Britain has seen some bloody battles both on its shores and off, and has taken part in some of the bloodiest conflicts in history. There is no part of the British Isles that has not seen battle; there are few places on Earth the British have not done battle. Here are some of the biggest.
The Battle of Crécy on the 26th of August 1346 was one of the major battles of the Hundred Years War (which lasted 116 years, incidentally). Strictly, this is not a battle the British Army fought, the British Army not existing for another 300 years or so at that point, but it was a battle fought by British troops, so it can get included here. King Edward III of England led a force of English and Welsh troops, backed by mercenaries, attacked a much larger French, Majorcan and Genoese army under the banner of Philip VI of France.
Edward III fielded around 14,000 men against Philip VI’s 20,000 to 30,000. The British had 5,000 longbowmen, and the way they were used on the battlefield changed warfare in Europe for hundreds of years. Rains of arrows fired by peasants fell on lordly nobles riding horses, decimating the French ruling class and signalling the “end of chivalry”. The British lost between 100 and 300 soldiers to the French’s 4000 dead. The use of terrain, early cannons and the British longbow marked the start of a more tactical era in warfare.
Britain was being torn asunder by the Wars of the Roses as the houses of Lancaster and York vied for power in England. The periodically insane Henry VI had been captured by the Yorkists and his family (the Lancastrians) had raised an army to get him back. Richard of York had died and it was unclear as to whom would be king. So they had a fight about it. On the 29th of March 1461, Palm Sunday, the Yorkists met the Lancastrians on the field outside Towton. Some 50,000 men did battle that day, more than half of whom would not leave the battlefield.
With the wind on their side, the outnumbered Yorkist’s arrows decimated the Lancastrian ranks and when hand-to-hand combat began it was bloody and relentless. Both sides had been ordered to give no quarter and the upper hand could not be found until the arrival of the Duke of Norfolk with fresh men for the Yorkists.
As the tide of battle turned, the Lancastrians fled the field, only to be cut down in droves by vengeful Yorkists. An estimated 28,000 men died that day, including most of the Lancastrian nobility. It is regarded as the bloodiest single battle fought on British soil.
Finally, a battle actually fought by the British Army! Sunday the 18th of June 1815 saw the final destruction of Napoleon’s armies and the path to empire laid open for the British.
Contrary to common belief, Waterloo was largely fought by Russians and Prussians. It was led by the Duke of Wellington (after whom the footwear is named), who baited Napoleon’s army further and further into a trap of his own devising. Whereas Napoleon’s armies had previously been led by his supremely talented (and “lucky”) generals, Napoleon’s second stab at conquering Europe had no such quality leaders he could rely on.
Wellington had not only an incredible tactical mind but a well-trained, efficient, and deadly force at his command. Napoleon made an uncharacteristic mistake: he followed Wellington’s armies into what he thought was a trap. This proved fatal for many of his soldiers, his ambitions and the empire he hoped to create.
118,000 allied men, including 25,000 British, met the 73,000 men Napoleon at the town of Waterloo in Poland. In a seemingly endless day of violence, 41,000 Frenchmen were killed and 24,000 allies were killed. The British musketry and organisation wreaked havoc amongst even the Imperial Guard, Napoleon’s elite soldiers. As many as 10 musket balls and cannon balls were fired a second for the duration of the battle.
With Napoleon out of the way on the island of St Helena, the British had unfettered access to Europe and the oceans. The British Army spread across the world and cemented the largest empire the world has ever seen in a series of bloody conflicts made possible by the battle of Waterloo.
The first Battle of the Somme was fought between 1st July and the 18th of November 1916. Over 3 million men took part in the battle and well over 1 million were killed or wounded. Amongst the bloodiest battles in history, the first 24 hours of the Battle of the Somme is the bloodiest single day of combat the British Army has ever engaged in, losing 19,240 men killed and 38,230 wounded for little or no gain in territory. The casualties inflicted on the Germans were severe but paled in comparison.
By the end of the campaign in November, the armies of both sides were shattered. The war of attrition had arguably driven Germany into terminal decline, but it came at an unbelievable cost. In some places only yards had been gained. No tangible upper hand had been gained and an entire generation of young men had been decimated.