World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          

Book Review


Davis, Paul K. 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present (Oxford University Press, 1999). 462 pp, maps, illustrations, $18.95.

     There is a long (some would say problematic) tradition of approaching military history from the standpoint of battles, and numerous dictionaries or encyclopedias have been produced from such a perspective. Oftentimes, these works give bare bones accounts in language more suited to academy cadets than general historians, and conspicuously omit the wider historical currents in which their battles waged. It is thus refreshing that Paul Davis offers the historical context so badly needed to appreciate the importance of military actions, and that he does so in an approachable, largely jargon-free style. 1
     I won't spend time criticizing Davis for omitting or including any particular battle. That formative debate already took place on H-WAR back in 1997, and is readily available to anyone interested (please refer to What Davis lacks in breadth of coverage, however, is compensated for by depth. Arranged chronologically, each entry has been written as an "article" (p. xi) of 1500-2000 words. The organization and treatment of every article is consistent: forces engaged, thumbnail importance statement, historical setting, the battle, results, and references. Numerous maps, illustrations and sidebars appear as well, though not for each entry. 2
     Davis necessarily spends about half a page giving a three-part definition of "decisive." First, he states, the result of a decisive battle was a "major political or social change." The logical corollary, then, is that the reverse outcome of any such battle would similarly have brought about drastic political or social change. And third, a decisive battle might demark a "major change in warfare" (p. xi). 3
     Fair enough. But curiously, Davis never goes on to define his next titular word, namely, "battle." Just what is a battle? The necessity of explaining the term becomes apparent throughout the text. Some entries, such as Marathon (490 B.C.), Hastings (1066) or Waterloo (1815), seem discreet enough events in time and place. But others like Tenochtitlán (1521), Atlanta/March to the Sea (1864), Poland (1939) or Israel's War of Independence (1948-49) dragged on sporadically for weeks, months, or years, and ranged over hundreds of miles of territory. What are the common features uniting all these events as "battles"? Preferable terms would have been "campaigns" or "military actions." 4
     The matter gets even murkier if we consider the role of the siege—itself a vague term—in many of Davis's battle entries. Jerusalem (1099) appears to have been a siege in the classic sense. Many other military actions focusing on the capture of cities (e.g., Singapore [1942]) or fortified positions (e.g., Verdun [1916]) seem better designated as sieges, too. Moreover, there is the matter of "decisive battles" taking place primarily because armies had set their sights on taking a city or fortress, or clashed over a siege already in progress. These are matters that Davis has possibly taken up in his more recent publication, 100 Great Sieges from Jericho to Sarajevo (Oxford University Press, 2003), though I admit to not having consulted the latter work. 5
     Despite the martial topic, and to his credit, Davis has prudently included the wider background so important for understanding each battle. For example, although I was initially skeptical about Davis's inclusion of Pearl Harbor (1941) as "decisive," I was pleasantly surprised to find him discussing Japan's quest for natural resources, its movements in China, its eroding diplomatic relations with the United States, long-term Japanese strategic considerations, and American codebreaking and intelligence failures – all before even arriving at a discussion of the attack. Rather than a simple listing of casualty figures, Davis's "results" sections are equally responsible in explaining both the short- and long-term historical implications. 6
     Inevitably, anyone attempting to cover such a broad swath of history will run into trouble with specialists. For instance, concerning medieval battles, Davis clings to an outdated model where heavy cavalry ruled the field. Adrianople (378) was decisive because "the horse soldier became the dominant military figure in Europe for the next thousand years" (p. 86). Yet at Hastings in 1066, we read of Duke William's cavalry repeatedly being thrown back by the Anglo-Saxon infantry (pp. 115-16; the shield wall only broke because of a well-planned ruse and Norman archers). More generally, while medievalists don't deny the role of cavalry, they have come to seriously question its centrality, especially considering the crucial position of siege warfare. And the dated nature of some of Davis's reference sections will raise some eyebrows. 7
     Whether or not this book is suited for world historians and their classes will depend on instructors' aims and interests. The book is billed as "the world's major battles and how they shaped history" (cover), but global historians will immediately detect a Western penchant. True, there are battles here that were fought neither in the West, nor by Western armies. But those are the exceptions that prove the rule. A large global map with each battle site marked by number would help readers know the geographic spread of treatment, as would a listing of battles by geographic area. In later editions, Davis might also think about including an exact modern location for each battle site in the entry's title, rather than burying it below in the text. Such additions could only fortify what is already a welcome contribution to the field. 8
Peter Burkholder, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin-Stout

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2004 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use