10 Battles That Changed History

Luftwaffe Over London
Luftwaffe Over London / Central Press/GettyImages

From some of the usual suspects (like battle that secured Americans a victory in the Revolutionary War) to battles with more unusual outcomes (like the World War II engagement that helped instigate a medical breakthrough, or the devastating attack that indirectly contributed to the Renaissance) these pivotal military engagements in this list—adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube—altered the course of history.

1. The Battle of Gaixia

You might not have studied the Battle of Gaixia in school, but the dramatic campaign paved the way for the culture that brought the world paper, established the Silk Road, and revolutionized the civil service.

In 206 BCE, the Qin Dynasty fell and China was divided into 18 kingdoms controlled by various factions that were soon at war. Thousands of people died, and large amounts of farmland were destroyed during the conflicts. It all came to a head in a battle that featured daring military tactics, adversarial singing, and some wife-kidnapping.   

The Han, led by Liu Bang, and the Western Chu, led by Xiang Yu, gained more and more power over the years of fighting. In 203 BCE, the two leaders agreed to divide China between their two kingdoms—but Liu Bang quickly went back on that deal and hatched a plan to defeat the Chu. 

According to the most popular version of the story, the Han kidnapped Xiang Yu’s wife, and Liu Bang brought her deep within a canyon in preparation for his next move.

When Chu fighters entered the canyon, determined to rescue their leader’s wife, Bang’s forces surrounded and decimated them. Though Xiang Yu’s wife was eventually rescued, it was a pyrrhic victory. As night fell, Liu Bang ordered his men and the captured Chu soldiers to start singing traditional Chu songs. It was a way to remind the remaining Chu fighters of the homes they had left behind, and it apparently worked to further erode morale. Xiang Yu’s fighters began to leave the canyon. Not wanting to surrender or get captured, Xiang Yu died by suicide

Liu Bang’s victory allowed him to become emperor. The Han Dynasty he began has had a lasting impact on Chinese culture and civilization, and on the world at large. Things that we now consider commonplace, like paper and wheelbarrows, were all invented during the Han Dynasty. The powerful culture also established the Silk Road, the famous trade routes that linked Asia to Europe.

 2. The Battle of Britain

Hawker Hurricanes flying in formation, Battle of Britain, World War II, 1940.
Hawker Hurricanes flying in formation, Battle of Britain, World War II, 1940. / Print Collector/GettyImages

The Battle of Britain was devastating in the United Kingdom, but in a roundabout way it saved countless lives by instigating improvements to the production of penicillin.

After France fell to the Nazis in June 1940, Hitler set his eyes on invading the UK. From July 10 through October 31, the British Royal Air Force and the German Luftwaffe faced off in the world’s first major battle to take place almost entirely in the air. The German Air Force dropped bombs over England, attempting to destroy the country’s defenses. The Brits, meanwhile, defended their homeland by shooting down as many Nazi planes as they could. Thousands of civilians died.

The Brits were ultimately able to hold off the Germans, helping to turn the tides of international sentiment regarding the war

But the Battle of Britain did more than sway political opinion and bolster the British war efforts. It was also a key turning point in the development of penicillin as an antibiotic. Alexander Fleming had discovered the mold's ability to kill bacteria in 1928, but it wouldn’t really become apparent how pivotal his discovery would be until the outbreak of World War II.

Soldiers were dying from more than just gunshots and bombs. Small scratches and other surface wounds often turned deadly when infected with bacteria.

Scientists at Oxford had been working on penicillin, which they knew would be invaluable in case of a Nazi invasion. Concerned that the Germans could benefit from their research, they actually came up with plans to destroy their work in case Britain was invaded. They had an idea to rub the spores into their clothing. That way, if they had to flee, the potentially life-saving spores would travel with them, completely invisible to the Germans. But the invasion never came, so work was able to continue in England.

With relentless fights like the Battle of Britain causing thousands of casualties, European scientists knew they needed to ramp up penicillin production. The original process of extracting the active ingredient from the mold was onerous. The drug was so hard to come by, in fact, that at one point, doctors collected the urine of patients treated with penicillin so that they could re-extract the valuable material to then give to another patient.

European scientists’ search for a more efficient production method eventually took them to the United States. Among a number of manufacturers, they were helped by a chemist named Charles Pfizer, who helped vastly increase the speed at which penicillin could be produced. Thanks to the wartime effort, penicillin is no longer a rare miracle cure, but a common—and crucial—part of modern medicine.

 3. The Battle of Hastings

Battle of Hastings, 14th October 1066.
Battle of Hastings, 14th October 1066. / Print Collector/GettyImages

In the early 1050s, William, the Duke of Normandy, supposedly took a trip to England to visit his Anglo-Saxon cousin, Edward the Confessor—who just so happened to be king. Edward, who didn’t have any kids, is said to have promised William the throne after his death. That may well have been retroactive Norman propaganda, but that doesn’t change what happened next.

When Edward died in 1066, England was left in the hands of a man named Harold Godwinson, a.k.a. Harold II. William did not take the news well. He left Normandy and set sail for England, this time with thousands of troops in tow. He and his forces marched from coastal Pevensey to Hastings and met Harold’s men at a site now called Battle.

On the morning of October 14, 1066, trumpets blared and the fighting commenced. Though the English had formed a shield wall as a defense against the Norman invaders, William’s men maintained their advances. Bodies littered the hillside, lying atop blood-soaked grass. Eventually, the Normans wore down their opponents and killed Harold. 

After their victory, the Duke of Normandy—now better remembered as William the Conqueror—continued his march to London, where he was crowned king of England on December 25, 1066. He became the country’s first Norman ruler. 

William’s reign ushered in a new era for England. Under his rule, England became re-oriented toward continental Europe. Motte-and-bailey castles popped up across the countryside and grand Romanesque cathedrals were constructed in cities. Feudalism expanded. The royal court and other nobles ditched the country’s existing Germanic Anglo-Saxon language for French. Over time, these two languages mixed together and gave rise to the English language we speak today.

 4. The Siege of Baghdad

Siege Of Baghdad
Siege Of Baghdad. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

By the mid-1200s CE, the Mongolian Empire had spread throughout Central Asia. Möngke, its emperor and a grandson of Genghis Khan, was looking to expand into the Middle East. At the time, Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, a powerful Muslim dynasty, and essentially functioned as the center of the Islamic world. It was a hub for scholars and philosophers, and fomented advances in mathematics, technology, and the arts. And in 1258, Möngke’s brother Hügelü sacked the city—an attack that would have devastating consequences for the Islamic world.

Hülegü’s forces surrounded Baghdad on January 29. Using catapults and siege engines, they battered the city’s outer walls. Bit by bit, they broke through its defenses. On February 10, Baghdad surrendered to the Mongols

But the surrender did not bring a gentle end to the attack. Three days later, the invading army swarmed into Baghdad. For days, they murdered hundreds of thousands of people, sparing the Christians and slaughtering the Muslims. Eventually, they even killed the caliph, the city’s leader and spiritual ruler. The siege has been said to mark the end of the Islamic Golden Age.

5. The Fall of Constantinople

The Final Assault On Constantinople
The Final Assault On Constantinople. / Print Collector/GettyImages

The Byzantine Empire outlasted the western portion of the Roman Empire by almost a millennium. For centuries, it acted as a stronghold for Christianity and dominated geopolitical events in large parts of Europe. By the 15th century, though, the empire was struggling. Crusaders had invaded its capital, Constantinople, in the early 1200s. In the 14th century, the Black Death wiped out much of its citizenry. By the mid-1400s, only around 40,000 to 50,000 people lived within the city’s walls. 

The Ottoman Turks continued to attack what was left of the empire, reducing its reach so much that the once-mighty power’s territory essentially extended to only a few miles outside the city. 

On April 6, 1453, an Ottoman army led by Sultan Mehmed II began attacking the city. Mehmed had spent the previous two years strengthening his forces. He erected fortresses in strategic locations outside the city, preparing to surround Constantinople on all fronts. 

Upwards of 80,000 Ottoman soldiers, with 69 cannons in tow, approached Constantinople by land. Meanwhile, a fleet of about 30 warships, accompanied by around 100 smaller vessels, arrived by sea. 

Their heavy artillery chipped away at the city’s outer defenses. Christian reinforcements sent by Pope Nicholas V hampered Mehmed’s naval attack but couldn’t prevent his ships from eventually gaining control of the sea right outside the city. 

For 53 days, Ottoman forces barraged Constantinople. Finally, on May 29, Mehmed’s men broke through, sacking the city and destroying its Orthodox churches. The Hagia Sophia, its greatest monument to Christianity, soon became a mosque.

The great bastion of Christianity had fallen, and with it, the last remnants of the once mighty Roman Empire. For years, many academics viewed the fall of Constantinople as the end of Europe’s Middle Ages. Later scholarship questioned the accuracy of ascribing singular importance to any one event in bringing about such a seismic shift, but the idea—even partially discredited—points to the massive impact of those 15th century events. The Ottoman Empire eventually spread into Europe. Scholars educated in Greek and Roman history and philosophy fled the sacked city and immigrated to Italy and other points throughout the continent, sowing the seeds for the period of cultural and intellectual rebirth known as the Renaissance.

6. The Battle of Cajamarca

Submission of Atahualpa. Colored engraving, 1807.
Submission of Atahualpa. Colored engraving, 1807. / Ipsumpix/GettyImages

In the mid-1500s, the area representing modern-day Peru was the wealthiest part of South America. Spain had its eye on the region’s riches, leading explorer and conquistador Francisco Pizarro to hatch a plot that would quickly hasten the fall of the Inca Empire.

Pizarro, along with fewer than 200 men, arrived in the city of Cajamarca to meet the Inca king Atahualpa, who had taken the throne after defeating his brother the year before. Atahualpa wasn’t too worried about this small group of invaders, but he should have been.

The Spaniards were greatly outnumbered, but they had horses, armor, and firearms. When Atahualpa entered Cajamarca on November 16, 1532, he was unarmed, and Pizarro’s men ambushed. With their cannons and guns, they massacred the thousands of Inca soldiers who had accompanied Atahualpa into the city. Of the Spaniards, only Pizarro was injured—he received a cut to the hand while attempting to reach Atahualpa.

Pizarro succeeded in capturing the king and ransomed him off to fatten Spanish coffers. But instead of setting Atahualpa free once enough riches had been forked over—as agreed upon—Pizarro kept him as a prisoner and worked to weaken the empire from within by pitting Inca leaders against each other. In what was perhaps Pizarro’s most sinister move, after acquiring the power and wealth he needed, he had Atahualpa executed. Pizarro’s success in Peru put an end to the dwindling Inca Empire and helped facilitate Spanish colonialism in South America.

 7. The Battle of Yorktown

'Surrender of Cornwallis', Yorktown, Virginia, 1781.
'Surrender of Cornwallis', Yorktown, Virginia, 1781. / Print Collector/GettyImages

Any fan of the musical Hamilton knows that the Battle of Yorktown was a key event in early United States history. In September 1781, George Washington’s forces—with help from the French—staged a three-week siege against the British. 

In August 1781, Washington had received word that 28 French warships, carrying 3200 troops, were heading toward Virginia, where British soldiers led by General Cornwallis were stationed. Days later, he sent his forces marching south from New York City to meet those reinforcements. It was the largest troop movement of the war.

Washington’s troops, plus the French forces led by Comte de Rochambeau, surrounded the British stronghold of Yorktown. For three weeks, the Continental Army crept closer and weakened the British defenses. After a stealthy attack led by Alexander Hamilton on October 14, Cornwallis surrendered

The Siege of Yorktown was the last major battle of the Revolutionary War. Though the conflict didn’t officially end until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, the loss effectively zapped the British of their will to fight. The rebels went on to establish what would become a little country called the United States of America.

 8. The Battle of Waterloo

The painting The Evening of The Battle Of Waterloo by Ernest Crofts.
The Evening of The Battle Of Waterloo by Ernest Crofts. / Hulton Archive/GettyImages

After Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France in 1804, he set his sights on conquering Europe. France was a military superpower, and Napoleon was able to expand his reign throughout the continent.

Then, like many a conquering zealot, he got too greedy. His attempt at invading Russia in 1812 failed, and after retreating to France he suffered more losses. In 1814, he was forced into exile.

But Napoleon refused to stay away for long. In 1815, he returned to France and rallied his supporters. Prussia, Russia, Great Britain, and Austria assembled nearly 800,000 troops, ready to fight the emperor if he invaded.

And invade he did. Napoleon and his forces marched into Belgium, where they defeated the Prussian troops that had gathered there. They then headed toward Waterloo, where an army led by Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, was waiting. 

When the battle began on June 18, 1815, Napoleon’s army outnumbered the British. But the Little Corporal—who was not actually that little—made an error that would ultimately end his military and political career. He waited too long to signal his men to attack, as he wanted the ground to dry out since it had rained the night before. This delay gave the defeated Prussian troops enough time to reach the British army before the battle ended.

The arrival of the second army weakened Napoleon’s defenses. After the Duke of Wellington’s forces defeated Napoleon’s Imperial Guard—his best fighters—the French army retreated, chased by the Prussians. Napoleon fled to Paris, where he was once again sent into exile. The First French Empire had fallen, and while there would still be wars, continental Europe entered a period of relative peace that remained largely intact until World War I. Napoleon, meanwhile, spent the rest of his life in exile on St. Helena, a small island off the west coast of Africa. (Side note: When he died in 1821, the doctor who did Napoleon’s autopsy is said to have nabbed a few of the emperor’s body parts, including his penis. After changing hands a number of times, it may have wound up in New Jersey.)

 9. The Battle of Shangani

On October 25, 1893, forces from the British South Africa Company faced off against a group of Matabele (now Ndebele) warriors in what’s now Zimbabwe during the First Matabele War. Thousands of Matabele fighters attacked the British in the middle of the night. The British, though caught off guard and initially outnumbered, had a key advantage over their opponents.

Unknown to the Matabele, the British were armed with five Maxim guns—the world’s first automatic firearm. These guns could fire 500 rounds per minute. As one eyewitness recalled, “The Matabele never got nearer than 100 yards … the Maxims far exceeded all expectations and mowed them down literally like grass.”

The battle was one of the first times Maxim guns were ever used in warfare. They were soon employed in other battles as part of Europe’s “Scramble for Africa,” allowing England to gain more military victories in its colonization efforts, with disastrous results for many of the African people they came into contact with. Maxim guns and other automatic weapons were later used in World War I, contributing to its many millions of casualties. 

 10. The First Battle of the Marne

German Soldiers Erect Wire In Front Of Trench
German Soldiers Erect Wire In Front Of Trench. / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

At the end of summer 1914, it looked like Germany was well on its way to seizing control of Paris. German forces had steamrolled across Belgium and northeastern France in the early days of the war. The French Fifth Army and the British Expeditionary Force were rapidly retreating toward the River Marne while German soldiers, under the command of a rogue general, followed in hot pursuit. 

On September 3, the Allied forces decided to stop their retreat. They began to stage an offensive, in fact, to stop the Germans from reaching Paris. By this point, the German forces were exhausted and low on supplies, having been stretched too thin. After days of fighting, the Allies were able to stop the Germans from advancing toward the French capital. But their efforts didn’t bring a swift end to the war as they had hoped. 

Though they did retreat, the German forces did not give up. Instead, they dug in—literally. The Germans took shelter in shallow, concealed trenches. The Battle of Marne marked the start of trench warfare, a defining feature of World War I. The widespread use of trenches on the Western Front led to a long stalemate, as both sides hunkered down on their respective sides of the battlefields.