9 of the most overrated battles in history (and one underrated one)

From Bosworth and Bannockburn to the Battle of Britain, historian Sean Lang examines nine British battles accorded a decisive importance that, he argues, does not necessarily stand up to close scrutiny…

Dornier 217 bombers of the Luftwaffe bomb London during the Battle of Britain. "The crucial role of the RAF in denying the Germans control of the air in 1940 and therefore persuading Hitler to abandon his invasion plans is so well known that it might seem almost sacrilegious to question it, " says Sean Lang. "But was it solely responsible for saving Britain from invasion? Not quite." (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

To be overrated, a battle must be famous and have been generally regarded as decisive or of great historical significance. Of course, some battles, like those of the Crimean War, never had much reputation to start with; others, such as El Alamein, are genuinely debatable: a sideshow in the grand scheme of things, it helped turn the tide in the Second World War’s north African campaign and was of genuine value in stiffening British morale. Judging a battle to be overrated does not mean it was insignificant; still less does it deny the bravery and sacrifice of those who fought in it. It simply means that it has been accorded a decisive importance that does not necessarily stand up to close scrutiny. For reasons of space, I have restricted this exploration to battles from British history; other peoples can doubtless compile similar lists of their own.

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1

Julius Caesar’s Invasions of Britain, 55 and 54 BC

The cheeky satirical volume 1066 and All That gave 55 BC as one of the two memorable dates in English history (the other, of course, being 1066), but a memorable date does not prove a battle’s significance. What was Caesar actually doing in Britain? What was his landing supposed to achieve? Caesar himself says it was to punish the Britons for the aid they sent the Gallic tribes during his conquest of Gaul in 58–50 BC, which would make it a sort of punitive expedition, like the ones the British would later launch in their own empire. Either way, it cannot be called a conquest, or even, properly speaking, an invasion.

An illustration of Julius Caesar landing his craft during his invasion on Britain. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
An illustration of Julius Caesar landing his craft during his invasion on Britain. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One of the problems with Caesar’s raid, as with so much ancient history, is that we are so heavily dependent on tainted written sources – in this case Caesar’s own written account. Corroborative archaeological evidence for the scale of Caesar’s expedition is relatively sparse. We do know that Caesar’s account was a propaganda exercise to promote his own bid for power, and that it would have suited his purposes to ‘big up’ what was either a large raid or an embarrassingly aborted invasion. Either way, its significance seems to have been overblown.

2

Bannockburn, 1314

Robert the Bruce’s victory over King Edward II at Bannockburn was unquestionably important, but it wasn’t as decisive as many like to claim. For one thing, Edward II was one of the most incompetent men ever to occupy the English throne; it is hard to imagine his father, Edward I, the fearsome ‘Hammer of the Scots’, walking so blithely into Robert the Bruce’s trap. In the short term, the English were so completely defeated that Bannockburn really did seem to have established Scottish independence. But not for long.

The English kings’ claim to overlordship of Scotland remained in force, so in 1320 Bruce had the Declaration of Arbroath drawn up, addressed to the Pope and asserting Scotland’s right to be a free kingdom. It was needed, because although Bruce got the English to accept Scottish independence in 1328, just over a year later he was dead, leaving his five-year-old son, David II, on the throne. The English promptly invaded, forced the king into exile, put Edward Balliol on the throne and annexed the southern part of the kingdom. It was the end of the reign of the House of Bruce. Later Scottish nationalism was to accord Bannockburn a decisive significance that would not have been so obvious to people in Scotland at the time.

3

Bosworth, 1485

It is still popularly believed that Bosworth, the battle in which Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, took the throne from the Yorkist King Richard III, marked the end of the Wars of the Roses and therefore of the English Middle Ages. It did nothing of the sort. Militarily, the battle hung on the decision of Lord Stanley as to which side to support; he chose Henry Tudor, which sealed the contest, though the real significance of the day lay in the fact that Richard III himself was killed. It gave Henry just enough of an opening to try to make his rule permanent, but by no means did it indicate that his position was secure.

There were plenty of people with a stronger claim to the throne than Henry Tudor, and he knew it. The Yorkists were a genuine threat, especially as they had good contacts abroad, in France, Burgundy, Ireland and Scotland. It’s too easy for us nowadays to underestimate the importance of the Yorkist pretenders to Henry’s throne: the battle of Stoke Field in 1487, in which Henry faced the Irish-backed Yorkists under the pretender Lambert Simnel, required him to mount a robust defence and has a better claim to be the last battle of the Wars of the Roses. Even after Henry’s victory, the Yorkists were able to maintain their military and diplomatic pressure through a second pretender, Perkin Warbeck. Bosworth’s importance in the popular imagination comes from the significance given to it by Henry’s skilful use of propaganda, rather than from events on the battlefield.

An illustration of Richard III at the battle of Bosworth, a clash which historian Sean Lang argues is overrated. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)
An illustration of Richard III at the battle of Bosworth, a clash which historian Sean Lang argues is overrated. (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)
4

The Armada, 1588

The defeat of the Spanish Armada was for so long such an iconic moment in English history that it might seem perverse to include it here. Certainly, English naval gunnery was superior, both in technology and in its execution, and as an English propaganda coup, the Armada campaign was a masterpiece: the narrative of the little English ships nipping in and out between the ungainly Spanish galleons, of Drake’s fireship attack at Calais, and above all of Queen Elizabeth’s speech at Tilbury, has stirred patriotic hearts for centuries.

A portrait of the Spanish Armada. "The English attacks on the Spanish fleet made very little impression on its strong defensive formation," says Sean Lang. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)
A portrait of the Spanish Armada. “The English attacks on the Spanish fleet made very little impression on its strong defensive formation,” says Sean Lang. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

The reality was very different. The English attacks on the Spanish fleet made very little impression on its strong defensive formation, and it was acknowledged even at the time that what really destroyed the Armada was the stormy weather that drove it northwards to be wrecked on the rocky Scottish and Irish coasts. More importantly, the battle did not establish immediate English naval supremacy, as so many have assumed: the English fleet dispersed shortly afterwards and many of the sailors were soon destitute. In 1596–97 the Spanish sent two further invasion armadas, which were again defeated more by the storms in the Channel than by the English fleet. The defeat of the Armada was a major blow to Spanish prestige, but the English had no call to be complacent.

5

Plassey, 1757

For many years, Plassey was up there with Blenheim and Waterloo as a triumph of British arms – a “miracle”, as one historian once called it. This was the battle at which Robert Clive (‘Clive of India’) defeated the treacherous nawab (ruler) of Bengal, avenged the atrocity of the Black Hole of Calcutta and established British rule over India. The trouble is, almost none of that version of events is accurate.

The nawab had driven the British from Calcutta and, in an event still hotly disputed, some of the prisoners he took died in the airless room in which they were confined – the famous ‘Black Hole’. He also flirted with the idea of a French alliance, so Clive was sent to retake Calcutta and deal with the French. He did both of these, and that should have been the end of the campaign – only Clive sensed an opportunity to stage a palace coup and replace the nawab with one of his subordinates, Mir Jafar. The result was a strange non-battle: although his forces heavily outnumbered Clive’s, the nawab didn’t know which of his own men he could trust, while Clive, for the same reason, didn’t want to press home an attack in case he was killing the wrong men. What fighting there was began on the initiative of a British officer who disobeyed Clive’s orders and launched an attack. Politically, Plassey was of the first importance, but as a military exercise it has been heavily overrated.

New Orleans, 1815

New Orleans is a battle more overrated in the United States than in Britain, where few people have ever heard of it. It was the climax of the curious Anglo-American War of 1812–14, a sideshow to the main military event of the time, the war against Napoleon. It must rank as one of the most needless conflicts in history: American merchants were caught between the wartime blockades that Britain and France imposed on each other, and opinion was divided in the United States over whether to fight France or Britain. In the end, British impressment of US sailors tipped the balance in favour of war with Britain, but the war began badly for the Americans: their invasion of Canada was defeated and the British were able to outmanoeuvre them and take Washington DC itself, burning the presidential mansion down as they did so.

A war over wartime trade restrictions becomes pointless when that war ends, so when the European war ended in 1814, there was nothing left for Britain and the US to fight about. A number of Wellington’s Peninsular War veterans were shipped over to the States, led by Sir Edward Pakenham, Wellington’s brother-in-law, a competent rather than a gifted commander. The British attack on New Orleans, where the American commander was Andrew Jackson, was not well planned, and Pakenham was himself killed in the fighting. It was certainly an American victory; however, since peace between the two countries had already been signed (the news had not yet crossed the Atlantic), the battle cannot be said to have decided the war one way or the other. It was undoubtedly a source of patriotic pride to the Americans, but of much less significance to the British.

An illustration depicting a scene during the battle of New Orleans, 1815. (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)
An illustration depicting a scene during the battle of New Orleans, 1815. (Photo by Interim Archives/Getty Images)
6

Rorke’s Drift, 1879

The Anglo-Zulu War of 1879 was as blatant an example of aggressive war as one can find: Britain had no particular quarrel with the Zulu people before invading their land. Moreover, the British commander, Lord Chelmsford, was comprehensively outmanoeuvred by the Zulus and committed the elementary blunder of dividing his force when he could not be certain where his enemy was. That enemy turned out to be attacking Chelmsford’s base camp at Isandlwana, where the British force holding it was wiped out. To the Victorian public, Isandlwana was a defeat of unimaginable proportions. All the more reason, therefore, to make the most of the more successful engagement that followed, at Rorke’s Drift.

The attack on the tiny mission station at Rorke’s drift was led by Zulu commander Prince Dabulamanzi, in defiance of strict orders not to attack fortified positions, especially along the frontier with British territory, as Rorke’s Drift was. He and his men had played no part at Isandlwana and they were keen to ‘wash their spears’ in British blood. The defence was led by two junior officers, Lieutenants Bromhead and Chard, who displayed an almost impressive lack of military imagination, missed the chance to evacuate and just sat there, waiting for the Zulus to attack. In the event, even rudimentary fortifications of mealie bags and biscuit boxes proved enough protection to break the Zulu attack, which was called off before British reinforcements could arrive. No fewer than 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, and the 1964 film Zulu helped to embed the battle in national consciousness; in reality it was an unnecessary battle, badly planned on both sides, and given a huge importance it never really deserved.

7

The Siege of Mafeking, 1899–1900

When the Boer republics launched pre-emptive strikes into British territory at the start of the Anglo-Boer War towards the end of 1899, they managed to catch the British on the hop and besiege them in a series of townships, including Kimberley, Ladysmith and the railway junction at Mafeking. The British commander at Mafeking, Robert Baden-Powell, having got himself unnecessarily trapped there, went on to make the most of it by a brilliant news management campaign, presenting himself as the plucky lad at the wicket, gallantly blocking some fiendish Boer bowling. When Mafeking was finally relieved by troops under Field Marshal Roberts in May 1900, the British public went wild with joy and relief.

The importance of the siege of Mafeking was always heavily overstated: it gave the Boers some initial propaganda leverage, but in military terms it tied too many troops down and left them unprepared to face the main British attack when it came. The British presented the siege as a sort of test of manly character, though it was of limited importance to the outcome of the war. It also gave them a sense of moral superiority, which was soon undermined by the revelations about the appalling conditions in the concentration camps in which the British held the local Boer population.

8

The Battle of Britain, 1940

You might think you need your eyes tested, or me my brain examined, to see the Battle of Britain in this list. The crucial role of the RAF in denying the Germans control of the air in 1940 and therefore persuading Hitler to abandon his invasion plans is so well known that it might seem almost sacrilegious to question it. There is, indeed, no cause to question the importance of the battle, but was it solely responsible for saving Britain from invasion? Not quite.

For a ruthless dictator, Hitler was surprisingly sensitive about heavy losses in battle and his navy had taken a pounding in 1940 during the invasion of Norway. The difficulties of launching an amphibious invasion across the Channel were hardly a secret, and he knew the appalling damage that even a relatively small squadron of British ships could inflict on an exposed German fleet of invasion barges if it caught them mid-Channel. The loss of life would be devastating, and so would the blow to German prestige. Had the Germans been able to get hold of the French fleet the odds might have been evened, but Churchill’s ruthless decision to sink it at Mers-el-Kébir denied Hitler that possibility. German control of the air would certainly take a heavy toll on the Royal Navy, but it only needed a few British planes disputing the skies with the Luftwaffe to allow the Navy to destroy the German army in the West. It was probably never worth the risk and Hitler almost certainly knew it.

And one underrated battle:

9

Jutland, 1916

Jutland was probably the single most important British victory of the First World War, yet not only is it often underrated, some books even suggest it was a British defeat. It was nothing of the sort.

When Winston Churchill called Admiral Jellicoe, in charge of the British Grand Fleet, the one man who could lose the war in an afternoon, he was speaking the truth. If Britain lost control of the sea, the Allies would lose the war. If the Germans controlled the Channel, they could cut British military aid to France, land troops on the undefended French coast and launch a devastating attack in the Allied rear. Submarines could certainly take their toll on Allied shipping, but the Germans’ key to landing a decisive blow lay with the battleships of their High Seas Fleet. All they had to do was command the sea. And that is why Jutland was so important.

Jutland was certainly not decisive in the way Nelson’s battles were: the British actually lost more ships than the Germans, in many cases through poor ship design, and the Germans escaped to fight another day. Except, they didn’t fight another day. As an American journalist put it, the German fleet had assaulted its jailer and was back in jail. Where it stayed until the end of the war – thanks to Jutland.

Sean Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University, specialising in the history of the British empire. He is also a professional playwright and a regular broadcaster on radio and television. You can follow him on Twitter @sf_lang

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In the August 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine, on sale now, historian Sam Willis asks whether the battle of Trafalgar is an overrated victory. Click here to read the article in full.