Britain has been involved in some of history’s most significant wars: the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and both World Wars to name a few. For better or for worse during these wars battles occurred that have helped shape the fabric of Britain today.
Here are ten of the most significant British battles in history.
1. The Battle of Hastings: 14 October 1066
William the Conqueror’s victory against Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings was an era defining moment. It ended over six hundred years of Anglo-Saxon rule in England and ushered in nearly a century of Norman dominion – a period epitomised by the construction of formidable castles and cathedrals as well as significant changes to English society.
2. The Battle of Agincourt: 25 October 1415
On 25 October, also known as St Crispin’s Day, 1415 a small and exhausted English (and Welsh) band of brothers won a miraculous victory at Agincourt.
Despite being heavily outnumbered, Henry V’s tired, beleaguered army triumphed against the flower of the French nobility, marking the end of an era where the knight dominated the battlefield.
Immortalised by William Shakespeare, the battle has come to represent an important part of British national identity.
3. The Battle of the Boyne: 11 July 1690
The Battle of the Boyne was fought in Ireland between a recently-deposed King James II and his Jacobites (James’ Catholic supporters) and King William III and his Williamites (William’s Protestant supporters).
William’s victory at the Boyne secured the fate of the Glorious Revolution that had occurred two years before. Because of this no Catholic monarch has ruled England since James II.
4. The Battle of Trafalgar: 21 October 1805
On 21 October 1805, Admiral Horatio Nelson’s British fleet crushed a Franco-Spanish force at Trafalgar in one of the most famous naval battles in history.
The victory sealed Britain’s reputation as the world’s leading maritime power – a reputation which arguably remained until the end of World War Two.
5. The Battle of Waterloo: 18 June 1815
Ten years after the Battle of Trafalgar, Britain gained another of its most iconic victories at Waterloo in Belgium when Arthur Wellesley (better known as the Duke of Wellington) and his British army decisively defeated Napoleon Bonaparte, with aid from Blücher’s Prussians.
The victory marked the end of the Napoleonic Wars and peace returned to Europe for the next generation. It also paved the way for Britain becoming the world superpower during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
In British eyes, Waterloo is a national triumph that is still celebrated to this day and commemorations of the battle remain visible in various formats: songs, poems, street names and stations for instance.
6. The Battle of the Somme: 1 July – 18 November 1916
The first day of the Battle of the Somme holds an infamous record for the British army, being the bloodiest day in its history. 19,240 British men lost their lives that day due mainly to poor intelligence, inadequate artillery support, and an underestimation of their foe – a contempt that has proven fatal so many times in history.
By the end of the battle 141 days later, 420,000 British soldiers lay dead for the prize of just a few miles of land gained.
7. The Battle of Passchendaele: 31 July – 10 November 1917
Also known as the Third Battle of Ypres, Passchendaele was another of the bloodiest battles of World War One.
A new German strategy called defence in depth exacted heavy losses on initial Allied attacks before General Herbert Plumer’s bite and hold tactics, which aimed at taking more limited objectives rather than driving deep into enemy territory in one push, turned the tables for a while. But unseasonably heavy rains turned the battlefield to a deadly quagmire, making progress difficult and adding to the already heavy toll in manpower.
The casualty figures for Passchendaele are highly contested but it is generally agreed that each side lost a minimum of 200,000 men and likely as many as twice that.
Passchendaele had a particularly catastrophic impact on the German Army; they suffered a devastating rate of casualties which by that stage of the war they simply could not replace.
8. The Battle of Britain: 10 July – 31 October
The Battle of Britain was fought in the skies above southern England during the Summer of 1940.
Having conquered France and most of mainland Europe, Adolf Hitler planned an invasion of Britain – Operation Sealion. For this to go ahead, however, he first needed to gain control of the air from the Royal Air Force.
Although significantly outnumbered by Herman Goering’s infamous Luftwaffe, the Royal Air Force successfully fended off the German Messchersmitts, Heinkels and Stukas, forcing Hitler to ‘postpone’ the invasion on 17 September.
Britain’s ultimate victory in the skies stopped a German invasion and signified a turning point in World War Two. At the time of Britain’s Darkest Hour this victory brought hope to the Allied cause, shattering the aura of invincibility that had until then surrounded Hitler’s forces.
9. The Second Battle of El Alamein: 23 October 1942
On 23 October 1942 Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery spearheaded a British-led victory at El Alamein in modern day Egypt against Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps – the decisive moment of the Desert War in World War Two.
The victory marked one of the most important turning points, if not the most important, of the war. As Churchill famously remarked,
‘Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat’.
10. The Battles of Imphal and Kohima: 7 March – 18 July 1944
The Battles of Imphal and Kohima was a key turning point during the Burma campaign on World War Two. Masterminded by William Slim, British and Allied forces won a decisive victory against the Japanese forces situated in north-eastern India.
The Japanese siege of Kohima has been described as ‘the Stalingrad of the East’, and between 5 and 18 April the Allied defenders were engaged in some of the bitterest close-quarter fighting of the war.