Statutory disclaimer: This article is meant as a statement of opinion. It does not purport to be the final word on the subject or in fact anything more than my personal opinion based on the research materials available to me. On this topic there is no such thing as “right” or “wrong” – there can only be opinions based on research.
For military historians and anyone else interested in military history, there’s one recurrent point of controversy which never quite seems to die down; one which, by its very nature, seems to defy a final answer: which was the most influential battle in history?
There are so many candidates for this position that these discussions tend to devolve into lists, going by names as The Ten Greatest Battles In History or The Six Most Significant Battles In History. Generally speaking, though, the same names tend to figure over and over, with only the order varying; and usually the order varies according to the nationality of the creator of the list.
That’s not very difficult to understand, really; each person’s perception of the flow of history tends to have his own nation at the centre. Thus if you ask an American which the most significant battle of history was, his immediate candidates would be Yorktown and Gettysburg, perhaps with the Battle of the Bulge or (maybe) Pearl Harbour added in. A Russian would instantly name Stalingrad. If the person is British, you’d more likely than not find the Battle of Hastings up there sharing company with maybe El Alamein and probably the Battle of Britain.
However, being from a nation whose battles – while often extremely bloody – have never, in even the most inflamed imagination, made the slightest dent in world history, I didn’t have any national loyalties to adhere to. Also, I’m not a historian, but I do have some knowledge of military history. So I decided to search for one battle that I could identify as having influenced history more than any other – in my opinion, of course. And I believe that there is such a battle. Not a very well known one, but one which I believe had consequences out of all proportion to its immediate effects.
This article is the result.
Before I go further, let me list and explain the reasoning behind the parameters I used in arriving at my final decision:
First, I meant battle, not war; a single clash of arms, whether as part of a larger conflict or in isolation. Therefore I have not considered entire wars – the two World Wars for instance are outside the scope of this discussion, though the individual battles in them are very much so.
Second, I have considered the most influential battle in modern history, instead of in all history; and by modern history I’ve placed a not-quite-arbitrary cut-off date of 1850. This is why:
1. There’s a fairly well-known phenomenon called the inertia of history; meaning that in the course of hundreds and thousands of years, the peaks and valleys of human happenstance tend to get smoothed away as if they hadn’t ever existed. For instance, suppose the ancient Egyptians had lost their battles against the Hyksos occupiers from West Asia, who introduced the wheel to the heirs of the builders of the pyramids. If the Hyksos had endured, the later part of Ancient Egyptian history would probably have been rather different, but it’s difficult to see how Egypt’s role in world history would have been, from this distance in time, much different than it is now. The Hyksos would eventually have been either assimilated into Egyptian civilisation or been overtaken by the Islamic conquest in the course of time, and after that Egypt would have been pretty much as it is today.
As a comparison, one might consider the European rediscovery of the Americas. Suppose someone took a time machine, went back to 1490 and assassinated Christopher Columbus before he started off on his voyage. Would the Americas have remained “undiscovered” by Europeans? Hardly – Leif Ericsson had already reached them several hundred years ago, and someone else would soon have started off on the same voyage that Columbus took. He might have reached some other part of the American continent, but reach it he would have.
Therefore, considering very long-ago battles doesn’t make much sense to me; their effects, however significant at the time, will have damped down over the centuries, or other forces of history would have produced the same effects. I’ve considered only battles recent enough that their effects haven’t yet been similarly damped out.
2. I’ve decided on 1850 for a reason; it’s about the first date from which we can assume the modern world to have come into existence, with networks of telegraph cables connecting continents and major events in one nation potentially affecting another, possibly on the other side of the planet, within a relatively short period. Also, in terms of battles, it marks the period of the first modern technology, with steam-powered ships, the first submarines and machine guns, and the beginnings of modern armies.
Accordingly, I won’t be considering otherwise attractive candidates like the Hastings, Waterloo, Lepanto, Trafalgar or my personal favourite, the Battle of Hattin.
Third, this article is about the most influential battle in history in terms of long-duration effects. It is not about the biggest or bloodiest battle, or the most one-sided one. Therefore, I’m not even considering Verdun, the Somme, Moscow or Berlin. The first two were utterly insignificant in terms of their effect on the Great War; the third is superficially attractive, but even had Moscow fallen the Soviets would have beaten the Nazis in a war of attrition; and as for Berlin, by the time Marshal Zhukov’s armour stormed the Reich Chancellery, the German war was already over bar the final surrender.
Similarly, of the other battles I’ve already mentioned, most can be dismissed. The Battle of Britain, for one, loses its sheen once one acknowledges that Hitler never had any intention or capability of invading the British home island; El Alamein is much touted as a “turning point” of the war, but was one battle of a sideshow. North Africa had no effect on the course of World War Two, which was primarily fought in Eastern Europe. The Battle of the Bulge was fought after the Germans had already lost – at most it hastened the end. And as for Pearl Harbour, by the time it occurred, the US had been pretty much at war for several months anyway, with its ships escorting British convoys and its war industry supplying the British Empire’s needs. Franklin Roosevelt was itching to join in the war formally; Pearl Harbour gave him the excuse. If it wasn’t for Pearl he would have found something else.
In the end, after considering several other alternatives, I was left with only two real candidates: Gettysburg and one other. Why I chose the other is something that ought to become obvious by the conclusion of this article.
So here goes: my candidate for the most influential battle of modern history is...
At the time the First World War started in 1914, Germany was faced with war on two fronts: on the west, against France, with Britain sending forces to bolster the French; and in the east, against the great mass of Tsarist Russia.
Back in 1914, the map of Europe was rather different to what it is now. There was no Poland; its territory was divided between Germany and Russia. A large segment of Germany – East Prussia – stuck out like an arm flung out to the east, with the Baltic Sea to the north and the bulge of Russian Poland to the south. It would be elementary strategy, obvious to the meanest military intelligence, that an attack from the south of that arm – aiming at the “armpit” – would cut off Prussia from the rest of Germany and inflict a significant strategic defeat on the Kaiser.
This was basically the plan of the Allies – that the British and French would conduct a holding operation in the west while the vast weight of the Russian army (the “Russian steamroller”) would be brought into action from the east. The Russians had ten full armies available, more troops than the Germans could muster on both fronts combined, but the problem was that their logistics were extremely primitive. Motor transport was lacking, the road network in the border area had been deliberately left undeveloped in order to deter a German invasion, and the Russian railway lines did not share the same gauge as the German, meaning that unless the former could capture German locomotives and trains, they would be unable to use the railway once they crossed the border.
Allied with these problems was the incredible inefficiency, corruption and incompetence of the Tsarist system. This isn’t the place to discuss that in detail, but the Russia of that time was utterly feudal and this extended to the military. General Sukhomlinov, the chief of the army and then Minister of War, owed his position to his penchant (vide Alan Clark, Suicide of the Empires) for telling entertaining stories to the royal family at parties. The remainder were little better – court favourites and the children of the nobility, promoted for their ability to look good in uniform. There were energetic officers, of course, hardworking and sincere, but the system actively discouraged hard work and sincerity.
Under them were the mass of troops that made up the Tsarist army. They were almost all peasant conscripts, mostly illiterate, and at that time, at the beginning of the war, conditioned to believing in the Tsar as almost a divine figure. Their courage was by no means lacking, but their weaponry and training were primitive, and their leadership almost uniformly execrable. They were basically peasant cannon fodder, and nothing more.
Communications were as bad as everything else. The radio operators were unfamiliar with their equipment, incompetent with their codes, and reduced to broadcasting secret orders in the clear. The generals in the field often could not communicate directly with army headquarters (Stavka). Officers frequently had difficulty communicating with troops from remote corners of the Empire who did not speak Russian. The average soldier, being usually illiterate, couldn’t read written orders or directions. It was a mess.
On the opposing side was the Kaiser’s army. The German army of 1914 had its own problems, including difficulties with communication equipment and its own incompetent generals, but in comparison with the Tsar’s forces it was far more ready for combat. And unlike the Russians, who were fighting an offensive war with an army built up and suited for defence, the Germans had laid down plans on what to do in case of a war on two fronts. The Schlieffen Plan (named after its inventor) called for the French to be defeated quickly in an offensive to the west of Paris, followed by troops to be shifted east before the Russians could fully mobilise. Therefore the Germans had an army prepared for offence, a railway network capable of moving troops rapidly from front to front, and a plan to work with. The Russians had none of these things.
It’s difficult, at this distance of time, to appreciate the utter casualness with which the ruling classes of Europe launched the Great War. The Tsar, especially, seems to have looked at the war as a path to personal glory – a way of compensating for two decades of incompetence and ineffectuality on the throne. And so, instead of using his army in the role for which it was suited, he flung it into an offensive against Germany and, to the south, against Germany’s ally the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The Russian plan was relatively simple, and, as I’d said, fairly predictable. The First Army (under General von Rennenkampf – like many of the Russian officer corps, he was an ethnic German) was to thrust into Prussia from the East, to tie down German forces. Meanwhile, the Second Army under Samsonov was to attack to the north from the bulge of Russian Poland, aiming to cut off the “arm” of Prussia by striking at the “armpit”. Opposed to that was a single German army, the Eighth, which was numerically much weaker than either of the Russian armies. The Germans were at that time concentrating on knocking out the French, and had not anticipated that the Russians would be able to mobilise and attack as swiftly as they in fact did.
The German Army commander in the East, General von Prittwitz, was (according to Clark, Suicide of the Empires) someone whose abiding obsession was food, and who was known to all and sundry as der Dicke (“Fatso”). As the Russian First Army advanced, scoring a victory over the Germans at Gumbinnen, he panicked and ordered a retreat, effectively abandoning all of East Prussia. In response, General von Moltke, the chief of the German General Staff, sacked him and replaced him with Field Marshal von Hindenburg and General Ludendorff. They ordered the German forces retreating from the First Army, at von Prittwitz’ orders, to detrain and redeploy to face Samsonov’s Second Army.
Meanwhile, the Russian advance was hindered by two factors. The first was the appalling logistics, which made it difficult for Samsonov’s Second Army to advance. The second was the fact that Rennenkampf and Samsonov had hated each other since the Russo-Japanese War of 1905; and this was well known to the Germans, who based their strategy partly on their assessment that the former was in no great hurry to help out the latter. Indeed, instead of advancing rapidly after the victory at Gumbinnen, Rennenkampf’s First Army halted in order to prepare for a German counterattack. Due to the terrible communications, Samsonov did not know of this, and expected to link up with Rennenkampf advancing from the east. At the same time, because the Russians radio network sent out the orders of the day uncoded – as already mentioned – the Germans knew the Russian deployments and planned movements in advance. This is why they felt it justified to turn their forces towards Samsonov, exposing their backs to Rennenkampf; they knew quite well he would not take advantage of the opportunity, even though, as they said, “Rennenkampf need only have closed with us, and we should have been beaten.”
This article is not intended to refight the battle shot by shot, so it will not describe the various deployments, advances and retreats in all details, but an overview of the action would be a good idea before moving on to discuss its implications for modern history. Anyone who wants a more detailed description can check here, or here.
On 22nd August 1914, Samsonov’s forces encountered the German XX Corps and in a series of clashes drove it back over the next several days. Meanwhile, the rest of the German Eighth Army continued to deploy in positions on the flanks of the Second Army, having confirmed from signal intercepts that Rennenkampf’s First Army would not make any attempt to join up with the Second Army or come to its aid. The Second Army’s own movements were similarly known to the Germans, again due to orders being sent out on the radio in the clear; there’s evidence that even Hindenburg and Ludendorff found it difficult to accept the full extent of the staggering stupidity of the Russian commanders.
Starting from the 27th August, the Germans advanced against both flanks of the Second Army, and by the 29th had surrounded it east of the village of Tannenberg. Pounded ceaselessly by artillery, by the time the battle ended on the 30th the Second Army was almost completely annihilated, fewer than ten thousand of its soldiers managing to retreat back to Russian Poland. The Eighth Army captured some 92000 prisoners and so much equipment that sixty trainloads were required to transfer it back to Germany.
|Russian PoWs after Tannenberg|
Of the two Russian commanders, Samsonov vanished, and is thought to have shot himself to avoid having to report the disaster to the Tsar.
Rennenkampf, who had made a belated and ineffectual attempt to come to the aid of Samsonov after the Second Army had already been surrounded, was himself now dangerously overextended. The German Eighth Army was now free to deploy against him, and soon defeated the First Army at the Masurian Lakes and drove its remnants back over the border.
The German victory was complete. Russian troops would not invade German territory again until 1945.
As I’ve said before, the Allied plan was for the French and British to hold off the Germans in the west while the “Russian steamroller” rolled over Germany from the east. Tannenberg, and the subsequent Battle of the Masurian Lakes which was made possible by the victory at Tannenberg, put a premature and permanent end to the Russian threat against Germany for the duration of the war.
The Russian Army recovered to some extent by 1915, but it was never again the force it had been before Tannenberg. It did score some successes against Germany’s ally, the incompetently led Austro-Hungarian Empire, and later against the Turks; but it could never stand up again to the Germans. As the war went on, the Tsar was forced, step by step, to abandon Russian Poland and retreat across what is now Belarus, the Baltic States, and the Ukraine, until the Germans threatened the Imperial capital, St Petersburg, itself.
Meanwhile, the defeats at the front caused mass discontent at home as well. Back in 1914, in common with most of Europe, the Russian upper and middle classes had greeted the war with enthusiasm and joy. In fact, except for Lenin, who was in exile, and some other “defeatists” – who argued that the war was illegal and stupid – even Bolsheviks like Stalin patriotically supported the war at that stage. But as defeat followed defeat, prices soared and food became scarce, the people turned against the Tsar, his German wife, and the royal family with virtually universal hatred. By early 1917, there were mass strikes in the cities, coupled with a complete collapse of the military effort and this ultimately led to the Russian Revolution of February 1917. And that in turn paved the way for the Bolshevik Revolution of November.
However, Tannenberg had an unexpected side effect. As I’ve said, the German plan was to knock out the French and British before the Russians could get themselves organised, and they had launched a major offensive in the West in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan. This didn’t go quite according to plan, partly because of German Army Chief von Moltke’s tinkering with the original template, and instead of a massacre of the French Army, what happened was a series of battles collectively known as the First Battle of the Marne. While this battle was still in progress, however, von Moltke removed three infantry corps and a cavalry division from the Western front and sent them east to reinforce the Eighth Army in East Prussia. They arrived far too late to have any effect on the battle, but they did weaken the Western Front so much that the First Battle of the Marne ended in a German defeat.
The significance of the defeat on the Marne was immediately appreciated by von Moltke himself, who told the Kaiser, “Your Majesty, we have lost the war.” He knew that Germany did not have the resources to fight a long war and had just lost the chance to secure a speedy victory, which was the only way it could have won at all. However, since the Kaiser did not see that fact, the war did not end at once; the retreating Germans dug into the fields of Flanders, and the next three years passed in trench warfare, poison gas attacks, and mass assaults across the shell-shattered wastes of no-man’s land. For anyone who wants a more detailed description of that, I’d recommend that you go ahead and read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front. Open mobile warfare, as at Tannenberg and the Marne, would not be seen again on the Western Front until the last months of 1918.
The effects of the slaughter in the trenches can hardly be overestimated. Back in 1914, Europe had still been a very 19th Century society, with strict social stratification between the gentry and the working class. But the war ended that. By the time it ended, the upper classes, which had traditionally supplied the officer corps, had been virtually destroyed. Egalitarianism was there to stay, both in the battlefield and off it. The Twentieth Century was born in the trenches of the Western Front.
By 1917, then, the nations of Western Europe had almost bled themselves white after years of fruitless trench warfare. The Great Hope in Britain and France, now that the Russians were clearly finished, was the US. And though the Americans were at the time a financial and industrial power, they not particularly militarily significant; the doughboys of the US Army had to train on wooden guns, and the nascent Army Air Force was equipped with aeroplanes bought from France.
Still, President Wilson was as desperate to enter the war as the British and French were desperate to entice him into it, and finally by 1917 he had managed to “manufacture consent” enough to be able to declare war on Germany. US forces would not be in France in strength until 1918, just about in time to participate in the offensives that attended the final German collapse. In other words, the US took part in the victory without having much of a role in the fighting that led up to it. And while the British and the French suffered appalling casualties amongst their young males, the American losses were relatively minor. If anything, it was the taste of victory in the First World War which led to American militarism and the Empire.
And on the East, the Russian Civil War and the Bolshevik victory caused its own mass social churning. The defeated and prostrate Russia of 1917 was gone, but a new Russia was rising on its ruins. Whether it was a good or bad force in the history of the world can be something endlessly debatable, but one thing can’t be denied – it was the first time Russia would emerge as a technologically and socially modern country.
Meanwhile, the embitterment that resulted from four years of war could not be shaken off easily. The Treaty of Versailles, imposed on a defeated Germany by Britain and France, compelled that nation to take on itself the entire blame of the war and pay “reparations” – which in turn caused mass hardship in a Germany awash with demobilised soldiers and right-wing militia. It was the ideal situation for political extremism, and one such ex-soldier soon made a name for himself, ultimately making his mark in history. His name was Adolf Hitler.
Everyone pretty much knows what happened after that.
Why Tannenberg matters:
It is in the nature of discussions of this sort that the only way to understand the significance of a particular event is to ask what would have happened if it had gone another way – to consider an alternate-history scenario.
So let’s see what might have happened if the Russians had won in East Prussia, as they very easily might have, despite all their shortcomings.
If Samsonov and Rennenkampf had captured East Prussia, they would have dealt a shattering political blow to the German Empire. Prussia was the seat of German militarism, the home of the Junker class which supplied the German officer corps, and the leading component of the princely states which comprised the Germany of the day. At the same time, the defeat on the Marne would have meant simultaneous German defeats on both fronts – something not even the Kaiser could have ignored. It’s more than likely that the war could have ended in September 1914 via some kind of political settlement. The First World War, as historians know, was one of the least necessary wars ever fought, borne of competing egos and webs of military alliances more than existential threats. It would not have been very hard to abort it in 1914.
If the war had ended in 1914, what might have happened? In no particular order of importance, I can think of these:
First of all, the Old Europe – the one of class stratification and feudalism – would have endured, perhaps to this day. What is certain is that the bitterness that came with the trench warfare of 1915-16, the poison gas and pointless bloodletting, would not have happened. There would have been no unequal Versailles Treaty, no Weimar Republic, no fascist militia and no Führer Adolf Hitler. There would, in turn, have been no Second World War in the form we know today, and therefore no weakening of the old imperialist powers to the point where they would have to begin letting the colonies go. Without the First World War, there would not have been the decolonisation of the late forties to the late sixties.
Secondly, the decaying Ottoman Empire was not involved in the war in 1914. Most of West Asia between Suez and Iran was then still Ottoman territory, including what are today Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and the so-called state of “Israel”. It’s unlikely that the Ottoman Empire would have lasted very much longer, but its fall would not have meant the takeover of its Arab colonies by the British and French. There would have been no British mandate in Palestine, no Balfour Declaration, and almost certainly no Zionazi pseudostate.
Then, of course, Tsarism would have survived in Russia. Nikolai II would have remained on his throne, his position strengthened by his victory in the war. He would have felt emboldened to snuff out the political reforms he had been compelled to permit after the Russian Revolution of 1905, and would have returned to full autocracy. Lenin would have remained a powerless agitator in Swiss exile; there would have been no Communist Soviet Union. And in turn, the effect on the rest of the world, including nations like China, would have been profound.
The effect on the US would have been scarcely any less. If the war had ended speedily in 1914, there would have been no American intervention in Europe, and the US would most likely have confined its own imperial longings to the Western Hemisphere. It would still have been an economic and industrial powerhouse, but it would not have been a militaristic empire.
And this is why I consider Tannenberg far more significant than Gettysburg. The latter battle may have preserved the unity of the US; I don’t really know enough about American history to judge that. But, as I’ve said, if the war had ended in 1914, it would not have mattered in the slightest whether the United States would have been one nation or two, because its effect on world history would have been infinitesimal.
Technologically, too, the Great War left an indelible mark on civilisation. War seems to bring out the innovator in humanity, and it was after 1915 that aviation took off, so to say, in a big way, and aircraft became something more than curiosities. The first tanks that clattered across the battlefields, the submarines that set off to ambush battleships, the innovations in electronic communication – all that advanced tremendously during the years of the war. They would probably still have occurred in a time of peace, but much more slowly. No Great War means no Second World War, and that means no Cold War, and therefore no Global War of Empire; there might of course have been other wars, other conflicts, but their shapes would not have been the same, and their effects would not have been the same.
I’m not saying the world would have been a better place if the Russians had won at Tannenberg. Nobody who knows anything about the Tsarist system could ever imagine that.
But the world would have been very, very different.