Much of a soldier’s life is spent awaiting and preparing for war. When the moment to take action does come, it is usually bloody, confusing, and over quickly. Often, combat will be on a small scale; a skirmish, a probing patrol, an accidental clash with the enemy in the darkness. At other times, fear will destroy an army, causing men to flee from the perceived threat of death before severe casualties have been sustained by either side. And, finally, there is the battle that surpasses the normal expectations of war in its scale of death and destruction. These are the days where neither side is prepared to surrender, or – as is so often the case – a general’s strategy is such that it leaves the enemy no escape, left to the mercy of the victors.
The day the tide of war turned in favour of the Union during the American Civil War, was also the day that saw the highest number of casualties in a single battle throughout the entire conflict. After a series of Confederate victories, General Lee led his troops north to invade Union territory. Fighting raged back and forth for three days before the Unionists emerged triumphant. The battle is remembered as the battle of the Civil War, immortalised by the Gettysburg address and standing as a symbol of the Union’s cause and eventual victory.
The Carthaginian general Hannibal, having marched his army across the Alps and defeated two Roman armies at Trebia and Lake Trasimene, sought to engage the Romans in a final decisive battle. The Romans concentrated their heavy infantry in the centre, hoping to smash through the middle of the Carthaginian army. Hannibal, on the other hand, deployed his finest troops on the flanks of his army, anticipating the central Roman attack. As the Carthaginian centre collapsed, the sides folded in on the Roman flanks. The mass of legionaries in the rear ranks forced the front ranks unstoppably forward, not knowing they were enveloping themselves. Eventually, the Carthaginian cavalry swept round and closed the gap, completely surrounding the Roman army. In the close quarters battle, the legionaries, with no way of escape, were forced to fight to the death. The result was the loss of 50,000 Roman citizens and two consuls.
The bloodiest day in the history of the British Army was suffered during the initial stages of a battle that would last for several months, result in over a million dead, and leave the tactical situation largely unchanged. The plan was for an artillery barrage to pound the German defences to an extent that the attacking British and French could just walk in and occupy the opposing trenches. The bombardment did not have the devastating effect expected. As soon as the soldiers emerged from the trenches, German machine-gun positions opened up. Poorly coordinated artillery meant that advancing infantry was often shelled by their own supporting fire or left dangerously exposed as their creeping barrage left them unprotected. By nightfall, few of the objectives had been taken, despite massive loss of life. The attack would continue
in a similar vein until October that year.
The battle of Leipzig represents the most decisive defeat suffered by Napoleon, and the largest battle fought on European soil prior to the outbreak of World War One.
Facing attacks from all directions, the French army performed remarkably well, holding attackers at bay for more than nine hours before being overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. With defeat imminent, Napoleon began an orderly withdrawal across the single bridge still standing. The bridge was blown too early, stranding 20,000 French soldiers, many of whom would drown whilst attempting to cross the river. The defeat opened the door for an Allied advance into France itself.
The German offensive began with a devastating series of bombings from the Luftwaffe, which left much of Stalingrad in ruins. But the bombing created a highly dispensable landscape. As the army advanced, however, they found themselves caught up in brutal house-to-house fighting with the Soviets. Although they were in control of more the 90% of the city, the Wehrmacht could not extricate the remaining stubborn Soviet soldiers. The weather began to turn bitterly cold, and in November 1942 the Red Army launched a two-pronged attack on the German 6th Army in Stalingrad. The flanks collapsed and the 6th Army was surrounded, both by the Red Army and the crippling Russian winter. Starvation, cold, and sporadic Soviet attacks began to take their toll. Yet Hitler refused to allow the 6th Army to retreat. By February 1943, after a failed German attempt to break out and with all supply lines had cut, the 6th Army was crushed.