5 Military Battles That Changed the World

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In more than 2,500 years of recorded history there have been many events that changed the world and this has been especially true of battles. The outcome of battles usually brings local or regional consequences. However, sometimes a battle’s result alters world history. It may not be apparent at the time; sometimes only in retrospect does the importance of a battle become clear.


5. The Battle of Marathon

In the fifth century B.C. the city-states of Greece were experimenting with a novel form of government they called democracy, or rule by the people. This was strange to the surrounding tribes and imperial governments that traditionally relied on divine or divinely ordained kings to rule the masses. The Persian Empire was the regional superpower of the day and in 490 B.C. it sent a punitive expedition against the city-state of Athens to punish it for siding with one of Persia’s enemies. Some 600 ships carried as many as 30,000 troops into battle against 10,000 Greek hoplites, or citizen soldiers, mustered to defend Athens. Ignoring the prevailing wisdom, General Miltiades insisted on attacking the Persians on the plain of Marathon and routed the superior force, killing 6,000 Persians with the loss of only 192 Greeks. The Persians sought revenge by sailing to what they thought would be an undefended Athens. The Greeks, however, executed a forced march and covered the 26 miles in time to save the city from destruction. One of the cradles of Western civilization was preserved and early democracy survived to enlighten later generations. As an aside, that 26-mile distance between Marathon and Athens inspired the length for the modern marathon, established in the Olympics at Athens in 1896.


4. The Battle of Tours-Poitiers

The Battle of Tours-Poitiers saved Christendom in Europe from Muslim conquest.
Muslim armies had been sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa in the century since Muhammad relayed his revelations to his followers in the Arabian desert. Spain had fallen to Muslim invaders in 711 and their rulers looked north to the unfamiliar lands beyond the Pyrenees. Abdul Rahman was one such ruler who decided to probe the region with his cavalry forces, expecting ineffectual resistance and some easy plunder. The French, led by the Merovingian King Charles Martel, understood the military and religious importance of checking the Muslim advance any further into Christendom. Martel’s heavy infantry faced off against Rahman’s cavalry in 732 near an ancient Roman road that connected the towns of Tours and Poitiers. The French troops smashed the Muslims, killing Rahman in the fighting and sending the survivors hurrying back to Spain without their loot. For sparing France and perhaps much of Christian Europe the fate of Spain, Martel became known as Charles the Hammer.


3. The Battle of Trenton

Gen. George Washington's sneak attack on Trenton turned the tide of the American Revolution.

Photo credit: Emanuel Leutze painting, 1851

It’s not as strategically important as Saratoga or Yorktown, yet the Battle of Trenton in 1776 has held a special place in the American consciousness as reflected by Emmanuel Leutze’s iconic painting. General George Washington’s rag-tag mix of soldiers and militia had been nearly annihilated by superior British forces, who chased the Americans out of New York and across to the west bank of the Delaware River. With enlistments soon expiring for many of the troops, the struggling American Revolution seemingly needed a miracle, so Washington decided to make one. He gambled on a desperate nighttime raid across the freezing Delaware to New Jersey. On Christmas Eve 2,400 Americans in small boats rowed across the river to surprise a Hessian and British garrison at Trenton. They struck the sleeping enemy early Christmas morning, encountering sporadic resistance before seizing the town along with 1,000 prisoners. Though only a small tactical success, it was a tremendous psychological boost to the colonists and an embarrassing blow to the British. The victory convinced many on both sides that the war would continue and liberty would have a chance to endure.


2. The Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg ended the Confederacies hopes of victory in the Civil War.

Photo credit: Gettysburg, Currier and Ives, 1863

The fateful and terrible 1863 battle in the Pennsylvania countryside happened almost by accident when a Confederate foraging party looking for shoes stumbled upon Union forces. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee viewed it as an opportunity to inflict a heavy defeat on the Union Army, forcing the U.S. government to agree to a negotiated settlement that would leave the Confederacy and slavery intact. Against the advice of his commanders, Lee ordered repeated attacks against the entrenched Union line commanded by Gen. George Meade. Three days of fighting, July 1-3, 1863, produced 23,000 Union dead and wounded and 28,000 for the South who could afford the losses even less the North. Although General Meade failed to heed President Lincoln’s call to pursue Lee’s forces, it was a decisive victory that would spell the end for the Confederacy’s hopes of prevailing in the war. Four months later, Lincoln attended a ceremony for a cemetery at the battleground and gave a brief speech that is known today as the Gettysburg Address.


1. D-Day

The Invasion of Normandy launched on D-Day in 1944 broke the Germans.

Photo credit: Public domain

June 6, 1944 is one of the most important dates of the 20th century. The fortunes of the Allied powers in their struggle to release Europe from Hitler’s grip were in the balance. Germany had suffered grievous losses invading Russia, but on that gray June morning German defeat did not seem inevitable to the 160,000 American and allied soldiers wading ashore into a hail of withering machine gun and cannon fire. By mid-morning corpses were strewn all along the 50-mile stretch of Normandy beach and blood washed in on the surf, but the Allies pressed the assault. By the end of the day they had managed to fight their way off the beaches and secure a beachhead. An estimated 4,400 Allied soldiers were killed that day and as many as 9,000 Germans died trying to repel the invasion. This carnage on D-Day was only a first step in a long campaign that would end almost a year later when Allied forces accepted the unconditional surrender of a shattered Nazi Germany.

Written by

Mike Phelps earned a B.A. in history from the University of Connecticut and an M.A. in military history from Norwich University. He published a book about the War on Terror called A Short History of the Long War.