Top 10 Decisive Battles in History

Updated on June 28, 2019
Sudhir Devapalan profile image

I am a front-end developer by profession, but I enjoy writing articles about anything mysterious, interesting, and fascinating.

There are a large number of battles fought in human history. Most of these battles have less significance and does not impact a wide range of people. However, some battles would have changed the whole map of the world had it gone another way. Just imagine what would have happened if the Nazis had won WW2.

1. The Battle of Marathon - 490 BC

Battle of Marathon
Battle of Marathon

The Battle of Marathon was fought between the Persians under Darius-I and the Athenians during 490 BC. During the Ionian revolt, the Athens and Eritrea had sent troops to assist overthrow their Persian rulers. The forces had even managed to burn down the city of Sardis. Even though the revolt was swiftly crushed, Darius would never forget this insult. He would have one of his servants remind him, "Master, remember the Athenians" three times before dinner each day.

It was only a matter of time before the Persian empire descended on the Greeks for judgment. In September 490 BC, a Persian invasion force of 600 ships carrying around 25,000 infantry and 1000 cavalry landed on Greek soil just north of Athens. The Geeks had a force of about 10,000 Athenian and 1000 Plataean hoplites. The Greeks were outnumbered and facing certain annihilation.

The Greek generals hesitated to attack due to the situation they were in. However, a Greek general of the name Miltiades made a passionate plea to attack the Persians. He ordered the Greeks to charge straight into the line of the Persians. Their enemy even thought that the Greeks had gone mad to make such an attack. The Greek center was weakened but the flanks engulfed the Persians.

The battle ended when the Persian center broke ranks and fled for their ships. The retreating Persians were slaughtered by the Greeks and many drowned at sea. The Persians tried to sail around the Greek army to attack Athens but the Athenians made an incredible march at full speed to reach their city before the Persians. The Persian fleet was then forced to return home. The Persians lost about 6,400 dead whereas the Athenians lost 192 men and the Plataeans lost just 11 men.

This battle was significant because of the fact that Greek culture had survived due to this battle. If the Athenians had lost, then the Persians would have conquered all of Greece and Western culture would be so much different from what it is now. The Greeks now knew that they could defend themselves from any invader. They would soon be tested again at the battle of Salamis.

2. The Battle of Salamis - 480 BC

The Battle of Salamis
The Battle of Salamis

Darius was not going to give up on his revenge on the Greeks. So after the Persian loss in the Battle of Marathon, he immediately planned for another invasion. However, his invasion was postponed by an Egyptian uprising. Darius then died before he could carry out his plans on the conquest of Greece. The task was then passed on to his son Xerxes-I who quickly crushed the Egyptian revolt and began his preparations for invading Greece.

Xerxes bridged the Hellespont so that his troops could cross it to reach Europe and a canal was dug across the isthmus of Mount Athos. Both of these were exceptional instances of engineering ingenuity which were born from ambition that no one else could have imagined at the time. The stage was now set for another clash between Greece and the Persian empire. This time, however, the battle will take place at sea.

The Greeks had a total of around 371 ships whereas the Persians had around 1207 ships. The heavily outnumbered Greeks would now face the Persian armada in the straits of Salamis. The Athenian general Themistocles persuaded the Greeks to engage the Persian fleet to decisively beat them. Xerxes was also eager for battle and took the bait. His fleet followed the Greek ships into the straits of Salamis in order to trap them.

Once inside the narrow straits, the Persian numbers didn’t matter and their ships could not maneuver. The Greeks then formed up and struck the disorganized Persians. The largest naval battle was now turning into a slaughter. The Persians lost about 200 - 300 ships whereas the Greeks lost a mere 40 ships. The Persians were on the retreat from this point forward and Greek civilization was saved.

3. The Battle of Gaugamela - 331 BC

The Battle of Gaugamela
The Battle of Gaugamela

This is the third battle involving the Persian Empire and the Greeks. However, this time it was the Greeks who were on the offensive under Alexander the Great of Macedonia. The Battle of Gaugamela or Battle of Arbela was the final decisive battle which handed Alexander control over the Persian Empire by decisively defeating Darius-III.

The Macedonians under Alexander had about 47,000 troops whereas the Persians had about 90,000 to 120,000. The Persians heavily outnumbered Alexander’s forces but they were very low on morale after a string of defeats. The Macedonians were elite warriors and under the leadership of Alexander, they were unstoppable.

After the humiliating defeat in the battle of Issus Darius’s family was captured which forced him to engage Alexander in one final decisive battle. Alexander knew that his forces were outnumbered and they could be flanked so he kept his infantry at both his flanks at an angle to prevent a flanking maneuver.

Alexander asked his phalanx to advance in the center and rode along with his companion cavalry to the edge of his right flank. He planned on drawing out much of the Persian cavalry so that he could create a gap which he could exploit in the center. When Alexander charged the center of the Persian line which was already facing the Macedonian Phalanx they broke down.

Darius was on the verge of being cut off and seeing this he fled the battlefield followed by his army. With their leader gone the Persian line broke. Alexander could have followed Darius to finish him off but his left flank under Parmenion was under heavy pressure and he had to rush to relieve his forces. Darius was then murdered by one of his satraps ending the Persian Empire. The Persians lost 40,000 - 90,000 troops whereas Alexander is said to have lost only around 100 - 1,000 troops.

4. The Battle of Cannae - 216 BC

The Battle of Cannae
The Battle of Cannae

The Battle of Cannae was fought between Hannibal of Carthage and the Romans during the Second Punic War. The battle would be remembered forever for its tactical brilliance and its tactics would be followed by military generals even after centuries. This would be one of the worst defeats for the Roman empire which almost brought Rome to its knees.

Hannibal had crossed the Alps and threatened Rome with his huge army. After the battle of Trebia and Lake Trasimene in which Rome was defeated soundly, they avoided direct battle and built up their army. But the mere presence of Hannibal in Roman soil was an insult to Rome and something needed to be done before all their allies defected.

Hannibal had at his disposal 40,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalries. The Romans managed to raise the largest army they had ever built with 80,000 infantry and 6,400 cavalries. Having outnumbered Hannibal almost 2 to 1 the Romans were confident in engaging him in battle. The Roman army was under the command of consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro.

On the 2nd of August 216 BC Hannibal offered battle and the Romans obliged. The Romans deployed their army in the conventional fashion, infantry in the center and cavalry on both flanks. They concentrated their army in the center hoping to break through Hannibal’s lines with sheer numbers. Hannibal, on the other hand, placed his elite troops on the flanks and intentionally weakened his center to draw in the Romans.

When the two armies clashed Hannibal’s center slowly began to retreat back under the weight of the Roman onslaught. The Romans sensing victory put all their troops into the attack. The troops had actually retreated back on Hannibal’s orders and now the stronger flank of the Carthaginians reeled inward engulfing the Roman army.

Meanwhile, the Carthaginian cavalry had successfully chased their Roman counterparts out of the battlefield and now hit the Romans in the rear. The Romans were caught in the first double envelopment tactic in history. With no way to run they were slaughtered where they stood. The destruction of the Roman army was complete.

Around 70,000 Romans were killed and 10,000 more were captured. Carthage lost only 5,700 troops. Rome was devastated and ordered a national day of mourning. Not a single person in Rome was there who didn’t have a relative who died in Cannae. Rome lost one-fifth of its population over 17 years. This, however, did not finish Rome off as Hannibal had hoped and they would be back for revenge soon.

5. The Battle of Tours - 732 AD

The Battle of Tours
The Battle of Tours

The Battle of Tours also known as the Battle of Poitiers was fought between the Frankish and Burgundian forces under Charles Martel against the Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi. The Battle took place between the cities of Poitiers and Tours on 10 October 732 AD. The Muslims were rampaging across Europe and this was the battle which turned the tide of the war for the Europeans.

The quick tactics of the Muslim horse archers could not be countered by the European armies who were burdened with heavy armor. The Muslims had to be stopped now or they would overrun the whole of Christian Europe. The Frankish kingdom under Charles Martel was the only obstacle that stood in front of the Muslims.

The number of troops that faced each other varies a lot. The Franks had about 15,000 to 75,000 troops whereas the Muslims had between 60,000 to 400,000 cavalry. Charles Martel arranged his troops in a defensive square. The Muslims had to charge uphill and fight a battle which was fought in the terms of their enemy.

The Muslim cavalry charged multiple times but the Franks stood their ground. A part of Charles’ army began to harass the Muslim baggage train and this made part of their army retreat. When Rahman tried to bring some order to the chaos he was surrounded and killed by the Franks. The Muslims did not renew the battle and retreated and Charles earned the title Martel in this battle which means ‘Hammer’.

6. The Battle of Agincourt - 1415 AD

The Battle of Agincourt
The Battle of Agincourt

The Battle of Agincourt was part of the Hundred years war between England and France. In 1413 King Henry-V invaded France to claim the French crown with about 30,000 men. Fighting and disease hit his army hard and during the Battle of Agincourt, he had only around 6,000 to 9,000 men. Most of them were longbows and about ⅙ of them were dismounted knights and heavy infantry.

The English army was weary and retreating to Calais but their path was blocked by a large French army. The French had at their disposal about 12,000 to 36,000 troops. The majority of the army was comprised of heavily armored knights. The French also had infantry and crossbowmen. They outnumbered Henry’s men by a huge margin and the English were stuck on foreign soil with no supplies.

The more the English waited, the bigger the French army would get and so Henry offered battle. The English deployed with their longbows at their flanks with their men at arms and knights in the center. The English were positioned on a muddy wooded hilltop with the forest on both sides preventing the French from doing any flanking maneuvers. Till this point in history, the role of the archer was ignored. The chronicler Edmond de Dyntner even stated that there were “ten French nobles against one English” by completely ignoring the English longbows.

The terrain favored the English longbows as the French had to charge up muddy hilltop while constantly under fire. The English also planted stakes on the ground as protection from the cavalry charge. As the French finally attacked, they were showered with volley after volley of arrows. After reaching the top, the French could not go through the wooden stakes planted on the ground and were shot at point-blank range.

As the bodies piled up in front of them the other French units had an even more difficult time walking around or over their fallen comrades. The initial cavalry charge also churned up the mud and many of the French drowned in the mud under the weight of their own armor. Several repeated attempts could not break the English lines and the French had to give up their attempts with heavy losses.

Since the English had very few soldiers they could not keep the prisoners which they had captured and brutally slaughtered them. Around 1,500 to 11,000 French were killed and about 2,000 were captured. The English lost only about 112 - 600 men. This was an amazing tactical victory for Henry but he chose to retreat home rather than press the attack. This battle, however, asserted the dominance of the English Longbows and their effectiveness when used in large numbers.

7. The Battle of Waterloo - 1815 AD

The Battle of Waterloo
The Battle of Waterloo

After Napoleon’s return to power in March 1815 the Seventh coalition was formed to overthrow him. The Coalition forces were divided in two. One force was led by the Duke of Wellington whereas the Prussian army was led by Blucher. Napoleon knew that the best chance he had of winning was to engage these two armies separately before they had the chance to unite.

Napoleon moved swiftly and engaged the Prussians in the battle of Ligny and defeated them. Wellington was then forced to take up defensive positions near Waterloo where the final battle would take place. He had about 68,000 troops at his disposal and was facing a French army of 73,000 men. Wellington was however promised support by Blucher who had 50,000 men and was regrouping for a counter-attack.

Wellington needed to buy time for the Prussians to arrive and held his ground. The British coalition forces fought hard and repulsed all French attacks. But in the end, they were at the edge of their ropes. Just at that moment Napoleon spotted Prussian troops arriving at the battlefield and had to send a part of his troops to defend against them.

As a last resort, he ordered his Imperial Guard to charge Wellington’s troops. The coalition forces which were hiding under the ridge now stood up and fired at the French Imperial Guard in point blank range. The Prussian troops now attacked the French from the other side as well. This broke the French army and the battle was over. The French lost 41,000 troops whereas the coalition forces lost 24,000. Napoleon was captured and exiled to the island of Saint Helena.

8. The Battle of the Atlantic - 1939 - 1945 AD

The Battle of the Atlantic
The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic is more significant than the Battle of Britain in many ways. If the British were to lose World War-2 it would have been due to this crucial battle on the seas. Britain is an island nation and most of its supplies are brought in through shipping. The Germans knew that and they attempted to perform a blockade of Britain by sinking merchant shipping by using their surface raiders and U-boats.

Churchill on the Battle of the Atlantic, “The only thing that ever really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril.”

Due to the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, the German navy was very weak with no aircraft carriers and very few ships. Compared to them the British had the largest navy in the world. The Germans could never hope to challenge the British navy head on so they resorted to guerrilla tactics.

Although the Germans did not have many ships they had excellent submarines. The U-boats wreaked havoc in the allied shipping lines. The British needed supplies to continue the war effort and all Germany had to do was to sink more vessels than the British could build and eventually they would starve. The Battle began on September 3, 1939, and would be the longest most decisive battle fought lasting 5 years 8 months and 5 days.

During the early years the U-boats were sinking many merchant ships and so the allies decided to escort the merchant ships in convoys. The Germans then grouped their U-boats into “wolf packs” to hunt down the convoys. Then more countermeasures such as depth charges and more advanced radars were equipped for destroyers to hunt down the submarines. The Germans retaliated with more advanced submarines with lower radar signatures and capable of staying underwater longer.

In the end, the Germans could not sink enough merchant shipping to make Britain surrender. After the entry of US into the war, the production capacity of the allies was just too much. The Battle of the Atlantic had cost the allies 3,500 merchant ships and 175 warships. The Germans and Italians had lost 783 submarines and 47 warships. But Britain held on and survived the U-boat peril.

9. The Battle of Stalingrad - 1942 AD

The Battle of Stalingrad
The Battle of Stalingrad

The Battle of Stalingrad is one of the most iconic battles of World War 2. This was the battle in which the tide of battle changed in the Eastern front. The German juggernaut was finally stopped in its tracks and from this point onward it would have to fight a losing battle. Fighting the never-ending flow of Russian troops and the onset of winter had taken its toll on the German army and the myth of German invulnerability was shattered.

On July 28, 1942, Stalin issued the order no. 227 which is famous for the line, “Not a step back!”

The Battle started on August 23, 1942, and ended on 2nd February 1943 with the destruction of the German 6th Army. The city held a good strategic value and it held Stalin’s name. This meant that capturing the city would deal a heavy blow to the morale of Soviet troops. So Stalin made sure that the city would not fall into enemy hands. This was one of the bloodiest battles of WW2 costing the lives of millions.

The German army made good progress in the early stages of the battle. They occupied more than half of the city and air bombing had destroyed most of the city. However, fierce resistance and sniping operations from the Russians was having devastating consequences for the German army. They were unable to take full control over the city before winter set in.

The Soviets were well prepared for the winter whereas the Germans were not. On 19 November 1942, the Soviets launched Operation Uranus for the liberation of the city of Stalingrad. The German 6th Army was surrounded in the city and their situation became dire. However, Hitler ordered the German 6th Army to not break out and stay within the city promising to send reinforcements and supplies.

The reinforcements never came and on 2 February 1943, the Germans surrendered to the Red Army. The Battle had cost the Germans and their allies over 647,300 troops whereas the Soviets lost over 1.1 million. Stalingrad would be the symbolic battle which asserted the dominance of the Red Army. They would not take a step back from this point onwards!

10. The Battle of Iwo Jima - 1945 AD

The Battle of Iwo Jima
The Battle of Iwo Jima

The Battle of Iwo Jima takes precedence over the dropping of the atomic bombs itself because of the fact that it was this battle that eventually led to the decision of unleashing the nuclear weapons. The Americans realized that if they were to capture a Japanese island they will have to kill every single person in it and they would pay a huge price for each step they take in the Japanese homeland.

The island of Iwo Jima is barren and has no industrial significance. However, it was within the range of the Japanese mainland for the American fighters. The Americans could use this island’s airfields as a base for operations against Japan itself. So Tadamichi Kuribayashi was tasked to defend the island to the last man.

The island was defended by just over 20,000 Japanese troops and 23 tanks. The Americans had 110,000 marines for the assault supported by over 500 ships. With no naval or air cover, the island was doomed from the start and there was no doubt in the outcome of the battle. The Japanese garrison, however, refused to surrender and the Americans had to take it by force.

On 19 February 1945 they Americans landed on Iwo Jima. Kuribayashi had asked the Japanese not to fire until the Americans had landed and so they had no idea where the Japanese were. This saved all the defenses of the island. When the fighting started, it was fierce. Progress was measured in yards and the Americans became pinned down at the beaches. Capturing Mount Suribachi was one of the toughest tasks and was nicknamed the Meat Grinder hill.

When the Americans finally did capture Iwo Jima they had lost 6,821 killed and 19,217 wounded. The Japanese had lost about 18,000 dead and only 216 were captured alive! The Americans had learned one thing for sure. The Japanese were not gonna surrender easily and they were going to make the Americans pay dearly for each step they take in their homeland. This was the reason which ultimately led to the dropping of the Atomic bombs.

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    © 2018 Sudhir

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