Read an Excerpt
Painting rich portraits of imperial conquest, diplomatic intrigue, and battlefield genius, Sir Edward Creasy’s Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo (1851) narrates epic military confrontations that forged human events from antiquity to the modern age. The book captured the imagination of readers in Victorian England and became one of the best-selling books of its generation, rivaling sales of Charles Darwin’s Origins of Species (1859). Creasy’s crisp and clear depictions of history’s greatest battles effectively created a new genre in military history. Fifteen Decisive Battles traces how military conflicts gave rise to, sustained, and brought down history’s greatest civilizations, empires, and nation-states. The numerous volumes that examine “turning points” and “what ifs” in military history owe a tacit debt to Creasy’s book and its immense popularity.
Born in 1812, three years before Waterloo, Edward Shepard Creasy was raised in Bexley, Kent, in southern England and was educated at Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. In 1837 (the year Queen Victoria ascended the throne) Creasy was called to the bar at London’s prestigious Lincoln’s Inn and later became an assistant judge at the Westminster sessions court. Creasy left his judicial post in 1840, accepting a professorship in modern and ancient history at the University of London. In addition to Fifteen Decisive Battles, Creasy published works on the Ottoman Empire and English military and political history during his tenure at London. In 1860 he received a knighthood and was appointed chief justice for the British colony of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In 1870, with his health failing, Creasy returned to England, and after a brief stint in Ceylon, he died in London in 1878.
Fifteen Decisive Battles was reissued no less than seven times between 1851 and 1856; dozens more editions appeared in subsequent decades. Creasy’s work became something of a pop icon in its day, even making a cameo appearance in Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance (1879):
I know the kings of England
and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo
in order categorical
More than a century and a half since its first publication, the book retains its widespread appeal. In 2003 Fifteen Decisive Battles gained a whole new audience after appearing on a list of national security books recommended by United States Congressman Ike Skelton.
The initial popularity of Creasy’s study tells us a great deal about the reading habits and interests of Victorian England. Britain played a pivotal role in world affairs, and popular commentators routinely compared Britain to the great empires of history. Creasy’s book appealed to those wanting to understand how Britain had achieved its tremendous influence and how long it would last. The public already appreciated that war had played a significant part in establishing the country’s global position. The glorification of commanders who had fought in the Napoleonic Wars was well underway by mid-century. In 1845 a squalid corner of London called the “Mews” was transformed into Trafalgar Square. A statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, who triumphed over the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar Bay in 1805, looms over the plaza, commemorating his role in defeating Napoleon’s quest for European domination.
During his school days at Eton, the young Edward Creasy developed a fondness for another hero of the Napoleonic wars. Sir Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, led the allied force that finished off the French emperor at Waterloo in 1815. Wellington would famously remark that the “battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” Britain’s officer corps was drawn largely from noble families that turned to elite institutions like Eton to educate their sons. The school prided itself on its rigorous intellectual and physical training regimen. During Creasy’s days at Eton, Wellington was a cabinet minister and later prime minister, the school’s most famous and honored graduate, and a living legend in British society. Creasy’s schoolboy fascination with the military exploits of his fellow Etonian presaged his subsequent career as academic historian and author.
By choosing the plains of Waterloo as scene for his final chapter, Creasy tapped into the popular appeal for all things Wellington. But Fifteen Decisive Battles promises much more than another rendition of how Britain’s greatest general defeated the French emperor. Creasy tells Victorian readers in the preface that he is interested in understanding military contests that have had a “practical influence on our own social and political condition.” He invites them to “speculate on what we probably should have been, if any one of those battles had come to a different termination.” What would have happened if Napoleon had defeated Britain and its allies at Waterloo? Would mid-nineteenth-century Britain have been as rich and powerful if her armies had not prevailed on that fateful day?
Creasy seeks to identify which military conflicts have had the greatest impact on world history. While never developing a full-fledged theory of history, he employs some basic rules of thumb that illuminate key turning points through the ages. Drawing upon a wealth of historical knowledge, Creasy pinpoints empires and states that significantly influenced the evolution of world politics and social organization. He then traces political and social change back to the key military confrontations that made such change possible.
Figure 1 spells out the key attributes of Creasy’s fifteen battles (in chapter order).
Greek victory over Persian empire leads to the “Golden Age” of Athenian democracy under Pericles
Second Peloponnesian War
Defeat of Athenian forces propels Sparta over Athens as the pre-eminent power in ancient Greece
Alexander’s victory over Darius’ Persian army helps establish an empire stretching from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean
Second Punic War
Rome’s defeat of Carthaginian forces guarantees its survival at home and the extension of its empire abroad
Roman Empire Wars
Germanic tribes annihilate Varus’ legions; central Germany never comes under Roman control
Roman Empire Wars
Victory by Roman and German armies over Attila perpetuates Roman civilization and Christendom in western Europe
Charles Martel defeats Muslim forces and preserves Christian rule in France; his grandson, Charlemagne, establishes the Holy Roman Empire
Norman Conquest of England
William’s victory over Harold unites England with western France and transforms it into a European power
Hundred Years' War
Inspired by Jeanne d’Arc, French armies defeat England and expel her forces from French territory
England’s victory over the Spanish fleet scuttles Phillip II’s invasion plans and preserves Protestant rule
War of the Spanish Succession
Anglo-Dutch armies repulse French-Bavarian forces marching on Vienna; the defeat blocks Louis XIV’s quest for European hegemony
Great Northern War
Peter the Great’s victory over Charles XII eclipses Swedish power in northern Europe, making Russia the dominant player there
American Revolutionary War
America’s victory turns the tide against the British and convinces France to recognize and assist an independent United States
French Revolutionary Wars
French troops repulse a Prussia-Austrian invasion force and propel the Revolution forward against Europe’s monarchies
Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon in fields of Flanders ends the French emperor’s quest to rule over Europe
If any of these outcomes had been reversed, then subsequent events might have played out quite differently. Creasy cites Edward Gibbon, the eighteenth-century English historian, in wondering if the Arabs had defeated Charles Martel at Tours whether “the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford.”
Creasy’s methodological approach excludes some of history’s most famous encounters on the battlefield. Many battles of seeming consequence, he notes, “appear to me of mere secondary rank, inasmuch as either their effects were limited in area, or they themselves merely confirmed some great tendency or bias which an earlier battle had originated.” Consider Hannibal’s victory over the Romans at Cannae (216 BC) and Frederick the Great’s crushing of Austrian forces at Leuthen (1757). In Creasy’s view these battles did not alter the course of history and thus do not merit inclusion on his list. While Hannibal won spectacularly at Cannae, Rome would eventually expel him from Europe and destroy Carthage itself. The long-term historical impact of Cannae is thus negligible in Creasy’s view. And while Frederick the Great displayed great tactical virtuosity and consistently won against superior numbers, Prussia never substantially altered the world’s social or political order during Creasy’s lifetime. Frederick’s battles are thus for Creasy little more than a historical curiosity. Other omissions, however, are more puzzling. At Actium in 31 BC, Octavian defeated Mark Antony’s forces and established the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. This battle paved the way for a series of Roman emperors (including Claudius and Marcus Aurelius) who would influence history for generations. Had Antony won that day, world history might indeed have looked quite different.
But Creasy’s choice of battles also reflects social and personal prejudices. No less than six of the most decisive battles involve England. This preference for the “home team” (even when it lost) obviously played well to a Victorian readership and accounts in part for the book’s record sales. Creasy’s history also gives pride of place to war on land over battles at sea. Among the fifteen, only England’s 1588 victory over the Spanish armada counts as a pure naval contest (although sea power played an ancillary role in three others). This is somewhat surprising given England’s long tradition as a naval power. Why not Trafalgar instead of Waterloo and Nelson instead of Wellington? Certainly Waterloo was the more recent and famous of the two battles. And one should not overlook Creasy’s affinity for Wellington, that Old Etonian, in choosing Waterloo over Trafalgar.
Creasy’s other academic writing focused almost exclusively on English history, or what historians have called “Little England.” How did invasions and war mold the country’s national character? How did a small island nation on Europe’s fringes grow so prosperous? Why did the country enjoy a high degree of political stability? Creasy returned to these themes time and again in his published work. But looming over Creasy’s career, and indeed over Fifteen Decisive Battles, is not Little England but the British Empire. Creasy lived and wrote at the zenith of British imperial power, when Victorian England held sway over a quarter of the world’s landmass, and its navy reigned supreme on the high seas. The empire would ultimately determine the trajectory of Creasy’s legal career. As a knighted chief justice serving in Ceylon, Creasy would experience firsthand the splendor and hardships of life as a functionary serving in a far corner of the empire.
The centrality of empire in Fifteen Decisive Battles reflects a worldview and sensibility of what might be termed an internationalized version of “Whig history.” A number of prominent eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historians—including William Blackstone, Henry Hallam, and Thomas Babington Macaulay—interpreted English history as a sequence of events promoting greater political stability, economic prosperity, and acceptance of liberal values. In keeping with this intellectual climate, Creasy views the relationship between battle and political change as the steady march of progress. His historical sequencing places Britain as the successor to and promoter of a Western civilization that inevitably makes the world a better place. Creasy depicts history as a progression from ancient Greece and Rome through to Christendom and then culminating in Britain and her global empire. As he writes at the close of his book, England “is now teaching the peoples of the earth to achieve [victory] over selfish prejudices and international feuds, in the great cause of the general promotion of the industry and welfare of mankind.”
But even in Creasy’s time such a vision would be hard to sustain. Consider another series of omissions in his military history. The Ottoman Empire seized Constantinople in the fifteenth century, nearly grabbed Vienna in the sixteenth century, and occupied a large swathe of southeastern Europe well into the nineteenth century. Despite being well versed in Ottoman history, Creasy gave these episodes scant attention in Fifteen Decisive Battles. Non-western and non-Christian forces must inevitably fall by the wayside, and Creasy does not recognize contingency in history as such. While history might have turned out differently had Hannibal or Napoleon won, Creasy cannot accept such outcomes as plausible precisely because they were not desirable.
Historians following Creasy’s path-breaking work are uncomfortable with the idea that history inexorably moves in a single direction. Thinking more critically about alternative paths in history, they have carefully combed the detritus of time, sifting out with greater precision how events on the battlefield have influenced contests for world supremacy. But none of this invalidates the enduring significance of Fifteen Decisive Battles. Creasy’s book, like many great works, continues to be read because it raises more intriguing questions than any author could possibly answer in a single volume.
Erik Yesson holds a Ph.D. in politics from Princeton University and specializes in international security and military affairs. He has taught at Brown University, Harvard University, and the Johannes-Guttenberg University in Mainz, Germany.