Battle of battles: You name our finest hour
The National Army Museum wants to know what Britons see as our most crucial military event. Jonathan Owen lists some of the candidates
Sunday 10 February 2013
They tempered our nation in fire and baptised it in blood – from Oliver Cromwell's victory at Naseby through to Waterloo, D-Day and Helmand.
Now the National Army Museum is asking us to nominate Britain's greatest battle of those fought on land over the past 400 years. And it has fired the opening shot by asking military historians to nominate their top 20 engagements to form the basis of a free exhibition which opens this Wednesday at the museum's base in Chelsea, south-west London.
You can vote on the museum website or at the exhibition itself in the museum's White Space Gallery. Voting ends on 20 March, and the top five will be debated in April, when experts will announce the winner.
Included in the featured 20 are famous victories such as Blenheim, Culloden, Quebec, Salamanca and El Alamein; renowned stalemates such as Balaclava and the Somme; and infamous defeats such as Lexington and Concord in America's War of Independence, and the Great War campaign in Gallipoli.
Less well known are Robert Clive's victory at Plessey in 1757, which launched the British Raj, and Imphal-Kohima, where colonial troops beat back the Japanese invasion of India. Modern victories include Goose Green in the Falklands and the battle of Musa Qala, in Afghanistan.
Here, The Independent on Sunday looks at the 20 contenders and asks you to decide which you think is Britain's Greatest Battle.
Find out more about the NAM poll on Britain's Greatest Battle and vote online at nam.ac.uk/battles
14 June 1645
Dr Alastair Massie, National Army Museum
"Parliament fought the Battle of Naseby with a 'New Model Army'. Its cutting edge was supplied by Cromwell's 'Ironsides', cavalry with the discipline to rally after a charge and fight again, unlike their opponents. But most importantly, victory at Naseby was decisive: never again would the King be able to contend successfully against Parliament for political supremacy. Naseby ushered in the modern age and that is why it is Britain's greatest battle."
13 August 1704
Earl Spencer, Descendant of the Duke of Marlborough
"Blenheim was the first significant victory by a British army in continental Europe for nearly 300 years – since Agincourt. Without victory at Blenheim, Britain may well have become no more than a northern maritime power while France would have destroyed the vestiges of the Habsburg Empire, and dominated Europe in a manner not seen since Ancient Rome. In one day, at Blenheim, Britain announced itself a major power."
16 April 1746
Dr Tony Pollard, Centre for Battlefield Archaeology, University of Glasgow
"It was the last battle fought on mainland Britain and was the last military gasp of the Jacobite cause, with more than a century of unrest coming to an end. The British Army won, but it wasn't an easy victory. It was a near-run thing. It was as much of a Scottish civil war, a fight between lowland and highland, as it was a struggle between the Hanoverian regime and the Stuart cause."
18 June 1815
Eighth Duke of Wellington
"I am often asked whether we should not now, in these days of European unity, forget Waterloo and the battles of the past. My reply is, history cannot be forgotten and we need to be reminded of the bravery of thousands of men from many nations who fought and died in a few hours on 18 June 1815 and why their gallantry and sacrifice ensured peace in Europe for 50 years."
25 October 1854
Professor Saul David, University of Buckingham
"The Crimean War saw not one but three of the most iconic actions in British military history: the 'Thin Red Line', when a small number of 93rd Highlanders refused to form a square and yet still repulsed a body of charging Russian horse; the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, when 600 British horsemen rode uphill and defeated a Russian cavalry force three times their number; and, finally, the disastrous but undeniably heroic Charge of the Light Brigade."
22-23 January 1879
Ian Knight, Author of Zulu Rising
"It was never really about strategic objectives – simply about staying alive.... There were no great generals at Rorke's Drift, no brilliant strategies, yet for 10 hours the garrison defended a line of ramshackle barricades against an enemy every bit as determined and courageous as itself. To the public at the time the battle demonstrated the very best British soldiers were capable of and, in some ways, it still does."
July – November 1916
Mark Forsdike; Western Front Association
"The low point for Britain in a four-year campaign that changed the modern world. However, by the end of this battle the German Army had suffered a blow from which it never recovered. It was on the Somme that the modernised British Army learnt how to defeat the Germans and, with the centenary of the start of the war just around the corner, we really should try hard not to forget the achievement."
23 October – 4 November 1942
Robert Lyman, Historian and author
"Undoubtedly the great turning point in the war in North Africa, El Alamein was both a great battle in terms of the scale and intensity of the fighting, and it was strategically decisive as well, opening the way up for the complete destruction of German ambitions in North Africa in the Second World War."
6 June 1944
Ivor Anderson, Parachuted behind enemy lines, aged 19, just before the beach landings
"The turning point of the Second World War. We'd been in England training for the past two or three years and D-Day was the culmination of all that work. If it had been a failure, if we had been beaten back into the sea, we couldn't have had another go for another year or more and, in the meantime, the Germans would have been pelting us with the V1s and V2s and we may never have won the war."
Musa Qala, Helmand
Colonel Stuart Tootal DSO, OBE, Former commander, 3 Para, in Afghanistan
"The gallant defence of a small patch of territory by 75 paratroopers and Royal Irish soldiers; facing several hundred Taliban over 11 desperate weeks without reinforcement, serves to reflect the intensity of the Helmand campaign and the courage and resilience of contemporary British troops... [defeat] would have called the continuation of the whole campaign in Helmand into question."
Battle of Plassey
23 June 1757
Rob Fleming, Information & Community Outreach Curator, National Army Museum
"Robert Clive's victory at Plassey in 1757 was truly Britain's greatest battle because of the long-lasting significance of its legacy - it paved the way for British rule in India that would last nearly 200 years. Moreover, it was a remarkable battle with 3,000 troops on the British side defeating around 50,000 Indians; a victory achieved through tactical skill with the aid of a fair measure of skulduggery."
Battle of Quebec
13 September 1759
Dan Snow, Historian and TV presenter
"In the years following the British capture of Quebec, hundreds of thousands of square miles of the North American interior, previously dominated by the French, became British imperial territory. One of the great questions of history, namely that of the political, demographic and religious complexion of North America, was finally settled. The English language, representative government, Anglo-Saxon legal, and economic practices spread across North America and, in turn, across the world in the 20th century. Our modern globalised world owes a lot to the British victory at Quebec."
Battle of Lexington and Concord
19 April 1775
Dr Robert J O'Hara, Naturalist and historian
"Great battles leave lasting legacies, and the legacy of Lexington and Concord is the United States of America. The skirmishes on Lexington Green and at Concord's North Bridge in April of 1775 were not just the first battles of the American Revolution; they were also, in a very real sense, the last battles of the English Civil War.
The Puritan attempt to turn Old England into a republic in the 1600s spun out of control and ended in dictatorship, followed by a return to monarchy. But in New England the republican experiment succeeded, and in practical terms there never was a Restoration.
Nearly every "embattled farmer" who fought at Lexington and Concord was a direct descendant of the Puritan emigrants who settled those two towns in the 1630s and 1640s.
And what the Massachusetts militiamen defended that day was their English liberties. Lexington and Concord are important because the revolution they began secured and strengthened the English republican tradition, and new-modelled it for a New World.
In grand military terms, the battles of Lexington and Concord may have been small. But they became the hinge, as Henry James said, "on which the large revolving future was to turn."
Battle of Salamanca
22 July 1812
Peter Snow CBE, Broadcaster
"Salamanca is, rightly, seen as one of Wellington's greatest victories. This is Wellington on the offensive - unlike many of his other battles including Waterloo and it illustrates his matchless grasp of ground and timing. Two examples stand out: the moment he chose to attack the leading French division which had strayed too far ahead of the rest of the army. And the decision to commit Clinton's division to aid his hard pressed centre. Both moves were critical to his decisive victory."
Battle of Aliwal
28 January 1846
Dr Neil Faulkner, editor, Military History Monthly
"It was one of the major battles of the Sikh wars. The Sikhs were probably the single most militarily powerful native people inside India who were in a position to resist the expansion of the influence of the East India Company which then became the British Raj after the defeat of the Indian mutiny. What this battle represents is the single most important campaign in breaking the power of independent native Indian states and making it possible for the British to establish complete hegemony across the whole of India. The Sikhs quite quickly became British imperial loyalists and the British recruited very heavily in the Punjab for the Anglo Indian army."
Battle of Gallipoli
25 April 1915 - 9 January 1916
Captain Christopher Fagan, chairman, Gallipoli Association
"It was the first major amphibious operation in modern warfare. From this a vast number of costly lessons were learned which are still relevant to today. The approximate total numbers of Allied troops that took part were 400,000 British, (including some Empire troops), 80,000 French, 50,000 Australians (a large number of whom were born in the UK) and 9,000 New Zealanders. It is incredible and important to realise that all of these were either regular soldiers or volunteers. There were no conscripts. The conditions under which these men fought varied between extreme heat, with attendant thirst and millions of flies, to the flooded and freezing conditions of the November storms. They had also to contend with being in limited and hostile terrain, with little shelter from shelling, shrapnel and machine gun fire. The heroism of those that took part is awesome. The allies had some 250,000 casualties, many from disease, of whom 50,000 were killed."
Battle of Megiddo
19-25 September 1918
Pip Dodd, Senior Curator at National Army Museum
"Megiddo was one of Britain's greatest battles because Allenby's tactical mastery epitomised the new age of combined-arms warfare. Using technology such as aircraft & armoured vehicles whilst skillfully entrapping the Ottoman Army with mounted infantry, he pointed the way to the destructive lightning warfare of WW2."
Battle of Imphal and Kohima
7 March - 18 July 1944
Major Gordon Graham. Now 92-years-old and living in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, he was a lieutenant and commanded a platoon during the battle.
"It was Japan's furthest advance into the mainland of Asia. They hoped to turn the tide of the war in their favour. So they committed a very large force from Burma to invade India. Kohima was their first defeat and at Imphal they were also defeated, so it was a turning point. In terms of the scale of the battle it wasn't anything to compare with Stalingrad or El Alamein but in terms of a crucial moment in the war it was very significant.
In contrast with the war in Europe it was a close encounter battle, you met your enemy at close quarters, there weren't huge artillery barrages or bombings from planes.
It was a clash of two cultures. The Japanese were very good soldiers and very difficult to defeat, they were tough country people. Whereas on the British side a lot of them were conscripts from British cities.
The reason we won was training, determination and comradeship. The comradeship was perhaps the most underestimated element in the victory.
Being transported to a war with the Japanese in the jungles of Asia was like a trip to the moon, it was just a total and strange interruption in one's normal life, and I think the worst aspect was being away from home.
We were in Asia for four years, that was a long time to be away from one's homeland. They fly them back from Afghanistan every few months now, they fly the bodies home in flag-draped coffins, but we got buried where we died. There's a sort of belief on the part of the current generation that veterans of the war don't want to talk about it because all the horrors are bottled up, and that's nonsense. They don't talk about it because they don't think anybody's interested."
Battle of Imjin River
22-25 April 1951
David Bownes, Assistant Director of Collections, National Army Museum
"Imjin River was a pivotal moment in the Korean War and the bloodiest battle fought by British troops since World War Two. The fighting centred on isolated hill top positions defended by the 29th British Independent Infantry Brigade against the entire Chinese 63d Army. For three nights the Brigade repulsed waves of continuous attack. The last stand of the Gloucestershire Regiment - the 'Glorious Glosters' - on Hill 235 against an estimated 10,000 Chinese troops came to epitomize the desperate fighting that ensued. The defence allowed time for United Nations forces to regroup and block the Chinese advance on the South Korean capital Seoul."
Battle of Goose Green
28-29 May 1982
Colonel Chris Keeble. Was a major when he took command of 2 Para after Colonel H Jones was killed in the battle.
"The Falklands conflict in 1982 was not just about who owned what rock in the South Atlantic. It is about liberty - the pursuit of the citizens' legitimate interests through their own self-determination. More importantly, it is about freedom - each person's reasoned capacity to make a moral choice for the Good; their own good; the others' good; the Common Good - without fear, duress, or coercion. Thus, the struggle not only freed the Falkland Islanders from a grotesque military occupation, but it also brought the collapse of the repressive undemocratic Argentine military junta, under whose jurisdiction more than eleven thousand men, women and children had their lives destroyed; tortured; thrown from aircraft; buried alive; to become the 'disappeared'. The awful fighting was as much about relieving the grief of the wailing widows outside the Casa Rosada, as liberating the traumatised Settlers inside their Settlements. The restoration of their liberty and freedom began at the Battle of Goose Green."
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