5 Influential Wars in Western Military History

Fort Sedgwick

The French Revolution

Throughout early and modern history, there have been several wars — from the Napoleonic Wars to World War I — that have directly influenced the course of Western history. Recognizing how these conflicts have significantly impacted the political, economic and social development of the region is critical for those pursuing a career as a military history scholar or within the private and public sectors of the military. By developing a keen understanding of Western military history, such individuals can expand their perspective on previous Western conflicts, allowing them to effectively apply the knowledge and information gained to modern military affairs.

The French Revolution began in 1789, as ideas of the Enlightenment —liberty, equality and brotherhood — and news of the successful American Revolution reached the French public. At the time, King Louis XVI and the aristocrats ruled absolutely, while the people suffered from poverty, leading to French citizens declaring themselves a sovereign National Assembly. The events of the revolution were led by peasants attacking their landlords, seeking reprieve from oppressive feudal contracts and freedom from the intense labor that many were subjected to.

The French Revolution started with the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. An angry mob of peasants and revolutionaries attacked the Bastille in Paris—a government fortress, prison, and armory—killing some of the garrisoned soldiers and making off with arms and ammunition. That same year, the revolutionaries created the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” which established a proper judicial code in the nation. By 1792, the French Revolution turned radical with the invention of the guillotine, and the executions of King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, in 1793, which ushered in a new Jacobin party to lead the crumbling French government. The Jacobin party began a political campaign, now deemed the “Reign of Terror”, that stirred the French people to take action against their government and the innocent citizens that were being executed by the oppressive Jacobin party leader, Maximilien Robespierre. By 1794, French citizens overthrew and executed the Jacobin leaders, ending the French Revolution and leading to the approval of a new democratic constitution.

Apart from the political shift to a newly centralized modern democracy, the French Revolution brought forth socio-economic change, as it led to the end of feudalism in France and gave way to the mercantile-based bourgeoisie presiding over the nobility. The war also left a lasting impact on France and Europe as a whole, as it led to the creation and dissemination of radical political ideas that could potentially undermine the authority of the surrounding national governments. Additionally, the resulting unrest of the French Revolution set the stage for Napoleon Bonaparte to take control of the French government, crowning himself emperor in 1804 and permitting him to take military actions that effectively destabilized nearly the entire European continent.

Napoleonic Wars

Napoleon Bonaparte successfully overthrew the French revolutionary government in 1799, prompting the formation of an opposing coalition of nations that included Russia, Great Britain, Austria and the Ottoman Empire, among others. The Napoleonic Wars began when French and Russian forces clashed in Northern Italy and Switzerland, but under Napoleon’s leadership, France was victorious. Napoleon then offered peace, but after the coalition refused, Napoleon continued his advance, with a string of French victories. By 1805 Britain had joined forces with Russia, Austria and Sweden in another attempt to quell France’s rise in power. In 1812, Napoleon and the French were defeated, and he was removed from the throne after a failed attempt to invade Russia. Though Napoleon attempted to return to power during the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, the battle ended with him losing his remaining troops and being exiled, ending the Napoleonic Wars.

The Napoleonic Wars paved the way for the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the United Nations, as European powers like Great Britain and Austria joined together in the fight against a common foe. In addition, the war led to the mobilization of military resources and the rise of significant military power among European nations which led to the rise of late-19th and early-20th-century nationalism, particularly with the rise of the German Empire after 1870.

American Civil War

The American Civil War is remembered as the bloodiest conflict in North American history. It is also noted as the war that ended the institution of slavery in America, signifying a massive step forward for human rights in the nation. During the Civil War, several Southern states split from the United States, forming the Confederacy. The remaining states, calling themselves the Union, were tasked with suppressing the Southern rebellion. President Abraham Lincoln placed Ulysses S. Grant in charge of all Union armies in March 1864, and Grant clashed repeatedly with Confederate General Robert E. Lee on multiple battlefields. The Confederacy was gradually engulfed by Union naval and land-based forces that stripped them of vital resources and overpowered what little military forces they had left. On April 9, 1865, General Lee was forced to surrender his army to General Grant.

By observing the early battles of the Civil War, and studying the strategies used within it, military historians can better understand how this conflict not only influenced American history, but also how the technology and strategies utilized— ranging from trench warfare to submarine technology—directly influenced later conflicts of the 20th century. Several features of today’s U.S. military structure are also a direct result of innovations during the Civil War. For example, the tactical value of Civil War-era strategies like delegating heavy artillery action directly to the central commander, using aerial reconnaissance to scout the battlefield, and relying on sharpshooters to target specific enemy personnel and harass enemy supply lines are still used today. The Civil War also led to the establishment of the first racially integrated military and the development of a more rigorous, efficient military than had previously existed on the North American continent.

World War I

The Great War, also known as World War I, spanned July 1914 through November 1918. Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, and the United States formed the core of the Allied Forces. The Allies faced the Central Powers, an opposing coalition comprised of Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Turkey. Larger European nations picked sides for strategic purposes, while smaller nations were left to align themselves with either side, weighing the decision almost entirely on the potential gain at the end of the conflict. The Allied Forces were victorious in this war, as when the United States entered the fray in 1917, the Central Powers were swiftly overwhelmed.

The outcomes of the First World War are widely studied by military history professionals. This massive war featured the most prominent use of trench warfare tactics, resulting in a volume of casualties that was unprecedented in modern warfare. As new technologies, such as the submarine, the Maxim machine gun and airplane had recently been introduced to the landscape, new theatres of battle that were previously unavailable were now being navigated for the first time, paving the way for the air and undersea warfare later seen in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The end of World War I also saw the redistribution of global power as well as the reshaping of several international landscapes, primarily the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian empires, which led to the creation of new sovereign nations in Europe. Additionally, the Treaty of Versailles, which brokered an uneasy peace at the end of World War I, effectively punished Germany and crippled its economy through reparations employed by the Treaty, setting the stage for the rise of Fascism in Germany in the 1930s and the eventual start of World War II.

World War II

The Second World War was largely a result of international strain produced by the outcomes of World War I. World War II, which spanned September of 1939 to September of 1945, was the largest armed conflict in history and featured battles in nearly every region of the world. With advancements in transportation technology, such as long-range cargo and revolutionary jet-powered planes and high speed and high-volume boats, militant forces found their way to more countries than ever seen in a previous war. It is estimated that World War II resulted in over 50 million deaths, including an extreme number of civilian casualties as genocide unfolded in Germany and Eastern Europe, Japan engaged in the massacre of Chinese and Korean nationals, and the Allied Forces targeted highly populated German and Japanese cities with high-powered explosive weapons.

World War II’s greatest significance lies in genocide and the first use of nuclear weaponry. The Holocaust—the state-sanctioned, systematic murder of six million Jewish people by Nazi Germany—was the first time in history the word genocide was used. This devastation of Europe’s Jewish population was inspired by Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler, as he used propaganda to push the nation into embracing anti-Semitism and mass-murder. Further, the use of nuclear warfare with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki led to the start of the nuclear arms race that instigated the Cold War. After the dropping of the bombs in World War II, countries like the United Kingdom, Russia and China all scrambled to develop their own nuclear weapons.

The wars noted above have left lasting impacts on the military and how warfare is handled today, especially as each led to the creation or advancement of military tactics — from improved mobility to nuclear warfare. With detailed knowledge of these aspects of war, those interested in a career as a professional military historian can secure positions, such as teaching military history or advising public and private military organizations’ military strategies.

Learn More

Established in 1819, Norwich University is a nationally recognized institution of higher education, the birthplace of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), and the first private military college in the United States. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their places of work and their communities.

Norwich University’s Master of Arts in Military History program takes an unbiased and global approach towards exploring military thought, theory and engagement throughout recorded history. The unique curriculum of the online Master of Arts in Military History program was developed by the distinguished faculty of Norwich University and guided by the goals outlined by the American Historical Association. This highly regarded program is designed to help build your proficiency as a historian, and places our world’s military achievements and conflicts in chronological, geographical, political and economic context.

Recommending Readings:
How the Civil War Created the Modern Economy [infographic]
7 Influential Women in the Military
Annual Conferences for Military Historians


French Revolution, History.com

Napoleonic Wars and the United States, 1803–1815, Office of the Historian

7 Reasons Why the Battle of Waterloo is Still Important, Time

Civil War, History.com

Civil War Army Organization, American Battlefield Trust

The Civil War: Facts, Events & Information about The American Civil War: 1861-1865, HistoryNet.com

Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), Historyofwar.org

3 Important Lessons Learned from World War I, USA Today

Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, History.com

What Is Genocide?, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Bomb-Proof Quarters in Fort Sedgwick in Front of Petersburg, VA., Library of Congress