In many major wars one side has been branded collectively as the allies. In WWI and WWII we refer to the American/British coalition as the allies. I have heard Rome both fighting against the 'allies' of their era and being part of the 'allies' in other wars. I have heard of the European Christians in the crusades referred to as the allies. In the Napoleonic wars the British/Prussian/Russian/Austrian coalition was referred to as the allies.

How do historians decide which side is to be referred to as 'the allies?'

I originally thought it was due to the alliances they were in, but then I recalled that the opposing side (e.g. The Axis in WWII) is often comprised of an equally (or nearly as) strong alliance.

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    I feel like you might be conflating the language term with the named entity. There's nothing exclusive about being "the allies" - either sides in any war (if they have multiple members on the same side) can be referred to as "the allies" depending on the context. The Allied Powers of the world wars, however, made formal references to themselves under that name. Note that the Allies considerably outnumber the Axis in WW2.
    – Semaphore
    May 5, 2015 at 16:27
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    The "Allies" are always the good guys, also known as the "freedom fighters" or "liberators". May 5, 2015 at 16:41
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    I think it depends on the perspective of the author. Had Napoleon achieved total victory, we would doubtless be discussing the allies victory over the British and their mercenary states. I suspect that if the Axis had won WWII, we would read Italian histories of the victory of the alliance against some other term (possibly the British and their mercenaries).
    – MCW
    May 5, 2015 at 16:45
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    @MarkC.Wallace IIRC the Axis of WW2 actually called themselves that though. I don't think the concept of "the Allies" being the good guys existed already back then.
    – Semaphore
    May 5, 2015 at 18:05
  • @Semaphore true, but doesn't take away from the fact that what name's chosen after the fact is usually determined by the winner to make themselves look as positive as possible.
    – jwenting
    May 5, 2015 at 19:54

1 Answer 1


It is not only historians who decide. Usually, the "Allies" call such themselves.

For example, you refer to World War I. Please remember, that on the very beginning there were two blocs: Triple Entente (France allied with Russia along with United Kingdom, which was not allied to anybody, except the Commonwealth), and Triple Alliance (Germany allied with Austria-Hungary, along with Italy, which was allowed not to fight against the UK).

Because later the Triple Alliance had been increased by two countries without Italy, making Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, they referred to themselves as Quadruple Alliance (refer eg. Treaty of Brest Litovsk, articles 2, 5, 6 and so on).

The other countries were called the Entente (without "triple", as more countries joined, mainly Serbia, Belgium, Italy, Romania and the USA, but also eg. Portugal and Japan), but as far as I remember, there were no official term "the Allies" for this (they are called "Allied and Associated Powers" in The Versailles Treaty, but this is to distinguish them from Germany, the other party of the treaty).

Calling some countries "the Allies" is used when they are different from one another (they have different locations, different language etc.). This applies more to France+Russia+UK than to Germany+Austria. So using "the Allies" for them is more language-friendly than for these German countries (even if A-H was a multi-cultural country, it was more German than any other, even Hungarian). Germany and Austria were considered similar and it was somewhat natural in 1938 during the Anschluss.

During Napoleonic wars it was analogous, as France had only vassal allies (Duchy of Warsaw and the others were conquered or forced in other ways to join), while Great Britain, Prussia and Russia (main opponents) fulfill the "requirements" to be "the Allies" as they are different from one another.

The same applies to WW2, with UK, France and Poland having at the beginning mainly one opponent (Germany) along with her minor vassal (Slovakia).

I would say that using the term "the Allies" depends on how different the forming countries are. If they are more similar than the other side is, they are not the Allies.

It can be also affected by British Commonwealth which can be considered as a worldwide alliance with countries like Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and several more or less independent lands. So it is easier to call a bloc with the UK as "Allies".

Also, the United Kingdom, liked the term "the Allies", to express her independence from other countries. They are allies, equal parties of a treaty, but it is a form of good business. The treaty ends and they are not allies anymore, and any other country can be, even a former opponent. This attitude dates (with some exceptions) since the end of the Hundred Years War, and was given a name "Splendid Isolation" in 19th century. That is why it is somewhat natural now to refer the "UK-side" as "the Allies".

However, in my opinion, all of this should apply to WW1 only in common language, as "the Allies" were in fact the Central Powers.

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