Decisive victory

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A decisive victory is a military victory in battle that definitively resolves the objective being fought over, ending one stage of the conflict and beginning another stage. Until a decisive victory is achieved, conflict over the competing objectives will continue. Like all concepts of warfare, a decisive battle can take place from the tactical or unit level (Pavlov's House during the Battle of Stalingrad or the Chew House at the Battle of Germantown), the operational level (the Battle of Cowpens or the Battle of Cannae), all the way up to the strategic level (the Battle of Saratoga) or battles that bring an end to hostilities, such as the Battle of Hastings, or the Battle of Waterloo.


The phrases "decisive battle" and "decisive victory" have evolved over time, as the methods and scope of wars themselves changed. More modernly, as armies, wars and theaters of operation expanded — so that the gestalt (i.e., a result which is greater than the sum total – see synergy) of the overall venture was more definitive — the phrase "lost its meaning."[1] The meaning is ephemereal, like the difference between “strategy” and "tactics”.[2]

In Defining and Achieving Decisive Victory, Colin Gray defined an operational decisive victory as "a victory which decides the outcome to a campaign, though not necessarily to the war as a whole".[3] For example, the Battle of Midway is often cited as a decisive operational victory for the US despite the fact that the Pacific War ended more than three years later with the decisive strategic victory of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which directly led to the Japanese surrender; this is because the Midway operation represented the destruction of the majority of the IJN's offensive carrier forces, which decisively stopped both the IJN's string of unbroken victories in combat and their plans to expand eastward into Midway Island, Hawaii, the Aleutian Islands and potentially the US mainland. During this period the US Navy expanded greatly and the IJN was never able to regain their former strength, making the victory decisive in terms of determining the future operational shape of the battles for the Pacific.

On the tactical scale, the attack on Pearl Harbor is cited as a decisive victory, as it destroyed the entirety of the US Pacific battleship fleet and neutralized Pearl Harbor's ability to retaliate in one fell swoop, thus resolving the issue of whether the battleships (which the Japanese inaccurately saw as the greatest threat) would present a threat to Japanese expansion in the West. Of course, this proves that a tactically decisive victory is no substitute for a decisive victory on a larger scale, since the strategic issue of control of the Pacific remained very much in question, and the war was later resolved decisively in the Allies's favor (see above) via aircraft carriers and bombers instead of battleships.

Writing in Military Review, Thomas Goss attributes the popularity of the closely related term "decisive battle" to Sir Edward Creasy and his 1851 book, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. Goss recounts a variety of different definitions for the term used by historians and military leaders (neither of which typically define the term before using it): a battle that (1) achieves its operational objectives; (2) ends the conflict because one side has achieved its strategic objectives, or; (3) directly ends the conflict and results in a lasting peace between the belligerents. He concludes that "A decisive battle must directly lead to a rapid resolution of the contested political issues because the results on the battlefield caused both sides to agree that a decision had been reached."[4]

Admiral Mahan famously emphasized that naval operations were chiefly to be won by decisive battles and blockade.[5]


  • Siege of Yorktown, American Revolutionary War: A British army in North America capitulated to a combined Franco-American army. The British commander, Lord Cornwallis surrendered along with 7 other generals and more than 7,000 soldiers. The Franco-American victory at Yorktown ended major land operations in North America and led to the beginning of peace negotiations, ultimately leading to the British withdrawal from the 13 colonies and recognition of the newly independent United States as a sovereign nation.
  • Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleonic Wars: Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armee routed the combined forces of the Russian Empire and Holy Roman Empire. The defeated Holy Roman Empire was replaced by the French dominated Confederation of the Rhine. The French triumph at Austerlitz marked the end of the War of the Third Coalition.
  • Battle of Waterloo, Napoleonic Wars: Napoleon's Grande Armee was crushed by the forces of the British and Prussian Seventh Coalition. Napoleon abdicated in humiliation and his 12-year reign of terror across Europe was ended.
  • Battle of Sedan, Franco-Prussian War: The armies of the Prussian led North German Confederation annihilated the Army of Chalons resulting in the surrender of Napoleon III and more than 100,000 of his soldiers. The battle heralded the end of the Second French Empire and the rise of the German Empire.
  • Battle of Tannenberg, World War I: The German 8th Army, brilliantly led by Paul Von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff, outmaneuvered and destroyed the numerically superior Russian 2nd Army. 92,000 Russian prisoners were taken and the threat of a Russian invasion of Germany was ended.
  • Hundred Days Offensive, World War I: The German army on the Western Front was crushed by a massive French, British, and American offensive. The 4 year stalemate on the Western Front officially ended and the Allies breached Germany's formidable network of trenches. The war weary German people revolted and Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and fled into exile.
  • Invasion of Poland, World War II: Hitler's war machine conquered Poland in less than 4 weeks. Using blitzkrieg tactics and superior speed and firepower, the Germans overwhlemed Poland's poorly equipped army without difficulty.
  • Battle of Midway, World War II: The US Navy sank 4 Japanese aircraft carriers along with more than 3,000 of their crew members. Japan's gamble to wipe out the American fleet failed and the United States gained the upper hand in the Pacific War.
  • Battle of Stalingrad, World War II: The Soviets lured the powerful German 6th Army into the city of Stalingrad and chipped away at it in bloody urban warfare. In November 1942, Soviet reserve armies outside of Stalingrad, commanded by Marshall Georgy Zhukov, launched a counteroffensive that trapped the 6th Army behind Soviet lines. In February 1943, the 6th Army capitulated. More than 100,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner and 200,000 more were killed or wounded. Germany's ability to wage war was crippled and the initiative on the Eastern Front shifted into Soviet hands.
  • Operation Overlord, World War II: The United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and several other Allied nations launched a successful seaborne invasion that liberated France from Nazi occupation. At the cost of heavy casualties, the Allies landed on the beaches of Normandy and then fanned out into the French countryside. Paris was liberated and the Allied armies approached the German border. Anglo-American forces opened up a second front in Western Europe that made Germany's position in the war untenable.
  • Battle of the Philippine Sea, World War II: The US Navy inflicted another devastating defeat of the Japanese Navy. The Japanese lost 3 carriers and more than 500 aircraft while the Americans suffered minor casualties. From then on the US Navy dominated the Pacific and Japan was eliminated as a naval power.
  • Battle of Berlin, World War II: The Soviet Army stormed the capital of the Third Reich and mopped up the remnants of the German army. Hitler and other Nazi leaders committed suicide rather than face capture. After the fall of Berlin, World War 2 in Europe ended once and for all.
  • Battle of Inchon, Korean War: United Nations forces led by General Douglass MacArthur mounted a successful amphibious invasion that termporarily reversed the course of the Korean War in favor of the anti-communists. 2 weeks after the invasion force came ashore, the South Korean capital Seoul was liberated by UN forces and the North Koreans retreated back across the 38th parallel.
  • Operation Desert Storm: A U.S. led Coalition drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait in a swift and crushing campaign. The Iraqi army lost more than 50,000 men and thousands of tanks while Coalition forces suffered less than 1,000 casualties.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ "Decisive Battle". The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (3rd (1970-1979) ed.). Farmington Hills, Michigan: The Gale Group, Inc. 2010. Retrieved December 10, 2016 – via The Free Dictionary. [Originally], a concept current in the art of war from the 18th to the early 20th century, which was understood to be the armed clash between the main forces of the belligerent sides that decided the course of a war or campaign or that caused a radical turning in the course of military action. 
  2. ^ Bretnor, Reginald (February 1, 2001). Decisive Warfare: A Study in Military Theory (New ed.). Wildside Press. pp. 49–52. ISBN 9781587152481. Retrieved December 10, 2016. 
  3. ^ Gray, p. 11.
  4. ^ Goss, pp. 11, 16.
  5. ^ Vego, Dr. Milan (2009). "Naval Classical Thinkers and Operational Art". Naval War College: 4. Retrieved December 12, 2016.