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Fifty Important Battles
Of Modern History

By Bob Frost, 2008

This is Part Two of a five-part article. Each section covers 10 battles; the article is organized chronologically from the 1500s forward.

Part One:
Introduction, Sharur/Tabriz, Tenochtitlan,
Panipat, Cajamarca, Lepanto,
The Spanish Armada, Sekigahara,
Shanhai Pass, Naseby,
Zenta (Senta/Szenta)

Part Two:
Blenheim, Poltava (Pultowa), Culloden, Plassey, Rossbach,
The Saratoga Campaign, The Yorktown Campaign,
Valmy, Trafalgar, Austerlitz

Part Three:
Waterloo, Ayacucho,
The Burning of the Imperial Summer Palace,
Antietam (Sharpsburg), Gettysburg,
The Vicksburg Campaign,
Koniggratz, Sedan, Isandlwana, Mukden

Part Four:
Tannenberg, The First Battle of the Marne,
Verdun, The Somme,
The Battle of the Atlantic (the 1917 Escalation
and the U.S. Reaction),

The German Spring Offensive of 1918 (with the Second Battle of the Marne and the Allied Counteroffensive),
The Manchurian Incident (the Mukden Incident),
The Battle of France, Dunkirk,
The Battle of Britain

Part Five:
The Battle of Moscow, Pearl Harbor,
The Battle of the Atlantic, Midway, Guadalcanal,
The Normandy Campaign,
Israel's War of Independence, Hua-Hai,
Dienbienphu, Tet

On August 13, 1704, an allied army under the command of John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, defeated a Franco-Bavarian force assembled by Louis XIV, on August 13, 1704, on a field in Bavaria.

Opinions vary on the importance of Blenheim. The English historian Saul David offers one point of view: "The battle ranks, with Agincourt and Waterloo, as one of the three great English victories on mainland Europe....(Marlborough) inflicted upon Louis XIV’s France, the superpower of the day, its first major defeat and almost single-handedly prevented a Bourbon super-state from dominating Europe, thereby laying the foundations for the continental balance of power and Britain’s imperial expansion." Similarly, the historian Edward S. Creasy, writing in 1851, describes Blenheim as one of the 15 decisive military encounters of world history (ancient and modern), ranking it with Marathon, Tours (Poitiers), and Waterloo, among others.

However, Creasy is clearly overstating the importance of the battle. The encounter was significant but pales when compared to many other battles. Our primary reason for listing the engagement here is because of its impact on Winston Churchill, who was shaped by the romance of battles past. As a little boy he re-created Blenheim, and his ancestor's role in it, with toy soldiers on playroom floors. As he grew, he studied the encounter and pondered it during many a lonely hour; he eventually wrote about it. The battle played a major role in the development of the most important ego of the 20th century.

See "Marlborough: England’s Fragile Genius" by Richard Holmes (2008), "Marlborough as Military Commander" by David G. Chandler (2003), and "That Sweet Enemy: The French and British From the Sun King to the Present" by Robert and Isabelle Tombs (2007). See also Winston’s Churchill’s six-volume biography of his ancestor (1933 etc.).

Poltava (also spelled Pultowa)
On June 27, 1709,
in the Ukraine, Peter the Great of Russia defeated King Charles XII of Sweden in a key battle of the Great Northern War, a 21-year conflict that marked Russia’s emergence as a major power.

Peter the Great is one of the most interesting of all historical figures - bursting with energy, intelligence, and guts, plagued by tendencies toward violence and instability, consumed by ambition for his nation and himself. He grabbed Russia by its ears and yanked it into the modern world ("revolution from the top," writes historian William McNeill). He was fascinated by European civilization; his primary reason for this was to learn from the West so that he could create a state capable of standing against it.

Peter the Great (1672-1725)

In this stage of the Great Northern War, Peter faced a well-prepared invasion force of Swedes and Cossacks. Sweden's Charles XII, hoping to capture Moscow, exposed his army to the Russian winter. The Swedes knew something about cold weather, but they became tired and demoralized. (Napoleon and Hitler would make similar mistakes.) Charles laid seige to the town of Poltava in May of 1709; his army was crushed by Peter in June.

Peter now went on the offensive; by the end of his reign, writes historian Lindsey Hughes, Russia was "on the way to transforming the Baltic from a Swedish lake into a Russian one."

During the Second World War, the story of Peter’s victory at Poltava played a substantial role in sustaining Soviet morale. Stalin identified himself with Peter, "justifying his policies," writes historian Marc Raeff, "by pointing to Peter's harshness."

See "Peter the Great" by Vasili Klyuchevsky (1961, translated by Liliana Archibald), "Russia in the Era of Peter the Great" by L. Jay Oliva (1969), "Russia in the Age of Peter the Great" by Lindsey Hughes (1998), and "Peter the Great" by M.S. Anderson (1978). See also "Charles XII and the Collapse of the Swedish Empire 1682-1719" by Robert N. Bain (1995). A hard-to-find book on the battle is "The Battle of Poltava" by Peter Englund published in London in 1992 (alternate title: "The Battle That Shook Europe").

April 16, 1746, in the Scottish Highlands. England defeated a Scottish force, crushed the Jacobite Uprising, and preserved union between the two kingdoms. Scots fought on both sides in this battle.

Culloden looms large in Scotland's history and touches the present day. Its background is complex.

The English and Scottish crowns were united in 1603. A century later, in 1707, England and Scotland strengthened their ties, signing the Act of Union, combining themselves into the United Kingdom of Great Britain. (Wales united politically with England in 1536.) The Union called for a single parliament for both nations, a single ruler (Protestant), and equality of trading privileges between them. The Scottish Parliament was abolished in exchange for seats in the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Scotland retained religious and legal autonomy.

Many Scots, especially Lowlanders (in the south) welcomed the 1707 union, because, as historian R.K. Webb writes, "it opened wide opportunities at home and south of the Border for men at all levels of Scottish society." A different interpretation of the Act of Union is offered by the actor Sean Connery, a supporter of Scottish independence: "A group of Scottish noblemen sold Scotland’s independence...." (Connery is one of the great Scottish nationalists of modern times; see below for more on today's Scottish independence movement.)

Many Highlanders were unhappy about the union. As indicated by Connery's comment, they felt the nobility had sold them out for personal gain. They didn’t see the same economic gains as the Lowlanders. They wanted an entirely Scottish parliament. And they wanted their own man on the combined throne at St. James’s Palace.

That man was James Francis Edward Stuart. His supporters, known as the Jacobites, called him "James III"; his foes referred to him as "the Old Pretender." His father, James II, had been a Catholic king of England and Scotland, forced off the throne in 1688, in the Glorious Revolution, partly because of fears of dominance by the Vatican - "popery," as it was called.

James III was not successful trying to regain the throne of the United Kingdom, and removed himself from the fray after 1715. In 1720 he and his wife had a son in Rome. This was none other than Bonnie Prince Charlie – Charles Edward Stuart – upon whom the Jacobites now pinned their hopes. His opponents knew him as "the Young Pretender."

Arriving in Scotland in 1745, Charles sought the UK throne for his father and the Stuart dynasty. He launched a Jacobite rebellion, known to history as "the '45." He was supported by the French, i.e., by a "foreign Popish power," said the English press. (Religion, clearly, played a significant role in these events. One example of this is the fact that the Stuarts were urged by English Jacobites to convert from Catholicism to Protestantism. Had they done so, they might have garnered wide and deep support in England, which was none too fond of the Hanoverian royal dynasty.)

The Jacobites, including a large contingent of Highlanders, marched south. Not all Highlanders were Jacobites, however. Scholar Karl Miller notes that "as many of the (Highland) clans fought on the Hanoverian side as on the other."

The Jacobites captured Edinburgh, where they assured the Presbyterian clergy of religious tolerance. The force swept through northern England and got to within 100 miles of London. England was panicky. But the Jacobites pulled back, partly because French support had not yet materialized on British shores. The English government dispatched an army led by the Duke of Cumberland that destroyed the rebellion in a one-hour battle at Culloden Moor, in the Highlands near Inverness. The Jacobites fought gallantly but were outgunned.

In the wake of the battle, many Scots celebrated and many Scots mourned. Many Scots, including women and children, were hanged by Cumberland's troops, and shot, butchered, raped, brutalized, made homeless, and transported. Bonnie Prince Charlie was hunted but not caught; he sailed for continental Europe and became a wanderer, drinker, and spectral presence. He died in 1788.

The social system of the Highlanders was destroyed in the interest of stamping out Jacobitism. The wearing of tartan plaid and kilt was outlawed, as was the playing of bagpipes, although, on the occasional dark night, "Flowers of the Forest" came forth from the hills.

In time, Highlander culture more-or-less recovered. Karl Miller notes how Highland culture was viewed by Lowlanders: "The Edinburgh Enlightenment of the eighteenth century thought of the Highlander as a savage; he is now acknowledged to have been the possessor of a valuable cultural heritage."

The Battle of Culloden is well-remembered and discussed today in Inverness, Tain, Elgin, Dornoch, and Kyle of Lochalsh. The Scottish National Party (SNP) campaigns in the 21st century to "restore Scotland to its historic position as an independent state"; ponderings and reassessments of history play a key role in debates about this topic.

Scottish author Andrew O'Hagan writes of his nation and the English:

There was, and is, an English arrogance which resides in the view that they are naturally dominant within the British Isles. This notion was virulent in 18th-century Britain, when the Scots and the Irish were lampooned in the journals and pictorials of the day. The British Museum holds a great and hot-making archive of English caricatures that show the Scots and the Irish as drunken, hopeless, arse-kissing louts. Dr. Johnson baited his friend James Boswell along similar lines, and the Scots got their own back in ways briskly intellectual and industrial. Yet the resentment lasted. My grandparents would bristle at the idea of any supposed English superiority - I remember reading a line of Milton's, "Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live", finding it intolerable and wondering whether or not reading it aloud would give my granny a heart attack. What drove my forebears to drink wasn't Dr. Johnson, but the Edwardian imperial snobbery of the English that hurt the Irish and undervalued the Scots contribution to the making of the United Kingdom. My people weren't nationalists, they were socialists, and they disliked the English habit of superiority in what they otherwise considered to be a perfectly sensible union.

See "Culloden" by John Prebble (1967) and Prebble's "The Lion in the North: A Personal View of Scotland" (1981) and "The Highland Clearances" (1973). See also "Scotland: The Story of a Nation" by Magnus Magnusson (2000, revised edition). Also, see "1745: A Military History of the Last Jacobite Rising" by Stuart Reid (1996), "The Road to Culloden Moor: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the ’45 Rebellion" by Diana Preston, (1998), and "Scotland and the Union" by David Daiches (1977). For a witty critique of certain aspects of Scottish myth see "The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History" by Hugh Trevor-Roper (2008). DVDs: "Battlefield Britain: The Battle of Culloden" by Peter Snow and Dan Snow (2005). Also see the DVD "Culloden," a fascinating, pioneering docudrama directed by Peter Watkins (1964).

The Jacobite saga is a theme of Walter Scott (1771-1832), the Scottish author considered the father of the historical novel. His book "Waverley" (1814) is about "the '45" (1981 new edition edited and with an introduction by Andrew Hook). "Rob Roy" (1817) was made into a 1995 movie starring Liam Neeson; it devotes some footage to the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. The novel "Rob Roy" is included in a Scott compilation titled "From Glencoe to Stirling: Rob Roy, the Highlanders and Scotland’s Chivalric Age" (2001 reprint with an introduction by George Grant). Scott’s best book may be "The Tale of Old Mortality" (1816) set in the Scotland of the late 1600s (2000 reissue edited and with an introduction by Douglas S. Mack).

On June 23, 1757,
in India, during the Seven Years War, a force led by the Englishman Robert Clive defeated the nawab (ruler) of Bengal. Clive is often called the founder of British India.

The background to the Battle of Plassey can be traced to the early 18th century when Britain and France maintained a vigorous presence in India in the form of commercial trading firms - the British East India Company (which employed Clive) and the French East India Company. As the Moghul Empire began collapsing in the early 1700s, India dissolved into local dictatorships.

By the mid-1700s, in the absence of Moghul control, French and British traders competed, fought for influence, built forts, and made deals with local princes. Large-scale territorial conquest was not on their agendas, yet. Then came the Seven Years' War (1756-63), essentially a world war fought in a number of theaters, including Europe, North America, and India. France and Britain were key combatants, dueling for colonies and trade. (See "Rossbach" below.)

The ruler of India’s Bengal province in the 1750s, Nawab Siraj-ud-daula, hated the British, and in 1756 he attacked and captured British-held Calcutta. On the hot night of June 20-21, 1756, his troops confined a number of British retainers into a small cell, fourteen feet by eighteen feet, with fatal consequences for some, caused by thirst, suffocation, and loss of blood. This became known as the Black Hole of Calcutta. Robert Clive commanded an army that re-took Calcutta in January, 1757 – partly to avenge the Black Hole, which resonated with the British citizenry, but mostly to regain control of a key city. Six months later, in June, 1757, at Plassey, Clive defeated the nawab’s forces.

The traders of the British East India Company now found themselves in the position of political rulers. The treaty ending the Seven Years' War, signed in 1763, virtually eliminated French presence in India.

A note on the Black Hole. There’s no question it was gruesome, but its horror has been widely exaggerated. One set of figures offered over the years, based on a sketchy source, is that 146 people were shut up in the cell and that 123 died. These numbers are convincingly disputed by recent scholars, who say that between 39 and 69 people were incarcerated (some sources say more than 100) and between 18 and 43 people died. Furthermore, writes historian Mark Bence-Jones, the Black Hole "was not a deliberate outrage but a tragedy resulting from a mistake on the part of (an officer), who seems to have been unaware of the smallness of the room."

See "The Black Hole: Money, Myth and Empire" by Jan Dalley (2006), "Clive of India" by Mark Bence-Jones (1975), "India: A History" by John Keay (1999), and "The Black Hole of Calcutta: A Reconstruction" by Noel Barber (2000).

On November 5, 1757, in Germany, during the Seven Years’ War, the Prussians triumphed over the French and the Austrians.

"The hinge of eighteenth century history, and of world history in that epoch, was the Seven Years' War," writes historian and journalist Conor Cruise O'Brien. "The germs both of the American Revolution and of the French Revolution were in that conflict."

O’Brien quotes a remark by Charles de Gaulle: "The fall of the ancien regime began with the battle of Rossbach." The French ancien regime was the ruling system of vested interests: monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy. In the wake of the humiliation at Rossbach, says O’Brien, the French people shook their fists "at the door of the French monarchy and the Catholic Church" and began moving toward the view that the interests of the nation (i.e., the mystic ties of nationalism) conflicted with the entrenched institutions of the state (i.e., the ancien regime, the ruling elite). (See "Valmy" below.)

Rossbach also had a large impact on the victors, the Prussians. Historian Graham J. Wylie writes that the battle "kindled a new spirit of German nationalism....No such field had been won (by Germans) against the French since the days of Charlemagne." Wylie quotes an observation by historian and military man J.F.C. Fuller, writing in the 1950s: Rossbach helped save Prussia from extinction, and memories of this, over the course of two centuries, "dominated German history and through history the German mind." The German mind, in all its complexities, was a core issue of two world wars.

Prussia’s leader at Rossbach was Frederick the Great, who relied in battle on surprise, mobility, and aggressiveness; his achievements were studied and admired by Napoleon. His reign was fascinating, caught between the traditional demands of power on the one hand and the Enlightenment ideal of humanitarianism on the other (he was an "enlightened despot"). He corresponded with Voltaire, abolished torture, and encouraged freedom of the press, honest and speedy trials, and religious toleration: "Jesuits, Jews, and Protestants alike found refuge in his lands," writes historian Walther Kirchner. He was "a master, perhaps the inventor, of modern state administration," writes historian John Keegan. He was probably gay; in his youth, his tyrannical father attempted to force him to witness the beheading of his close friend, Lieutenant Hans von Katte. Frederick passed out before the execution was carried out, and in its wake, ruthlessly repressed his sexuality, perhaps channeling some part of it toward war.

See "Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947" by Christopher Clark (2006) and "The Military Life of Frederick the Great" by Christopher Duffy (1986). See also "The Seven Years' War" by Daniel Marston (2001) and "Frederick the Great: The Magnificent Enigma" by Robert B. Asprey (1986).

The Saratoga Campaign
September 19 to October 17, 1777, in New York. The Americans defeated the British and enjoyed their first major victory of the American Revolutionary War.

The British planned a bold stroke in 1777 to end the war – an invasion from Canada down the Hudson River that would split New England from the rest of the Thirteen Colonies and disrupt supply lines. In July of '77 the British took Fort Ticonderoga, on Lake Champlain in New York, which controlled trade routes between the Hudson River Valley and the St. Lawrence River Valley. In September, Americans commanded by Gen. Horatio Gates inflicted heavy casualties on the British at the First Battle at Bemis Heights (Freeman’s Farm) near Saratoga, N.Y., with the Yanks getting notable field leadership from Gen. Benedict Arnold. An American soldier contrasted Arnold’s leadership technique with that of Gates: "It was 'Come on, boys!' not 'Go on, boys!'"

On October 7 the two sides met again at the same site in the decisive battle of the Saratoga campaign. Historian Robert Middlekauff describes the action:

The battle soon became Benedict Arnold’s. That worthy, eager and brave, had no command, had in fact been relieved by Gates several days before and invited to take himself away. Gates despised him, and he had not even mentioned Arnold in his dispatch to Congress telling of the battle of September 19. Arnold understandably did not admire Gates; he had not taken the hint to clear out but had waited around even though he had no command. Once the bullets began to fly, Arnold decided to insert himself into the battle. He did so brilliantly, riding up and down the line and against the enemy’s center and right. The troops loved Arnold and followed him in a series of wild assaults. Arnold in battle was more than a little mad, but it was a derangement that led to success. The British line crumbled, then disintegrated; Arnold did not stop to savor success but hit the main entrenchments with the same wild enthusiasm....Late in the struggle Arnold, wounded, was carried off the field, and something went out of the American attack with him. But the Americans controlled the field, and (British Gen. John) Burgoyne was left in a dreadful position.

Burgoyne’s troops were mauled and he surrendered on October 17. Meanwhile, in Paris, American diplomats engaged in tortuous talks with cautious French representatives. France was a long-time enemy of Britain, and was open to forming an alliance with the Yanks, but didn't want to get involved in a losing proposition. Word reached Paris on December 4 of the results at Saratoga, and within two weeks, the Americans and the French signed an agreement. This was Britain’s greatest fear and it proved highly significant in the war. Saratoga "changed everything," writes historian Gordon S. Wood.

Horatio Gates got most of the credit for Saratoga while Benedict Arnold was pretty much overlooked. As a result of this injustice, writes historian Samuel Eliot Morison, Arnold "now began to think that his talents would be better appreciated by the king than by Congress."

See "Saratoga: Turning Point of America’s Revolutionary War" by Richard M. Ketchum (1997), "The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789" by Robert Middlekauff (1982), "The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John Andre" by James Thomas Flexner (1991 reprint), "Iron Tears: America's Battle for Freedom, Britain's Quagmire: 1775-1783" by Stanley Weintraub, and "The Oxford History of the American People” by Samuel Eliot Morison (1965; Morison’s 50-page section on the war is one of the best short summaries available).

The Yorktown Campaign
September 5 to October 19, 1781, in Virginia. American troops defeated the British in the concluding battle of the American Revolutionary War.

The American cause didn't look promising in the winter and early spring of 1780-1781. Britain – despite its defeat at Saratoga, despite its many mistakes in the war, despite its less-than-robust commitment to the conflict, and despite America's alliance with France – had gained control of American seas and most of the seaports. "Many Americans began to accept the probability of defeat," writes Samuel Eliot Morison. George Washington wrote on May 1, 1781,

Instead of having everything in readiness to take the field, we have nothing; and instead of having the prospect of a glorious offensive campaign before us, we have a bewildered and gloomy defensive one – unless we should receive a powerful aid of ships, land troops, and money from our generous allies; and these, at present, are too contingent to build upon.

On June 13 came official confirmation that the "powerful aid of ships" was on its way. King Louis XVI of France – the same Louis XVI who would have his head chopped off by French revolutionaries in 1793 – decided to expand upon his commitment to the American revolutionaries, dispatching a major naval contingent to support the Yanks. He did not do this out of admiration for American republican principles; he did it because he wanted to cause trouble for the British – "to redress the balance of power which had shifted in Britain’s favor" in the Seven Years War, writes historian Robert Middlekauff.


On September 5, 1781, off Chesapeake Bay, a French fleet engaged the British navy, keeping the redcoats out of the bay long enough to allow a Franco-American army to surround Gen. Cornwallis and his troops at Yorktown, a little burg on the York River, on the eastern edge of Virginia. Cornwallis and his 8,000 men waited in vain for reinforcements from the north. Morison writes, "Cornwallis, a good professional soldier, knew when he was beaten. On 17 October he sent out a white flag, and on the 19th surrendered his entire force....The British will to victory (in the war), feeble at best....completely evaporated." Formal recognition of the U.S.A. came in 1783 with the signing of the Treaty of Paris.

In the wake of the result at Yorktown, writes critic Gary Anderson, many Britons imagined "the beginning of the end of their empire." Not so. Soon after Yorktown, Cornwallis won a major victory in India that increased British power there. (See "Plassey," above, for background on this period.) By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Anderson notes, "England controlled an empire many times as large as Rome at her zenith" and by 1900 the empire was even larger.

See "The Campaign That Won America: The Story of Yorktown" by Burke Davis (1970) and "A New Age Now Begins: A People's History of the American Revolution" by Page Smith (1976, two volumes). See also "The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763-1789" by Robert Middlekauff, "Washington" by Douglas Southall Freeman (1996 reissue), "Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington" by Richard Brookhiser (1996), and "The Oxford History of the American People" by Samuel Eliot Morison (1965).

On September 20, 1792,
in France, a French army turned back an invading Austro-Prussian force in the first important battle of the French Revolutionary Wars, safeguarding the revolution and setting off a "chain reaction that would continue for 23 years, until the battle of Waterloo," writes scholar David Eggenberger.

The French Revolution began in 1789 and entered a critical period in 1791-92 when the crowned heads of Austria and Prussia, fearing for their safety if republican ideals were to spread, and interested in territorial gains, decided to restore the French monarchy by force. (They would soon be joined by others.)

At the French village of Valmy, the volunteer army of France engaged with the professional troops of the Austro-Prussian coalition in an artillery battle lasting four hours. (Later in the war, French armies would include conscripted troops.) The Austrians and Prussians, surprised at the steadfastness of their enemy, declined to attack the French line and retreated from French territory.

The battle, scholars note, was a vital moment in the development of a new idea: nationalism. It was the place, writes sociologist Rogers Brubaker, where "war and nationhood were first expressly linked and mutually energized." Historian David Inglehart writes,

In prevailing against the vaunted might of the Austro-Prussian army the French experienced the first stirrings of an intense national pride that would eventually carry them to victory after victory and ultimately change the nature of warfare. No longer undertaken on behalf of ruling elites, in time to come wars would be waged by increasingly massive national armies (largely on the French model) expressive of the will of whole societies....At least two eye-witnesses to the encounter at Valmy seemed to recognize in its results an immediate shift in the European balance of power. (Col. Massenbach, an officer of the Austro-Prussian allies) would write of the French: "You will see how those little cocks will raise themselves on their spurs....We have lost more than a battle. The 20th September has changed the course of history." The poet and dramatist Wolfgang Goethe responded in a more magnanimous vein: "From this place and from this day forth commences a new era in the world's history."....Having already begun to embrace many of the ideas and attitudes associated with the French Revolution, from his vantage point on the hill at Valmy Goethe had experienced first-hand the power of those new ideas and attitudes in the wildly cheering French soldiers who had opposed him – and all of the feudal arrangements of the past – with such enthusiastic audacity.

Nationalism, a complex and endlessly-discussed historical concept, is an attitude, a state of mind, a mental spirit, a zeitgeist. It's an "organizational culture," to use the phrase of Anthony D. Smith. It's a subtle agreement among a people - Lincoln used the word "mystic" - about the nature and importance of the nation, in contrast to the dictates of a ruler to a people. It often contains an element of superiority – note the phrase used above by Inglehart, "intense national pride." And, notes historian John Lukacs, "nationalism is....aggressive."

Lukacs calls nationalism "the principal force of the twentieth century....the most potent force in the world." Historian Robert Darnton calls nationalism "the most destructive force" in geopolitics over the last two centuries. Historian Conor Cruise O’Brien gives nationalism its due when he says, "There is nothing more dangerous in history than humiliated nationalism." (The 20th century’s most significant example of this is Germany after World War I.) Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. calls nationalism "the most vital political emotion in the world – far more vital than social ideologies such as communism or fascism or even democracy."

What are the sources of nationalism? Scholars ponder and debate the question. Ernest Gellner (1925-95) and Anthony D. Smith (1928- ) are essential contemporary theorists of nationalism. Carlton J.H. Hayes (1882-1964) is a leading historian of the topic. (See also the books listed below.)

In the 21st century, the concept of religious nationalism has taken on new global urgency. Sociologist Roger Friedland wrote in 2001, "We today confront the apparently premodern specter of religious nationalism....states armed with powers of the divine."

Journalist Evan Osnos, writing about China in The New Yorker (July 28, 2008), describes a prediction by Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT's Media Laboratory and an early "ideologist" of the Internet:

(Negroponte) predicted that the global reach of the Web would transform the way we think about ourselves as countries. The state, he predicted, will evaporate "like a mothball, which goes from solid to gas directly," and "there will be no more room for nationalism than there is for smallpox."

In China, Osnos notes, "things have gone differently....The Internet had barely taken root in China before it became a vessel for nationalism."

See the article "Valmy" by John A. Lynn in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History (Autumn, 1992) and the article "Valmy" by Alvin D. Coox in Military Affairs (Winter, 1948). See also "The French Revolution" by Alan I. Forrest (1992), "The French Revolution: A History" by Thomas Carlyle (1837), "The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon" by Gunther E. Rothenberg (1977), "The Army of the French Revolution: From Citizen-Soldiers to Instrument of Power" by Jean-Paul Bertaud (1989), and "The Bayonets of the Republic: Motivation and Tactics in the Army of Revolutionary France, 1791-94" by John A. Lynn (1996). Also, see "A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution" edited by Francois Furet and Mona Ozouf (1988; translated by Arthur Goldhammer). See also "Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity" by Liah Greenfeld (1992), "Nationalism in the Age of the French Revolution" edited by Otto Dann and John Dinwiddy (1988), "Nationalism" edited by John Hutchinson and Anthony D. Smith (1995), "Encyclopedia of Nationalism" edited by Alexander Motyl (2000, two volumes), and "Nationalism and the State" by John Breuilly (1993). See also "Quest for Empire: A History of the Napoleonic Wars" by David Inglehart (1998, CD-ROM) and "The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State" by Mark Juergensmeyer (1993).

On October 21, 1805, off the coast of Spain, warships led by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson defeated the Combined Fleet of France and Spain, ensuring that Napoleon would not be able to invade Britain, and giving the Royal Navy command of the world’s seas for more than a century.

The battle began at about 1 p.m. It was not visible from shore; it occurred some 20 to 30 miles off the coastline.

Nelson, the greatest British hero of his day, led 27 ships against a squadron of 33 vessels. As the fighting commenced, he paced the quarterdeck of his flagship, Victory, about 35 yards from sharpshooters on a French ship. Nelson felt it crucial to his ship's morale that he expose himself without showing fear. A mortal bullet came sometime between 1:15 and 1:35. He dropped him to the pine planks and diagnosed the wound accurately: "My backbone," he gasped, "is shot through."

He was carried below and probably dosed with a painkiller such as laudanum (descriptions by writers of his "three hours of agony" are almost certainly exaggerated). Fighting continued. The outcome was never in doubt once the more experienced British crews got close to their foes and put to work their faster and more accurate gunnery. Shortly after 4 p.m., Nelson was informed that the Royal Navy was victorious. He lingered for a few more minutes, his lungs filling with blood. He said, "Thank God, I have done my duty” - one of the better exit lines in military history - and he died.

Never again would Napoleon venture a major sea battle against the British. On land, however, the emperor’s gifts were so formidable, and his manpower so vast, that the Brits and their allies required another 10 years to defeat him.

Trafalgar was the "last great encounter" of the age of fighting sail, notes military historian John Keegan. During this 250-year period, guns, wooden ships, and skilled sailors combined to make the world’s most formidable weapon (and probably the most interesting weapon of all history). Nelson’s victory, and the result at Waterloo in 1815, gave Britain momentum to build the largest and most powerful empire since Rome.

The historian and naval officer Alfred Thayer Mahan turned a nice phrase in 1892 about British naval prowess in the Nelson years and its impact on Napoleon’s ambitions: “Those far distant, storm-beaten ships upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the dominion of the world.”

See here for an interview with Nelson expert Tom Pocock. A sense of Trafalgar's intensity can be gotten from the film "Master and Commander" (2003); the film doesn't depict Trafalgar but does show the fury of fighting sail.

See "Trafalgar: The Nelson Touch" by David Howarth (1969), "Trafalgar: The Men, the Battle, the Storm" by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig (2004), "The Trafalgar Companion: A Guide to History's Most Famous Sea Battle and the Life of Admiral Nelson" by Mark Adkin (2005), and "Horatio Nelson" by Tom Pocock (1994 new edition). See also "The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain: 1649-1815" by N.A.M. Rodger (2004), "For God and Glory: Lord Nelson and His Way of War" by Joel Hayward (2003), "Maritime Power and the Struggle for Freedom: Naval Campaigns That Shaped the Modern World, 1788-1851" by Peter Padfield (2003), "Nelson: Love & Fame" by Edgar Vincent (2003), and "The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare" by John Keegan (1988; examines Trafalgar, Jutland, Midway and the Battle of the Atlantic of World War II). The aftermath of Trafalgar is the subject of "Stopping Napoleon: War and Intrigue in the Mediterranean" by Tom Pocock (2005). See also "The Seafarers: Fighting Sail" by A.B.C. Whipple and the Editors of Time-Life Books (1978), part of the Time-Life series "The Seafarers," which includes well-written, spectacularly-illustrated books on a number of aspects of maritime life. Sadly, Time-Life quit publishing book series in 2001; many of its volumes are out of print but can sometimes be found through libraries, the Internet (e-Bay and craigslist are good sources), and used bookstores such as Powell’s ( Among the Time-Life history series: "World War II," "The Civil War," "The Old West," "Epic of Flight," "The Vietnam Experience," "Great Ages of Man," "This Fabulous Century," and "What Life Was Like. Time-Life books represent, in toto, the finest large-scale, wide-ranging, general-interest, illustrated history book project ever undertaken.

December 2, 1805,
in present-day Czechoslovakia. Napoleon and the French defeated an Austro-Russian army.


Historian John Macdonald calls Austerlitz "the most tactically perfect" of Napoleon’s triumphs, demonstrating the general’s ability to make his enemy do exactly what he wanted it to do.

Shortly before the fighting began, Napoleon purposely abandoned the important Pratzen Heights, a gently sloping hill. Russians and Austrians (the Allies) seized this high ground and made it their center. Napoleon then gave a false impression of weakness on his right flank. The Allies, delighted, moved some of their troops off the heights to try to take the French right, a move Napoleon expected. French forces stormed and seized the hill, to the bewilderment of the Allies, whose center was now destroyed.

Who was this man, Napoleon Bonaparte, who could seemingly command enemy armies to do his will?

He was the most important man in the world for almost a generation, from the late 1790s to his defeat at Waterloo in 1815. He organized and focused the immense human energy unleashed by the French Revolution.

French revolutionaries decreed,

The young men shall fight; married men will manufacture weapons and transport stores; women shall make tents and nurse in the hospitals; children shall turn old linen into lint; the old men shall repair to the public squares to raise the courage of the warriors and preach the unity of the Republic and hatred against the kings.

This idea, of everyone participating in the life of the nation, was something new in world history. It excited people in a thousand towns and villages, making them feel a part of things. Young men came to believe that to die for France was good and glorious. (One precept of the revolution was that every man could rise through the army's ranks and become an officer. This was upward mobility of the first order.) Napoleon, in turn, made himself the embodiment of France. To die not just for France but for the emperor, to die saluting him, became an end devoutly desired. (See "Valmy," above.)

Was Napoleon a liberal conqueror spreading the ideals of the revolution or was he a proto-fascist? On the one hand, he was a firm believer in equality of opportunity, and he improved education and law in his empire. But he also allowed France to become a police state (a restrained one, by later standards). He was willing to watch vast numbers of soldiers die to fulfill his need for greatness. A "whiff of grapeshot" that tore human beings to pieces was nothing to him. To be sure, he was not Stalin or Hitler, not remotely - he "did not massacre helpless civilians," writes historian A.J.P. Taylor, "perhaps because the idea did not occur to him." But he was a ruthless precedent for the 20th century's dictators.

He was "clearly the most extraordinary man I ever saw," said Talleyrand, who saw almost everyone who mattered. He was "the finest master of controlled complexity and coordinated energy in history," say historians Will and Ariel Durant in "The Age of Napoleon," a volume in "The Story of Civilization" (1975). (See here for a long excerpt on Napoleon by the Durants.)

Then there's the perspective offered by critic and essayist John Weightman in 2002: "The more one reads about the Napoleonic Empire, the more tawdry and ramshackle it seems. How has it become the stuff of legend, unless humanity in general has an instinctive reverence for the naked exercise of power?" And there's this thought from A.J.P. Taylor: Napoleon "provided the most exciting epoch of modern history (but) there are many other historical figures with a stronger claim to greatness and whom it is easier to admire."

Napoleon was not unusually short. "The widespread notion of his shortness," writes Arno Karlen in "Napoleon’s Glands" (1984), "comes from inaccurate translation of old French feet, or pieds de roi; the French measure of five foot two recorded at autopsy actually translates into five feet six and one half inches in English measure" - slightly above average for a Frenchman of the era. See here for more on his height.

Best Film About Napoleon: "Napoleon" (1927)

Best Film Portrayal of Napoleon:
Philippe Torreton in
"Monsieur N." (2003)

Best Napoleonic Battle Scenes: "War and Peace"
(1967, Russian)

Best Film Portrayal of Wellington:
Christopher Plummer in
"Waterloo" (1971)

Best Napoleon Film Never Made: Stanley Kubrick's

See "Napoleon" by Georges Lefebvre (1969 two volumes, translated by Henry F. Stockhold and J.E. Anderson), "Napoleon Bonaparte: His Rise and Fall" by J.M. Thompson (1952), "Napoleon: A Biography" by Frank McLynn (2002), and "How Far From Austerlitz? Napoleon 1805-1815" by Alistair Horne (1998). The best short biography is "Napoleon" by Felix Markham (1964). See also "The Emperor Industry" by A.J.P. Taylor, The New York Review of Books, December 18, 1969. For additional reading suggestions on Napoleon see "Waterloo" in Part Three of this article.

-The End-

This is a Part Two of a five-part article. Each section describes 10 battles; the article is organized chronologically from the 1500s forward.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

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