Greatest British Battle?

In preparation for an upcoming exhibition, Britain’s National Army Museum is sponsoring a competition to declare “Britain’s Greatest Battle” (actually, the top five). As the website describes:

“The shortlisted battles were selected not simply for being great British victories. Their inclusion took into consideration the political, historical and cultural impact, the difficulties and challenges the Army overcame, and the innovative deployment of strategy and tactics. The choice of battles also reflects the global reach of the British Army and recognises the vital contributions of Commonwealth troops.

Britain’s Greatest Battles aims to highlight the most notable clashes the British Army has seen, as well as draw attention to some of the lesser-known ones. It takes into account all kinds of ‘battles’, including sieges, campaigns, last stands and charges.”

Several notable early modern battles are included (Naseby, Blenheim, Culloden), as well as colonial clashes (Plassey, Quebec, Lexington and Concord). No early modern sieges mentioned, but the British weren’t particularly proud of their siege service at the time (see Christopher Atkinson, “Marlborough’s Sieges,” The Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, 13 (1935): 195-205).

I’m not going to tell you how to vote, but we really should get some of those early modern examples in the top five.


Thoughts on the NAM’s definition of “great”? Maybe you have your own early modern write-in candidates?


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15 responses to “Greatest British Battle?”

  1. Gordon Bannerman says :

    The problem is that (technically) ‘British’ only exists after 1707 so that knocks out many of the Early Modern battles before we start! I am a bit surprised that Culloden is included: that is an ideologically-charged inclusion for sure

    • jostwald says :

      Surely you’re not implying that the Bloody Butcher of Culloden acted unchivalrously towards his defeated fellow islanders? Glencoe must have been a practice run, following Henry V’s Agincourt playbook. And that we discuss such a matter on Burns Night of all days!

      And while we’re at it, don’t remind me about that whole English/British divide. Everybody has an opinion and no matter what I write, someone will think I should’ve written the opposite!

  2. Gene Hughson says :

    Lexington & Concord? Is someone in denial or is it a case of Yankee vandalism?

  3. Gordon Bannerman says :

    We don’t want to get into the debate on Burns – Unionists and Nationalists are both trying to claim him in the independence battle at the moment!

  4. Ubik1970 says :

    A couple of notable omissions from that list I think. Fontenoy (1745), although a defeat the British infantry nearly pulled off a miracle; Minden (1759), the infantry did pull off a miracle. Or what about Arnhem (1944) or Inkerman (1854).

    Some notable last stands are worth mentioning: Gandamak (1842); Isandlwana (1879)

    Relevant to this blog, what about Wynendael (1708)? I don’t know all the details but Webb’s victory over double the number of French was quite impressive.

    • jostwald says :

      Depending on your criteria, Wijnendaal was pretty small potatoes. If I were judging, I’d want some bigger impact of the battle, or a legacy coming out of the battle. Otherwise, it’s just an exercise in battle porn. But then I’ve never been fascinated with field battles, so I’m probably the wrong guy to ask.

  5. Wienand Drenth says :

    I think the siege of Namur of 1695 should be in the list. Partly because it was the (I think) first major victory of the Confederate Army under William III over the French, and partly because it was the first major victory and siege of the modern British Army (actually a consequence of the first).

    As for prolonged battles/sieges, the English occupation of Tangier from 1661 till 1684 would be a good candidate as well, for various reasons.

    • jostwald says :

      Damn, Björn beat me to it. I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage the inclusion of more sieges, but Namur makes me wonder about the definition of “British/English” (spoken like a true academic). One could easily make the argument that most of these battles weren’t “British” (or even “English”) at all, since they were fought within coalitions, and the “British” contributions rarely reached even a plurality of the total. Take Blenheim: a third of the Allied army on the battlefield that day was in British pay, and only 20% actually native British regiments – even if we go just by who commanded it, Blenheim was only half-English, though the English might say it was the better half. Ditto for “Marlborough’s” other battles, and for “Marlborough’s” sieges as well: British forces didn’t exceed 20% of the regiments in the trenches at any of the major Flanders sieges in the WSS. Same is generally true in Spain from what I understand. We could go on with almost all of Britain’s wars I’d guess. So using that (reasonable criteria), we’d probably only be able to look at civil wars (with foreign mercenaries) and colonial clashes (and even there I don’t know how you’d classify Gurkhas and colonial troops…). Not quite the point for the National Army Museum, but history should be about smashing these imaginary boundaries as much as shoring them up.

      That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the British army played a role similar to what Braudel hypothesized for the French: as a unique institution that created a broader sense of national identity among all those different groups who served together. But I’d think this couldn’t happen as long as you still had separate English, Scottish and Irish establishments. Thoughts? Wienand?

      Now if the NAM wanted to focus on British gold, that’s another matter. And a really important one. In which case Namur 1695 would be important, considering the financial contributions made by the newly-formed Bank of England.

      • Björn Thegeby says :

        Speaking as the resident hispanomaniac, the British did actually contribute the majority of the intervening forces. The Anglo-Dutch agreement was that the English should take the lead in Spain and provide two thirds of the forces, as the Dutch had done in the North. Up to 1707, the Portuguese did however provide more manpower (although I have my doubts about manning figures of Portuguese regiments after three years of war). After 1708, the Austrian contribution steadily increased, until they were the major force.
        Of course there was an unfortunate habit of being captured and taken prisoner (Hill and Stewart in 1704, practically everybody at Almansa and practically everybody at Brihuega).

      • Wienand Drenth says :

        Difficult question. One important thing, I think, to consider is that only regiments on the English (later British) Establishment could serve overseas. So, despite the fact that Marlborough’s English (British) regiments were made up of English, Scottish and Irish regiments, they were all paid from London, and not from Edinburgh or Dublin. Can we speak of an English army?

        Moreover, there were few Irish regiments, i.e. from the Irish Establishment, with distinct Irish roots. Most of the regiments that came from Ireland to serve in the Low Countries in 1701/02 were English by origin, with one Scots regiment as well. This because Ireland was considered basically as a depot to station regiments. Needed on the one hand to overawe any rebellion, and needed on the other hand as reserve. So, the Irishness of the Irish Establishment should be taken with some grains of salt. The regiments in Scotland (Scots Establishment) were likewise doing garrison during only in that kingdom. But, other than with the Irish Establishment, the regiments in Scotland were also Scottish by origin (as far as I have seen).

        So, my best guess is that for the distant observer looking at the battles of Blenheim etc, there was only an English/British army in the field. In that sense, because only the English/British Establishment could dispatch regiments overseas, it may have created some sense of national identity.

        Or maybe we should better call it Queen Anne’s army, as this avoids the partitioning into establishments. And in the end, it was in her name that commissions were issued to officers and that regiments were recruited.

      • jostwald says :

        So once again, we’ve got varying measures. Establishment: Number of troops in a country’s pay (includes mercenaries under English command vs. foreign rulers’ troops which are just being subsidized, e.g. Savoy or Portuguese troops), vs. number of “native” troops (and there were likely native regiments that topped off their numbers with “foreigners”). Then there’s generic contributions to a war effort, e.g. the 1701 Grand Alliance agreement calling for 90,000 Imperial/Austrian troops, 102,000 Dutch, and 40,000 English (plus later augmentations, etc. etc.) – making up the Grand Alliance’s ‘armies’. Then we have the number serving in a particular theater, then the number in a field army (distinct from garrison forces in the same theater, and there might be multiple armies), then the number that might be engaged in a particular combat (battle, siege…). Each of these will have a specific ratio of English to various other nationalities.
        And we could throw in paper vs. discounted actual strengths too, which might impact different nationalities differently (e.g. the Imperials tended to be significantly understrength, at least in Italy).

        It’s clear that contemporaries referred to an “English army,” and “auxiliaries”, but I don’t have a sense of what exactly they meant by those terms. More importantly, I’d like to know what non-English meant when they said (or heard) the term “English army,” particularly in the context of a coalition war. I’d imagine it foremost in an administrative or financial sense, but it might be interesting to look at the language used when describing battles – did different groups refer to the participating army by its most generic form, the “Allied” or “Confederate” army? Or did they combine it under the commander, “Marlborough’s” army? Or what exactly? FWIW, most of the military manuals that I’ve looked at spend very little time talking about how English forces were supposed to be incorporated into a larger allied force.

      • Björn Thegeby says :

        On Wienand’s comment, I think we have to distinguish between the Irish establishment of 1701/02, when King Billy was in charge and the situation in 1706/07 when losses on the continent made recruiters turn a blind eye. So although there was a prohibition on Catholics in the army, the number who joined the Spanish Irish regiments after Almansa were astonishingly high, indicating a good proportion of Catholics in the army. (Lord Rivers’ expidition was almost entirely Irish regiments, with a few from Great Britain). In comparison, the number that joined French regiments were low, indicating that the six Huguenot regiments were seriously Protestant(, if not entirely French, by then)

  6. Gavin Robinson says :

    The words ‘great’ and ‘greatest’ are sure signs of bad history.

  7. Björn Thegeby says :

    Blenheim? Surely the British were junior partners in that one! (….poster runs for cover)

  8. Björn Thegeby says :

    After careful thinking, I would propose Messines (1917). Plumer’s attack on prepared defence lines is about the only event during that dire war that shows imagination and a desire to husband the lives of his men. He is about the only general, apart from Gallieni, that emerges from WWI with credibility.

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