A History of War in 100 Battles
A History of War in 100 Battles
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A History of War in 100 Battles

Richard Overy

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📖 eBook - ePub

A History of War in 100 Battles

Richard Overy

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Illustrated edition – recommended for viewing on a colour tablet.This book introduces readers to a whole range of military history with all the drama, dangers, horrors and excitement that we associate with Stalingrad or the Somme. Battles are acute moments of history, and through them we can understand how warfare and world history have evolved.

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© Ann Ronan Picture Library/Heritage Images/Getty
The Death of Nelson, by the Victorian artist Daniel Maclise, captures the moment that Admiral Horatio Nelson was fatally wounded by a shot from a French sharpshooter at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, in which the British Navy was victorious over a French–Spanish fleet. Despite dying early in the battle, Nelson’s leadership was crucial to its outcome.
In our current age, ‘leadership’ is taught as a classroom subject, as if everyone could become a leader if they paid enough attention and did their homework. The history of warfare through the ages should be enough to disabuse us of this illusion. The quality of leadership has varied widely in battle. The fact of command does not turn an indifferent officer into a true leader, any more than a leadership seminar today can turn someone into a leader of tomorrow. Indeed, it is possible for a leader to emerge quite independent of the formal military structures, as the success of Spartacus as leader of the slave rebellion against Rome, or the victory of the iconic Che Guevara in the Cuban Revolution, have both demonstrated. Successful military leaders are usually defined by their successes, but in many conflicts this means success on the battlefield, once, twice or many times, rather than success in war. Napoleon Bonaparte and Erich von Manstein are two such figures whose qualities of leadership are not in doubt, with an impressive list of battle successes, but both faced historical forces that doomed their efforts to eventual failure.
What, then, defines leadership in battle if it is not ultimate strategic or political triumph? This is a difficult question to answer because the nature of battlefield leadership has changed considerably through time. When rulers and generals led their men in person, leadership was based partly on the bravery and fighting skill they displayed as an example to their men. When a leader fell or was killed, the effect on those fighting around him could be disastrous, as it was in the medieval battle of Legnano when the German king, Frederick Barbarossa, fell from his horse in the fighting and disappeared from view. Leaders who ran risks were respected; those who sat prudently on a nearby hill or in their tent relied on lesser commanders to win the loyalty of their troops and sustain their will to fight. In modern wars, the leaders seldom shared the dangers of battle and could be remote from the action. Their skill lay in working out the operational strategy that would secure victory, and their qualities were managerial as well as physical. Even then, knowledge that the leader was there, in contact, was still important. When Napoleon retired hurriedly from the disastrous campaign in Russia in 1812, he doomed his remaining, hopeless troops.
The most distinguished battlefield leaders have been those who combined a grasp of operational reality, a willingness to be imaginative with new technology and tactics, a courage and confidence communicated to those around them, and a willingness to share the dangers of combat. When Alexander the Great went calmly to his tent to sleep on the night before the Battle of Gaugamela, his nervous officers were uncertain how to react. Alexander assured them that victory was certain and, according to the ancient accounts, slept soundly. The overwhelming majority of battles through recorded history suggest that soldiers and sailors fought on the day for their leader rather than for any great ideal, whether religious, political or national. This explains how fighters from very different ethnic or cultural or national communities, often pressed involuntarily into service, could still fight side-by-side against the common foe. The battlefield was a community all of its own in which leaders of whatever kind played a decisive part in holding that community together.
© The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
On 16 June 1743, British king George II, then nearly sixty years old, led an army of British and German troops against the French at the Battle of Dettingen. This was the last time a British monarch personally led an army into battle.
It is obvious in any history of battles that leadership is not a universal quality among military leaders, and many of those on the losing side were poor planners, with little grasp of the battlefield, were overconfident or arrogant in their assessment of the enemy, or were simply lacking in the necessary courage and optimism their forces needed. Such leaders can be found in many of the battles selected here. On the other hand, it was possible to have two leaders of evident quality pitted against each other, where only one could win. The Battle of Hastings perhaps comes closest to that model. It would be difficult to fault Harold for what went wrong that day and no-one would consider it a historical anomaly had he won the field rather than William. This is a reminder that even leadership was seldom enough on its own, which is why innovation, deception, raw courage or good fortune were there to supplement it.
In October 331 BCE, Alexander the Great destroyed in a single day the power of the largest empire in the Middle East, that of the Persian ruler Darius III. Success had followed Alexander since he took the throne of Macedonia in 336 BCE, but victory over Persia and its allies sealed his reputation as a military genius aged twenty-five.
Alexander succeeded to the throne following the murder of his father, Philip. Within five years, he had confronted the Persian Empire and its wide network of satrapies (governors) in Anatolia, the coastal communities along the eastern Mediterranean littoral and in Egypt. He seems to have been an instinctive battlefield commander, though aware of the lessons to be drawn from triumphs of the past and the strategic practices of his father. In 333 BCE, he inflicted a heavy defeat on the Persian emperor at the narrow coastal plain around Issus in northern Syria, but failed to capture him. Alexander had ambitions to become master not only of Western Asia and Greece, but of the entire area the wealthy warrior empire of Persia had ruled for centuries. In 331 BCE, he set out from Egypt to track Darius down somewhere in present-day Iraq, determined it seems to inflict a decisive defeat on the Persians. He went armed with news, so the classical historians asserted, from the oracle at Siwah in Egypt’s Western Desert that he might be the son of Zeus, chief of the Greek gods. This certainly might explain the remarkable confidence that Alexander displayed in the final showdown against a Persian army at least four times larger than his own.
© Maciej Szczepanczyk
The Battle of Gaugamela is illustrated in this tapestry, based on a painting by the 17th-century French artist, Charles Le Brun (1619–90). Le Brun undertook a series of paintings in the 1660s and 1670s depicting the triumphs of Alexander the Great, as homage to his wealthy patron, King Louis XIV.
The Macedonian force was still large – 40,000 foot soldiers and 7,000 cavalry – and its movement across hundreds of miles of territory was an organizational feat in its own right. Alexander crossed from Egypt to Syria, where he lingered for some weeks, waiting to hear if Darius was preparing his own army for combat. When news reached him in mid-July of the Persian emperor’s whereabouts, Alexander led his army towards the River Euphrates, intent on his showdown. On the opposite side there were 3,000 of Darius’s cavalry under the command of Mazaeus, but they withdrew southwards, scorching the earth as they went. This was to force Alexander to take the longer northern route past the Armenian mountains then down into the valley of the Tigris, where Darius was already preparing his battlefield near the village of Gaugamela. Stakes and snares were set to halt a cavalry charge; the ground was flattened to enable the 200 Persian chariots armed with sharp scythes to run straight and fast at the ranks of the enemy. Ancient authors talked of one million men in the Persian army, but the number is likely to have been perhaps 200,000, of whom 30,000 were cavalry drawn from all over the empire. Fifteen Indian elephants were to guard the centre of the Persian line.
Alexander captured Persians sent to reconnoitre his force and learned exactly where Darius was. On 29 September, he ordered his army to march off in battle order for a possible night attack on the enemy; sensing their fear as they sighted the 100,000 camp fires of the enemy host, Alexander called a halt on the heights overlooking the ‘Camel’s Hump’, the hill from which Gaugamela took its name. He spent the day exhorting his troops and inspecting the prepared battleground. In the evening he made a sacrifice in honour of Fear, to propitiate the emotion. Then he worked out his battle plan in detail with his commanders, compensating for the strength of the enemy by unconventional means.
On the following morning, 1 October, Alexander woke late, well rested and confident of the outcome – a mood that was intended to inspire confidence in his men. His complex battle-line was drawn up: on the left, a large body of horse and shield-bearers under Parmenion; in the centre, 10,000 of the highly-trained Foot Companions in a phalanx armed with the formidable two-handed 6-metre (20-foot) sarissa spears, flanked by 3,000 shield-bearers (light infantry); and sloping to the right, creating an angled front, Alexander with his cavalry, fronted by archers and slingers. On each wing a ‘flap’ of cavalry was attached, among whom were concealed heavily-armed infantry, which could fall back to protect the rest from encirclement. Behind these were 20,000 reserve infantry, which could be moved forwards to create a large protected oblong.
Managing such a complex battlefield was difficult, as information could only be sent by messenger or trumpet, and thick dust was thrown up by the horses wheeling around on the sandy earth. Alexander’s strategy carried risks should any of the units misunderstand their orders or fail to hold fast. Darius had a simpler plan: to send forward his much larger bodies of cavalry, to decimate the Foot Companions with the scythed chariots, and to scare off the Greek cavalry with the elephants. Around mid-day, Alexander’s army moved onto the prepared battlefield in tight order. What happened next relies on accounts whose authors had a vested interest in painting Alexander’s achievements in glowing colours, but the main shape of the battle seems clear. Alexander moved his cavalry forwards but to the right to tempt the Persian left to follow him, thus exposing the centre and opening up a gap in the Persian line. On rougher ground, the Persian Scythian cavalry charged at Alexander, but were caught up among foot soldiers and archers. Darius released the chariots, but they were subjected to an accurate volley of arrows and sling-shots; those that reached the Macedonian lines were let through, then slaughtered by the soldiers behind. The rest of Alexander’s line was subject to heavy cavalry attack, and might well have collapsed, but Alexander, looking for the gap caused in the Persian centre, wheeled round and charged directly at Darius and his entourage, avoiding the elephants. The Macedonian Foot Companions with their fearsome sarissas and their cry of ‘alalalalai’ surged forwards and Darius, sensing his extreme danger, fled from the scene.
The flight of the emperor seems to have infected much of the rest of the Persian army, which melted away to the south and east. Large numbers of horsemen had succeeded in cutting past Parmenion and rampaged forward to seize Alexander’s baggage camp, where, to their surprise, they met the 20,000 reserves, who overwhelmed and destroyed them. Alexander rode off after Darius but his rearguard fought a ferocious defence and by the time the battlefield could be left behind and the hunt begun, Darius was already far away, fleeing to the mountains and the safety of the city of Ecbatana (Hamadan). The Persian emperor had overestimated the power of sheer numbers and fought a predictable battle; Alexander, by contrast, had made the most of his limited numbers, using them to unhinge the enemy at a crucial moment by careful exploitation of combined-arms tactics. Victory at Gaugamela brought him a reputation in the classical world to match the mythic stories of Achilles or of Hercules. Alexander moved on to Babylon and then the Persian capital at Susa. In so doing, he became, it has been estimated, the richest man in the known world.
The Battle of Cannae is one of the most famous battles of all time. The catastrophic defeat of the Roman army by Hannibal’s smaller force has been regularly invoked to describe a particularly dramatic or heavy defeat. The myth that surrounded Hannibal as a general who carried victory with him wherever he went has lived down the ages. Hannibal’s own presence at Cannae and his operational genius explain an outcome that might well have gone another way.
The North African empire of Carthage dominated present-day Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and areas of conquest as far as Spain. The rising might of Rome in the third century BCE challenged Carthaginian ambitions and led to a series of Punic Wars between the two rival powers. In the second of these, at some point in 218 BCE, Hannibal persuaded the Carthaginian senate to let him set off on an epic journey across Spain, present-day France and over the Alps into Italy. What his ultimate objective was remains unclear, but he took with him an invasion force of probably 100,000 men, many of them Spanish mercenaries, and a huge train of supplies and animals, including his famous elephants. The journey itself undermined the scale of his ambitions. By the time the Alps were reached, he was down to 50,000 men; after crossing the mountains in autumn snow, he arrived in the northern Po Valley with only 20,000 foot soldiers and 6,000 cavalry to invade the Roman heartland. Bolstered by Gauls who joined his cause, Hannibal meted out heavy defeats on the Roman armies sent north to intercept him. As he moved south, Rome was gripped by panic. Hannibal’s military reputation inflated the threat out of all proportion. Lacking a secure base, living off the land, and not entirely sure of his Gallic allies, Hannibal chose to inflict on Rome what damage he could while himself avoiding defeat.
In 216 BCE, Hannibal moved into Apulia in south-central Italy and in June that year set up his camp at the hilltop city of Cannae, guarding the route to the rich grain-lands of the south. The Romans had begun to create a force to eliminate the threat from the invader. Four new legions were raised, bringing the Romans’ strength to around 40,000 men with 40,000 allied soldiers, but only a small number of experienced cavalry. The two Roman consuls for 216 BCE, Gaius Terentius Varro and Lucius Aemilus Paullus, led the new army south to meet Hannibal, whose forces they probably outnumbered by two to one. At the beginning of August, the Roman army arrived at the flat plain in front of Cannae. As was customary, the consuls took turns to command on alternate days; Varro was the more audacious and on 2 August 216 BCE he led his force, spread out over nearly a mile, onto the plain to do battle. Accounts of the battle suggest that the infantry were packed between fifty and seventy ranks thick. The Roman cavalry were on one wing and the allied cavalry on the other, with a river protecting one flank. Roman battlefield strategy was to smash the enemy by sheer weight of numbers.
© Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
A nineteenth-century engraving of the Battle of Cannae (216 BCE) shows Hannibal on horseback while his Carthaginian and allied soldiers strip the dead Romans of anything valuable. The battle was one of the most comprehensive defeats inflicted in the whole history of war.
At Cannae, Hannibal showed his exceptional grasp of the battlefield. He formed his infantry into a shallow force, weaker in the centre, with his veteran Libyans on both flanks. On one wing were Numidian cavalry, on the other Spanish and Gallic, 10,000 experienced horsemen who greatly outnumbered the 6,000 Roman horses. His infantry were ordered to form a bulge outwards with the object of enticing the Roman legions into the arc, which would then bend inwards, giving the wings the chance to encircle and annihilate the enemy while the cavalry defeated the enemy horsemen and turned to attack the Roman army from the rear. It was a textbook operation and functioned like clockwork. The Romans pressed forward into the yielding ...

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APA 6 Citation
Overy, R. (2014). A History of War in 100 Battles ([edition unavailable]). HarperCollins Publishers. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/702172/a-history-of-war-in-100-battles-pdf (Original work published 2014)
Chicago Citation
Overy, Richard. (2014) 2014. A History of War in 100 Battles. [Edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers. https://www.perlego.com/book/702172/a-history-of-war-in-100-battles-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Overy, R. (2014) A History of War in 100 Battles. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/702172/a-history-of-war-in-100-battles-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Overy, Richard. A History of War in 100 Battles. [edition unavailable]. HarperCollins Publishers, 2014. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.
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