1854 — The Battle of Balaclava

Beginning about a year into the Crimean War (1853-6), the Battle of Balaclava is perhaps the best known engagement of the war. Its outcome was indecisive; it did not end the siege of Sevastopol, but neither were the Allied losses so great as to constitute a major defeat.

But in its very unimportance, it became something else. An inspiration and a beacon of courage and chivalry. For this one bloody day of fighting saw the famous charge of the Light Brigade, immortalised in poetry by Kipling and Tennyson. As such, its effect on British morale helped that nation and its allies hang on until victory was achieved. (Ironically, the legendary charge was an error resulting from a misinterpreted order.)

Referenced in:
Broken Heroes — Saxon
The Trooper — Iron Maiden

1944 – The D-Day landings at Normandy

Code-named Operation Neptune, the D-Day landings took place along a 50 mile stretch of Normandy beach. 156,000 Allied troops – primarily Americans and British, but also Commonwealth and Free European forces – landed across five beaches code-named Gold, Juno, Omaha, Sword and Utah. It was the largest amphibious operation in history, and took the Nazi forces in Normandy almost entirely by surprise, beginning the rollback of German forces in Europe.

It was also only a part of Operation Overlord, which featured co-ordinated airborne assaults, two separate deception operations aimed to distract from it, and a range of additional actions by the French Resistance. The operation was largely successful, opening a Western front in Europe, and sealing the end of the Nazi occupation of France.

Referenced in:

The Longest Day — Iron Maiden
Say Goodbye to it All — Chris de Burgh
To Be Or Not Be (The Hitler Rap) — Mel Brooks

356 BCE — Alexander the Great is born

One of the greatest conquerors and military leaders the world has ever known was born in Pella, the capital of Macedon. His father was the king of Macedon, Philip II, and he himself was Alexander the Great. The genealogies of his parents were not merely royal – Philip claimed descent from Heracles, while his mother, Olympias, claimed descent from Achilles – and Alexander’s second cousin was the noted general Pyrrhus of Epirus.

He was raised as a noble’s son, and taught the arts of his class and sex – which naturally included warfare. From the ages of 13 to 16, he was tutored by the philosopher Aristotle, after which he served as his father’s regent while his father was absent pursuing military conquests. After Philip’s death and Alexander’s own accession to the throne of Macedon at the age of 20, Alexander began what would become one of the greatest conquests the world had ever seen.

Referenced in:

Alexander the Great — Iron Maiden

331 BCE — Alexander the Great defeats Darius III at Arbela

In the short, glorious history of Alexander the Great’s empire-building, this victory was probably the most significant. The battle is variously known as either Arbela or Gaugamela, by either way, it was the decisive encounter of Alexander’s Persian campaign. On a battlefield that he chose, the numerically superior forces of Darius III’s Achaemenids were mowed down without mercy by the Macedonians and their allies.

Despite being outnumbered two to one, Alexander’s forces inflicted massive casualties – possibly as many as 90,000 Persians were killed – while losing less than 10% of their own number that day. Although Darius escaped, his defeat here ceded half of his territory to Alexander, and left the remainder in disarray. Darius would die in a subsequent battle the following year, disappointing Alexander who had wished to take him alive.

Referenced in:

Alexander the Great — Iron Maiden

1953 – The Doomsday Clock is set at two minutes to midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is one of the world’s most prestigious scientific publications in the world. Its first issue, published on December 10, 1945, was only two pages in length. It has grown since then.

In June of 1947, its cover featured, for the first time, what became known as the Doomsday Clock. This would become the regular cover for Bulletin, throughout the run of its print edition, and even today’s online version, which has no cover per se, maintains the clock. The number of minutes before midnight – measuring the degree of nuclear, environmental, and technological threats to mankind – is periodically corrected; when it was first published, the clock was set at seven minutes to midnight.

In September of 1953, Volume IX, Number 7, the Clock was set to 2 minutes to midnight – the closest they had ever been. The hands remained here until January of 1960, and have never again been set so close to midnight.

Referenced in:

Two Minutes To Midnight – Iron Maiden

1917 – The Battle of Passchendaele commences

Also known as the third Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Passchendaele was an attempt to capture the strategically important village of that name in Belgium. Entente forces led by the British attacked on July 11, 1917, in what would become a long and drawn out struggle. Over the next five months, the battle would become synonymous with the mud in which it was so often fought. It would also be one of the first major land engagements to involve tanks (although only on the Entente side – the first tank vs tank battle did not occur until April the following year).

The battle swung both ways at different times, and some historians even classify it as two battles in a single campaign, with a comparative lull between them. Like many battles in World War One, it has become emblematic of the pointlessness and brutality of war. The battle finally ended on November 10, 1917, with the fall of Passchendaele to Canadian forces. More than 560,000 soldiers were killed in total, with the German losses exceeding the Entente losses by only 40,000. Although the battle was won, if not for the entry of the Americans into World War One that year, it might have proved a Pyrrhic victory, especially in light of the Russian surrender on the Eastern front, which had freed up German forces there to fight in the west.

Passchendaele did teach valuable tactical lessons to the victors, mostly at the unit level and mostly applicable only to trench warfare. Interestingly, Adolf Hitler was a veteran of Passchendaele, and considering the difference between the German invasions of Belgium in 1914 and 1940, one cannot help but wonder what lessons in strategy and tactics he drew from the experience.

Referenced in:

Paschendale – Iron Maiden

1940 – The Battle of Britain begins

The Battle of Britain is virtually unique in the annals of wartime history for being one of the few extended campaigns to be fought almost entirely in the air – most other aerial conflicts named battles were single engagements, but the Battle of Britain lasted for nearly five months.

What it was, basically, was the way that air supremacy was decided in the Western European theatre of World War Two. The Axis forces launched an all-out aerial assault on Britain, bombing both civilian and military targets in what became known as The Blitz. Much has been written about the tactical superiority of the British, and there’s certainly truth in that – the Luftwaffe outnumbered the RAF by 2 to 1 in raw numbers, for example. But in the end, the British simply outlasted them. If the Luftwaffe had been better equipped in terms of manpower and aircraft, they might have succeeded in the end, but the RAF was perhaps the pre-eminent air force in the world in 1940, and they demonstrated this here, in their finest hour.

It would be another two years before the momentum of World War Two turned decisively against the Germans, but this was the first major victory of the Allies, and Germany’s inability to conquer Britain at this point would lead Hitler – never that interested in invading the British Isles to begin with – to turn his attentions eastward, leading inexorably to the twin defeats of Stalingrad and El Alamein, and finally, to the unconditional surrender of his nation after he committed suicide in despair.

Referenced in:

Aces High – Iron Maiden

323 BCE — Alexander the Great dies in Babylon

The reason for Alexander’s untimely end – he was one month short of his 33rd birthday – is unknown. The three leading theories are poisoning, a relapse of malaria or some sort of illness brought on by feasting on May 29. Alexander took ill right after that feast, and never left his bed again afterwards. He died on either the 10th or 11th or June.

Alexander’s death was also the death knell of his empire. Over the next five decades, the empire would fall into civil war, and by 270 BCE it would have devolved into three successor states, the Antigonid Empire in Greece; the Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt, Palestine and Cyrenaica; and the Seleucid Empire in Mesopotamia and Persia. The former two would be wholly absorbed by Roman expansion over the next three centuries, along with the western half of the territory of the Seleucid Empire.

Referenced in:

Alexander the Great — Iron Maiden

334 BCE — Alexander the Great defeats the Persian Army in the Battle of the Granicus

In the first of three major engagements during his Persian campaign, Alexander the Great and his forces defeated a numerically superior foe. The Persian forces were bolstered by the presence of Greek mercenaries, but hampered by their command structure, which consisted of feuding satraps – the Persian emperor Darius did not fight in this battle.

The battle took place on the road from Abydos to Dascylium (near modern day Ergili, Turkey), at the crossing of the Granicus River (modern day Biga Çay?) – near the site believed to have once been Troy. It was a near thing for Alexander, because the Persians had orders to specifically target him, their leaders having reasoned that Alexander’s forces would fall apart without his leadership.

Referenced in:

Alexander the Great — Iron Maiden

1252 — Pope Innocent IV unexpectedly authorizes the Inquisition to torture heretics

The Medieval Inquisition was a series of Inquisitions that slowly merged into a more or less continuous process of arrest and interrogation of suspected heretics. Like all good coppers, the Inquisitors often complained that they were hamstrung by the limitations under which they worked – i.e., that they needed more powers, more authority to use them, and so on. In the middle ages, what that basically meant was torture.

On May 15, Pope Innocent IV, who had been Pope for nine years and would continue in that capacity for another two, issued the now-infamous papal bull ad exstirpanda, which authorized, with some limits, the torture of suspected heretics for the purpose of eliciting confessions. The limitations were as follows:

  • that the torture did not cause loss of life or limb
  • that it was used only once
  • that the Inquisitor deemed the evidence against the accused to be virtually certain

In practice, these limitations were meaningless – loss of life or limb could be deemed accidental, ‘only once’ was often interpreted to mean a series of tortures collectively defined as one, and Inquisitors were somewhat less objective than the bull appeared to assume. Subsequent Popes would expand the scope and powers of the various Inquisitions.

Referenced in:

Soldiers of Christ — Jill Sobule
Sign of the Cross — Iron Maiden