If we define a pitched battle as

a fierce military engagement on close combat on the ground between two armies at war. Both intending on fighting the other and not retreating or escaping before the main engagement that constitutes the battle.

To avoid discussions on too small battles, let us consider only those involving at least 500-people a side.

Images of wars prior to WWII seems to indicate the large importance of pitched battles in strategies of war. For example in Napoleonic Wars, up until Waterloo, the battles were the main determinant.

However, most recently, post WW-II, major conflicts between most developed countries have reduced considerably, and the advent of weapons made that such battles would turn to be essentially a waste a human life (most like no large scale naval battle was fought after the Juntland.

I was thus wondering when was the last pitched battle that took place, involving a sizeable army from a Western nation (We could narrow it down to the USA, the UK, Germany, France or Italy)?

I am curious about the others too, but I'd rather have only limited to those countries

The last ones that I can figure out are during the WW-II, like El-Alamein in North Africa, the Siege of Bastogne, etc.

Dien Bien Phu during the Indochine war.

And even those might not be accepted as pitched battles really.

But then I am not really sure. I couldn't figure out whether there were any in the Gulf War (90-91)..

Looking around, I found that Culloden is supposedly the last one on Brittish soil.

  • 4
    The provided definition is vague enough that this seems to be primarily a matter of opinion.
    – Semaphore
    Jul 31 '15 at 14:37
  • @CGCampbell, yes you are right about Iwo Jima and Okinawa. I tried to improve the definition... if that new definition is more clear, I can try to adjust the examples. Pearl Harbor was not a pitched battle, and I did not include it. Jul 31 '15 at 17:16
  • @Semaphore, how is that definition? Jul 31 '15 at 19:39
  • That's probably as clear a definition as you could get.
    – Semaphore
    Jul 31 '15 at 20:46
  • @CGCampbell ... and thus not "armies". I do think it ought to be possible to make this into a (nearly anyway) answerable objective question, but it needs a bit more tweaking to get there.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 31 '15 at 21:49

How big would a battle have to count? And how determined would both sides have to be? Often one side is less motivated than the other, but the battle can still have a few pitched hours or days.

  • Basra? The Iraqis mostly retreated.
  • 73 Easting? The Iraqis were smashed, but they didn't all run.
  • Goose Green? The Argentine surrendered at the end.
  • How big? I'd say starting from a few hundreds a side. How determined, they have to be set in fighting. Of course, during the course of the battle, their morale may change. Thanks for your answer :) Jul 31 '15 at 19:56

For the British army the Zulu wars (1879) may be the last campaign where the standard practise was to line up and face the enemy. Entering into the Zulu wars the British had the newly developed martini Henry rifle, this had the advantage of comparatively rapid rates of fire and the ability to suppress large advancing forces. The British's first pitched battle with the Zulus was at Isandlwana. They followed their training perfectly, lining up in ranks and volley firing into the Zulu hoards. However the superior tactics of the Zulus (what we would call today "flanking") proved too much. It was the single greatest defeat of the British army to date. (There are numerous reasons why Isandlwana was a defeat for the British so if interested it's definitely an interesting battle). Through the ensuing conquest of Zululand the British had to adapt their tactics from the "stand and advance" methods of the previous centuries to "take cover behind defences and suppress the enemy with superior fire power".

The next major conflict of the British army was the Boer war, again in South Africa around 1890. The Boers were not a traditional force, today we might call them a militia group. The Boers would try and avoid direct conflict with the British simply because they knew they would lose. Instead they approached their battle with intellect, they hid in grasses, attacked supply lines and scuppered communication lines. The British in their dazzling redcoats stood out against the grasses of The African countryside and were easily picked off. We see the first trend of officers starting to dress like any other troops to avoid being targeted by sharpshooters.

By the end of the Boar war the British army had major revolutions in camouflage technologies and the pitched battle was no longer the standard approach. This, along with the more advanced S.M.L.E rifle (which held 10 rounds as opposed to the martini's 1 breech loading mechanism) meant that the individual soldier was able to put more firepower downrange) the need to bunch soldiers up to have superior firepower was nullified. We haven't even mentioned technologies such as rockets or Gatling guns, whose maximum effect is seen on groups of soldiers.

I truly don't know about other European countries and their fighting styles. Maybe the Sudan/Afghan campaign or the French-Africa wars would be another example of the paradigm shift to an evolved fighting style. I would imagine though most would follow due to the technology advancements of that time.

  • I don't think "pitched battle" means "stand in lines and shoot." It is a question of intensity, both sides deciding that they want to fight it out, then and there.
    – o.m.
    Aug 1 '15 at 7:46
  • Ah okay, I thought the question was asking about the devolution of napoleonic/Crimea/independence battles etc into modern combat. In that case I'm sure there are plenty of battles with extremists in the Middle East and central Africa where that brief applies? Perhaps even rebel-Ukraine combat fits that bill? Thanks for setting me straight. Aug 1 '15 at 11:05
  • @AngusTheMan, indeed o.m. describes more the lines of what I am looking for. But you'll notice, that I am considering the involvement of Western powers only, so Ukraine does not count, for example. And I just edited the question to require 500 people a side, to avoid skirmishes. Your answers is interesting, but it does not answer the question I asked. Thanks anyway :-) Aug 3 '15 at 7:22
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    re "The Boers would try and avoid direct conflict with the British simply because they knew they would lose": Is that why they laid siege to Mafeking for seven long months, from October 1899 to May 1900? Sep 20 '17 at 20:33

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