A Quick Guide To The 15 Decisive Battles of the World

Charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo.
Charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo.

In 1851, Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy, an English historian, wrote a book entitled The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. Obviously, the world has changed quite a bit since Creasy’s time.

How do his chosen battles stand up to today’s most poignant moments in military history? Which would remain on an updated list?

The Battle of Marathon

Creasy’s chapters are listed in chronological order. He starts with the Battle of Marathon, a conflict which took place in 490 B.C. Creasy gives the battle a place on his list because he feels it determined the entire outcome of civilization.

In reality, the conflict was a meeting of Athenian officers, who were deciding whether or not they should attack a nearby Persian enemy encampment.

While it may not make much of a splash today, the battle was quite important. The outnumbered Grecians overcame the larger Persian troop during this first Persian invasion of the country.

Also, the battle was responsible for the invention of the marathon race. It was named after the messenger who ran cross-country to bring back news of the victory to Athens.

While important for its time, though, this battle may not make a similar list today.

A modern reenactment of the Battle of Marathon. Photo Source.
A modern reenactment of the Battle of Marathon. By Phokion – CC BY-SA 3.0


Battle of Syracuse

Moving on to 413 B.C., Creasy named the Battle of Syracuse as crucial. Also involving Athenian troops, this conflict which was more like a series of expeditions, occurred during the Peloponnesian War.

The Athenians were defeated, with 200 ships destroyed.  There were thousands of casualties, and the entire expeditionary force remained behind living either as captured or sold. The war had turned against them.

Although the Athenians would fight on for another ten years, this would ultimately lead to the fall of the Grecian Empire.

Because of its resulting horror for one of the world’s most important ancient empires, the Battle of Syracuse may remain on a similar list made today.

Battle of Gaugamela

Battle of Guagamela, depicted on a tapestry. Photo Source.
Battle of Gaugamela depicted on a tapestry. By Mathiasrex – CC BY 3.0

In 331 B.C., the Battle of Gaugamela resulted in the defeat of the long-standing Persian Empire at the hands of Alexander the Great. He was one of history’s greatest conquerors.

It increased Alexander’s empire to include all of Mesopotamia he had not already conquered. Also, Babylon and half of Persia, securing his spot as one of the world’s greatest generals.

According to historical sources, there was a loss of about 2,000 on the Hellenic side. A crippling loss of more than 170,000 on the Persian side, and the capture of more than 300,000.

While the participation of Alexander the Great certainly makes this battle an important one, it may not be enough to keep it on a more modern list of the world’s most important battles to date

Battle of the Metaurus

Fast forward to the Roman Empire for the next battle on the list. The Battle of Metaurus was between Rome and Carthage, with the Carthaginians led by Hannibal.

The Roman Republic won decisively. The battle, during which Hannibal (a source of fear for the Romans for many years) was killed and beheaded, went down in history, so much so that even Lord Byron wrote of it.

In many ways, the battle made way for Rome’s ascension to power. For this reason, it would remain on today’s list.

Battle of the Teutoburg Forest

A 19th-century painting of the Battle of the Teutenborg Forest.
A 19th-century painting of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.

As the Roman Empire attempted to continue spreading its power, it came upon the Germanic tribes. Unfortunately, what resulted was not in the Romans’ favor.

The Battle of the Teutoburg Forest is sometimes referred to as Rome’s greatest defeat, as they were humiliated by an alliance of Germanic tribes. It stopped Rome’s expansion throughout northern Europe ending what would have been a complete takeover.

However, despite the huge loss and what might have been, had the Romans’ won, it did not wipe out the Empire, making it unlikely to end up on a more modern list.

Battle of the Catalaunian Plains

The Huns' invasion of Gaul.
The Huns’ invasion of Gaul.

The Battle of the Catalaunian Plains was the last great Roman victory, during which they defeated the Huns and made them withdraw from Gaul. This was also the first battle in history to involve large alliances on both sides of the fight, working together.

A lot of attention is paid to the fact that one side of the conflict (the Romans) were Christian, while the others (the Huns) were pagan. If the Huns had been victorious, Christianity might have been entirely wiped out.

However, worse things have happened in modern military history, meaning this battle may not make it onto the modern list.

Battle of Tours

A painting of the Battle of Tours.
A painting of the Battle of Tours.

The Battle of Tours, in France, was fought between European forces against the Arabs and Berbers. In many ways, it is seen as an important turning point in the war against Islam during the first century.

It is somewhat responsible for stopping the spread of Islam into Europe altogether.

It helped establish the Western European powers against outside invaders as well. Would it make it onto a modern list? Probably not, as the total casualties were only around 13,000.

Battle of Hastings

Tapestry depiction of the Battle of Hastings
Tapestry depiction of the Battle of Hastings.

In 1066, the Normans defeated the English, and William of Normandy took control of England. Other than this, however, there was not much to set the battle and conflict apart from any other.

Rebellions to William’s rule continued. In other words, this relatively unimpressive battle has no place on the list.

The Siege of Orleans

Joan of Arc enter Orleans.
Joan of Arc enters Orleans.

As part of the Hundred Years’ War, fought between France and England, the Siege of Orleans is famous.  It was not only the first major French victory, but Joan of Arc took part.

The Siege lasted for months, as the English felt capturing Orleans would result in the conquering of all France. However, following the appearance of Joan of Arc, the siege collapsed.

All things considered, though, casualties were small, about 6,000.

The battle might end up on a modern list bearing in mind the battle’s significance to two of today’s most important world players, England and France.

Defeat of the Spanish Armada

Sir Francis Drake, defeater of the Spanish Armada.
Sir Francis Drake, defeater of the Spanish Armada.

There is no doubt this conflict would end up on a modern list of important battles. For years the Spanish Armada was considered invincible by every country in the world. Spain had hoped to invade England.

They, led by Sir Francis Drake, defeated the Spanish in 1588 following hours of fighting. Retreating, some of the Spanish ships sunk while others were wrecked on the coast of Ireland.

When the survivors finally made it back to Spain, half the fleet was lost, and 15,000 men had died.

Battle of Blenheim

Engraving of the Battle of Blenheim.
Engraving of the Battle of Blenheim.

The Battle of Blenheim was fought between France and Bavaria, against an alliance made up of England, Scotland, the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch Republic.

It ensured Vienna would not be captured by the French and Bavarians. It was a major point in the War of the Spanish Succession, with 30,000 deaths on the French side.

Also, it is credited with preserving the Grand Alliance. The great European group made up of Austria, Brandenburg, the Dutch Republic, the Holy Roman Empire, England, the Palatine of the Rhine, Portugal, Saxony, Scotland, Spain, Savoy and Sweden.

The entire Grand Alliance was formed to defend the rest of Europe from France. For this reason, the battle gets a spot on a more modern list.

Battle of Poltava

Battle of Poltava. Photo Source.
Battle of Poltava. By Serge Lachinov – CC BY-SA 3.0

This next battle could be considered the beginning of the rise of Russia as a world power. It was fought between Sweden and Russia as part of the Great Northern War.

It also marks the decline of Sweden as a world power, in the early 18th century. However, other than these points, there is no reason to add the Battle of Poltava to a modern list of important military conflicts.

Battles of Saratoga

The surrender of the British to the American colonists.
The surrender of the British to the American colonists.

Most definitely on a more modern list, the Battles of Saratoga helped create the United States and gave the American colonists their victory over the British.

While the first of these two battles was a British victory, the second battle was won by the Americans, and the British formally surrendered.

The Battle of Valmy

The Battle of Valmy.
The Battle of Valmy.

This battle was the first victory for the French in a series of conflicts following the French Revolution. It was the result of forces attempting to invade France to restore peace and stop the revolutionary behavior there from spreading elsewhere.

However, this initial battle is not quite worthy of a spot on a more modern list. Although it was the very first conflict, it was not very influential.

Battle of Waterloo

Napoleon addresses his troops.
Napoleon addresses his troops.

The very last battle on Creasy’s list is the Battle of Waterloo (1815). It was between the French (led by Napoleon) and the Seventh Coalition (made up of the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Hanover, Nassau, Brunswick, and Prussia).

Napoleon was defeated. 65,000 casualties and losses occurred. This battle would most certainly make a more modern list, as it was, before World War I, considered the most important battle in Europe.

It completely changed the face of modern history and ended the First French Empire.

As well as defeating Napoleon it concluded a huge series of conflicts that had consumed the continent since the French Revolution.

Holly Godbey

Holly Godbey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE