Dictionary of Battles: from 743 B.C. to the Present; by Thomas Harbottle, revised and updated by George Bruce; Stein and Day (1971); ISBN: 0-8128-1801-6

Everyone has their own approach to studying military history. For my own part, whenever I need to jump start my research into an unfamiliar military engagement, particularly one that I don’t expect to see covered in the “West Point Atlas of American Wars,” the first book I typically reach for is Thomas Harbottle’s “Dictionary of Battles.”

Originally published around the turn of the last century, Harbottle offered an alphabetical listing and brief description of every recorded battle from 753 B.C. forward. Because of its comprehensive coverage of the earliest battles of antiquity, it was considered an essential “quick” reference on military matters for decades. In the late 1960s, George Bruce revised and updated Harbottle’s original work to include all of the more recent military engagements up to and including the then, still-ongoing Vietnam War. This revised and updated edition of the “Dictionary of Battles” was republished in its current version in 1971.

The “Dictionary of Battles,” as might be expected, does not provide a detailed description of any of the engagements that it surveys. Instead it presents a concise account of the significant military facts surrounding each battle. Even the Battle of Waterloo, for example, warrants only about a third of a page for its description. Despite this economical style of historical presentation, however, the “Dictionary” still manages to convey an excellent and surprisingly cogent overview of the events it describes. These descriptions also, because they identify the key commanders and military units involved, provide an excellent starting point for anyone interested in continuing on to pursue more historical detail.

The explanatory prose in the “Dictionary of Battles,” despite its brevity and no-nonsense style, is clear and readable. This is not surprising, however, considering that this work was originally published primarily as an accessible easy-to-use research resource for the amateur military historian. To further assist the reader who is having trouble identifying a specific battle by its formal title, there is also an index of significant historical personages to make it easier to track down specific engagements through the names of major actors, e.g. Napoleon or Blücher. For this reason, if for no other, I think that anyone with even a passing interest in history should find this book a useful addition to their library. In my own case, I have become so accustomed to its use, that the “Dictionary” has a permanent place next to my computer’s keyboard.

The only real shortcoming of the “Dictionary of Battles” is that, because of the date of its revision and republication, it does not cover the military events that have occurred since the later stages of the Vietnam War. The absence, from the “Dictionary,” of a complete survey of the Vietnam War, or of any mention of The Falklands, Grenada, Panama, Desert Storm, the Afghan War, and Operation “Iraqi Freedom” clearly presents a historical gap from the Vietnam War to the present. None the less, for anyone interested in a basic general reference on military history, this is an incredibly useful resource. For that reason, I give the “Dictionary of Battles” my strongest possible recommendation; it is an essential reference for anyone, like me, whose avocation is the study of military affairs.


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