A Short Note on Decisive Battles

1 July 2011


Altdorfer, Albrecht, The Battle of Alexander at Issus

The Battle of Alexander at Issus by Albrecht Altdorfer -- not one of Creasy's decisive battles, but it is of the greatest paintings of the northern renaissance.

If history is philosophy teaching by examples — a bon mot attributed to Thucydides — then the decisive battle is the experimentum crucis of history.

The phrase “decisive battle” is most memorably connected with the name of Sir Edward Creasy and his book The Fifteen Decisive Battles of The World From Marathon to Waterloo. In the Preface of his book Creasy wrote:

There are some battles, also, which claim our attention, independently of the moral worth of the combatants, on account of their enduring importance, and by reason of the practical influence on our own social and political condition, which we can trace up to the results of those engagements. They have for us an abiding and actual interest, both while we investigate the chain of causes and effects, by which they have helped to make us what we are; and also while we speculate on what we probably should have been, if any one of those battles had come to a different termination. Hallam has admirably expressed this in his remarks on the victory gained by Charles Martel, between Tours and Poitiers, over the invading Saracens.

He says of it, that “it may justly be reckoned among those few battles of which a contrary event would have essentially varied the drama of the world in all its subsequent scenes: with Marathon, Arbela, the Metaurus, Chalons, and Leipsic.” It was the perusal of this note of Hallam’s that first led me to the consideration of my present subject. I certainly differ from that great historian as to the comparative importance of some of the battles which he thus enumerates, and also of some which he omits. It is probable, indeed, that no two historical inquirers would entirely agree in their lists of the Decisive Battles of the World. Different minds will naturally vary in the impressions which particular events make on them; and in the degree of interest with which they watch the career, and reflect on the importance, of different historical personages. But our concurrence in our catalogues is of little moment, provided we learn to look on these great historical events in the spirit which Hallam’s observations indicate.

Sir Edward Creasy, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of The World From Marathon to Waterloo, Preface

Another way to formulate this, and a way moreover that I think is consistent with the spirit of Creasy, is that decisive battles are nodes on the decision tree of world history.

What is the spirit of Creasy? For all of the criticism to which Creasy and his list of decisive battles have been submitted, it must be said in his defense that he does not present his list as definitive, and his spirit is that of scientific inquiry. Creasy begins his Preface citing a Byron quote on the moral lessons of battles, but he turns from this to the world historical significance of battles, and in so doing reveals his essential interest in methodological naturalism. Thus it is particularly apt to invoke the terminology of experimentum crucis, which was the terminology of Hooke and Newton.

Even while acknowledging the intrinsic limitations of event-driven historiography that Braudel dismissed as “…the ephemera of history; [events] pass across its stage like fireflies, hardly glimpsed before they settle back into darkness and as often as not into oblivion”, we can nevertheless defend the honor of the event by restoring the decisive role of some events. Not all events are decisive to the longue durée of history, but some are so.

Decisive battles have been a focus of event-driven historiography, and while narrative historiography seems to date from an era in which history was more about personalities than about a dispassionate understanding of the past, we cannot simply dismiss all pre-structuralist history as unscientific. The spirit of science has not been alien to earlier history, and, in the right hands, narrative can be a rigorous undertaking.

I previously suggested the enduring value of the event, when placed in proper context, in Braudel in Ecological Perspective. Now it occurs to me that structuralist attempts to be scientific about history are not themselves free of the contingent and the idiosyncratic, which point I attempted to sketch in Scientific Flair.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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