1. I honestly think mostb of the famous battles in history did not matter. They were win o lose before even the battle started (unbalanced forces, superior technology, treasons, logistics, etc.). I think that is why we enjoy so much.

    1) ancient and most medieval battles, because they are decorates behind a veil of fantasy/mith.

    2) hannibal vs rome battles and similar clash through the history. Because they should not happen that way.

    Even ww2, once russia and usa come into the conflict. German could win all battles, but eventually it would collapsed because it would cannot maintain a long term constant war.

    I am not historian at all but it usually happen to me that when i read about battles I use to think: this battle was a nonsense carried on by mad people, eventually the overcome would be the same without some much slaughtring.

    Obviosly there are some exceptions but.. i think those are not the most.

    I like your blog a lot! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you. I think Paul Kennedy's Rise and Fall of the Great Powers makes a similar point: in a major war, victory goes to the side with the last dollar.

      There are some exceptions, and there is still the point that to actually win you do need boots on the ground. If the WW2 allies had not done much in terms of invading Germany, the war would not have been won, I guess. Sooner or later someone has to go and do the shooting.

  2. That last sentence is (sadly) v

  3. A most thoughtful post.
    Much as we find the military history fascinating, enjoy recreating battles on the tabletop and perhaps 'changing history', most wars are won and lost off the battlefield. The battles are not entirely irrelevant, but nowhere near as decisive as the term 'decisive battles' suggests.
    Regards, James

    1. Thank you. Yes, I suspect the term 'decisive battle' is a Western construct, rather than anything pertaining to reality. After all, something like the English Civil War took at least three 'decisive' battles (Marston Moor, Naseby and Preston) to reach some sort of conclusion, plus a whole load of other action which were decisive in some sense or another. Battles, perhaps, are necessary but not sufficient conditions for winning a war.

  4. Interesting how close that conclusion on Lepanto comes to Oman's in his History of the Art of War in the C16.

    On the broader point, I think that the term 'decisive battle' can be useful, as long as we are careful in being quite precise about what we think it decided. Hastings was decisive in that it ensured a Norman duke would be crowned King of England, but the form and longevity of that situation was still to play for; El Alamein was decisive in ending the war in Libya and Egypt, but certainly not WW2 or even North Africa in general; Imphal-Kohima decisive in that Japan would not conquer some or all of India, although that didn't of itself imply that it would lose the war in 1945; Ayn Jalut decisive in that the Mameluke kingdom and the Holy Land would not fall to the Mongols in C13; and so on.

    1. Agreed. With Hastings, the more you look at it, the odder it gets. It was decisive as you say, but mainly because most of the people who might have claimed the throne aside from William died there.
      Perhaps the point about Lepanto stands: what is really important is the psychological effect of winning a battle 'decisively'. Someone said of the Allies that they never won a battle before El Alamein, and never lost one after. Untrue, of course, but it reflects the morale of the situation. I really have no idea, but the same could be true of Kohima.

      I gues it just shows that battles and wars are complex, contingent events.

  5. Thanks, very interesting. Is football a good analogy? (probably not, but here we go..) It seems to be true that the richest football clubs can be predicted to dominate the competitions and usualy win, and the others don't really have a chance. But the football fans don't get together to cheer on their accountants and sponsors at board meetings... :)

    1. It is a good analogy, I think. Football matches are the dramatic pinnacle of all the finance, training and so on, and that is what people want to watch.

      Similarly, battle are the pinnacle of a campaign and war. The rest (as anyone who has tried to write rules for logistics) is boring, and we don't like boring...