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.