The War List: Five Battles That Shaped Modern Europe

At Salamis, a Greek fleet outmaneuvered Persian naval forces, ensuring the Athenians' unique experiment in democracy survived (Photos.com).
At Salamis, a Greek fleet outmaneuvered Persian naval forces, ensuring the Athenians' unique experiment in democracy survived (Photos.com).

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1. Salamis, 480 BC Greek navy defeats Persians
At Salamis, one of the first great naval battles in history, Europeans prevailed thanks to a technological edge and superb unit cohesion. Under Themistocles of Athens, a fleet of nimble Greek galleys acted in concert to lure their adversaries’ more numerous but less maneuverable craft into a killing ground. A Persian victory would have snuffed out the unique Athenian style of democratic politics that forms the basis of Western society today. 

2. Tours, 732 Franks defeat Muslims
The development of heavy infantry formations wearing full-body armor, which again conferred both a technological edge and superior unit cohesion, allowed the Franks under Charles Martel to defeat an Arab invasion from Spain at the Battle of Tours. An Arab victory would have delivered France and the Low Countries to Muslim control, turning Western Europe into a Muslim rather than a Christian stronghold. Martel’s grandson Charlemagne would have ruled a beleaguered Ger­man state instead of imposing the uniform culture, administration, currency, and script that became hallmarks of European culture.

3. Gravelines, 1588 England’s navy defeats Spanish Armada
Around 1520, several states of Atlantic Europe developed the armed sailing galleon, the most complex technological artifact of the day. Whereas Spain and Portugal strove to increase the size of their galleons, Tudor England invested in improving mobility and firepower. In 1588, Philip II of Spain sent a great armada to land troops and conquer England, but the Royal Navy used its tactical and technological edge to win the day—largely near Gravelines, Flanders—opening the path for Britain to create an overseas empire in America, Africa, and Asia.

4. Trafalgar, 1805 British navy defeats combined Spanish and French fleet
Although other European navies constantly made improvements, Britain’s outsize investment paid off at Trafalgar, where its superior warships led by Admiral Horatio, Lord Nelson destroyed or captured almost half the Franco-Spanish fleet. Victory not only safeguarded Britain from invasion but allowed it to dispatch support to Continental allies who would defeat Napoleon’s attempt to unify Europe under a single scepter.

5. Stalingrad, 1942–1943 Russians encircle and destroy German besiegers
The proclivity of European forces to retain the lessons of long-ago wars paid off spectacularly here. The Russians adopted a strategy used to win the battle of Cannae in 216 BC, as described by the Roman historian Polybius, in which the victors covertly moved troops from the center to the flanks, encircled their enemies, and forced them to either surrender or die. The Germans lost some 250,000 men, and for the next two years conducted a fighting retreat, until they agreed to an unconditional surrender. At Stalingrad, the western Europeans lost the military initiative to the Soviet Union. They have never regained it.

Geoffrey Parker, a longtime MHQ contributor, is the author of The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West 1500–1800 (3rd ed., Cambridge, 2001) and editor of The Cambridge Illustrated History of Warfare (3rd ed., Cambridge, 2008). He teaches history at the Ohio State University.

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12 Responses

  1. John Merkatatis

    About Salamis:a) facts here have been distorted ; too much reliance on Herodotus is evident mr Parker…
    1) Themistocles of Athens(probably the greatest politician and strategist of his time) was not in command of the Greek fleet in Salamis but Euriviadas the Spartan was the admiral commanding the Greek fleet and it could not have been otherwise since in the council of Corinth in 480 BC the Hellenic States at war with Persia had offered the command at sea and land to the Spartans as it was traditional,Sparta being the supreme power of Greece.
    2a) ‘nimble’?-I would not call them galleys,the term is trireme- the trireme was then the heavy battle cruiser of WWI;the Greek trireme had a ram which required a heavy support in the masc of the ship in order to absorb the shock of impact when ramming another ship;naturally this trireme was heavier and not easily maneuvrable.
    The 200 Athenian triremes in Salamis were build a year before,481 BC,with the silver from the mines at Laurium and the Athenians didn’t have the time to become veterans let alone facing the Phoenician and Egyptian squadrons the elit units of the Persian fleet with great experience and veterans of many sea-battles.The Phenician ships,the largest squadron of the Persian fleet-over two hundred ships-, didn’t have a ram and were therefore more manoevrable.
    2b)The Athenian ships constituted 2/3rds of the Hellenic fleet,with such
    ships and their inexperience coupled with their lack of maneuvrability
    agtainst their oponents,their only hope was to draw the Persians into the narrow straights of Salamis and destroy them with their weight and tactics.
    If the Hellenic ships were ‘nimble’ and the Persian ones less maneuvrable the tactics should have been to fight in the open sea with
    maneuvrable wings and act as ‘wolvehounds’,but tey were less maneuvreable and inexperienced for such kind of operations requiring
    timing and experience in complicated maneuvres.
    3) If the Persians had conquered Greece nothing could stop them in conquering Europe since they had the numbers,the wherewithal and the superior organization and doctrine;in that case a temporary loss of democracy(the Athenians had plans to move in Sicily in case of misfortune) would be the least of Europe’s worries….

    The defeat of the Spanish armada did not..shape… Europe;it may or may not have enabled England to expand in the sea,a small matter at that time,and not so important at that time since English seapower became manifest much later,but Gustave Adolf of Sweden and Cardinal Richelieu of France did shape Europe since both contributed
    decisively to destroy Spanish and Habsburg supremacy in Europe
    during the Thirty Years War.
    Trafalgar did not defeat Napoleon and didn’t shape Europe but Borodino and The Russian campaign did as well as the battle of Leipsig.
    I think you need to re-evaluate some of your battles in terms of consequences as well as in terms of facts mr Parker.

    Reply
  2. John Merkatatis

    I would be grateful if you were to comment mr parker to hear your comments mr Parker.

    Reply
  3. Sensemaker

    Calder’s action (name of a battle deemed to small in casualties to call a true battle) had already foiled Napoléon´s not particularly realistic plan to manoeuvre cleverly and get temporary naval supriority long enough to make an invason possible. British Naval superiority was pretty certain already before Trafalgar. Trafalgar just robbed them of any significant “fleet-in-being” turning superiority to supremacy. I would not call this a decisive battle in and of itself. Britain’s ability to maintain naval superiority was decisive to the Napoléon wars, but it certainly did not depend on a single battle. The British could have recovered even from a catastrophic loss at Trafalgar.

    Sensemaker

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  4. wie201

    It seems that all a nation has to do is cross the English Channel and victory is secured. Getting an army across the channel is hard enough. Conquering England afterward, after its culture was established, would have been more than most invading armies could tolerate. Spain and France, realistically, save for huge mistakes by the English military, would have stood little chance in the long run. The English culture and populace was largely pro-empire. They would not have given up simply because wet soldiers had landed on their shores.

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  5. bass_man86

    I would have to submit that the Battle of the Metaurus River is every bit as significant as the other battles because it was essentially the Gettysburg of the Second Punic War. Similarly, I have to opine that the Battle of Lepanto is even more significant than Trafalgar. If the Romans had been defeated at Metaurus and if the Christian League had been defeated at Lepanto the chances are quite good that the course of Western Civilization would have been dramatically altered. In the case of the former, the Greco-Roman concepts of representative government and jurisprudence may have died on the vine. In the case of the latter, we could have a largely Muslim Europe now as the Ottoman Sultan had made it quite clear that he was the true inheritor of Rome.

    Reply
  6. Kevinmeath

    This is a bit like picking the ‘worlds best football/rugby/soccer etc ‘ team opinions will always vary hugely.
    Muslim accounts make little of Tours (well it was a defeat so they are not likely to shout about it) but it possible that it was a just a recon in force so its repulse may have meant nothing.
    Trafalgar I would say is very important as it underlined that Britain was never going to be defeated. I would disagree that the Royal Navy of the day had better ships than the French/Spanish. Rather the complete dominance (only challanged by the tiny US navy) was because the crews were simply better. Their training and discipline was greater and a Royal Naval officer was promoted mainly (hey since when did money and influence ever, even now, hold back promotion) on performance and competence. They went to sea at a young age and were quite simply proffessionals. Poor people would not be officers because they did not have the education required to become a navigator but but officers from modest back grounds did achieve high rank eg Captain Bligh.

    Have to agree with Stalingrad– we in the west do not give enough credit to its importance. From WW II I would add the ‘Battle of Britain’ — meant war on two fronts for Germany.The Germans (with 20:20 Hindsight) had only a brief opportunity to invaded in 1940, the battle stopped this, however it was important because an invasion was stopped without armies/ships meeting it was all decided in the air. Would put forward Midway for much same reason. Surely Pearl Harbour would have to be on list?

    Kaisers battle 1918? fail to destroy British army lost Germany the war.

    From the ancient world the defeat of Varus in the Forests of Germany meant Germany stayed German not Roman. Would the Saxons (the English) have invaded the Roman province Britain if they were nice civilised Romans in the province of Germania?
    just some thoughts.

    Reply
  7. Christian

    You should change the tittle of the post, and write instead, Five Battles That Shaped Modern Europe from my point of view or from the point of view of a british. Mr Geoffrey Parker, you should read more about history in other books. Almost all the loses of the spanish armada were due to the bad weather and diseases. By the way, this battle didnt change anything in spain, not even in england. Search for the Drake-Norris Expedition or english armada one year later in 1589, maybe you have never heard about it, did you? . The Habsburg supremacy ended after the Thirty Years War not cuz the defeat of the spanish armada in Gravelines. What about the Battle of Cartagena de Indias in 1741, it didnt have any importance, of course not, your King even prohibited writting about this battle. If england would have won this battle, possibly america would have changed completely.
    Then, The battle of trafalgar didnt change anything, napoleon fought against europe not only against England, dont you remember? He wanted to conquer europe not the sea. Lepanto was much more of importance for europe than Trafalgar because of the strength of the ottoman empire at that time. You should be more objective and less patriotic.

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  8. TL Rouhier

    The French did not need the navy to invade England. They had the secret to an invasion, they just didn’t realize it. They had a steam tug. Had they understood what they had and built more of them all they had to do was wait for a calm day and have the tugs pull barges loaded with troops to England. The English navy would have been usless since it needed wind to move.

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  9. Luis

    Incredibly loop-sided account. Mr Parker is not a historian at all but an English supremacist. His account of the Great Strategy of Philip II is a joke. The Armada changed basically nothing in terms of world strategy, the really decisive battle in those years was the defeat of the English Counter Armada, also known as the Drake Norris Expedition, when the English miserably failed to destroy the remnants of the Spanish Navy, failed to conquer Lisbon and the Spanish fleets. It was, together with Vernon;s defeat in Cartagena de Indias one of the worst English-British defeats ever and it really changed the course of history since thanks to the Spanish victory the Spanish Empire lasted for the next two hundred years. Please, Mr. Parker, get back to school and stop distorting the historical record.

    Reply
  10. Larry C

    #5 Stalingrad. “At Stalingrad, the western Europeans lost the military initiative to the Soviet Union. They have never regained it.”
    I totally disagree with this statement. Westerners did lose the inititive. It was disallowed by the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences, when Roosevelt and Churchill literally gave Stalin all that part of eastern Europe that went behind the Iron Curtain. General Patton, if allowed would have taken Berlin and most likely Warsaw also but was not allowed.

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  11. Basque_Spaniard

    Why the battle of Cartagena de Indias of 1741 isn´t there???
    With this battle EEUU/USA exist nowadays. Furthermore, with this battle spain and France would have never helped in the americans in his independence.
    And of course, without USA, Germany and Japan would have won the Second World War.

    Reply
  12. Basque_Spaniard

    They are a lot of decisives battle. How about the battle of Krasny Bor?? If the spanish blue division have failed in this battle the second world war would have finished a year before.
    How about the war against Napoleon?? When spain declared war against France and invaded Rosellón?? If napoleon had been defeated in that battle Napoleon would be defeated very soon and spain will still control the spanish empire.
    There are a lot of decisive battle in history.

    Reply

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