Top Five Naval Battles of All Time

Ranking battles by their importance has been a bloodsport among military historians as long as there have been military historians. Creasy's classic Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World(1851) set the standard for the genre.

But what makes a battle decisive? And what makes one such test of arms more important than another?

Defining the term too loosely produces howlers like a recent US News catalogue of decisive battles of the American Civil War. By the US News count, 45 engagements qualified as decisive during that four-year struggle alone. Zounds!

The term must be defined less cavalierly than that to be meaningful. If every battle is decisive, no battle is. That's one reason I always ask students whether some legendary triumph—a Trafalgar, or a Tsushima Strait—was decisive, or just dramatic, or just featured the star power of a Nelson or Togo.

Even the masters of strategy, however, appear ambivalent about what constitutes decisive victory. Carl von Clausewitz supplies a working definition, describing a decisive engagement as one that leads directly to peace. This implies an action carrying not just tactical but strategic and political import. Such an encounter impels the vanquished to accept the victor's terms at the bargaining table, whether because he's no longer capable of fighting on, believes he stands little chance of turning the tables and winning, or estimates that victory will prove unaffordable. A decisive battle, in this expansive interpretation, is the chief determinant of a war's outcome.

So far, so good. But how direct must direct be for a battle to earn the lofty status of decisive? Must peace talks take place immediately following the clash of arms that precipitates them? Can a settlement come weeks or months afterward, so long as the cause/effect relationship is clear? What's the time horizon?

The great Carl is silent on such matters. It's possible he's too casual about them. Combat, methinks, can be decisive while achieving more modest goals than winning a war outright. To see how, interpret the word literally: something decisive decides something. (Admittedly, this is probably how the US News team got in trouble. Every action decides something in a tactical sense, no matter how mundane or inconsequential. If nothing else, it determines who holds the field of battle at day's end, or reveals that the fighting stalemated. This says little about its larger meaning, if any.) Armed clashes can yield decisive results on different levels of war. A tactical encounter could decide the outcome of a campaign or the fate of a combat theater without leading directly to peace. Right?

In short, it appears wise to define a decisive victory more three-dimensionally than Clausewitz does, namely as a trial of arms that lets a belligerent accomplish some positive or negative aim beyond mere tactical results. Winning the war would still qualify, obviously, but the broader view would allow historians to rate a Battle of Trafalgar as decisive.

Fought in 1805, Trafalgar scarcely brought about final peace with Napoleonic France. That took another decade of apocalyptic warfare. But it did settle whether the French could invade the British Isles and, through amphibious conquest, crush the offshore threat to French supremacy. The heroics of Nelson, Collingwood, and their shipmates decided the outcome of Napoleon's scheme while enabling Great Britain to persevere with the struggle. Trafalgar, then, directly accomplished the negative goal of keeping French legions from invading Britain. That must qualify as decisive in the operational sense.

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pimerkaur (October 6, 2013 - 1:01am)

Very good well researched you even included the first historical sea battle :) I didn't recognize it at first because you titled it "the battle of the delta."Regards 

Dunaway (October 7, 2013 - 5:51pm)

A stirring and research provoking read. Nevertheless, given the authors criteria for "decisive", it is difficult to omit the Battles of Leyte Gulf. Why? Both enormous land and sea forces were engaged simultaneously, each achieving decisive results. The battles sequentially over several days included five distinct major engagements. It covered by far the greatest geographic area, the most combatants, the most varied maritime weapons - engagement of main battle fleets, long range carrier based aircraft assault and defense, capital ships lost to submarine attack, massive amphibious land assault from the sea. Decisive ? The Japanese main battle fleet suffered irreplaceable losses and never returned to the war. The Japanese carrier fleet was destroyed and never reinterred the war. The assault secured the elimination of Japanese land and air based forces from the Phillipine Islands, removing the last significant barrier to freedom of operations throughout the western Pacific Ocean for American naval forces. Essentially, the once-fearsome naval might of Japan was eliminated from World War II. Victory in the Pacific was assured. Decisively. Now back to my naval history books and many thanks. Hayne Hamilton

fdbetancor (December 9, 2013 - 1:09pm)

Hmmmm....there are some important battles being left out, even of the honorable mentions.... First and Second Hakata Bay? What would the history of the world have been if the Yuan Dynasty (mongols) had conquered Japan? Aegospotami should have been an honorable mention: if the Athenians had beaten the Spartans in the Pelopponesian War, the Athenian Empire might have prevented the rise of Macedon.... the Battle of the Nile was also of paramount importance to history, decisively ending Napoleon's career as an Orientalist and his threat to India, and permanently deciding him on his career in for modern history, Lake Erie is certainly decisive as it forced GB to realize that the Old NorthWest was indefensible from Canada; also the Battles of Santiago and Manila Bay which launched Imperial America as a first rate Great Power and established the US in Asia for the decisive next half century....the Battle of Midway was at least as important as Leyte Gulf, coming earlier in the war - the IJN never retook the strategic initiative after Midway and all threat (real or imagined) to Hawaii disappeared for good...

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