Top Ten Day: My favorite wars
1. The Hundred Years' War, 1337-1453. Hey, that's not 100 years! And hey, there were several times throughout these years when England and France weren't actually fighting! But who cares - this is still a great conflict to study. Edward III decided he wanted to be king of France as well as England, hearkening back to the good old days of Henry II's Angevin Empire of the twelfth century, so he went across the Channel to bitch-slap the actual French king, Philip VI. This war, which was fought in stages, was momentous in the development of Western history. It led to the first expressions of French and English nationalism and the creation of standing armies. At the battle of Crécy in 1346, the English longbowmen annihilated the French knights in one of the most stunning "upsets" in history; the age of the knights ended that day, as long-range weaponry forced generals to come up with new tactics (something the French didn't learn, as in 1356 Edward's son the Black Prince used the same tactics at Poitiers and captured the French king, John II). Years later, of course, Henry V won the day at Agincourt, inspiring one of Shakespeare's great speeches. Henry couldn't press his advantage, and with the inspirational leadership of Joan of Arc in the late 1420s, France finally gained the advantage. The war officially ended in 1453, although the English held Calais for another 100 years. By then it was clear the Henry VI, Kenneth Branagh's son, was not a terribly good leader, and England was about to be riven by another of my favorite wars!
2. The Wars of the Roses, 1455-1485. The first "civil war" of England came about because, well, nobody liked the king. Henry VI was a crappy king, and since the family of York, led by Richard, the city's duke, was descended from Edward III just like Henry was, they decided they should rule. It didn't help that Henry was often off his rocker and that his French wife was wildly unpopular. The war was also fought in fits and spurts, like many medieval wars, with years of peace and short bursts of violence. Henry was replaced for a while by Edward IV (r. 1461-1470), came back for a while, then died. Edward returned, but his wife was as unpopular as Henry's had been (for different reasons; she wasn't royal, so the marriage brought no advantages internationally to England), and after Edward died, his brother Richard took over instead of allowing her family to dominate Edward's two young sons. Those kids conveniently disappeared into the Tower of London (where Richard had then killed) and Richard took over. However, some mangy Welsh claimant defeated Richard at Bosworth in 1485, killed him, and married Edward's daughter to unite the houses. Richard, however, provided Ian McKellen with a great role 500 years later, so that's something!
3. The Thirty Years' War, 1618-1648. Like all long wars, this was a series of armed conflicts that all centered around Germany, but lurched back and forth over three decades. This is probably the most horrific of the religious wars that wracked Europe for a century or so, as Protestants and Catholics killed each other in the name of that peaceful Jesus dude you may have heard of. This is another interesting war to read about, because of the way it was fought. It's occasionally considered the first "total war" in that civilians were often slaughtered along with soldiers. Civilians had suffered in wars before, but usually as collateral damage, not because the soldiers went out of their way to kill them. This is also the war in which Sweden (yes, Sweden!) was a major player, as the country reached the height of its power under Gustavus Adolphus, who died on the battlefield in 1632. It can also be seen as the first full-scale European war, a tradition which led to the Seven Years' War, the Napoleonic Wars, and those two in the 20th century you may have heard about. As usual with wars, this inspired a great piece of fiction, Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children. It's a brilliant play, and if you get a chance to see it, check it out!
4. The First and Second Opium War, 1839-1842; 1856-1860. I know only a little about the two Opium Wars, but these were early attempts by the West to impose their economic will on China, and led to some really horrible things, such as the Taiping Rebellion, which almost destroyed the country. I just love how the British (and, in the second one, joined by the French), forced the Chinese to allow opium imports, after the Chinese tried to make it illegal. Remember when countries wanted to traffic in drugs? Ah, the good old days!
5. The Franco-Prussian War, 1870-1871. I'm a fan of Otto von Bismarck, and this was his crowning achievement. After wars with Denmark and Austria, Bismarck was ready to unite Germany under Prussia and he needed a big-time war to do it. So he whipped up some antagonism between the Germans and the Second Empire (under one of the lamer rulers of the 19th century, Napoleon III), and managed to get France to declare war on Prussia. The Prussians, who were far superior to the French in every regard, beat the crap out of Napoleon for six weeks before capturing him at Sedan, and then beat the French armies under the Third Republic for another few months before capturing Paris in early 1871. In the aftermath of the war, Paris became a Socialist stronghold for a few months, which led to lots of bloodshed. Bismarck, meanwhile, wrangled a new crown for his king, Wilhelm I - that of the German Empire, which was declared in May 1871 at Versailles. This upset the balance of power in Europe that had been established at the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and led somewhat directly to the great world wars of the 20th century. Bismarck stayed in power until 1890, when Wilhelm II, the second emperor, fired him. That might have not been a mistake, but Wilhelm's thirst for overseas glory, which Bismarck warned against, certainly was.
6. The War of the Cricket Match, 1896. I have mentioned this war before on the blog, but I'll do it again! It's the shortest war in history, after all, clocking in at 37 minutes 23 seconds. The Sultan of Zanzibar was peeved because the English admiral, Sir Henry Rawson, brought all his warships close to shore so his men could disembark and watch a cricket match. The Sultan declared war and sent his only battleship into action. The British sank that and bombarded the Sultan's palace. He escaped into German territory, and the war ended. Good times!
7. The Boer War, 1899-1902. This is technically the Second Boer War, but it's the one every remembers. I read a book about this years ago, and it's really a fascinating war, because it might be considered the first modern war, in that correspondents were "embedded" with the British troops (Winston Churchill was one of them!), it turned quickly into a guerrilla war, which allowed the Boers to fight the British for two years after the South African government capitulated, and the British set up concentration camps! Yay, concentration camps! This war reminds us that the Dutch had set up two independent republics in South Africa back in the day, which is kind of weird to think about today. South Africa became a part of the British Empire after this war, and Churchill got a taste for blood that wasn't sated even after World War I!
8. The Russo-Japanese War, 1904-1905. I've always been interested in Japan and China, even though my first love is European history. The Meiji Restoration of the 19th century, in which the Emperor regained power from the shoguns, is a fascinating time in history, and the speed with which Japan embraced Western technology is one of the shocks of the past 200 years. They showed off their new prowess by absolutely destroying the Russian navy at Port Arthur in 1904 and bringing the czar's army to its knees, leading indirectly to the 1905 Revolution that was a precursor to the Bolshevik takeover 12 years later. Teddy Roosevelt got a Nobel Peace Prize for bringing the two sides together, Japan earned the respect of the West by showing they could kill vast numbers of people as easily as white people, and it embarked on a path that led to Pearl Harbor.
9. The Balkan Wars, 1912-1913. Another region that fascinates me is the Balkans, and although I need to read more about this particular war, anything about the area and the Ottomans' dominance of it is keen. These wars also crack me up a bit, because in the first one, Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro allied with each other to fight the Turks, even though they fought pretty much separately because they didn't like each other that much. After defeating the Turks (ending the "first" war), they pretty much immediately turned on each other, especially the Greeks and Bulgarians. Their fighting allowed Romania and Turkey to enter the second war, and the Ottomans regained a great deal of territory that they had lost a few months earlier in the first war! I like this war because it shows how difficult it is for an outside power, like the United States and the United Nations in the 1990s, to go into the region and try to talk peace. The people hate each other there with a centuries-old passion, and as the Turks learned, the only thing they hate more than each other are Great Powers coming in and telling them not to kill each other!
10. The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. I know very little about the Spanish Civil War (I have a couple of books on the subject, but of course I'm far behind, so I haven't read them yet), but I find it fascinating, because of the somewhat confused sides, the involvement of several different nationalities, the fact that the Nazis viewed it as a "preseason" war in which they could field-test new weapons, and the involvement of the Basques, which threw a weird spanner in the works. It was a horrific war by all accounts, too, and probably should have alerted the world to what was coming. That it didn't remains a tragedy of history. Of course, it did give us a terrific mural, so I guess all the deaths were worth it.
There are, of course, plenty of other wars that I'm interested in. I didn't count crusades, which I love to study, or even general military actions from medieval times, when "wars" didn't really exist. I mean, Charlemagne was always campaigning against someone, but that's just what he did. So although I like medieval history the best, it's hard to define a "war" for a lot of that time. That's why these more modern conflicts are my favorites. Of course, I think we can all agree that war pretty much sucks. Can't we all just get along?