Book Review: The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World

The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: from Marathon to Waterloo, by Edward Shepherd Creasy

In choosing a list of decisive battles or noteworthy battles [1], there are some serious difficulties that one faces. This fact, a critical problem today, was even more a case in the 19th century, where national history was such an overwhelming concern that it is little surprise that so many of the battles chosen appear to be decisive not necessarily from a global perspective but from an English perspective. Indeed, someone like Victor Davis Hanson could very easily write the same sort of work today with the same general approach, many of the same battles, and many of the same textual sources in his research. What was acceptable in the 19th century is not always so, and there are some parts of this book, like the author’s obvious Anglo-Saxon ethnic pride, or his racialism insofar as it relates to other European nations, to say nothing of his mortifying and broad social judgments on other peoples, like the Syrians, for example.

That said, if you can accept this book as a product of its time, there is much to appreciate here. The book is well-written, has chosen its source material and battles well (again, given its context), and often has a sense of poetry as well as humanity and decency. The author writes about battles and war, but recognizes the horrors that provoke conflict and also mark its conduct. No one reading this book will think that the author glorifies bloodshed, but neither does the author shirk the unpleasant truth that sometimes conflict is necessary because we live in a fallen world that is bent by evil. The battles chosen are generally of two kinds–either they are battles of a national nature (Orleans, Syracuse, Waterloo, Blenehim, Saratoga) or of a conflict between different civilizations (Marathon, Tours, Chalons). Some of the explanations are lengthy, and some are very short. In all cases, where the author can find a source that humanizes the conflict, though, this instinct is chosen, and it is a good instinct to have as it makes this a more excellent book even with its flaws.

The largest flaw in this book, though, is the book’s focus on Western battles to the exclusion of the decisive conflicts of other civilizations. For example, the battles that preserved Japanese independence from Mongol invasion were truly decisive in world history, as was the battle of the Talas River that spread papermaking to the Middle East and that gave the Chinese empire a permanent Muslim problem in Central Asia. To be sure, many other battles could be chosen that had a dramatic effect on some part of the world. An exercise in writing about great generals or decisive battles is likely to be immensely arbitrary, especially because what is truly decisive cannot always be known until long after the fact, and that which seems to be of enduring importance can sometimes end up being ephemeral, while that which seems minor and insignificant can end up being of pivotal importance. Read today, this book provokes a question of what important battles were neglected, which in turn should provoke the writing and release of even better books which serve to balance the flaws of this august volume, hopefully without losing its virtues.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations, Military History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Makers Of History: Genghis Khan | Edge Induced Cohesion

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