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.
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 http://www.h-net.org/~war/).
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.
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).
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."
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 ) or fortified positions (e.g., Verdun ) 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.
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
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.
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.
Peter Burkholder, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin-Stout