The Great Battles: 50 Key Battles from the Ancient World to the Present Day

Gary Sheffield on a colourful chronicle of warfare’s key moments

The Great Battles: 50 Key Battles from the Ancient World to the Present Day
Author: Giles MacDonogh
Publisher: Quercus
Reviewed by: Gary Sheffield
Price (RRP): £25

Publishers are frequently drawn to coffee-table books on military history, and The Great Battles is a particularly handsome example of the genre. Written by the popular author Giles MacDonogh, the book covers 50 battles, the earliest being Megiddo in 1456 BC, and the most recent being the 1956 Israeli campaign in the Sinai (which isn’t exactly “the present day” of the subtitle). 

Each battle is covered in six or so pages, with narrative text supported by colour maps, full colour illustrations, and photographs (colour and black and white). The result is a visual treat: two paintings by Carl Röchling, of Frederick the Great’s troops at Leuthen (1757) and Prussian infantry at Königgrätz (1866), are particularly impressive.

Most of the usual suspects are present (Cannae, Gettysburg, Waterloo, D-Day) and it is good to see some less obvious subjects being covered (Laufeldt, Tel-el-Kebir, Korsun-Shevchenkovsky pocket in 1944). It is strange, in commercial terms if no other, that the First World War battles of the Somme and Passchendaele are omitted; Anzac Cove (Gallipoli) is presumably included in deference to the Antipodean market.

Some entries are better than others. It is startling to be told that Napoleon in 1812 had “just one nut to crack: Mother Russia” to achieve complete “domination of continental Europe”, when major operations were taking place in decidedly unsubdued Spain and Portugal. Just as strange is the assertion that “Dunkirk [1940] is often seen as a logistical victory” – I have absolutely no idea what that is supposed to mean.

However the prize goes to the assertion that “Tanks had first been used by the British at the Battle of Cambrai in November–December 1917”; actually tanks were first deployed by the British army on the Somme in September 1916.

Such sloppy errors are particularly regrettable, given that this book could well be a child’s introduction to military history. The Great Battles is entertaining, but needs to be used with caution. 

Gary Sheffield is professor of war studies at the University of Birmingham

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