Decisive 20th Century Battles

The last century saw technological advances push military conflict into new levels of mass carnage and complicated tactical strategy. These battles helped shape the world we live in today and their outcomes are at the heart of current global affairs.


Northern France 1918: The Western Front

Referring to a frontier of land fought over during World War I by Germany to the East against the Allied armies of the West, The Western Front consisted of the line of trenches that stretched from the coast of the North Sea southwards to the Swiss border.

During the four years of bloody conflict, the battleplan remained as static as the Front itself: to try to break through the opposing lines of trenches and barbed wire entanglements, both sides employed huge artillery bombardments followed by attacks by tens of thousands of soldiers.

These battles could last for months and lead to casualties measured in hundreds of thousands for attacker and defender alike. After most of these attacks, only a short section of the Front would have moved and only by about a mile. Not a great result for such a colossal loss of life.

The direction of the War changed drastically when the United States entered joined in the fighting for the Allies in 1917 and by the summer of 1918 America had an army of around half a million men. However, that year Russia withdrew from the War on the Eastern Front, freeing up many German troops to be deployed into the West.

As a result Germany launched several Spring Offensives, which nearly drove the Allies apart as they advanced some 60 miles west. However the Americans had finally started playing their part in combat and from August 8th to November 11th the Allies launched the Hundred Days Offensive, securing German surrender and the end of World War One.

Russia 1942: The Battle of Stalingrad

During the bleak winter of 1942 to 1943 the German army and its allies took on the Soviet Union in the largest single battle in human history and arguably the turning point of the Second World War in Europe.

The siege and subsequent in the Russian city is also remembered for being one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern warfare; raging for 199 days, Stalingrad was marked by brutality on both sides, with combined casualties estimated above 1.5 million.

Advancing further and further east, Hitler’s Sixth Army had very nearly secured control of this hugely symbolic city. However, Stalin’s troops cleverly drew the vastly superior German army into the city itself where in an extraordinary reversal of fortunes, the attackers were themselves surrounded by a massive Soviet counter-attack.

Trapped in brutal winter conditions, thousands of Hitler’s best men were left to starve or freeze to death. Those captured proved just as unfortunate; of approximately 90,000 German soldiers taken prisoner only about 5,000 ever returned home.

Had Hitler secured the city and the oil fields to the south, he would have been able to continue the war indefinitely and perhaps allowed the Third Reich to push into the Middle East, threatening the established British control and its oil.

Stalingrad also represents the point where Hitler began to ignore the advice of his generals, making the decisions himself. These decisions turned out to be disastrous and Hitler never again had the full confidence of the German military.

The Battle of Midway

The Battle of Midway

The Pacific 1942: The Battle of Midway

While the Second World War raged in Europe, the same year as the iconic Stalingrad saw another decisive victory for the Allies, but this time on and above the Pacific Ocean. The Battle of Midway was a decisive naval battle that that spelled the beginning of the end of Japan's dreams of empire in the Far East.

True enough the Japanese had inflicted a crippling blow on the US Pacific Fleet with its surprise attack on Pearl Harbor but they failed in destroying the American aircraft carriers, who had escaped the attack unscathed.

Seizing the opportunity, the Americans launched a vast counter strike, which took the form of a battle that raged from the 4th to the 7th of June. Even though the opposing ships never came in sight of each other, for four days Japanese and American carriers hurled bombers and fighters at each other.

Victory came when the Americans successfully defeated a Japanese attack against Midway Atoll. The US lost one aircraft carrier and one destroyer, but she destroyed four Japanese carriers and a heavy cruiser.

The battle was a decisive victory for the Americans. It permanently weakened the Imperial Japanese Navy and although both nations sustained losses in the battle, Japan was industrially outstripped by America and was unable to rebuild its naval forces, giving the American Navy the opportunity to take the initiative in the Pacific and go on the offensive.

Korea 1951: Battle of the Imjin River

The Battle of the Imjin River was fought on one of the most dangerous border regions in the world - the Korean DMZ - and took place from 22nd April to 25th during the Korean War, the first actual shooting conflict involving major Cold War powers.

The opposing forces involved were the attacking People's Volunteer Army of the People's Republic of China, who was aiding North Korea; those defending this point on the Imjin River was a sturdy British Force, sent to aid South Korea under the command of the UN.

The previous June soldiers of communist North Korea had launched a sudden and unexpected attack of the South, overtaking most of the country before the UN could deploy of a multinational force led by the Americans. This UN force successfully pushed the invading northerners back deep into North Korea. However, the communist army was not defeated; instead it realised that a new battle plan had to be devised.

In April 1951, the supporting Chinese army launched what has become known as the Chinese Spring Offensive on South Korea, involving three Field Armies of up to 700,000 men. This enormous counter strike allowed the Chinese frontline to sweep southwards once again.

However, a lone British brigade – the British 29th Infantry - blunted the attack of an entire Chinese army on the banks of the Imjin River. Particularly commemorated is the Gloucestershire Regiment, known as ‘the Glorious Glosters’, who in following their orders to "Hold on where you are", brought the invading army to a standstill.

This battle is particularly significant because had the Chinese broken the defence of the 29th Infantry with their three-day assault, they would have been able to outflank the other UN force and increased the likelihood of a successful Chinese advance on Seoul.

Vietnam War

Vietnam War

Vietnam 1968: The Tet Offensive

Without question one of the low points in US history, the Vietnam War was a long, drawn out affair that would ultimately end in failure and global humiliation for the most powerful nation on Earth.

The Tet Offensive was a three-phase military campaign launched between 30th January and 23rd September 1968 by the combined communist forces of the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam - the Viet Cong - and the People's Army of Vietnam.

Unprecedented in the history of the Vietnam War in terms of scale, the Offensive was countrywide as more than 80,000 communist troops attacked over 100 towns and cities, including the national capital of Saigon.

The purpose of such a massive and well-organised campaign was to strike military and civilian command centres throughout the Southern Vietnam and to ignite an uprising among the population that would then topple the Saigon government. The communists from the north hoped that the war would be ended in a single blow.

In places such as the imperial city of Hue, horrific close combat slaughter dragged on continually for nearly a month as US Marines had to flush out the Viet Cong in a painstaking operation building by building, room by room. The North Vietnamese army also attempted to drive off the US forces during a three-month siege at the American base at Khe Sanh.

Despite being ultimately a military disaster for the communist forces, The Tet Offensive bolstered their confidence in being able to launch a nationwide assault and it was arguably the turning point of the conflict in terms of America’s commitment to the Vietnam War.

The Middle East 1973: The Yom Kippur War

Also known as the Ramadan War or October War, it was the biggest clash between Arab and Israeli forces. It began on 6th of October with a surprise joint attack by Egypt and Syria on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, from where it got its name.

The attack took place across cease-fire lines in the Sinai and Golan Heights respectively and was seen by the Arab forces as a legitimate move since they were territories that had been originally captured by Israel during the Six-Day War of 1967.

The Egyptians and Syrians made good ground, advancing solidly during the first 48 hours. However, the Israelis with their expertly trained army soon gained the upper hand and by the second week of the war, the Syrians had been pushed entirely out of the Golan Heights.

In the Sinai to the south, the Israelis fought off two invading Egyptian armies, before crossing the Suez Canal to cut off the Egyptian Third Army just as a United Nations cease-fire came into effect. The Yom Kippur War was over by October 26th

The implications of this conflict were hugely significant for the Middle East. The Arab world had felt humiliated by its collaborative failure to defeat one nation during the Six-Day War, and it felt vindicated by the early success of the Yom Kippur War, despite the ultimate defeat.

This sense of accomplishment paved the way for the start of the peace process, which in turn led the establishment of diplomatic relations between Egypt and Israel. The former had previously been under the influence of the Soviet Union but by being the first Arab country to officially recognize the state of Israel it moved away from Soviet influence completely.

The Falklands

The Falklands

The Falkland Islands 1982: The Falklands

Fought in 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom, this short-lived conflict was about ownership of two large and many small islands in the Atlantic Ocean east of Argentina.

The war was triggered first by the occupation on March 19th of South Georgia by Argentina, a country in the midst of a crippling economic crisis, followed by the occupation of the Falklands, and ended when Argentina surrendered to the British on 14th June. Despite the fact both sides fired on each other and lives were lost, war was not actually declared by either side.

It is widely believed that Argentine leader General Leopoldo Galtieri decided to take back the Falklands to combat the growing civil unrest in his country; it was hoped that this would divert public attention from domestic issues by mining the long-standing resentment many Argentines felt over British control of these islands. However, it has often been argued that Galtieri never thought that the UK would respond with military force.

Britain saw this move as an unlawful invasion of a British overseas territory and launched a naval task force to engage the Argentine Navy and Air Force and retake the islands. In total there were 258 British and 649 Argentine deaths, with the British eventually prevailing and the islands has remained under British control ever since.

This conflict was significant as a wave of patriotic sentiment swept through both countries. Over here it boosted Margaret Thatcher’s flailing Conservative government, while the Argentine loss prompted even larger protests against the military government, which sped up Galtieri’s downfall. To this day however, Argentina hasn’t withdrawn its claim to the islands…

The Middle East 1991: The Gulf War

Beginning on 2nd August 1990, the last major war of the 20th Century was between Iraq under Saddam Hussein and a coalition force from 35 nations authorized by the UN and led primarily by the United States.

Hostilities began when Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait, a small monarchy on the coast of the Persian Gulf. This act was met with immediate economic sanctions against Iraq by some of the UN Security Council but Hussein’s refusal to withdraw meant that coalition troops were deployed to remedy the situation by force.

Six days after 2nd August the US deployed Army, Navy, Marine, Air Force and Coast Guard units to Saudi Arabia, in what was labelled Operation Desert Shield. At the same time America rallied other countries to the cause and by the time the fighting actually began on January 17th, 1991, twelve countries had sent naval forces to the Gulf. This was known as Operation Desert Storm.

The war itself was over before it began. The quality of Iraqi troops and equipment couldn’t match those of coalition forces and aerial and ground combat was confined to Iraq, Kuwait, and bordering areas of Saudi Arabia.

It was a decisive victory for the coalition forces, which liberated Kuwait and penetrated Iraqi territory. Other neighbouring countries were affected however, when Iraq launched missiles against targets in Saudi Arabia and Israel in retaliation for their support of the coalition. This conflict ended on 28th February 1991 but as we all know, this short-lived battle was just the beginning…