Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Great Battles Vote

The National Army Museum is running an on-line poll to find Britain's Greatest Battle. Interesting question that in many requires further explanation. It made me recall a conversation with my history teacher (shout out to Mr T!) when I was 13 or 14 on the same subject, - what makes a great battle? Great leadership, high body count?

Talking of "Great" doesn't mean most significant or most important. On that subject it is hard not to argue that Hastings is the most important battle in the last 2,000 years of English history, if not British. Still, this poll only covers the last 400 years as it's abgout battles fought by the British Army which in this context traces its lineage back to the New Model Army, so it might be fair enough to leave it out.

Anyhow, they've posted a list of 20 from which to chose. Here's my view on the battles in the list.

Top choice for many as they'll have actually heard of it, and it pitches one of our greatest captains against the mighty Napoleon. Disappointed on a recent check with my office colleagues who thought it either took place in 1796 or 1856, but they'd heard of it none the less.

Let us put on one side for a moment that the battle is actually won by the Prussians you can't deny its historical significance as Napoleon is finally put out of Europe's misery. Given the army he was given, - a rag tag alliance, mostly untested in battle - the battle is a brilliant defensive action where Wellington makes the best of a poor hand. That makes it his crowning achievement and it was recognised at the time as an iconic event. 

Living just up the road from the battle site and also being deeply interested in the ECW this has to feature on my list. Not the tactically most brilliant battle, but for England a battle of great significance under the command of one of our most overlooked commanders. Fought, on the side of Parliament, by a genuine army of the people and representing the overthrow of unelected tyranny. It continues to exercise a hold over us, and a visit to the site makes you wonder at how Englishman could have fought Englishman in such serene surroundings. Might vote for it just to encourage more people to pay attention to the ECW in general. I think that you might consider Worcester, Preston & Dunbar to be equally important as they were essential to the preservation of the Commonwealth.

The defining battle of our fathers' generation. A bold and imaginative concept, planned from the ground up in the finest detail (Mulberry Harbours, PLUTO, swimming tanks) and instrumental in pulling down an evil regime. Without D-Day Europe would have ended up being overrun by the Soviet Union, so you have deliverance from two dictatorships for the price of one.(NB Note I have a family interest in this battle/campaign as my father & one of my uncles took part in it).

Coming at the end of a brilliant strategic manouevre and delivering a decisive victory in military terms over his opponent it showed that John Churchill was one of the leading soldiers of his day. It combines great tactical acumen with some hard fighting where the British forces, together with their allies, put to flight the largest and most highly regarded army of the time. Only battle on this list to have a palace named after it.

The decisive battle of a forgotten campaign, organised by our greatest general of the Second World War. The turning point of the war in Burma it shouldn't be overlooked that this was a triumph for the Indian Army as well. As a combination of organisation, tactical skill and damn hard fighting by the man on the ground this is a tragically overlooked victory. It would be at the top of my list of British Army achievements in WW2. (NB Another battle with a family connection I think as I had an uncle in the XIVth Army).

Rorke's Drift
A great movie, but not a great battle. The number of VCs represent Victorian England's embarrasment at Isandalwana as much as the heroism at Rorke's Drift.

Iconic in popular memory without a doubt. Most families in this country will have been touched by it (my Grandfather was wounded on day 1). Notable as the first real massed, industrial scale, battle organised by the British in history.  As noted by Paddy Griffith in his book on western front battle tactics most accounts of the Somme don't get past the first day. Saw the introduction of the tank and great leaps forwards in tactics, we've ever had as well as the blooding of the first true citizens' army in our history. Lead to a social revolution in the army and political reform at home. Won't win the poll, but its appearance is important as part of the rehabilitation of the British Great War military reputation

Clearly not one for the Scots amongst us, although many probably need reminding that Lowlanders often looked fondly towards England when the Highlander was about. Not the cleverest of battles all round, but one of the few on the list that was a truly decisive campaign winner. I suppose you have to applaud the training and preparation before hand (bayonet the man attacking your neighbour, - requires a lot of trust as well as training). Very important as it saved us finally from the Stuarts ever getting back on the throne who were without doubt the most unmitigated disaster as Royal Dynasty. They must have been bad, - we preferred to hold on to some Germans instead.

Actually, the more I write about it, the higher up my list it goes!

Musa Qala
I sort of understand why this battle is here, - the purpose of the poll is to cover 400 years of British Army history, and this is from our largest, most recent deployment. Having read the account on the website  the heroism of the men involved is incredible, - it is a real soldiers' battle. In that way it bears comparson with the siege of the Lucknow residency in the Indian Mutiny, or Rorke's Drift. But one of our greatest battles?

Clive of India....driving rain and a continent delivered into British hands for nearly 200 years. Given the importance of Indian culture to our way of life it is difficult to fault its inclusion in the list. As with many colonial victories the numbers don't seem to stack up. An army the size of a scout pack defeats an army half the size of Manchester. Well, maybe I exaggerate a bit, but you have to wonder what was wrong with the opposition some times.

The First World War battle in the east we should focus on rather than Gallipoli.A triumph of manouevre and skill at arms which got us Palestine and the French Syria. It shows British generals in a better light than the popular view obtained from looking at the Western Front and so pretty much ignored entirely in popular culture. For that reason alone we should probably all vote for it.

El Alamein
Monty's finest hour, and our first real victory of the war, although I've always been rather impressed with the Battle of Keren when looking at the desert campaigns. In this list, however, I would place it behind both D-Day and Imphal/Kohima. it would certainly be easier to wargame than the latter. The Legacy section of the NAM page on this battle does refer to the battle cementing Monty's reputation, which leads us to his role in Normandy and Market Garden.

I really can't see why this is on the list, unless it is to bring in the American tourists.

As with Lexington/Concord I can't see why this is here. The ANZACs fought brilliantly and Monash's reputation was on the rise thereafter, but it isn't clear how you would attach great to this battle without following it with the word "disaster". If you wanted to include more than one battle from the First World War you would have been better to have included Cambrai and the last 100 days. 

Imjin River
Oops....Korean war. On very dodgy ground here as my knowledge is entirely based upon watching the M*A*S*H TV series. My checking of the details indicates it was very much a corner of a very big foreign field where our forces fought.I can only assume the battle is here as they've tried to pick one from each major conflict in the period.

Quebec, - not one of the battles I know a lot about. There's been a lot of focus on it at CoW in the last year or so, sessions I have generally missed.  However every schoolboy (well, every schoolboy who is over 50) thrills to the tale of the scaling of the Heights of Abraham and how the rising star of the British Army died in his moment of victory. Epic stuff, and well worth its place on the list as a combination of good generalship and the sterling qualities of the ordinary fighting man.

Wellington's first and greatest offensive battle in the Peninsula. He sees an opportunity, seizes it and pulls the French army to pieces. Doesn't end the Peninsula War, alas, but really enhances Wellington as an all round general. He's also the only general in this list more than once, so he must be good. Never going to outshine Waterloo, however, where he did more with less against the greatest general of the time.

Everything I know about the Sikh wars I know from reading Flashman. The Sikhs were the most formidable army the British faced on the sub continent, if not in their colonial acquisitions full stop. A well conducted campaign, with some striking victories, the main outcome was adding some really good troops to the EIC & British armies. If this is the token 19th century colonial battle in the list it's not a bad choice, although I think that Tel-el-Kebir should give it a run for its money, as should Havelock's battles during the Indian Mutiny.

Balaclava? Balaklava!!!! No matter how you spell it, it hardly ranks up there with military works of genius. Another battle where the sheer grit of the fighting man saves the bacon of badly thought through plans at a senior level. When you compare this action with some of those fought in the Indian Mutiny just a few years' later, - well see my remarks above about Henry Havelock, one of our most unfairly overlooked military leaders.

Goose Green
What was a Lt Col doing in the front line? this is the only battle on the list I remember hearing on the news first hand, and it was the key battle of the Falklands War. It's another great soldiers' battle, where victory came from the sheer grit of the fighting man, rather than any tactical genius. As such it can't really be regarded as Great. 

Anyway, that's my take on it all. Now go and vote at the link below.


  1. It's an interesting list... the problem of course is defining "greatest", they give you some idea's but different people will give different weightings to them..... For me, the clincher is whether the battle resulted in a sea change.... so, as much as I love the period, I can't see Blenheim as a "greatest" for example - it was hard fought, brilliant, and marked a transition point of the British army, but it sorted nothing... Louis went away and raised another army.... for me, in that list, Waterloo is a safe bet (end of the French Empire), Alamein is a safe bet (it really was the beginning of the end), but D Day is probably the foremost one....

    1. I think that there are a number of "game changing" victories in the list, or rather battles that definately decided something "for good". They would include:
      Then there are those that marked a turning point. That would include:
      And finally for this discussion there are those that had a profound social impact as well as historical and political. In that list I'd include:
      *The Somme
      An interesting list, and good to have the discussion.

  2. I'm a bit taken aback that Midway was not on the list nor Stalingrad. Both were decisive turning points in the Allied war against the Axis.
    Celtic Curmudgeon

    1. Well, as it's a list of the British Army's Greatest Battles I think we can forgive the absence of Midway and Stalingrad.

      After all, Trafalgar isn't on there either, so the Royal Navy don't get a look in.

      Ditto the Battle of Britain and the Royal Air Force.

  3. So what would get our vote as the "greatest" battle of all time if we ignore the British Army requirement I wonder? I bow to Celtic Curmudgeon's "Stalingrad" suggestion, but still think D-Day is in with a shout.. what were the battles where the worlds axis hung on the outcome? :o)

    1. Impressed that we're only three comments in before someone wants to change the subject!

      Greates battles of all time I think you'd have to go back further. The consequences of a win for the Spanish Armada (collapse of Protestantism, British empire never exists, North America grows up dominated by Spain) historically probably out weigh the consequences of the Nazi's winning at Stalingrad.

      The defeat of the Moors in Spain, or the fall of Byzantium are pretty influential as well.

      I think it owuld begood to argue about British Battles for a while before wandering OT.

      BTW Have you voted???

  4. As a Canadian I am partial to Quebec, since it shaped the future of my country, though since Voltaire dismissed Canada as "a few acres of snow" that may not count.
    I would suggest the Mons Campaign of 1914 as worthy of consideration. Pretty much the main body of the Regular British Army stood against a numerically superior German army, conducted an epic defensive withdrawal, and managed to blunt one of the spearheads of the Schleiffen Plan. If Mons had been a German victory, England might have withdrawn from the Great War and France would have surrendered, Imperial Germany would have survived, the Nazis might never have come to power, and on and on.

    1. Quebec - you are allowed to select it for personal reasons, so go for it.

      As for Mons.....ah the BEF! Small, yet perfectly formed and completely unsuitable for maintaining a challenge in a medrn European war.

  5. Interesting stuff. My sense is that if we place battles into their political context then a few front runners might emerge. Waterloo finally ended France's campaign to deny Britain access to europe by controlling the whole of the coastal ports from portugal to Denmark. The politics of Europe might have been changed if we had lost that - although whether Boney could actually sustain a campaing much beyond waterloo is probably a moot point. ( or, as one of my colleagues recently offered a "mute" point. as he was speaking, the irony evaded him). Quebec - a critical battle in a truly world war, which finally denied France the North Americas and probably ensured that English - thanks to the USA - ebcame the dominant language of world commerce.

    1. Ken,

      I think that the political consequence is key to deciding this, although the social consequences of the Somme (in terms of enfranchising the working classes through the need to create a mass army)are normally overlooked by wargamers.

      I think you are right, however, that Waterloo and quebec emerge as grnt runners in terms of their long term effects.

  6. wholeheartedly agree re the Somme. I think that WW1 had enormous and far reaching consequences for all classes in Britain. The emergence after the war of women empowered by their experiences at work, returning troops mentally shattered, but with all the "mystery" of deference to the ruling class eliminated, and a genuine expectation that improvement was needed - homes for heroes, welfare reform, emergence of state pensions, etc etc, all combined with much more to change Britain forever. I wasnt convinced that the Somme alone could have led to all of that - on the other hand, when you re read the daily casualty figures - with a sense of sheer disbelief - who knows? Bit frustrated that the current inheritors of the "Liberal" mantle appear to have lost their collective political memories.

    1. The Somme is important because it is the first great battle fought by a people's army. It buys the general publics place at the table usually occupied by a political elite and a professional military caste.

      At the time, however, Ypres was more important in popular memory

  7. Lets face it Its going to be waterloo or the somme with D-Day inthere with a good shout- mostly because they are the one joe public has actually heard of. Goose Green is an outside bet the rest are just on the bench . Its going to depend which battles are on the history channel - Gawd I hate televised military history its usually such lightweight twaddle.
    Oh and Ken- there is no such thing as a politicians memenry -0 exceptinsofar as it is self serving

    1. Keep an eye on the voting. It's been Waterloo and Naseby since the start and now Imphal has sneaked into second place. Here's the top 10:

      1 Waterloo 92
      2 Imphal/Kohima 68
      3 Naseby 52
      4 D-Day/Normandy 42
      5 Rorke's Drift 28
      6 Megiddo 25
      7 Blenheim 21
      8 Somme 18
      9 El Alamein 18
      10 Culloden 13

  8. Replies
    1. Blenheim? That's it????

      BTW Are you good for NQM on Monday?