Famous Battles from History

When it comes to modern military strategy, experts often reach back into history, sometimes as far back as antiquity, to learn from the methods and tactics that have defined the most significant battles in human history. Here are ten of the most iconic battles ever fought.

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Battle of Troy

Battle of Troy

1190BC: The Siege of Troy

It is rather ironic that arguably the most famous of all battle tactics in the history of civilization took place during a war many believe only happened in legend. Over a thousand years before Christ Greek writer Homer wrote of the titanic conflict between Mycenaean Greeks and the Trojans.

Archaeologists are in general consensus that the city of Troy did exist in what is now Turkey. According to the epic poem The Iliad Prince Paris of Troy captured Helen, the wife of Spartan king Menelaus, causing the Greeks to invade and lay siege to Troy for ten years. The siege came to an end after the cunning Odysseus devised a simple, yet brilliant plan.

The Greeks built a massive wooden horse, in which their best warriors would hide. The horse, presented as a gift and admission of defeat by the Greeks, was wheeled into Troy and under the cover of darkness, the Greeks emerged and defeated the unaware and surprised Trojans.

480BC: Battle of Thermopylae

Despite being the story of the recent fantasy film 300 we do know that this Hellenic battle actually took place, as it was recorded in the writings of Greek historian Heroditus. It concerns a vastly outnumbered Greek army who held back the Persian invaders for three days in one of history's most famous last stands.

Led by King Leonidas of Sparta, the small Greek army blocked the only road through which the massive forces of Xerxes I of Persia could pass. After three days of battle, a local resident named Ephialtes is believed to have betrayed Leonidas by revealing a mountain path that enabled the Persians to go behind Greek lines and out-flank them.

Leonides did dismiss the rest of his army, leaving only 300 Spartans to fight, but contrary to the events of the film they gave their last alongside other Greek soldiers: 700 Thespian volunteers, 400 Thebans and 900 Helots.

Although victorious, the Persians sustained heavy losses, extremely disproportionate to those of the Greeks and the Battle of Thermopylae is often cited as an example of the advantages of training, equipment and good use of terrain to fight overwhelming odds.

The Battle of Pharsalus

The Battle of Pharsalus

48BC: The Battle of Pharsalus

This battle is perhaps not that well known by name, but it is hugely significance as the outcome transformed the Roman Republic into an Empire. The opposing forces were led by two military titans who had originally been comrades, one being Pompey Magnus, the other Gaius Julius Caesar.

Pompey's cause was for the people and the Republic, whereas Caesar's followers believed in restricting the power of the people and giving supreme control to a handful of aristocrats, with Caesar at the centre. There had been many skirmishes prior to Pharsalus, but it was here in Greece that Caesar defeated Pompey and secured his place as leader of Rome.

Both commanders were supremely experienced in battle and secured a battle site where it was difficult for one to outflank the other. Pompey put his trust in his superior cavalry, but Caesar's infantry were well rested and tactically placed to decimate Pompey's army, who himself fled to Egypt, where he was later assassinated. Caesar become Rome's first Emperor, thanks to his decisive victory at Pharsalus, and European history changed forever.

1066 AD: The Battle of Hastings

If you went to school, you learnt about this famous battle, and with good reason; the legacy of the Battle of Hastings on the British monarchy can still be felt to this day. The actual battle took place on October 14th at Senlac Hill, which is approximately six miles north of Hastings on the south coast of England, on which an abbey was subsequently erected.

The battle was fought between the invading army of Duke William of Normandy from France and the English army led by King Harold II, who was killed during the battle, popularly thought to have been shot through the eye with an arrow as depicted in the equally famous Bayeux Tapestry.

On the day of the battle, Harold's Saxon army was inferior in size to William's and he lacked the cavalry of the Norman invaders. Plus, unlike William's fresh army, Harold's men were exhausted having just marched on foot down from Yorkshire following a victory at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. It's amazing they lasted as long as they did!

In fact, the Saxons put up a hardy resistance and it is believed that casualties went into the thousands on both sides. When Harold was killed during the battle, William declared himself conqueror and even though there was further English resistance for some time to come, this battle is seen as the point at which the Norman king gained control of England.

1415: The Battle of Agincourt

This is the most famous battle to have taken place as part of the Hundred Years War and was fought in northern France on 25th October 1415, a day that was traditionally celebrated as Saint Crispin's Day. Because the English win came despite being severely outnumbered, Agincourt is often celebrated as one of the greatest victories in English military history.

The armies involved were those of the English King Henry V and Charles VI of France. The contrast between the two rulers couldn't have been greater, given that Henry was very much in the thick of proceedings, while Charles did not command his army himself as he was incapacitated.

The battle is notable for the use of the English longbow, which the English deployed in very large numbers, longbowmen forming the vast majority of their army. It is also widely agreed that the deciding factor for the outcome was the terrain, as the narrow field of battle meant that even though the French outnumbered the English men-at-arms at least four to one, they had no way to outflank the English line.

According to a popular myth, it is from this legendary battle that the "two-fingers salute" or 'V sign' that we brits cherish to this day derives from the gestures of longbowmen fighting in the English army at the battle of Agincourt!

1588: The Battle of Gravelines

Again, not many people are aware of this naval battle when described as the Battle of Gravelines, which was then part of Flanders in the Spanish Netherlands. However, it is more commonly known as the instance in 1588 when the English navy defeated the Spanish Armada.

Queen Elizabeth decided to take on the invading Spanish fleet following the fervently Catholic Philip of Spain's decision to lead Protestant England back to the Catholic faith by force.

When the two fleets met in battle on July 29, the English emerged victorious, even though the Spanish losses were not great, with only three ships reported sunk, one captured and four more ran aground. So why was Philip's Armada so roundly trounced?

The answer lies in the unpredictable English weather, which largely ensured victory; a succession of storms scattered the Spanish ships on their return voyage and by the time the tattered Armada regained Spain, it had lost half its ships and three-quarters of its men. It was never able to regroup for another assault.

1645: The Battle of Naseby

Another British historical turning point, this famous skirmish arguably marked the end of the English Civil War as it saw King Charles Royalist army roundly defeated by the efficiency and might of the Parliamentarian New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax.

The battle took place on June 14th on a site near Market Harborough, Northamptonshire and saw Fairfax and Cromwell each take their own troops to different locations for the fight. The Royalists began well with a successful infantry charge but ultimately the sheer numbers of Parliamentarian troops, almost double that of Charles' men, turned the tide in their favour.

As well as being a clear victory for Cromwell and Fairfax, Naseby is also remembered for the brutal, no-mercy approach the Parliamentarians adopted towards the fleeing Royalists. As Charles' surviving men fled north, Fairfax's army pursued and slaughtered them.

Naseby had cost the King his veteran infantry, all his artillery and many arms. He could never again raise an army of similar quality and within a year, the First Civil War ended in a Parliamentarian military victory and the only time a British monarch was publicly executed.

The Battle of Trafalgar

The Battle of Trafalgar

1805: The Battle of Trafalgar

1805 was the year when it seemed to the English that at long last Napoleon was to invade England. Napoleon was still convinced that his united fleet could annihilate any squadron that the English could put to sea to meet it. His bluff was called however, at this the most significant naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars.

Victory came because of the unique talent of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who employed a battle tactic that was in complete contradiction with all the accepted rules of naval warfare, and defeated a combined French and Spanish fleet off the coast of Cadiz.

Despite this victory, the British losses were heavy; 1,241 were wounded and 449 killed, including Nelson himself, who had by which time ensured his place as Britain's greatest naval hero. Of the 27 ships of the British fleet at his command, not one had been sunk or captured.

The British victory spectacularly confirmed the naval supremacy that Britain had established during the 18th century. However, The Brits had been wrong about Napoleon; by the time Trafalgar was fought, Bonaparte had abandoned his plans to invade southern England and instead was defeating Britain's allies in Germany.

1815: The Battle of Waterloo

Fought on 18th June about seven miles southeast of Brussels, Waterloo is arguably one of the most famous single battles the British have ever fought. It was Napoleon Bonaparte's last battle, putting a final end to his rule as Emperor of the French.

Waterloo also marked the end of the period known as the Hundred Days, which began after Napoleon regained power in France having been exiled due to his previous defeats in Europe the following year.

When Napoleon did assume power, the Seventh Coalition was formed and began to mobilise armies to defeat him should he try any of his old tricks. The first two armies to assemble were a Prussian army and an Anglo-allied army, the latter was under the command of a true titan of British history, the Duke of Wellington.

Napoleon chose to attack this combined enemy in the hope of destroying them before they could join in a coordinated invasion of France but Wellington's army withstood repeated French assaults until in the evening they counter-attacked and drove the French back.

At the same time the Prussian army broke through Napoleon's right flank, leaving the French in disorder on the battlefield and unable to prevent Coalition forces entering France and restoring King Louis XVIII to the French throne. Napoleon was exiled to St Helena, where he died in 1821.

1863: The Battle of Gettysberg

Beginning on July 1st and lasting three days, Gettysberg is the most notorious and bloody battles in the American Civil War, which raged for four years and saw America divided in two as the Northern Unionist Army took on the grey coats of the Southern Confederate states over, amongst other things, the use of slavery.

It was fought in and around the Pennsylvanian town of Gettysburg and proved to be the battle with the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War. Arguably the fate of America was decided here when Union Major General George Gordon Meade's army defeated attacks by General Robert E. Lee's Southern forces, effectively ending Lee's invasion of the North.

Victory seemed to initially be in the hands of the Confederates, especially given that Lee had by this time become a military legend in the South. On the third day there was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the Union line but was decimated by Union rifle and artillery fire, forcing Lee to lead his army on a retreat back to Virginia, but not before up to around 50,000 Americans had perished in the three-day battle.