5. Battle of Tours, 732
Chances are you never heard of this battle, but had the Franks lost it, we might all be bowing towards Mecca five times a day and studying our Koran each night. The battle near the city of Tours pitted about 20,000 Carolingian Franks under Charles Martel against a Muslim force of up to 50,000 soldiers under Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi intent on bringing Islam to Europe. Though outnumbered, Martel proved to be an especially able commander and routed the invaders, driving them back into Spain and, ultimately (through his son, Pippin the Great) off the continent. Had Martel lost, Islam would probably have become the predominant faith of Europe and, eventually, the main religion around the world today. How this would have impacted western civilization can only be guessed at, but chances are it would have taken a dramatically different tact than it did.
4. Battle of Vienna, 1683
In something of a remake of the earlier Battle of Tours (see no. 5) the Muslims were again on the march in an effort to claim all of Europe for Allah. This time, riding under the banner of the Ottoman Empire, somewhere between 150,000 to 300,000 troops under Kara Mustafa Pasha met a mixed force of some 80,000 troops under the Polish King John Sobrieski near Vienna one fine September in 1683 and somehow lost. The battle proved to be the end of Islamic expansion into Europe and resulted in their commander, Mustafa Pasha, being executed by the Turks for his mishandling of the siege and battles for Vienna. How close were things? Had Pasha attacked when he first arrived at the city earlier that July, Vienna probably would have fallen; in waiting until September, however, he gave time for the Polish Army and their allies to arrive to break the siege and provide the forces necessary to send the Turks packing. Still, you’d think that with a 2 to 1 or even 3 to 1 advantage, they should have something to show for their efforts.
3. Yorktown, 1781
In terms of numbers, this was a pretty puny battle (8,000 American troops, supported by 8,000 French troops, against some 9,000 British troops) but by the time it ended on October 19, 1781, it changed the world forever. The indomitable British Empire, the super power of its day, should have easily defeated the rag-tag colonists under George Washington, and for most of the war, they generally had the upper hand. By 1781, however, the upstart Americans had learned how to fight and, having acquired the assistance of England’s arch enemy, France, had become a small but professional fighting force. As a result, the British under Cornwallis found themselves trapped on a peninsula between the determined Americans on the one side and a French fleet on the other that made escape impossible and so, after a couple of weeks of fighting, they surrendered. In doing so, the Americans defeated the world’s premier military power and gained independence for some backwoods country in the new world called the United States of America.
2. Battle of Salamis, 480 BCE
Imagine a sea battle today that involved over a thousand ships and one can begin to appreciate the magnitude of this single engagement between the outnumbered Greek Navy under Themistocles and the massive navy of King Xerxes of Persia. The Greeks had used guile to get the Persian fleet to sail into the narrow Straits of Salamis, where they were able to deprive them of taking advantage of their superior numbers, and dealt the Persians a humiliating defeat. As a result, Xerxes was forced to withdraw most of his army back to Persia, thereby leaving Greece to the Greeks and preserving western civilization in the process. A number of historians believe that a Persian victory would have stilted the development of Ancient Greece, and by extension ‘western civilization’ per se, making Salamis one of the most significant battles in human history.
1. Adrianople, 718
What The Battle of Tours (see No. 5) was for western Europe, and the Battle of Vienna (No. 4) was for central Europe, the battle of Adrianople was for eastern Europe in that once again, the armies of Islam were stopped in their tracks just as they were prepared to take all of Europe. Had this battle been lost and Constantinople—at the time the largest city in Christendom—fallen to the Muslims, it would have allowed the armies of Islam to move practically unimpeded throughout the Balkans and into central Europe and Italy. As it was, Constantinople was to act like the cork in a bottle, keeping the armies of Allah from crossing the Bosporus and taking Europe in force—a role it was to play for the next 700 years until the city finally fell in 1453.