The destination for history

Five great battles from history


Author and historian Simon Elliott details five historic battles that have attracted his interest, explaining their relevance in the wider study of conflict and their appeal to him as an historian (listed here chronologically).

If there was a single turning point marking the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire, particularly in the west, it was the Battle of Adrianople in Thrace on the 9 August AD 378. Here, the Roman field army of the east was massacred along with the Eastern Emperor Valens in a devastating defeat by a Gothic army under Fritigern.

From a Roman perspective the scene was set for this doomed confrontation when Valens allowed a Gothic migration of warriors and their families numbering up to 100,000 to cross the limes on the Danube and settle in the northern Balkans in AD 376. The initial idea was that the warriors would serve as foederate mercenaries with the Roman army, but the Goths were provoked into revolt by poor treatment from their Roman hosts. Subsequent attempts to defeat the Goths by both eastern and western troops were unsuccessful so Valens took direct charge, his plan being to gather his troops on the eastern frontier and lead them in person to meet up with another force led by the Western Emperor Gratian with troops from Gaul. In the event Valens arrived in the theatre of conflict first, his troops having some success engaging the Goths around Adrianople to the north-west of the eastern capital Constantinople. Encouraged, the Eastern Emperor decided to stamp out the Goth menace once and for all without waiting for Gratian to arrive. With glory in mind, perhaps spurred on by an earlier victory for Gratian over the Alamanni, he moved his entire force northwards to join those already at Adrianople. Here they camped to prepare for battle. During this time Valens rejected a request from Gratian to await his arrival before engaging the Goths, and later an offer from Fritigern to negotiate a peace. Valens’ confidence was based on reports from his scouts that, with an army of around 15,000, he outnumbered the Goths who had retreated behind a large wagon lager.

On the 9 August the Eastern Emperor led his troops out to battle, arriving in front of the Gothic defences tired and thirsty after marching over fields burnt by the Goths to delay their advance. The Romans were then further exasperated when Fritigern again attempted negotiations, delaying the engagement further. At last some Roman units ran out of patience and attacked without orders, the rest of the line then following. However, Fritigern’s attempts at negotiation had been a ploy, designed to delay the battle commencing for as long as possible. This was because unknown to the Romans his cavalry had been away foraging, hence Valens thinking he outnumbered his opponent. Just at that moment, with the Roman line beginning to engage the Goths, these cavalry reappeared on their flank and smashed into it, effectively rolling up the entire Roman army in short order. The latter routed, the survivors being pursued until nightfall. Valens himself fell, either during the battle itself or the subsequent pursuit. The Goths went on to plunder the whole of the region and although later pacified they were to remain within the Empire from that point, sometimes as allies but often enemies.

Importance: A loss of military manpower and prowess from which the Roman army never recovered. The Goths from this point were an ever-present menace within the borders of the Empire.

If ever a battle had everything – crucial historical relevance, heroism and pathos – then it is the Battle of Bosworth, which took place in Leicestershire on the 22 August 1485. Here, the Wars of the Roses were effectively concluded with the Lancastrian victory of Henry Tudor over the historically defamed Richard III. The discovery of the latter’s hastily buried and badly mutilated body in 2012 has recently added an extra layer of poignancy to the study of the battle, as has the latest battlefield archaeological research showing this to be one of the first battles where a large amount of field artillery was present.

The engagement was the culmination of a campaign which began with Henry Tudor landing his small force (including French mercenaries and artillery) in Wales to initiate an apparently hopeless bid for the crown. Richard III and his Yorkist forces certainly outnumbered the Lancastrians by the time the latter had meandered their way across the country to Market Bosworth in the East Midlands, with 7,900 men under arms compared to 5,000 (many of the latter gathered as Henry had led his troops through Wales). Richard also expected support from Thomas Lord Stanley and Sir William Stanley who arrived on the field of battle with a combined force of between 2,000 and 4,000. The Yorkists also had the advantage of terrain, occupying the highest ground in the area.

Both armies deployed in column of battle with most of the troops fighting on foot – the battle beginning with a brisk cannonade. Then the Earl of Oxford, leading the Lancastrian van, closed with the Yorkists and got the better of an exchange of longbow fire. A general engagement then ensued which was indecisive until, at the last, the Stanleys deserted Richard and committed their forces to Henry. When Richard’s rearguard then refused to fight, the king’s fate was sealed, he throwing caution to the wind and leading a desperate cavalry charge directly at Henry and his bodyguard. This failed, though he did get close enough for Henry’s standard-bearer to be killed, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Importance: The effective ending of the Wars of the Roses and the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, and the recognition of the growing importance of artillery on the battlefield.

The ultimate clash of the Dreadnought titans, with the British Grand Fleet and German High Seas Fleet slugging it out for control of the North Sea on the 31 May 1916. The British commander–in-chief, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, is one of my heroes, the quietly spoken thinker who Churchill said was the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon. That he didn’t, and indeed forced the German battleships to flee the maritime field of battle, is testament to his skillful handling of his very large fleet. This included crossing the ‘T’ of his opponent Vice Admiral Reinhard Scheer, a supremely complicated manoeuvre in any era, which allowed all of his ships to engage the head of the German line at once.

It is the precursor engagement, however, which imbues the battle with the most controversy, during the so-called ‘run to the south’ when the British Battle Cruiser Fleet under Vice Admiral David Beatty received a mauling when engaging their German counterparts under Vice Admiral Franz Hipper. In the space of twenty minutes HMS Indefatigable, and then HMS Queen Mary, suffered catastrophic explosions following repeated hits. A third battlecruiser from Beatty’s force, HMS Invincible, was to join them in blowing up before the day was out. It later turned out that the British battlecruisers suffered such losses not because of a problem in design but in the handling procedures for their main armament ammunition when, to increase the rate of fire, they had key safety features disabled or removed. 

The battle is also an early example of the power of public relations in the modern era, with the Germans quickly claiming a victory based on the number and types of ships lost by both fleets. Indeed to the British public, expecting a Nelsonian annihilation of the German fleet, it would certainly have seemed like a defeat. The reality is though that Scheer, when faced with the superior firepower of Jellicoe’s fleet, immediately turned about and fled to port, the German High Seas Fleet never again to threaten the dominance of the Royal Navy and Britain’s maritime blockade of Germany. In that sense, the Battle of Jutland was certainly a strategic victory for the British. More broadly, outside of its relevance to the narrative of World War One, the battle is notable as the largest single engagement of capital ships in history, a once and only event never to be repeated.

Importance: The largest ever clash of industrial age battle fleets, never to be repeated, with the Royal Navy ensuring the naval blockade of Germany continued. This latter would eventually play a major role in the collapse of Germany late 1918.

Perhaps the most significant battle of the Pacific theatre in the Second World War, the victory of the United States Navy over the Imperial Japanese Navy in this clash of aircraft carriers between the 4 and 7 June 1942 marked the point at which the allies switched from defence to offence in the region.

Japan had of course scored a major victory with its strike at Pearl Harbor on the 7 December 1941 when its carriers launched a shock airborne attack on the US fleet at anchor. The Japanese fleet commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was keenly aware, however, that he had missed the US Navy’s own carrier fleet and destroying them became his priority. In this regard he therefore chose to attack the Midway Atoll in order to draw two US carriers into battle.

Crucial to the US Navy’s success at Midway was its ability to decipher Japanese signals traffic such that by the time battle was about to begin the Americans were aware of the make-up of the Japanese forces and their battle plan. The US Pacific Fleet’s commander, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, was therefore able to deploy his forces accordingly. The battle commenced on the morning of June 4, with Japanese naval aviation having some success in an aerial bombardment of the US positions on Midway, and also seeing off a land-based and then carrier torpedo-bomber based attack on the Japanese fleet. However, the dive-bombers from the US carriers caught the Japanese flat-tops refueling and rearming aircraft on their decks and in short order the Akagi, Kaga and Soryu had been reduced to blazing hulks. The three sank within sixteen hours of this attack.

A Japanese counterstrike was launched from the Hiryu, their one remaining carrier, which succeeded in hitting the US carrier Yorktown with three 227kg bombs despite taking heavy aircraft losses (it was later hit by torpedo bombers and then, on the 6 June, by torpedoes from a Japanese submarine while under tow to Pearl Harbor, sinking on the 7 June). In a pattern to become familiar in the Pacific War, the US Navy then launched a counterstrike of its own from its two remaining operational carriers, the Enterprise and Hornet. This caught the Hiryu which itself became another Japanese blazing wreck, being sunk by her own destroyer escort the next day. By the early hours of the 5 of June Yamamoto had cancelled his invasion of Midway.

Japanese losses in this battle were staggering: four carriers, 322 aircraft and more than 5,000 seamen. For the US Navy the losses were much lighter: just the one carrier, 147 aircraft and just over 300 sailors. More importantly for the Japanese, their losses included a significant portion of their elite naval aviation forces, something from which they never recovered.

Importance: Aside from the repercussions of the outcome, this was a battle that showed the evolution of military strategy as the twentieth century progressed. On the one hand Yamamoto conducted the battle from his flagship (the battleship Yamato), much as his counterparts had fought their fleets at Jutland. Nimitz and the US Navy however embraced all of the new technological capabilities then available, the US commander basing himself at his headquarters in Pearl Harbor where he was surrounded with all of the paraphernalia available to a then-modern war fighting force. Thus he was able to make best use of intelligence and rely on his superior communications to defeat his enemy.

Operation Market Garden was one of the most daring and complex military campaigns of World War Two, an uncharacteristic gamble by that most cautious and methodological of military leaders Field Marshal Montgomery involving air and ground forces on a grand scale.

With the strategic goal of providing US and British forces in the west with a chance of reaching Berlin before the Soviet Union could capture the German capital, and moreover hastening the end of the war, Montgomery’s plan was for airborne forces (the ‘Market’ component) to seize eight bridges in a corridor through Holland which ground forces (the ‘Garden’ component) would then link together by punching through the German defences. The key bridges were those at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and the ultimate target, Arnhem on the Lower Rhine. The hope was to take advantage of evident German disorganisation after their chaotic retreat north-eastwards following the various Allied Normandy break-out campaigns.

The key to the success of this campaign was a very strict timetable, with the British Second Army (spearheaded by the Guards Armoured Division) having to fight its way along one main route (dubbed ‘Hell’s Highway’) to get to each river crossing – relieving the paratroops at each as they got there. The airborne forces deployed were the US 101st Airborne Division (around Eindhoven), the US 82nd Airborne Division (around Nijmegen) and the British 1st Airborne Division, together with the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade (at Arnhem).

The initial airborne assault took place on the 17 September, with the US landings being for the most part successful, though the British were less so. With drop zones some distance from the bridge at Arnhem, and encountering German resistance from the beginning, in the event only the 2nd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment (with some supporting troops) under Lieutenant Colonel John Frost reached its target. As the Second Army made its slow progress up Hell’s Highway, eventually reaching Eindhoven and then Nijmegen, Frost’s men managed to cling onto the northern end of Arnhem bridge in increasingly desperate circumstances. The British armoured spearhead failed to reach them in time however and they were finally overwhelmed on the 21 September. With that, Operation Market Garden effectively ended, the remnants of the 1st Airborne being evacuated back across the Rhine on the evening of the 25 September.

As with Jutland above, subsequent analysis of Operation Market Garden has been shrouded in controversy, with blame for the ultimate failure of a brilliant though flawed plan being widely distributed. Ultimately though, the provision in the plan of only one highway to allow the Second Army to thread through the bridges across Holland was asking far too much of the armoured relief forces as they were always behind schedule. The Allied planners also famously underestimated both the quality and morale of the German forces which coalesced into ad hoc Kampfgruppes to engage both the airborne troops and the Second Army. Finally, the landing zones for the 1st Airborne Division being so far from their bridge target clearly mitigated against the success of this objective, and ultimately therefore the whole operation.

Importance: The failure to hold the ultimate prize of the bridge at Arnhem meant the failure of Operation Market Garden, with the war entering a further and final year in 1945 with even greater loss of life and suffering. Further, it was the Soviet Union that was now to reach the German capital of Berlin first. This latter event effectively set in place the post-war borders between East and West that were to be the backdrop to the subsequent Cold War.

By Simon Elliott. Models and figures from author’s own collection.

You might also be interested in:


Sign up for our newsletter

show more books