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Gamer’s Bookshelf: Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World

April 23rd, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Gamer's Bookshelf

As every game journalist knows, nothing gets eyeballs like a list. Ten most important this. Fifteen least appreciated that. Fifty sexiest. Hundred scariest. So it’s sort of right and proper to pay homage to one of the first big “list” books, the one that earned its otherwise negligible author eternal fame.

Sir Edward Creasy was an Oxford History professor and Imperial functionary in Ceylon who, in 1852, compiled a book accounting the fifteen most important battles in world history. The list itself is not particularly remarkable. It has few surprises for the amateur historian; let’s be honest – how many lists actually astound us with their conclusions? Like any list, it tells as much about the listmaker as it does about the putative subject.

Let’s get the battles out of the way. In chronological order, Creasy chose:

Marathon (490 BCE)
Syracuse (413 BCE)
Arbela/Gaugamela (331 BCE)
Metaurus (207 BCE)
Teutoberg Forest (9)
Chalons (451)
Tours (732)
Hastings (1066)
Orleans (1429)
Spanish Armada (1588)
Blenheim (1704)
Pultowa (1709)
Saratoga (1777)
Valmy (1792)
Waterloo (1815)

First things first. This is really the Fifteen Decisive Battles in Places My Oxford Students Care About. This is a very European list. Considering the nature of history education in 19th century Britain, we shouldn’t have expected otherwise. And let’s not pretend that only Europeans and Americans are narrowly focused on their own cultural history. But as a list, you can make some objections right off the bat. Why Tours, where Charles Martel defeated the Moors and not Hattin (1187), where Saladin effectively ended any chance of the Crusades working? What of Talas (751) where an Arab army destroyed a Chinese force and captured paper makers? Where is Yique (293 BCE) where the Qin leader conquered two armies on his way to unifying China? These battles simply weren’t part of the area of interest of Creasy and his age, not to mention the lack of materials to write from. For many non-Western battles, we have little to go on besides knowledge that there was, in fact, a battle.

But even as a European list it is incomplete. Tenochtitlan (1519) jump started the conquest of all Latin America. Plassey (1757) finalized British control of India. Magnesia (190 BCE) made Rome the arbiter of the East. Milvian Bridge (312) was won by a Roman army under a Christian banner.

Part of it is that the list is a very English list, too. Six of the eight battles from Hastings forward have England as a major player. It only loses at Orleans and Saratoga. There is a curious lack of naval battles for such an Anglo concoction, but the interests of England as a continental player are front and center. Even Teutoberg Wald is spun as an English win since the survival of a German nation means a survival of the Angles and Saxons as a non-Latin people.

So what makes a battle “decisive”? For Creasy, a decisive battle is one that marks the beginning of a trend or foreshadows an alteration in a state of affairs. Though Marathon would be followed by larger encounters between the Greeks and Persians, it was at Marathon that “Greek superiority had been already asserted, Asiatic ambition had already been checked, before Salamis and Platea confirmed the superiority of European free states over Oriental despotism.” (The entire book reeks of Orientalism.) The hubris before Syracuse presages the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War. Orleans reinvigorates French resistance to English rule. Saratoga gives the American rebels the credibility they need to attract foreign allies. This is why Agincourt (1415), Jena (1806) and Pharsalus (48 BCE) don’t make the list – none were a taste of things to come.

As history, it’s nothing that would get you tenure today. Original research was still no requirement for respectability. And it’s not clear if it would even be a best seller as popular history. Creasy’s prose veers to the purple. Check this passage from the description of Hastings.

Let us therefore suffer the old Norman chronicler to transport our imaginations to the fair Sussex scenery, north-west of Hastings, with its breezy uplands, its grassy slopes, and ridges of open down swelling inland from the sparkling sea, its scattered copses, and its denser glades of intervening forests, clad in all the varied tints of autumn, as they appeared on the morning of the fourteenth of October, seven hundred and eighty-five years ago.

I’m opening my next review like that.

Creasy likes telling stories about how unlikely the victories were. Philip II was the most powerful man in the world in 1588, he assures us, made all the more strong because his people were raised in self-government but now guided by a despotic mind. (The former leads to discipline, the latter to direction.) Alexander was outnumbered and deep in Persian territory. Waterloo was fought against the greatest general of the age. And it is certainly true that some of these triumphs seem inevitable only in retrospect. But his bias towards stunning reverses obscures the almost certain truth of military history, that few struggles are as close as dramatists would have us believe.

Ever since Creasy, people have tried to add to his list, just as some misguided souls continue to look for new Wonders of the World. The list makers assume the original as canon, and then try to update, as if such a new list could ever achieve notoriety. Additions typically include Gettysburg (1863), Vicksburg (1863), Sedan (1870), The Marne (1914), Warsaw (1920), Stalingrad (1942), and D-Day (1944). There are also “pet” suggestions that make the rounds from the Tet Offensive (1968) to San Jacinto (1836).

What a lot of the additions lack, however, is an understanding of the theme of Creasy’s book. Hastings and Arbela excepted, every battle listed represents in some vague way a triumph of self-government over foreign domination. The foreign invaders are invariably portrayed as monstrous, and if he can use the phrase “Oriental despotism” he will. Even though Alexander is the invader in Arbela, the reader is encouraged to cheer for him since he brings world unification under an enlightened monarch trained by Aristotle himself. Creasy is as sure of democratic progress as he is that the sun will rise in the morning. Though the book is written in episodic chapters, the teleology is clear. It is this that gives his book and his list longevity and unity.

The influence of Creasy’s masterpiece on the wargaming world is subtle. Waterloo has certainly been designed to death, as has Arbela/Gaugamela. Both battles are well-documented, so there is little debate about what the battlefield should look like before the first advance. Both have compelling commanders with whom conquerors in training have been encouraged to identify. “Decisive” turns out to not necessarily mean “popular”.

Creasy’s theme that wars are near-run things won by discipline and leadership survives. Close battles are more interesting to play than blow-outs, certainly, but it does mean that wargaming forums tend to be full of counterfactual discussions like “How could the Germans have won WW2?” or “What if Hannibal had marched on Rome after Cannae?” Both questions imply that long wars are won and lost in a moment, when most of the time they are not. This is not to say that wars have inevitable outcomes; giants can lose if they take their eyes off the ball (check out Afghanistan at the moment) or if they make some miscalculations early on (Vietnam, Iraq today, the Soviets in Afghanistan). But no one wants to wargame counter-insurgency.

The enduring theme of Creasy is that lists sell. We are inundated with lists. We mark decades and centuries by compiling what moments or individuals mattered. We rank things in order of probability or popularity. We insist on getting things down in the right order.

The entertainment media is almost nothing but lists. 100 Sexiest Celebrities. 50 Greatest Sitcoms. And the gaming press is probably most guilty of this, especially online. No one wants to read a serious, in-depth feature at their computer screen, but they will click through a list. And the lists generally have little explanation, rationale, or even text. I guarantee that if I made a list of the 25 Most Important Strategy Games, it would drive my traffic for two or three days. You can make a list that makes no sense and people will read that, too. And hopefully get a little annoyed.

I can’t promise that I will never make a list. You can’t avoid them, and sometimes they are useful. But I ask all future list makers to be as careful with your thematic consistency as Creasy was. And a little more aware of your biases.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • Kalle

    No mention of Pultowa at all besides the list itself? For shame Troy, you have really disappointed your Swedish readers today.

  • Troy

    I didn’t want to make you cry.

    Pultowa is probably one of Creasy’s most unusual choices. I wonder if it would even have made his list if he had compiled it twenty or thirty years later. Russia beats Sweden – no great shocker, especially since Charles XII, a tactical genius but lousy strategist, got himself into a logistical nightmare. Then he runs to Turkey for help.

    Even without Pultowa, it’s not likely that Charles’ influence in Europe would have lasted beyond his lifetime.

  • JonathanStrange

    What about Breitenfeld? Or Assaye? Or…don’t get me started. :) I love lists too – for amusement more than for definitiveness. (Is that a word?) Creasy’s Decisive battles for those few military buffs around still is a fun read. Though I now prefer those “What if…” books personally.

  • GyRo567

    Game lists are like Family Guy’s media references. It’s the “lite” version of history – without the relevance.

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