Centuries ago, when I was a wee lad I feel in love with an old book called The Book of Lists. For those of you too young to remember, it contained all kinds of bizarre and interesting lists like history’s worst movies, General George Patton’s past lives, purported stigmata sufferers and famous people who died while having sex. One of the lists included in The Book of Lists was Sir Edward Creasy’s 15 Decisive Battles of the World. Since Creasy compiled his list back in the 19th century, it’s bit dated by today’s standards. But who cares; I liked it. Creasy’s list must have made an impression on me because ever since then, I’ve enjoyed reading about famous military battles. It was probably this minor obsession that over 10 years ago inspired me to read Victor Davis Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power
Therefore, no reasonable person could blame me for wanting to read Jim Lacey and Williamson Murray’s Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World when I spotted a copy at my local library. After spending a few weeks making my way through it I’m happy to report that Moment of Battle fed my appetite for great battles.
Published this year, Moment of Battle isn’t just another book of famous battles. According to the book’s authors, these battles were included because of their “long-term impact on the course of history, not on the basis of their importance to the study of military art”. Included in Moment of Battle is The Battle of Marathon, since its outcome meant Europe would be free from Persian dominance, allowing Greek concepts like democracy, science, free inquiry and philosophy to flourish. Later, another victory of the Persians, this time at Gaugamela with Alexander the Great at the helm, would spread those Hellenistic concepts throughout the Levant and beyond, creating fertile ground for Christianity, Islam and Rabbinical Judaism. After the Battle of Yarmuk in 636 Byzantium would begin its slow decline as the world Islam ascended. The Defeat of the Spanish Armada would end Spain’s attempt to conquer England; North America would go on to become part of the English-speaking world. The Battles of Britain, Midway and Kursk would check the Axis advance at its zenith; the D-Day Invasion sealed the Nazi’s fate. After Dien Bien Phu large-scale European colonialism in Asia came to an end; this opened the door for US intervention in Southeast Asia. After America’s own defeat, one wonders over the coming decades if a resurgent China will fill the power vacuum.
Of course, some will quibble over what’s been left out. With the exception of the Battle of Trafalgar, no Napoleonic battles are included. Also absent in Moment of Battle are landmark clashes from the history Christianity versus Islam: the Battle of Poitiers, Fall of Constantinople and Siege of Vienna. Spain’s annihilation of the Mexican and Incan empires is also left out.
Many historians believe the outcomes of history’s great battles are the inevitable result of larger, overarching forces such as economic might, superior culture and institutions, environmental factors and disease. According to the book’s authors better leadership and superior tactics are what really decides battles.
This a very good book and makes a fine companion to Victor Davis Hanson’s above mentioned book. I’d recommend it not just to military enthusiasts but also to history aficionados. It’s fired me up to read more history. Of course we all know, that’s a sign of a good book.