This fine selection of decisive battles contains some unfamiliar names, says Claus von Billow
Decisive Battles by John Colvin Headline £20
The author of this fascinating book, John Colvin, writes with elegance and expertise about man's technical progress over the last 2,500 years in killing his neighbours with increasingly effective weapons of mass destruction. He has selected over a score of encounters that were indubitably decisive. Since, however, both historians and their readers change their sense of priorities, it is of interest to see to what extent we agree with Colvin's selection, and indeed with that of earlier anthologists, such as Creacy in 1858. Fuller in 1956 and Keegan today.
It is, for instance, now recognised that, whereas El Alamein was perhaps "the end of the beginning" and did change the morale of the British Army at the time, it was not, in perspective, historically decisive. Conversely, there were decisive battles, which still did not secure ultimate success for the victor in a war. The German victory at Tanncnbcrg in 1914 decisively eliminated the risk of the Czarist armies invading East Prussia, and was also a decisive factor in the Russian Revolution three years later. The Japanese triumphs in Malaysia and Singapore were decisive in that they indirectly brought about the end of the British Empire, and also the Dutch and French colonial interests in the Far East, but did not prevent the later decisive defeat of the Japanese Navy at Midway (1942).
Another confrontation in Asia, the Battle of Nomonhan in 1939, has already been the subject of a full-length book by Colvin, and rightly so, since it has the merit of being unknown to addicts of the television versions of World War II, and also of being exceptionally decisive.
The military government of Japan had defeated the Czarist forces in 1904 and 1905. had conquered large areas of China, and was hungry for raw materials and Lebensraum. In 1939, therefore, the Japanese once again attacked the despised Russians on the Mongolian-Manchurian border. They were quickly defeated by Marshal Zhukov, and therefore turned their aggression towards the American, British and other Western areas of influence in the Far East. As a result, Stalin would later be able to concentrate his forces fighting the Wehrmacht invaders in the West. Since the defeat of Nazi Germany would have been impossible without both the Soviet Union and the United States, one cannot imagine a battle with more unforeseen consequences than Nomonhan.
In the current post-9/11 climate, it is natural that we should look for guidance in early religious and cultural confrontations between East and West. Colvin gives us plenty of these, in chronological order: the defeat of Xerxes by the Greeks at Salamis (480 ac) and of Darius by Alexander at Gaugamela (331 Re); then the defeat of Attila's Huns at Chalons-surMarne (451 AD) and of the Moors by Charles Martel at Tour in 732 AD; and, in reverse, "Allah's victory", by Saladin
over the invading Crusaders in 1187. For an American edition it would be tempting to include a chapter on thc ancient tyrants of Babylon, such as Nebuchadnezzar and Hamurabi. The East-West confrontations continue with the homesick Mongols after the battles of Liegnitz and Mohi (1241) and with Sobieski defeating the Ottomans at Vienna in 1683.
Readers with a North-South bias will appreciate the Roman victories over Carthage at the Metaurus (207 BO and Zama (2020 ac) and the sad end of Dixieland in the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg (1863). Francophiles will celebrate Hastings (1066) and skip over Trafalgar (1805). (Incidentally, only a courageous former naval officer like Colvin would have ventured to compete with Salman Rushdie in describing the Prophet Mohammed as a "polygamous Quereshi trader".) Colvin is not a male chauvinist, and he pays tribute to Amazons and other female warriors. When the collaborationist male Parisians wanted to surrender to Attila, it was the prayers of St Genevieve which saved the city, just as, centuries later, it was Joan of Arc who repulsed the British.
A contemporary of St Genevieve was Honoria, the sister of the Emperor Valentinian, who was punished for sleeping with a court servant. In revenge, she sent a ring to Attilla, the dreaded Hun, offering herself in marriage. As he asked for half the Empire in dowry, he cannot have thought much of her; and in any case his defeat at Chalons-sur-Marne gave the
continent of Europe to the Romans and the Germans as,opposed to the Tartars.
Colvin wisely gives a short description of historical events between each of his selected battles so as to put the hostilities in perspective. His scholarship is evidenced by the multitude of names and facts, by 13 pages of index and 14 of bibliography. His sharp judgment is best demonstrated by two quotations. In the account of the Battle of Plessey, we come across the Nawah of Bengal. who is described as "perverted, ill-tempered, avaricious, dissipated, cunning and vicious". In the story of the Battle of Quebec we read that the Marquis de Vaudreuil wak "facile, corrupt, egotistic, cowardly and indecisive". Gibbon could not have said it better.