History's 10 Most Consequential Battles
History’s 10 Most Consequential Battles

History’s 10 Most Consequential Battles

Khalid Elhassan - May 2, 2018

History’s 10 Most Consequential Battles
Part of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting Norman knights charging the Anglo-Saxons. Britain Magazine

The Battle of Hastings

In 1066, England’s penultimate Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, died childless. He had been a weak king, and the real power had been wielded by the Godwin family. Godwin, Earl of Wessex, had secured the throne for Edward, and after the Earl’s death in 1053, his son Harold Godwinson took his place as the power behind the throne.

When Edward died on January 5th, 1066, he granted the kingdom to Harold, who was crowned king, with the backing of the nobility. Harold’s right to the throne was disputed however by his younger brother Tostig, whom Harold had exiled. Tostig’s claim was frivolous, but he secured the support of king Harald Hardrada of Norway, who sought to use him as a puppet king.

A more serious contender was Duke William of Normandy, Edward the Confessor’s cousin on his mother’s side, and his nearest living male relative. Edward had grown up an exile in the Norman court, and had strong bonds of affection to his Norman relatives. Duke William’s claim that Edward had promised him the English throne was thus plausible.

Tostig and Harald Hardrada invaded England first, landing near York in the north of England in September of 1066. King Harold led his Anglo-Saxon army on a forced march, then won a victory at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, in which both Tostig and Harald Hardrada were slain. He did not enjoy the victory for long, however, for word arrived soon thereafter that Duke William had landed with an army in southern England.

Harold gathered his weary army and led it on another forced march to meet the Normans, whom he encountered at Hastings with about 7000 men – only half of England’s trained soldiers. Although advised to wait for reinforcements, Harold opted instead for an immediate battle, to prevent the Normans from devastating the countryside.

On October 14th, 1066, the Anglo-Saxons assembled atop a protected ridge near Hastings, where they formed a shield wall. Unfortunately for them, their tactics and military doctrine, were outdated. Harold’s army was comprised entirely of infantry, without cavalry or archers. The Normans had both, which would prove decisive in the upcoming battle.

Fighting commenced with mounted charges by Norman knights, that failed to break the Anglo-Saxon shield wall. However, feigned retreats drew many of Harold’s men out of formation and into disastrous pursuits, that culminated in the pursuers getting surrounded and destroyed. That thinned the Anglo-Saxon lines, and by late afternoon, the natives were hard pressed, when an arrow struck king Harold in the eye, and killed him. His men broke and scattered soon thereafter.

The victorious William then marched upon and seized London, where he was crowned as King William I on December 25th, 1066. That brought over 600 years of Anglo-Saxon rule, stretching back to Roman times, to an end. In addition to a new dynasty and ruling class, Anglo-Saxon English melded with Norman French to eventually produce modern English. The new rulers also reoriented England from the Scandinavian world, of which it had been a de facto part since the Viking Era, and gave it stronger links to France and continental Europe.

History’s 10 Most Consequential Battles
The Battle of Yarmouk. Wikimedia

The Battle of Yarmouk Transformed the Middle East

In 634, Arab tribal armies fired by Islamic zeal erupted from the sparsely populated Arabian Peninsula to simultaneously attack the day’s two superpowers, the Sassanid Persian Empire to the east, and the Byzantine Empire to the west and north. Within two years, the outnumbered Arabs had won a series of brilliant victories that would forever after reshape the Middle East.

The Sassanid Empire would fall, while the Byzantines would forever lose their possessions in Syria, Egypt, and North Africa, and get pushed back to today’s Turkey. Of the Arab victories between 634 – 636, the most decisive was the Battle of Yarmouk in August of 636 along the Yarmouk River, southeast of the Golan Heights, near where the borders of today’s Syria, Jordan, and Israel meet.

In 634, the Arabs launched simultaneous attacks against the Persians in Mesopotamia, and against the Byzantines in Syria, but the forces attacking Syria proved too small for the task. Accordingly, reinforcements were diverted from the Persian front, where things were going smoother, under Khalid ibn al Walid, who assumed command in Syria. In July of 634, Khalid routed the Byzantines at the Battle of Ajnadayn and seized Damascus, then won another victory soon thereafter at the Battle of Fahl, and seized Palestine.

The Byzantines set out to recover their lost territories, and assembled an army of 80,000-150,000 men according to modern estimates, that significantly outnumbered their 25,000-40,000 Muslim opponents. The Byzantine marched in five grand divisions to the Yarmouk, where they met an Arab army broken into 36 infantry and 4 cavalry regiments, with an elite cavalry force held back as a mobile reserve. Khalid assembled his army along a 7.5 mile front facing west, with his left flank anchored on the Yarmouk river, and his right on heights to the north.

The armies then spent months camped across from each other, while their leaders engaged in negotiations. Fighting finally began on August 15th, 636, and lasted for five days of attritional warfare during which the Arab armies remained on the defensive, and withstood repeated, but often poorly coordinated, attacks. Finally, on the sixth day, Khalid drew his opponents into a large scale pitched battle that ended with the Byzantines retreating in disarray. Retreat turned into rout when Khalid unleashed his cavalry, who charged with a fortuitous sandstorm at their back, and many panicked Byzantines fell to their death over a steep ravine.

The Byzantines lost an estimated 40,000 men, while the Arabs lost about 5,000 men. Nearly a Millennium of Greco-Roman rule and influence of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa came to an end, as the successors of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were replaced by the successors of Muhammad. Syria was forever lost to the Byzantines, and soon thereafter, they would also lose Egypt and North Africa. Thereafter, those territories would form the core of the Arab and Islamic world, while the Byzantines would find themselves confined to today’s Turkey and the Balkans.

History’s 10 Most Consequential Battles
Huns at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields, by Alphonse de Neuville. Wikimedia

The Battle of the Catalaunian Fields Set the Stage for the Creation of France

Attila the Hun (reigned 434 – 453) ruled a multi-tribal empire that stretched from the Russian Steppe into Central Europe. He terrorized the civilized world, and earned the moniker “The Scourge of God”. He invaded Persia and both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, devastated the Balkans, and extorted huge sums from the Romans – literally tons of gold – to let them be.

He always came back for more, however. In 450, the Western Roman Emperor’s sister sought Attila’s help to get her out of an unwanted betrothal. Attila interpreted that as a marriage proposal, accepted, and asked for half of the Western Roman Empire as dowry. The Romans refused, so Attila invaded and began plundering Gaul, and a Roman general named Aetius was tasked with organizing the resistance.

Aetius formed an alliance with the barbarian Visigoths, promising them a homeland of their own in southwestern France in exchange for their military aid. An allied Roman-Visigoth army of about 50,000-80,000 men set out to confront Attila, who led an army of similar size. They reached him as he was besieging Aurelianum – today’s Orleans, France. Attila broke off the siege and retreated to find a favorable ground to give battle. He found it at the Catalaunian Fields northeast of Orleans, and there, he turned to face his foes. On June 20th, 451, Attila’s army met the allied army under the command of Aetius and the Visigothic king Theodoric I, at the Battle of the Catalaunian Fields.

The field was dominated by a ridge, whose right side the Huns seized, while the Romano-Visigoths seized the left. The ridge’s crest in the center was unoccupied, and it became the focus of the upcoming battle. Fighting began with the Huns advancing to seize the crest, but Aetius’ men got there first. The Romans repulsed the Huns, who reeled back in disarray, and Theodoric’s Visigoths attacked them as they retreated. Attila plunged into the fight to reorganize his men, but was forced to retreat back to his fortified camp. The Visigoth king Theodoric was killed during this fighting, and his son Thorismund took his place.

Fighting ceased at nightfall. The following day, Attila awaited an attack, but it never came. Aetius, realizing that Attila had already been defeated, contemplated the political ramifications should he be destroyed utterly: with the Hun threat removed, the Visigoths would have no more need of the Romans, and would likely turn on them. So despite Visigoth urging to resume the battle, Aetius refused. Instead, he convinced Thorismund to return to the Visigoth capital and secure the throne, before one of his brothers seized it.

Attila survived, but the battle had reshaped Gaul, and set it on a new trajectory that would transform it into France. The Romano-Gauls, a blend of the Celtic Gauls and the Latin Romans, were replaced as a ruling class by new Germanic overlords. The Goths would form an independent kingdom in southwestern Gaul, while in northern Gaul, Roman influence was weakened, while that of the Franks and Burgundians increased. France would eventually emerge from that new blend.

History’s 10 Most Consequential Battles
Initial deployments at the Battle of Gaugamela. Quora

The Battle of Gaugamela Reshaped the Middle East For a Thousand Years

On October 1st, 331 BC, Alexander the Great led an army of 47,000 Macedonians and Greeks against an estimated 52,000-120,000 troops under the command of Persia’s king Darius III. The two monarchs and their men faced each other near Gaugamela, in the vicinity of the modern city of Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan, to decide the fate of the Persian Empire.

Darius placed himself in the center of the Persian line, with cavalry on both flanks, and chariots in front. Alexander took most of his cavalry, including his elite Companion Cavalry, and rode towards the right of the field, parallel to the Persian line. To keep the Persian chariots from striking his flank, Alexander took a scratch force of infantry, and placed them between his cavalry and the enemy chariots.

As he rode to the right, Alexander was shadowed by Persian cavalry on that side of the field, to keep him from outflanking the Persian left. It was what Alexander wanted: to remove as much Persian cavalry from their initial position as possible. Alexander also had a surprise for the Persian horsemen: light infantry keeping pace with him, hidden from the Persians by the dust stirred up and by Alexander’s own cavalry. The result was 3 parallel lines moving towards the right: the Persian cavalry, Alexander’s cavalry, whom the Persians could see, and his light infantry, whom the Persians could not see.

The Persian cavalry eventually outflanked what they assumed was Alexander’s attempt to outflank them, then charged. Which is what Alexander had hoped they would do: by shadowing him as he rode to the right of the field, a gap had opened in the Persian line. Alexander’s goal had been to draw the Persian cavalry out of position in order to create that gap.

Then, having juked the Persian cavalry out of position, Alexander left the bulk of his cavalry, and the accompanying light infantry, to engage the Persian cavalry and keep them occupied. He disengaged his elite Companion Cavalry from the fray and rode off at their head, in a wedge formation, for the gap where the Persian cavalry had been at the start of the battle. A gap where king Darius was stationed. It was a surgical strike that decided the battle. Seeing Alexander leading a furious cavalry charge straight at him, Darius panicked and fled the battlefield. There was still plenty of fighting left, but Darius’ flight effectively ceded the Persian Empire to Alexander.

History’s 10 Most Consequential Battles
Latter stages of the Battle of Gaugamela. Quora

That Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great over two centuries earlier, came to an end when its last king, the fugitive Darius, was assassinated by his followers a few months later. The victory at Gaugamela would ensure that the entire Eastern Mediterranean would become part of the Hellenistic and later Greco-Roman for the next millennium.

History’s 10 Most Consequential Battles
The Battle of Salamis. Warfare History Network

Salamis Was History’s Most Consequential Battle

In 480 BC, Persia’s king Xerxes set out to conquer Greece. After overcoming a Spartan force at Thermopylae, the Persians advanced on and seized a nearly deserted Athens, razed the city’s walls, and burned the place the ground. They then assembled their navy of about 600 to 800 warships south on the beaches south of Athens, near the island of Salamis to the west. An allied Greek navy of about 375 warships, mostly Athenian, awaited them, guarding the eastern entrance of a strait separating Salamis from the Greek mainland.

The Greek navy was under the nominal command of the Spartan Eurybiades, but in practice, the true commander was the Athenian Themistocles. Athens’ Greek allies wavered, and called for a retreat from Salamis. Themistocles convinced them to stay by threatening that the Athenians would defect to the Persians if the allies refused to fight. However, as it was clear that the other Greeks’ commitment was shaky, Themistocles decided to force a battle as soon as possible.

He sent king Xerxes a secret message, claiming friendship, and informing him that the Greeks were demoralized. To bag them, Themistocles advised, the Persians should send a naval detachment to block the western exit of the strait, then attack from the east. The bottled up Greeks would then either surrender, or put up a poor show. Either way, Xerxes would emerge victorious.

Xerxes followed Themistocles’ advise, and the Greeks went into a panic upon awaking the next day to discover that the Persians had bottled them up in the strait. Themistocles calmed them down, and devised a plan whereby the Greeks retreated far up into the narrows. The Persians had sought a battle with their ships on an east-west line facing Salamis, which would have allowed them to attack the Greeks on a broad front, and take advantage of their numerical superiority to overlap and envelop their foes. Instead, Themistocles drew them into a battle whose lines ran north-south, along the narrow front of the strait’s width. That did much to negate the Persian numerical superiority at the point of contact, and had the added effect of drawing the maximum number of Persian ships into the restricted waters, before the Greeks counterattacked.

By getting the Persians to cram their huge navy into a tight space, Themistocles turned the Persians’ numerical superiority into a disadvantage. Persian ships found themselves packed in an ever tighter space, fouling each other and unable to properly maneuver. All the while, more and more Persian captains, seeking to impress Xerxes, who was watching the battle from a nearby hilltop, rushed in, adding their ships to the growing jam ahead.

To add to the Persians’ woes, the waters off Salamis were tricky, and while the Greeks knew their secrets, the Persians did not. All those factors combined to bring about a decisive Greek victory, in which the Greeks lost about 40 ships, while the Persians lost about 300. Casualties were even more lopsided than the ship losses, as many Greeks who ended up in the water swam to the safety of nearby Salamis. Persians, by contrast, were either shot by arrows as they neared Salamis, or were slaughtered as soon as they reached shore.

There is no other battle in history that, had it gone the other way, would have resulted in as radically different a world. Western history is rooted in Greek civilization, particularly the Athenian contribution to that civilization. The height of Athenian culture and civilization, featuring an explosion in the arts, literature, philosophy, and democracy, occurred in the decades after the victory at Salamis.

Greece would have become a Persian satrapy if the Greeks had lost at Salamis. There would have been no independent Hellenic civilization to eventually seed that of the West. Instead of a history drawing upon Greek civilization, Western history might have become an extension of Persian civilization and culture. The ripple effects might have included no Christianity as a major religion. Christianity only became a world religion after it escaped its Jewish roots, and fused the teachings of Jesus with the Hellenism of the Roman East. A knock on effect of that would have been no Islam as a major religion. There had been a significant Christian presence in Arabia for centuries before Islam, exerting considerable influence upon the locals. Indeed, many viewed Islam in its earliest days as just another Christian heresy, because of significant overlap between it and Christianity.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Sources & Further Reading

Ancient Warfare – The Battle of Salamis

Art of Battle, The – Battle of Yarmuk, 636

Atomic Heritage Foundation – Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 1945

BBC – What Happened at the Battle of Hastings?

Encyclopedia Britannica – Siege of Vienna

Forgotten Islamic History – The Battle of Yarmuk, Khalid Bin Waleed’s Greatest Victory

History of War – Battle Leipzig (The Battle of Nations), 16-18 October 1813

Lanning, Michael Lee, The History Place – The Top Ten Battles of All Time

Nagorski, Andrew – The Greatest Battle: Stalin, Hitler, and the Desperate Struggle for Moscow That Changed the Course of World War II (2008)

Thought Co. – ­Attila the Hun at the Battle of Chalons

Wikipedia – First Battle of the Marne

Wikipedia – Battle of Gaugamela