Generally, a battle is an instance of combat in warfare between two or more parties wherein each group will seek to defeat the others. Battles are most often fought during wars or military campaigns and can usually be well defined in time, space and action. Wars and campaigns are guided by strategy whereas battles are the stage on which tactics are employed. German strategist Carl von Clausewitz stated that "the employment of battles to gain the end of war" was the essence of strategy.
Characteristics of battle
British military historian Sir John Keegan suggested an ideal definition of battle as "something which happens between two armies leading to the moral then physical disintegration of one or the other of them" though the origins and outcomes of battles can rarely be summarised so neatly.
The "action" of battle is to reach a decision — the ideal decision is victory but strategy and circumstances often require a compromise. One party is deemed to have achieved victory when its opponent has surrendered, been dispersed, forced to retreat or been rendered militarily ineffective for further combat operations. However, a battle may end in a Pyrrhic victory which ultimately favours the defeated party. If no decision is reached in battle, the result is a stalemate. A conflict in which one side is unwilling to reach a decision in battle often becomes an insurgency.
Up until the 20th century the majority of battles were of short duration, many lasting a day or less — the Battle of Gettysburg was exceptional for lasting three days. This was mainly due to the difficulty of supplying an army in the field. Typically the means of prolonging a battle was by siege warfare. Improvements in transportation and the onset of trench warfare, with its siege-like nature, saw the duration of battles increase to weeks and months, peaking during the First World War. Nevertheless, in a long battle the regular rotation of units meant that the periods of intensive combat to which an individual soldier was subjected tended to remain brief.
Battles may be small scale, only involving a handful of individuals, perhaps two squads, up to battles on army levels where hundreds of thousands may be engaged in a single battle at one time. The space a battle occupies depends on the range of the weapons of the combatants. Until the advent of artillery and aircraft, battles were fought with the two sides in sight, if not reach, of each other. The depth of the battlefield has also increased in modern warfare with supporting units in the rear areas — supply, artillery, medical, etc. — now outnumbering the front-line combat troops.
Battles are, on the whole, made up of a multitude of individual combats and the individual will usually only experience a small part of the events. To the infantryman, there may be little to distinguish between combat as part of a minor raid or a major offensive, nor is it likely that they anticipate the future course of the battle; few of the British infantry who went over the top on the first day on the Somme, 1 July, 1916, would have anticipated that they would be fighting the same battle in five months time. Conversely, some of the Allied infantry who had just dealt a crushing defeat to the French at the Battle of Waterloo fully expected to have to fight again the next day.
Types of battle
Battles can be fought on land, sea or in the air. Naval battles have occurred since at least the 5th century BC. Air battles are few, the most prominent being the Battle of Britain in 1940, but since the Second World War few land or sea battles are fought without air support. Indeed during the Battle of Midway, five aircraft carriers were sunk without the opposing fleets coming in to direct contact.
There are numerous types of battle. A "battle of encounter" is a meeting engagement where the opposing sides collide in the field without one or the other having prepared their attack or defence. The goal of a "battle of attrition" is to inflict greater loss on the enemy than you suffer yourself; many battles of the First World War were intentionally (Verdun) or unintentionally (Somme) attrition battles. A "battle of breakthrough" aims to pierce the enemy's defences, thereby exposing the vulnerable flanks which can be turned. A "battle of encirclement" — the Kesselschlacht of the German Blitzkrieg — surrounds the enemy in a pocket. A "battle of envelopment" involves an attack on one or both flanks; the classic example being the double-envelopment of the Battle of Cannae. A "battle of annihilation" is one in which the defeated party is destroyed in the field, such as the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile.
A "decisive battle" is one of particular importance; by bringing hostilities to an end, such as the Battle of Hastings, or as a turning point in the fortunes of the belligerents, such as the Battle of Stalingrad. A decisive battle can have political as well as military impact, changing the balance of power or boundaries between countries. The concept of the "decisive battle" became popular with the publication in 1851 of Edward Creasy's The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. British military historians J.F.C. Fuller (The Decisive Battles of the Western World) and B.H. Liddell Hart (Decisive Wars of History), among many others, have written books in the style of Creasy's work.
Battles are almost invariably named after some feature of the battlefield geography, such as the name of a town, forest or river. Occasionally battles are named after the date on which they took place, such as The Glorious First of June. In the Middle Ages it was considered important to settle on a suitable name for a battle which could be used by the chroniclers. For example, after Henry V of England defeated a French army on 25 October, 1415, he met with the senior French herald and they agreed to name the battle after the nearby castle and so it was called the Battle of Agincourt. In other cases, the sides adopted different names for the same battle, such as the Battle of Gallipoli which is known in Turkey as the Battle of Çanakkale. Some place names have become synonymous with the battles that took place there, such as Passchendaele, Pearl Harbor or the Alamo. Military operations, many of which result in battle, are given codenames, which are not necessarily meaningful.
When a battleground is the site of more than one battle in the same conflict, the instances are distinguished by ordinal number, such as the First and Second Battles of Bull Run. An extreme case are the twelve Battles of the Isonzo — First to Twelfth — between Italy and Austria-Hungary during the First World War.
Some battles are named for the convenience of military historians so that periods of combat can be neatly distinguished from one another. Following the First World War, the British Battles Nomenclature Committee was formed to decide on standard names for all battles and subsidiary actions. To the soldiers who did the fighting, the distinction was usually academic; a soldier fighting at Beaumont Hamel on 13 November 1916 was probably unaware he was taking part in what the committee would call the "Battle of the Ancre".
Many combats are too small to merit a name. Terms such as "action", "skirmish", "firefight", "raid" or "offensive patrol" are used to describe small-scale battle-like encounters. These combats often take place within the time and space of a battle and while they may have an objective, they are not necessarily "decisive". Sometimes the soldiers are unable to immediately gauge the significance of the combat; in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo, some British officers were in doubt as to whether the day's events merited the title of "battle" or would be passed off as merely an "action".