By Edward Cuddihy
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
“Moment of Battle” is what you might describe as an eloquently constructed list.
That’s not intended to disparage the sterling work of the two distinguished war historians who collaborated on the book. In fact, they defined their purpose in its subtitle: “The Twenty Clashes that Changed the World.”
Readers love the challenge of a good list, even if the topic is history and the authors are recognized authorities. A good list leads to fierce debate and unending speculation.
Whether it’s a list of the 20 best cities to visit or the 20 best restaurants in Manhattan, or in this case, the 20 greatest battles of all time, a list represents a confounding and perplexing test for the list-makers and the reader.
First, are the list-makers correct? Simply stated, that means do they agree with this reader? And second, can the reader come up with the entries before they are revealed? Let’s try it and see if we agree with our experts, who have written extensively on war and are faculty members at the Marine Corps and Naval war colleges.
But first the rules. There really is only one rule: In order to make the list, the battle must have altered “the trajectory of human events.” That’s not a piddling qualification.
So let’s begin with an easy question. Four World War II battles make the list. That’s the greatest number of battles from any single war. Can you name two of them?
OK. Just about everyone will correctly choose the Allied Invasion of Normandy, which if successful assured a bidirectional assault on Berlin and the eventual destruction of Nazi Germany.
But now it gets tougher. Most historians today say Hitler lost the war not in the West, but in the East, on the Russian Front. So is it the battle for Stalingrad, or Leningrad, or Moscow, where the Germans came so close they could see the church steeples of the city before they pulled back in the snow and slop of winter and spring?
Our authors insist: None of the above. They chose the Battle of Kursk, a 75-mile bulge in the German lines on the Russian steppes, where 2 million Russians faced more German shells than were fired in all of France and Poland combined.
The Russians sacrificed four men for every German casualty but the Germans lost the battle. It was only July 1943, but Kursk was the last major German offensive in the East, and after Kursk, the long road to Berlin was in sight. The Soviet Union would rule Eastern Europe for half a century.
One naval battle from World War II made the list. It pitted a depleted U.S. Pacific Fleet against the vaunted fleet of the Empire of Japan. It is the Battle of Midway in the summer of 1942, only six months after Pearl Harbor. The destruction of a major portion of the Japanese fleet, mostly by U.S. carrier-based aircraft, assured the Japanese would not roam the Pacific unmolested nor would they rule Asia. The whole Pacific War lay ahead, but the strength of Japan already was badly shaken.
The fourth World War II battle on the list is the Battle of Britain, the air battle over control of the deepwater channel separating Great Britain from the continent and Adolf Hitler from 10 Downing St. This is the battle that would prompt Winston Churchill to say, in a way only he could: “If the British Empire and its commonwealths last for a thousand years, men will say: ‘This was their finest hour.’ ”
If you named all four of those battles, you qualify as a World War II expert. And if you disagree, to paraphrase our authors, you can make your case by writing your own book.
Authors James Lacey and Williamson Murray are at their finest when they are describing the actual battles. Their battle descriptions are crisp and highly detailed right down to specific roads and kinds of aircraft armament or numbers of artillery shell. And their battle narrative is brilliantly fast-paced and exciting.
Their format makes them weakest when they are forced to explain complex geopolitical situations in less than a thousand words. For example, many volumes have been written on the importance of the Battle of Britain to the eventual American entry into the war. The format calls for containing each battle to about 20 pages plus notes, and the battle narrative takes precedence over politics.
If you drop back 900 years, you’ll find another entry on the top-20 list involving the crossing of the English Channel. With the exception of 1776, the date of this battle, 1066, probably is the best-known date for American schoolchildren of a generation ago. It is considered the last time England was successfully invaded from the outside.
That of course was the Battle of Hastings in which the Normans from what today is France, led by William, a distant cousin of Saxon King Harold, successfully crossed the channel to conquer England.
While William the Conqueror never actually conquered all of Britain – no one ever will conquer the Scots – the successful invasion generally is considered the beginning of what some day would become Great Britain and the British Empire.
One American Civil War battle made the list. If you said Gettysburg, you would be wrong in the eyes of our authors. The battle took place at about the same time as Gettysburg but far off on the Mississippi River. That’s the Battle of Vicksburg.
“The Trajectory of human events”? How does Vicksburg qualify? Well our authors argue the Confederate defeat by the forces of Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg preserved the Union, and without one country, united from coast to coast, there would have been no start of the “American Century” 37 years later.
The only American Revolution battle to make the list did not directly involve George Washington. It was fought almost in our backyard – well if you have a very large backyard.
Yorktown may have effectively ended the British fight over its American colonies, but it was the Battle of Saratoga in Northern New York that “changed the colonial landscape forever.”
Now to earn an A-plus on this test, you’ll need to name the battle that allowed the Western Civilization as we know it to get off the ground in the first place. In 490 B.C., the greatly outnumbered Athenians and their allies from the surrounding Greek islands defeated the Persians, a legitimate world superpower.
Aristotle and Alexander the Great were still to be born, but without a victory at the Battle of Marathon, there likely would have been no Golden Age of Greece, no Western Civilization based on classical Greek philosophy, and our authors speculate, maybe no spread of Christianity to the West.
Twelve other battles make up the Lacey-Murray list, each as exciting and significant as those already mentioned. But don’t look for a No. 1. Our authors describe the battles in chronological order from 490 B.C. to 2003, with no attempt to distinguish the most or least important among them.
With Western Civilization in almost constant battle for the last 2,500 years, it must have been difficult enough for them to choose 20 from the thousands of battles that have annihilated generation after generation of Europeans.
And we are the intelligent beings on the planet.
Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes that Changed the World
By James Lacey and Williamson Murray
478 pages, $30.
Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.