When Osprey asked me to compile a list of a hundred greatest battles, I didn’t realise just how tough a job it would be. For starters, any list like this is incredibly subjective. My notion of what qualifies as a ‘great battle’ will probably be different from yours. These things can be influenced by a whole host of things, like your nationality, your pet periods of history or your own perceptions about the past. Then there’s your own baggage to consider. For instance, I had relatives who took part in the battles on the Golan Heights, and at El Alamein, Verdun and Könnigratz. So, does that make them more important to me than others? I also used to be in the Royal Navy, so does that make me over-emphasise sea battles? You try to stay neutral, but it’s tough. Whatever you come up with, someone will think you’ve left out some shoo-ins for the ‘100 greatest battles’ list.
It seemed that the only way to approach this was to make my list, and then question why I’d put each of those battles on there. So, after a lot of scribbling, crossing out, and then adding in, I moved on to the next stage – finding good-quality illustrations for each of the battles. In theory this was much easier. Osprey books are known for their superb artwork, and they’ve been around for just over 50 years. The result is an impressively enormous art collection to choose from. So, that shouldn’t present a problem, should it?
Well, it did. The trouble was, while most of my 100 greatest battles were covered, there were a few which weren’t. There are various reasons for that. One was that Osprey’s earliest Campaign books didn’t have any specially commissioned battlescenes in them. That was true of my first Campaign book, Poltava 1709, written almost 30 years ago, which should really be on the list. So, Gravelotte St. Privat wasn’t doable, as there wasn’t any suitable artwork. A few other “100 greatest” contenders weren’t even covered. For instance, Königgratz 1866 was the biggest battle in Europe between 1814 and 1914, yet there’s no Osprey book on it. So, very reluctantly, we had to miss it out. But this meant we could include other battles which otherwise mightn’t have made the cut. This was no bad thing. After all, 100 Greatest Battles is as much a way of celebrating Osprey’s incredible collection of artwork as anything else.
Fantastic artwork or not, we still had to justify every battle’s inclusion in the “100 greatest” list. This meant the battle had to tick the right boxes. The main yardstick was that the battle was significant enough to change the course of a war or a campaign. Its outcome had a profound effect, or it at least marked a major turning point in a conflict. For instance, Stalingrad didn’t end World War II, but it marked a clear turning point in the war. Another tick-box was that it helped if the battle involved the first major use of new technology, or even new tactics. This placed battles like Cambrai and The Nile on my radar.
The editor argued that a combination of the two – a seismic miliary shift coupled with new technology – might allow us to include an event that wasn’t really a battle at all: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This explains why this one non-battle was included – the dropping of the atom bomb was a real historical game-changer that couldn’t be missed out. Another tick came if a battle helped shape the nations that make up the modern world. So, Yorktown would a definite contender, but others could be too, including Bannockburn, Quebec or Dien Bien Phu. After all this I found my list changed slightly. The process had really helped make my selection a lot less subjective, and a lot more justifiable.
Still, people will still complain, because I included the Granicus rather than Gaugamela, Castillon rather than Orleans, or the defence of Moscow rather than the fall of Berlin. There, the truthful answer is, if the battles were equally weighted, a lot depended on Osprey’s artwork. After all, that’s what was really going to make this book pop out. In the case that the scales were still perfectly balanced, then I’m afraid to say I threw impartiality out of the window and opted for the one that interested me the most!
Decide for yourself and order a copy of the book here