20 battles that shaped Britain

From Culloden to the Crimea, Salamanca to the Somme, National Army Museum experts offer their opinions on the most significant land battles in British history...

This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

Redcoats assault French artillery in a woodcut of the battle of Salamanca in 181

1) Cromwell ends monarchy’s supremacy for good 

 
The battle of Naseby, Northamptonshire, 14 June 1645
 
Combatants: Parliamentarians against royalists
Outcome: Decisive parliamentarian victory
 
Naseby won the First English Civil War (1642–46) for parliament and ensured that, whatever happened subsequently, the monarch would never again be supreme in British politics. It was a victory secured by parliament’s radically different New Model Army, a national fighting force not tied to a region or locality, and a prototype of the British Army of today. 
 
The battle was also a victory for the discipline that Oliver Cromwell instilled in his cavalry. Initially triumphant on the left, Prince Rupert’s royalist horsemen charged wildly off the battlefield in pursuit of their opponents. In contrast, Cromwell’s ‘Ironsides’, victorious on the opposite flank, rallied immediately and attacked the royalist infantry from behind. Although these had been getting the better of the parliamentarian foot soldiers, they now surrendered. 
 
The resulting defeat of King Charles I’s army was total, while Cromwell’s victory set the seal on his personal ascendancy.
 

2) Redcoats smash the French

 
The battle of Blenheim, Bavaria, 13 August 1704
 
Combatants: Britain and Austria against France and Bavaria
Outcome: British and Austrian victory
 
Blenheim was the turning point of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13), fought by a coalition of European states to contain French expansion. 
 
In 1704, French and Bavarian forces threatened Vienna, capital of Britain’s ally Austria. To counter this, the Duke of Marlborough marched his army of British, German and Danish troops 250 miles from the Low Countries to the river Danube, joining Austrian forces commanded by Prince Eugene. They faced the Franco-Bavarian army near the village of Blenheim.
 
Although outnumbered, Marlborough and Eugene attacked the French on both flanks. When the cautious French weakened their centre to deal with these threats, Marlborough smashed through it with his cavalry, splitting the enemy line in two. The French army suffered its first major defeat in 60 years, suffering 38,000 casualties.
 
Blenheim did not end the war, but it destroyed the myth of French invincibility and earned the British Army an enduring reputation for courage and discipline on the battlefield.
 

3) The Jacobites’ last stand

 
The battle of Culloden, northern Scotland, 16 April 1746
 
Combatants: Britain against Scottish Highlanders
Outcome: Decisive victory for the British Army
 
Culloden was the last battle fought on British soil. Prince Charles Edward, grandson of the deposed Roman Catholic Stuart king, James II and VII, raised the standard of rebellion in 1745. Supported by clansmen from the Scottish Highlands, he marched on London to regain the British throne. At Derby, he was forced to retreat to avoid being caught between two armies. 
 
In April 1746, overtaken by a British army twice their strength, the Highlanders gave battle on Culloden Moor near Inverness. Mercilessly cannonaded, they charged headlong, but met resolute British infantry and were then routed by cavalry. They lost 1,000 men killed; the British 50.
 
Cumberland’s brutality after the battle earned him the nickname of ‘The Butcher’, but the legend that has grown up around ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie cannot disguise the fact that even in Scotland there were more in arms against him than for him. 
 
Luke Sullivan’s coloured line engraving (after A Heckel) of the battle of Culloden, which shattered Jacobite dreams of returning a Stuart to the British throne. (National Army Museum)
 

4) Clive kick-starts the Raj

 
The battle of Plassey, Bengal, 23 June 1757
 
Combatants: Britain and the East India Company against the Nawab of Bengal and France
Outcome: British victory
 
Robert Clive’s victory at Plassey during the Seven Years’ War gave the East India Company control of Bengal, India’s richest province, paving the way for British rule over much of the subcontinent.
 
In 1756 the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj-ud-Daulah, a French ally, attacked the Company’s Bengal settlements, seizing Calcutta. Yet Clive soon retook the city, and marched on Siraj.
 
They met on 23 June 1757 near the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river. Clive was heavily outnumbered and outgunned. The early skirmishes were inconclusive and the battle evolved into an artillery duel. The British won after heavy rain soaked Siraj’s gunpowder – Clive’s gunners having covered theirs with tarpaulins. Mir Jafar, commanding the Nawab’s cavalry, then refused to fight, having been secretly bribed by the British. When Siraj was assassinated, Mir Jafar became Nawab and later ceded control of Bengal to the British.
 

5) Wolfe dies in his moment of triumph

 
The battle of Quebec, Canada 13 September 1759
 
Combatants: Britain against France
Outcome: British victory
 
General Wolfe’s daring victory over the French at Quebec temporarily united Canada and the 13 American colonies under the British crown, but also paved the way for American independence. It was a pivotal event in the Seven Years’ War, and of the 18th century – all the more celebrated for Wolfe’s heroic death at the moment of victory.
 
Wolfe used flat-bottomed landing craft to take 4,500 troops up the St Lawrence river at night. Landing south-west of Quebec, they scaled the precipitous cliffs up to the Plains of Abraham, surprising the French and drawing them out of the city and into battle. 
 
The British soldiers were experienced, well led and highly disciplined. Innovatively, they fought in two ranks rather than the usual three, spreading themselves across the battlefield. Each soldier loaded his firearm with two musket balls to deliver a ferocious initial volley. The French, their commander General Montcalm mortally wounded, were comprehensively defeated.
 

6) Americans bloody Britain’s nose 

 
The battle of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, 19 April 1775 
 
Combatants: Britain against American colonial rebels
Outcome: Short-lived British victory, then defeat
 
Described by the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson as the “shot heard ‘round the world”, the actions at Lexington and Concord gave American rebels the confidence to take on the British Army. 
 
Resentment at British rule of the 13 American colonies led to increasing unrest, countered by repressive measures. In April 1775 Massachusetts’s governor, General Thomas Gage, sent a force from Boston to Concord to seize arms being stockpiled by American colonists. Forewarned of this, local ‘minutemen’ (called out at a minute’s notice) stood their ground against the advance guard on Lexington Common. After an exchange of gunfire, the colonists fell back to Concord. 
 
When the British force arrived, they found most of the weapons had gone. A pitched battle ensued at North Bridge, and the now heavily outnumbered redcoats had to withdraw. The rebels harried the British all the way back to Boston and laid siege to the garrison. 
 
In June George Washington was given command of the Continental (American) army and full-scale conflict ensued.
 

7) Wellington shows his attacking genius

 
The battle of Salamanca, Castile, 22 July 1812
 
Combatants: An alliance of Britain, Spain and Portugal against France
Outcome: Substantial allied victory
 
Salamanca established Wellington’s reputation as a brilliant attacking general.
 
During the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15), Spain was the ideal battleground for the British Army. In an often-arid land where large armies starved, the French found it difficult to concentrate superior numbers against Wellington’s forces. And so it proved at Salamanca, where the allied army (consisting of British, Spanish and Portuguese troops) was just as large as its French adversary.
 
French marshal Marmont, observing dust rising behind high ground – Wellington habitually occupied a reverse slope – believed the allies were retiring. He hurried to cut off Wellington’s retreat. In fact, only the allied baggage train was on the move, while the allied troops remained hidden from view. 
 
Seeing the French strung out in their flanking movement, Wellington ordered a whirlwind attack: his army crested the ridge and shattered the enemy. French losses were twice those of the allies. Three weeks later, Wellington liberated Madrid.
 

8) Napoleon’s last roll of the dice

 
The battle of Waterloo, Belgium, 18 June 1815
 
Combatants: A coalition of the armies of Britain, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, Hanover, Brunswick, Nassau and Prussia against France
Outcome: Coalition victory
 
Waterloo brought down the final curtain on a war that had raged for 25 years. It was Napoleon’s last gamble for victory. Against him was an allied coalition that included Dutch, Belgian, Hanoverian and British regiments, led by the Duke of Wellington, whom Napoleon publicly derided as a commander. 
 
Napoleon waited for the ground to dry before attacking, but the initial assaults of Reille and D’Erlon’s corps were repulsed. Repeated charges by French cavalry then failed to break the defensive squares of allied infantry. Only the capture of the farmhouse of La Haye Sainte threatened Wellington’s position.
 
By late afternoon, the army of Prussian marshal Blucher started arriving to reinforce Wellington. Desperately, Bonaparte made a last throw to win the day. Across a field littered with dead and dying men, he launched the Imperial Guard. France’s elite stormed towards the British but were overwhelmed by shattering musket fire. A general retreat began, and the French army was routed. A few days later the emperor abdicated.
 

Denis Dighton’s watercolour from 1815 shows French cavalry attacking the British defensive squares at Waterloo, the battle that brought about Napoleon’s downfall. (National Army Museum)
 

9) Brilliant leadership thwarts the Sikhs

 
The battle of Aliwal, Punjab, 28 January 1846
 
Combatants: Britain and the East India Company against the Sikh empire
Outcome: British victory
 
Friction over territory in the Punjab resulted in a Sikh army invading British-held land. At Aliwal, a Punjabi village on the southern bank of the river Sutlej, the British and Sikh armies met in a fierce and bloody battle. The Sikh army was trained, run and equipped like a European force. British veterans of Waterloo who also fought at Aliwal described the fighting as being as tough as that with the French in 1815.
 
As a prelude, the Sikh cavalry captured most of the British baggage animals. The British commander, Sir Harry Smith, was praised for his exemplary leadership and textbook use of artillery, cavalry and infantry in the battle that followed. It began with an artillery duel in which the British softened the Sikh defences. This was followed up with infantry and cavalry attacks, leading to ferocious hand-to-hand fighting to secure victory.
 
Famously, the 16th Lancers repeatedly charged strong Sikh artillery, cavalry and infantry positions, covering themselves in glory but taking significant losses.
 

10) The Charge of the Light Brigade

 
The battle of Balaklava, Crimean peninsula, 25 October 1854
 
Combatants: Britain, France and the Ottoman empire against Russia
Outcome: Indecisive 
 
In October 1854, anxious to prevent Russia gaining access to the Mediterranean, Britain and its allies sent an expedition to the Crimea, where they laid siege to the important naval base of Sevastopol. Meanwhile, a relieving Russian army attacked the British supply port of Balaklava.
 
Although the Russians captured some British guns, their horsemen were turned back from Balaklava by the 93rd Highlanders and roughly handled by the British cavalry’s Heavy Brigade. Victory beckoned. Lord Raglan wanted the lost guns recaptured but repeated orders sent to Lord Lucan, his cavalry commander, were ignored. 
 
Eventually the impetuous Captain Nolan conveyed a fourth order. After a heated exchange, Lucan, unable to see what Raglan could from the heights above, ordered the Light Brigade to attack – in the wrong direction.
 
Aware of the danger, Lord Cardigan nevertheless led his brigade in charging the entire Russian army. It was cut to pieces. Lord Tennyson’s famous poem on this epic of heroism and incompetence ensures that it has never been forgotten.  
 

11) A heroic stand in the Zulu War

 
The defence of Rorke’s Drift, Natal, 22–23 January 1879
 
Combatants: Britain and the Colony of Natal against the Zulu Kingdom
Outcome: British victory against great odds, a positive counterpart to the disaster at Isandlwana
 
The heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift was one of the few redeeming features of the Zulu War. 
 
Having invaded Zululand in January 1879 to enforce a British ultimatum, Lieutenant-General Lord Chelmsford split his forces into three columns. At Isandlwana a large force of Zulus annihilated the camp of his centre column. They then turned to the nearby trading post at Rorke’s Drift, on the Natal side of the Buffalo (Mzinyathi) river. It was garrisoned by a small force of British troops with some African and colonial soldiers, commanded by a junior Royal Engineers officer. For 12 hours the Zulus mounted assaults on the makeshift barricades, but were kept at bay. Finally they retired. Eleven Victoria Crosses and four Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded to surviving soldiers for their bravery. 
 
With such terrible losses, Chelmsford’s initiative collapsed. He was forced to regroup, but the Zulus missed the opportunity to expel the invaders. The British finally defeated them at the battle of Ulundi on 4 July 1879.
 

12) Nations are forged on the battlefield

 
The battle of Gallipoli, Gallipoli peninsula (now Turkey), 25 April 1915–9 January 1916
 
Combatants: an alliance of the British empire and France against the Ottoman empire, Germany and Austria-Hungary
Outcome: Turkish victory
 
Gallipoli marked the birth of national consciousness for Australia and New Zealand.
 
When Russia appealed for their help in 1915, Allied planners proposed an offensive to force a route through the Dardanelles, to allow the Royal Navy into the Black Sea. It would capture the Gallipoli peninsula, knock Turkey out of the First World War and stretch German resources. The plan was accepted and so, commanded by British general Sir Ian Hamilton, the Allies staged the first major amphibious operation in modern warfare. 
 
Atatürk’s Ottoman forces held the ridge above Anzac Cove. Despite gallant actions by Australian and New Zealand forces – as well as by British, French and Indian troops across the peninsula –the Allies made little headway. After months of bitter fighting, taking heavy casualties for little gain, they decided to evacuate. 
 
The withdrawal was hugely successful: between December 1915 and January 1916 not a man was lost to the Turks. Gallipoli proved a defeat for the Allies, and Turkey continued the war on other fronts.
 

13) The bloodiest day in British history

 
The battle of the Somme, Picardy, 1 July–18 November 1916
 
Combatants: an alliance of the British empire and France against Germany
Outcome: Indecisive
 
The allies launched the 1916 Somme offensive in a concerted plan to attack on all fronts. It took on greater urgency with the need to relieve German pressure on the French at Verdun. The opening day of the attack, 1 July 1916, saw the British Army sustain 57,000 casualties, the bloodiest day in its history. The campaign included 12 battles, ending after a five-month struggle that failed to secure a breakthrough. For an advance of some seven miles, the Allies suffered over 600,000 casualties.
 
For many, the offensive exemplified futile slaughter and military incompetence. While General Haig’s tactics remain controversial, such views ignore the fact that the Somme was a tough lesson in how to fight a large-scale war. The tactics developed there, including the use of tanks and creeping barrage, laid some of the foundations of the Allies’ successful attacks in 1918.
 
And the campaign did give the French some breathing space at Verdun. Enemy casualties were equally heavy and, with a smaller pool of manpower, Germany was less able to sustain such losses.
 

The Territorials at Pozières, 23 July 1916 by William Barns Wollen. The Somme cost 600,000 Allied casualties. (National Army Museum)
 

14) Ottomans are crushed at Armageddon

 
The battle of Megiddo (Armageddon), Palestine (now Israel), 19–25 September 1918
 
Combatants: An alliance of the British empire, France and the Hejaz Kingdom against Germany and the Ottoman empire
Outcome: Decisive Allied victory
 
The summer of 1918 saw the Ottoman army on the defensive against the Allies. A charge of the Australian Light Horse at Beersheba had stunned them, opening the road to Jerusalem. The Ottomans regrouped at biblical Megiddo (Armageddon) hoping to counterattack. 
 
The British Egyptian Expeditionary Force’s commander, General Allenby, planned their destruction using his mobile warfare experience, skilfully deploying his forces to launch a surprise attack. British and Indian divisions battered the Ottomans at Sharon and Nablus before the Desert Mounted Corps used deception to encircle them and prevent escape. 
 
Then at Megiddo, Allenby launched a co-ordinated attack with cavalry, infantry, artillery, armour and aircraft. Over 25,000 Ottomans were killed, wounded or captured. Damascus, Beirut and Aleppo soon fell, and the Ottoman army capitulated. Megiddo saw the end of the 600-year-old Ottoman empire and Allied victory in the Middle East.
 

An Allied cavalry regiment at Damascus, 2 October 1918, following victory at Megiddo, a clash that consigned a 600-year-old empire to history. (National Army Museum)
 

15) Salvation in the desert

 
The second battle of El Alamein, Egypt, 23 October–4 November 1942
 
Combatants: the British empire and allies against Germany and Italy
Outcome: Decisive allied victory
 
El Alamein is one of the most celebrated British victories of the Second World War. After years of disasters, the multinational British 8th Army, under General Montgomery, finally succeeded in inflicting a decisive defeat upon Field Marshal Rommel’s Axis forces in north Africa.
 
Unlike other battles of the desert war, El Alamein was fought on a narrow front, which offered no possibility of flanking manoeuvres. Instead the 8th Army had to fight a bloody pitched battle in which they advanced slowly through dense minefields under a massive artillery bombardment in the teeth of ferocious enemy resistance. In a grinding battle of attrition, Montgomery used his superior resources to wear down the enemy before unleashing an armoured onslaught to effect a breakthrough that forced the Axis forces into full retreat.
 
While the strategic importance of the battle may have been overstated, the victory at El Alamein was a hugely important boost for British morale at this otherwise low point in the war.  
 

16) Allies storm France

 
D-Day and the battle for Normandy, northern France, 6 June–25 August 1944
 
Combatants: an alliance of USA, Canada and the British empire against Germany
Outcome: Allied victory
 
D-Day marked the start of the Allied invasion of Normandy, the long-awaited ‘second front’.
 
The greatest amphibious operation in history began with overnight parachute and glider landings, air attacks and naval bombardments – all aimed at disrupting German defences and transport. Over 5,000 ships and landing craft crossed the Channel and, early in the morning, American, British and Canadian troops landed on five beaches. The Allies achieved complete surprise and, although several beaches witnessed bloody fighting, by the end of the day 130,000 troops had made it ashore.
 
Despite being outnumbered and facing a better-resourced enemy, the Germans skilfully delayed Allied breakout attempts in the thick ‘bocage’ countryside. But, following the Anglo-Canadian capture of Caen in July, the Americans were able to extend their bridgehead and break out around Avranches. German counter-attacks failed and, following their victory at Falaise in late August, the Allies rapidly advanced on a broad front towards Belgium and Germany.
 

Troops wade ashore from landing craft at St Aubin-sur-mer, Juno beach, 6 June 1944. (National Army Museum)
 

17) Japanese hopes are dashed in the jungle

 
The battles of Imphal and Kohima, Manipur and Nagaland states (now India), 7 March–18 July 1944
 
Combatants: Britain and British India against Japan and the Indian National Army (INA)
Outcome: British and British Indian victory
 
Imphal and Kohima were the turning point of one of the most gruelling campaigns of the Second World War. In an attempt to forestall an Allied invasion of Burma, the Japanese launched an offensive into north-east India, aiming to capture Britain’s strategic base at Imphal. 
 
Moving swiftly through dense jungle, the Japanese converged upon Imphal from three sides. At the same time, they isolated the city by striking at the village of Kohima to the north. Hoping that their opponents would collapse in the face of such bold thrusts, Japanese plans began to unravel when, instead, the Allies held fast. The battle degenerated into a series of vicious close-quarter engagements, in which both sides displayed great tenacity. 
 
Critically short of supplies, the Japanese could not sustain the battle in the pitiless conditions of jungle warfare during the monsoon, and against such a resolute defence. The decisive Japanese defeat became the springboard for the 14th Army’s reconquest of Burma.
 

18) Defensive grit holds up the Chinese

 
Battle of the Imjin river, Imjin river (now South Korea), 22–25 April 1951
 
Combatants: United Nations (UN) against North Korea and China 
Outcome: Chinese offensive to capture the South Korean capital Seoul halted, leading ultimately to UN-brokered ceasefire
 
The Battle of the Imjin river was one of the most decisive defensive battles ever fought by the British Army.
 
In April 1951, the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) launched their spring offensive. In their path was the 29th British Independent Infantry Brigade Group, comprising the Northumberland Fusiliers, the Gloucestershire Regiment and the Royal Ulster Rifles. These battalions were situated on hilltop positions over a wide front. Facing them was the CCF 63rd Army. 
 
Supported by the Royal Artillery and a squadron of tanks, 29 Brigade fought off waves of Chinese infantry for three long nights. Eventually the order was given to withdraw. Both the Fusiliers and the Rifles fell back successfully under the covering guns of the tanks, but the Glosters were by now completely surrounded on Hill 235. Outnumbered ten to one, the ’Glorious Glosters’ fought on until overwhelmed. But the Chinese attack was broken. Hill 235 is known as ‘Gloster Hill’ to this day. 
 

19) 2 Para seize the initiative

 
The battle of Goose Green, the Falkland Islands, 28–29 May 1982
 
Combatants: Britain against Argentina 
Outcome: British victory
 
After many years of disputed sovereignty, the Falklands War erupted in 1982 when Argentina invaded ‘Las Islas Malvinas’. 
 
On 21 May, British forces landed on East Falkland and established a firm bridgehead. With mounting losses at sea, the high command sought to gain the initiative with a quick victory on land. The 2nd Battalion the Parachute Regiment was tasked with capturing the isolated settlements of Darwin and Goose Green. After an arduous night battle, they launched a frontal attack in daylight over open ground with virtually no cover and inadequate fire support. When the assault stalled in the face of heavy Argentine defensive fire, the commanding officer of 2 Para, Lieutenant Colonel Jones, led a daring attack against an Argentine machine gun position, during which he was killed.
 
Despite his death, the Paras continued the assault with renewed ferocity. Using classic fire and movement tactics, they fought their way into the heart of the Argentine positions. The enemy garrison surrendered at dawn on 29 May.
 

20) Surviving a siege 

 
Battle of Musa Qala, Northern Helmand Province, July 2006–February 2007
 
Combatants: International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghanistan against Afghan insurgents
Outcome: Inconclusive
 
The British Army returned to Afghanistan in December 2001 as part of the UN-authorised International Security Assistance Force, in an attempt to eradicate Al Qaeda and the Taliban. By 2006 insurgency was increasing and in Helmand Province the British Army met ferocious resistance from the Taliban. 
 
In June 2006, the Pathfinder Platoon of 16 Air Assault Brigade was deployed to Musa Qala to assist the local Afghan police. Based in a compound in the town centre, from July the Pathfinders were attacked by insurgents on an almost daily basis. They were effectively besieged, and resupply was only possible by helicopters flying in hazardous conditions. After 52 days, the Pathfinders were relieved following a full-scale battle group operation, having inflicted around 200 casualties on the enemy without incurring any losses themselves.
 
Despite withdrawing in 2007, ISAF retook Musa Qala when the Taliban resumed activity. Operations continue there today.  
 
The 20 battles listed here were shortlisted as part of a 2013 poll run by the National Army Museum to find out what the public viewed as Britain's greatest battle.

 

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