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Twelve Little-Known Asian Battles That Changed History

Gaugamela (331 B.C.) to Kohima (1944)

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You probably haven't heard of most of them, but these little-known Asian battles had a major impact on world history. Mighty empires rose and fell, religions spread and were checked, and great kings led their forces to glory... or ruin.

These battles span the centuries, from Gaugamela in 331 B.C. to Kohima in World War II. While each involved different armies and issues, they share a common impact on Asian history. These are the obscure battles that changed Asia, and the world, forever.

Battle of Gaugamela, 331 BCE

Roman mosaic of Darius III, c. 79 B.C.

In 331 BCE, the armies of two mighty empires clashed at Gaugamela, also known as Arbela.

Some 40,000 Macedonians under Alexander the Great were on the move eastward, embarking on an expedition of conquest that would end in India. In their way, however, stood perhaps 50-100,000 Persians led by Darius III.

The Battle of Gaugamela was a crushing defeat for the Persians, who lost about half their army. Alexander lost only 1/10th of his troops.

The Macedonians went on to capture the rich Persian treasury, providing funds for Alexander's future conquests. Alexander also adopted some aspects of Persian custom and dress.

The Persian defeat at Gaugamela opened Asia to the invading army of Alexander the Great.

Battle of Badr, 624 CE

Illustration of the Battle of Badr, c. 1314. The Rashidiyya.

The Battle of Badr was a pivotal point in the earliest history of Islam.

The Prophet Muhammad faced opposition to his newly-founded religion from within his own tribe, the Quraishi of Mecca. Several Quraishi leaders, including Amir ibn Hisham, challenged Muhammad's claims to divine prophecy, and opposed his attempts to convert local Arabs to Islam.

Muhammad and his followers defeated a Meccan Army three times as large as their own at the Battle of Badr, killing Amir ibn Hisham and other skeptics, and beginning the process of Islamification in Arabia.

Within a century, much of the known world had converted to Islam.

Battle of Qadisiyah, 636 CE

Fresh from their victory two years earlier at Badr, the upstart armies of Islam took on the 300-year-old Sassanid Persian Empire in November of 636 at al-Qadisiyyah, in modern-day Iraq.

The Arabic Rashidun Caliphate fielded a force of some 30,000 against an estimated 60,000 Persians, yet the Arabs carried the day. About 30,000 Persians were killed in the fighting, while the Rashiduns lost only about 6,000 men.

The Arabs seized an enourmous amount of treasure from Persia, which helped fund further conquests. The Sassanids fought on to regain control of their lands until 653. With the death in that year of the last Sassanian emperor, Yazdgerd III, the Sassanid Empire collapsed. Persia, now known as Iran, became an Islamic land.

Battle of Talas River, 751 CE

Incredibly, a mere 120 years after Muhammad's followers triumphed over unbelievers within his own tribe at the Battle of Badr, the armies of Arabia were far to the east, clashing with the forces of Imperial Tang China.

The two met at the Talas River, in modern-day Kyrgyzstan, and the larger Tang Army was decimated.

Faced with long supply lines, the Abbassid Arabs did not pursue their defeated foe into China proper. (How different would history be, had the Arabs conquered China in 751?)

Nonetheless, this resounding defeat undermined Chinese influence across Central Asia, and resulted in the gradual conversion of most Central Asians to Islam. It also resulted in the introduction of new technology to the western world, the art of papermaking.

Battle of Hattin, 1187 CE

Unknown medieval manuscript illustration, the Battle of Hattin

While the leaders of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem engaged in a succession squabble during the mid-1180s, the surrounding Arab lands were being reunited under the charismatic Kurdish king Salah ad-Din (known in Europe as "Saladin").

Saladin's forces were able to surround the Crusader army, cutting them off from water and supplies. In the end, the 20,000-strong Crusader force was killed or captured nearly to the last man.

The Second Crusade soon ended with the surrender of Jerusalem.

When news of the Christian defeat reached Pope Urban III, according to legend, he died of shock. Just two years later, the Third Crusade was launched (1189-1192), but the Europeans under Richard the Lionhearted could not dislodge Saladin from Jerusalem.

Battles of Tarain, 1191 and 1192 CE

The Tajik governor of Afghanistan's Ghazni Province, Muhammad Shahab ud-Din Ghori, decided to expand his territory.

Between 1175 and 1190, he attacked Gujarat, captured Peshawar, conquered the Ghaznavid Empire, and took the Punjab.

Ghori launched an invasion against India in 1191, but was defeated by the Hindu Rajput king, Prithviraj III, at the First Battle of Tarain. The Muslim army collapsed, and Ghori was captured.

Prithviraj released his captive, perhaps unwisely, because Ghori returned the following year with 120,000 troops. Despite earth-shaking elephant phalanx charges, the Rajputs were defeated.

As a result, northern India was under Muslim rule until the start of the British Raj in 1858. Today, Ghori is a Pakistani national hero.

Battle of Ayn Jalut, 1260 CE

Minature of the Battle of Ain Jalut, German National Library.

The unstoppable Mongol juggernaut unleashed by Genghis Khan finally met its match in 1260 at the Battle of Ayn Jalut, in Palestine.

Genghis's grandson Hulagu Khan hoped to defeat the last remaining Muslim power, Egypt's Mamluk Dynasty. The Mongols had already smashed the Persian Assassins, captured Baghdad, destroyed the Abbasid Caliphate, and ended the Ayyubid Dynasty in Syria.

At Ayn Jalut, however, the Mongols' luck changed. The Great Khan Mongke died in China, forcing Hulagu to draw back to Azerbaijan with most of his army to contest the succession. What should have been a Mongol walk-over in Palestine turned into an even contest, 20,000 per side.

First Battle of Panipat, 1526 CE

Moghul miniature of the Battle of Panipat, c. 1598.

Between 1206 and 1526, much of India was ruled by the Delhi Sultanate, which was established by the heirs of Muhammad Shahab ud-Din Ghori, victor in the Second Battle of Tarain.

In 1526, the ruler of Kabul, a descendent of both Genghis Khan and Timur (Tamerlane) named Zahir al-Din Muhammad Babur, attacked the much larger Sultanate army. Babur's force of some 15,000 was able to overcome Sultan Ibrahim Lodhi's 40,000 troops and 100 war elephants because the Timurids had field artillery. Gun-fire spooked the elephants, who trampled their own men in their panic.

Lodhi died in battle, and Babur established the Mughal ("Mongol") Empire, which ruled India until 1858, when the British colonial government took over.

Battle of Hansan-do, 1592 CE

A museum replica of Admiral Yi's turtle ship.
Museum replica of a turtle-ship, by Korean trekker on Flickr.com

When the Warring States Period ended in Japan, the country unified under the samurai lord Hideyoshi. He decided to cement his place in history by conquering Ming China. To that end, he invaded Korea in 1592.

The Japanese Army pushed as far north as Pyongyang. However, the army depended on the navy for supplies.

The Korean navy under Admiral Yi Sun-shin created a handful of "turtle-boats," the first known iron-clad warships. They used the turtleboats, and an innovative tactic called the "cranes' wing formation" to lure out the much larger Japanese Navy near Hansan Island, and crush it.

Japan lost 59 of its 73 ships, while Korea's 56 ships all survived. Hideyoshi was forced to give up the conquest of China, and eventually to withdraw.

Battle of Geoktepe, 1881 CE

Turcomen soldiers, c. 1880. Public domain due to age.

Nineteenth-century Tsarist Russia sought to head off the expanding British Empire and gain access to warm water ports on the Black Sea. The Russians expanded south through Central Asia, but they ran up against one very tough foe - the nomadic Teke tribe of Turcomen.

In 1879, the Teke Turkmen soundly defeated the Russians at Geoktepe, shaming the Empire. The Russians launched a retaliatory strike in 1881, leveling the Teke fortress at Geoktepe, slaughtering the defenders, and scattering the Teke across the desert.

This was the beginning of Russian dominance of Central Asia, which lasted through the Soviet Era. Even today, many of the Central Asian republics are reluctantly bound to the economy and culture of their northern neighbor.

Battle of Tsushima, 1905 CE

After the decisive Battle of Tsushima, Japanese sailors prepare to celebrate. 1905.
Triumphant Japanese sailors after Tsushima, Library of Congress Prints and Photos, no restrictions.

At 6:34 am on May 27, 1905, the imperial navies of Japan and Russia met in the final sea battle of the Russo-Japanese War. All of Europe was stunned at the outcome: Russia suffered a catastrophic defeat.

The Russian fleet under Admiral Rozhestvensky was trying to slink unnoticed into the port of Vladivostok, on Siberia's Pacific Coast. The Japanese spotted them, however.

Final toll: Japan lost 3 ships and 117 men. Russia lost 28 ships, 4,380 men killed, and 5,917 men captured.

Russia soon surrendered, sparking a 1905 revolt against the Tsar. Meanwhile, the world took notice of a newly-ascendant Japan. Japanese power and ambition would continue to grow right up through its World War II defeat, in 1945.

Battle of Kohima, 1944 CE

After the Battle of Kohima, the Allies forced Japan to retreat through Burma. Wo
American medics treat Allied wounded during the Burma Campaign, 1944. National Archives

A little-known turning point in World War II, the Battle of Kohima marked the halt of Japan's advance toward British India.

Japan advanced through British-held Burma in 1942 and 1943, intent on the crown jewel of Britain's empire, India. Between April 4 and June 22, 1944, British Indian Corps soldiers fought a bloody siege-style battle with the Japanese under Kotoku Sato, near the northeastern Indian village of Kohima.

Food and water ran short on both sides, but the British got resupplied by air. Eventually, the starving Japanese had to retreat. The Indo-British forces drove them back through Burma. Japan lost about 6,000 men in battle, and 60,000 in the Burma Campaign. Britain lost 4,000 at Kohima, 17,000 total in Burma.

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