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7 Battles That Defined Britain

#1 The Battle of Hastings

Perhaps the most famous battle of British history, the Battle of Hastings was one of Britain’s most era-defining moments. Fought between Duke William ‘the Bastard’ of Normandy and the English army of King Harold Godwinson, it marked the beginning of the end for the Anglo-Saxon rulership of England, which had lasted six centuries since the fall of the western Roman Empire. It was the last major battle of the three-way war of succession between William, Duke of Normandy; Harold Hardrada, King of Norway, and Harold Godwinson, King of England.

The battle saw the death of England’s current reigning king, Harold Godwinson, and marked the beginning of the conquest of Anglo-Saxon England. After the battle, England was without an army or a king, leaving William with little major opposition and as such he was able to easily wrest control of the country from the Anglo-Saxon nobility. William replaced the Anglo-Saxon elite with his nobility and comrades from Normandy. The period of Anglo-Norman rule saw the introduction of thousands of French words to the English language. New castle architecture was introduced in the form of motte and bailey castles, and Feudalism was properly established as the legal, economic and military system of the country.

#2 The Battle of the Boyne

Taking place two years after the 1688 Glorious Revolution, the Battle of the Boyne was fought between Catholic supporters of the deposed James II and the Protestant army of William of Orange, the newly crowned (Dutch!) King of England. While it was of a much smaller scale than most of the battles on this list, with no less than 3000 casualties across both sides, its impact on the fate of the British Isles cannot be understated.

The battle itself holds much historical significance, with the victory of the Williamite forces securing Protestant supremacy across the British Isles, and the outcome of the revolution that had occurred just two years prior. The Revolution led to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy that empowered its Parliament and limited the powers of the King, while providing certain protections and liberties for English subjects that they had not enjoyed prior.

#3 The Battle of the Somme

Known infamously as one of the bloodiest days in British history, the Battle of the Somme saw more than one million men die. Historians have debated thoroughly the shortcomings of the British military in the Battle of the Somme, coming to a general consensus that a large majority of the losses can be attributed to inadequate military intelligence, outdated field equipment and the hubris of the British military leadership. While the official consensus tends to be that the battle was an indecisive stalemate, many British historians have in fact argued that it can be considered a German defensive victory, simply for the fact of how many British and French lives were lost at the expense of so little territory gained.

Today, the Battle of the Somme is one of the central memories of World War I. The devastating losses suffered by the British and French armies were a fierce wake-up call, marking the start of all-out modern warfare. Improvements were made in infantry strategy, artillery equipment and new vehicles were introduced, such as tanks and planes, which were soon integrated into the British Army’s methods. The lessons of the Somme were invaluable contributions to victory on the western front, but the question always remains: at what cost?

#4 The Battle of Imphal

The Battle of Imphal remains one of the most significant battles in the Pacific Theatre of World War Two. While it is among the lesser known great battles of the war, it was one of the greatest defeats the Imperial Japanese Army ever suffered, and one of Britain’s greatest victories. 

Fought in horrendous Jungle conditions, British-Indian forces were attacked by the Japanese army who thought to crush the Allies with a swift offensive into British India. However, the Japanese general Mutaguchi had fiercely underestimated his enemy’s defensive skills, and even when it was clear that the offensive had been lost, demanded that Japanese forces press on. This led to a devastating loss of over 50,000 troops for the Japanese army, resulting in a harsh rebuke from the Emperor, as well as the withdrawal of the general responsible for the failure to Tokyo - an irrevocable stain on his career and a great loss of manpower for Japan when it was most needed.

Ending with the total withdrawal of Japanese forces from India, the defeat was an embarrassment and a major setback for the Empire of Japan. General Mutaguchi was recalled to Tokyo and forced into retirement, meanwhile the general responsible for the British victory, William Slim, was knighted by the Viceroy of India! It thwarted Japan’s ambitious plan to invade India and severely weakened their overall position in the Pacific, which would contribute to their later defeat by the American military in 1945.

#5 The Battle of Agincourt

Immortalised by Shakespeare’s play, ‘Henry V’, and even more recently by the popular Netflix film adaptation, ‘The King (2019)’, the Battle of Agincourt was the most important English victory of the Hundred Years War.

Ascending to the kingship of England in 1413, Henry inherited a kingdom rife with political divisions, disease and war. After a campaign of successful conquests in France, the Treaty of Troyes recognised Henry as the heir apparent to the French throne. Can you imagine Britain and France today, unified as one country? Well, if things had been only slightly different, that may very well be the reality we live with today.  If not for the untimely demise of Henry V at only 36 years old to Dysentry, the impact of this battle would have seen the unification of the English and French thrones.

#6 The Battle of Waterloo

One of Britain’s most iconic victories, and one of the most important battles of the Napoleonic Wars. Fought between the British-led Seventh Coalition (consisting of the United Kingdom, Prussia, the Netherlands and others) and the French Empire led by Napoleon, it concluded with the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the end of one of the bloodiest periods in European History which saw millions die.

It paved the way for Britain to become the world’s foremost superpower for the 19th and early 20th centuries, and remains celebrated, with numerous commemorations such as statues, songs, street names existing to this day. This period of British Peace, also known as Pax Britannica, was a golden age for Britain, with the defeat of Napoleonic France leaving the country without any serious threat to its global supremacy.

#7 The Battle of Britain

The year is 1940, and the dreaded Nazi war machine has spread across Europe like an unquenchable fire, with the annexation of France, Poland, Luxembourg and many other continental territories into the Third Reich. The fate of Western Europe hangs in the balance, with the tenuous neutrality pact between the German state and the Soviet Union yet unbroken, and America’s congress electing to remain firmly on the fence of neutrality. Only Britain and her empire stands between Adolf Hitler and his revenge-fuelled ambitions for territorial expansion, with a military weakened by hubris, indecisiveness and a lack of manpower owing to losses in the first World War.

The Battle of Britain was fought primarily in the skies above southern Britain as Hitler’s Operation Sealion launched into full swing. Although significantly outnumbered by the German Air Force, the RAF secured victory in spite of the odds, proving to be a far superior fighting force to the Luftwaffe in almost every regard. 

Not only did the British victory block the possibility of an invasion by German land troops, it also marked the first major defeat of Nazi Germany in the war: a major turning point in what had otherwise been a one-sided struggle for the Allied forces. This was by far the single greatest British victory of the war, with the significantly outnumbered, outgunned and outmanned British military securing victory in the face of seemingly impossible odds.

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