If you know Heaven and you know Earth, you make your victory complete. —Sun Tzu
Much has been made in literature of whether war is a science or an art. Is it simply the correct application of figures and statistics in a formulistic way to achieve a desired result, or are there too many unexplainable and unquantifiable variables? Perhaps, as with many other things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. While we may be able to observe and predict some elements of war, others are beyond the study or control of generals and strategists, with weather and nature being in this last category.
The British historian, Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy, wrote one of the first books on pivotal battles in world history in 1851. It is telling that of the fifteen battles he chose for his work, thirteen, including Marathon, Syracuse, Gaugamela, Teutoburg, Châlons, Tours, Hastings, Calais, Blenheim, Poltava, Saratoga, Valmy, and Waterloo, were heavily impacted by weather events. In fact, meteorological conditions that favored one side seem to be the only constant among the various engagements. Even Lt. Col. Joseph B. Mitchell’s updated version of Creasy’s work, which features five additional nineteenth and twentieth century battles, includes at least four that were impacted by weather.
Weather, climate, and astronomical occurrences have influenced the waging of war by man since prehistory. Halley’s Comet helped to announce the fall of the Shang Dynasty in China, a solar eclipse frightened the Macedonian army enough at Pydna in 168 bc to ensure victory for the Romans, a massive rain storm turned the field of Agincourt to mud in 1415 and gave Henry V his legendary victory, fog secured the throne of England for Edward IV at Barnet in 1471, wind and disease conspired to wreck the Spanish Armada, snow served to prevent the American capture of Quebec in 1775 and confined the Revolution to the Thirteen Colonies, excessive heat gave rise to the legend of Saladin at the Horns of Hattin in 1187, freezing cold nearly stopped Washington’s crossing of the Delaware, and an earthquake helped to spark the Peloponnesian War. These serve as only a small portion of the many instances where nature has tipped the balance in combat.
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