The 12 Most Consequential Final Battles In The History of Warfare  

Hugh Landman
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Decisive military victories or losses often come at the eleventh hour. That's the case for these last battles of famous wars. The most important final battles in history affected more than their participants; they shaped the course of the world.

If the Athenians hadn't triumphed over Persian troops at the Battle of Marathon, early democracy might have been crushed. At the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte's glittering military and political career famously came to an end. And then there's the Battle of Hastings - its outcome might have led to the creation of the modern English language.

From glorious victors to disgraced losers, surprising victories to crushing defeats, this list covers them all. The bygone final battles of major wars have likely shaped your life in more ways than you might think.

Battle of Waterloo is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The 12 Most Consequential Final Battles In The History of Warfare
Photo: William Sadler/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Napoleon Bonaparte became the Emperor of France in 1804, and quickly sought to conquer all of Europe. He almost succeeded, but was stopped cold when his invasion of Russia stalled in the winter of 1812. Allied European nations forced the French troops back, and Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba in 1814. 

However, the Frenchman was not done. In 1815, Napoleon escaped from Elba and soon led a 100,000-man strong French army against the European countries allied against him. Napoleon sought to strike before Prussian and British armies in Belgium could come together and overwhelm his forces. The French were initially successful, and defeated a Prussian force at the Battle of Ligny in Belgium on June 16, 1815. But a large portion of the Prussian forces escaped to join with British soldiers camped near Brussels in the village of Waterloo.

The British forces, led by the Duke of Wellington, got a lucky break. Due to rain the night before, Napoleon waited until the afternoon to launch his attack on June 18, which gave the Prussians time to join the fight. The combined army defeated Napoleon. The Frenchman retreated to France, where he was ultimately captured and exiled to St. Helena.

Napoleon's defeat signaled the end of France's dominance in Europe, and set the stage for Britain to become the next superpower. "Waterloo" also entered the lexicon as slang for a particularly daunting challenge.

Battle of Marathon is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The 12 Most Consequential Final Battles In The History of Warfare
Photo:  Walter Crane/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Persian Empire was one of the first great imperial powers in the ancient world. The reasons Persia attacked Greece in 490 BCE are not exactly clear, but the empire may have been attempting to subdue threats on its western frontier. The Persians landed 20,000 troops in Greece and marched toward Athens. The Athenians made an alliance with the Plataeans to drum up extra men, but could only muster around 10,000 soldiers.

Before the armies clashed on the Plains of Marathon - only 26 miles from Athens - the Athenian defenders devised an ingenious military strategy. They placed their strongest soldiers on the flanks, where they would face the weaker troops the Persians positioned on the outside of their attack. The plan worked, and Athens won the battle and the war.

This victory had long-ranging consequences. Athens was developing nascent democratic politics that would have likely been crushed under Persian rule. The battle has ties to the modern-day marathon, too: it was said that Greek courier Pheidippides ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens with word of the victory, and died upon arriving after delivering the news. However, historians widely discredit this story as a mere legend.

Battle of Okinawa is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The 12 Most Consequential Final Battles In The History of Warfare
Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The last ground battles between the United States and Japan in World War II were fought on Okinawa between April 1 and June 22, 1945. Nearly 300,000 U.S. troops invaded the island, which was defended by 130,000 Japanese soldiers. American soldiers sought to take airbases, which Allied forces would then use to invade Japan. 

Fighting was fierce, and 100,000 Japanese soldiers, 12,520 U.S. troops, and 80,000-100,000 civilians died on the island and its surrounding seas. Many Okinawans committed suicide at the order of the Japanese military so that they couldn't be taken captive by the Americans. 

The severity of the fighting on the island, as well as the heavy toll on civilian lives, made President Harry Truman fear that invading the Japan itself would inflict unbearable causalities. This belief partly influenced the President to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the war.

The Battle Of Zama, The Second Punic War, 202 BCE
Battle of Zama is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The 12 Most Consequential Final Battles In The History of Warfare
Photo: Henri-Paul Motte/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Second Punic War was waged between the Rome and Carthage. It began in a truly memorable fashion, when the Carthaginian General Hannibal marched his army, including war elephants, across the Alps and invaded Italy in 218 BCE. The Romans resisted, and by 206 BCE they had pushed their adversaries out of Spain after the Battle of Ilipa. Roman General Publius Scipio then set his sights on Carthage itself, and invaded North Africa in 203 BCE, setting the stage for the Battle of Zama.

By this time, Hannibal had been recalled to defend Carthage. The opposing forces were evenly matched at about 40,000 soldiers each, but Scipio had the advantage of a superior cavalry and having chosen the battlefield. Even with his war elephants, the Carthaginian general lost the battle. The Roman victory effectively crushed the strongest opponent it had in the Mediterranean, ended the Second Punic War, and signaled the birth of the Roman Empire.