What is a "battle" - what is not?

(This post is a preparation for the following one.)

The English word "battle" is nowadays more ambiguous than the German word "Schlacht". It's also in a much more inflationary use.
I found it useful to not call fights of all kinds and all scopes "battle". Such an ambiguous use of the word clouds the view for what's important (in the next post).

It's about as annoying to me as the typical description of a lone AK shooter as "sniper" just because he didn't shoot at stone-throwing range and his position is unclear.

Die Alexanderschlacht; oil painting of Albrecht Altdorfer, 1529
For example, it would be a mis-use of the word "Schlacht" to call an assault on a platoon-sized outpost a "Schlacht". That word is reserved for much bigger fights; as a rule of thumb I wouldn't call anything smaller than a division on division engagement a "Schlacht". Meanwhile, it seems to be common practice to call almost ever fire-fight "battle" nowadays - as well as many entirely non-military actions that don't even necessarily include opposing parties.
I've been told that this inflationary use of the word "battle" only began by the time of the Vietnam War.

As a contrast, even many corps vs. corps contacts of WW2 weren't even mentioned in daily reports of the German supreme command, much less named as "battles" with their name. I got to admit that Germans coined a dedicated word for the really, really big world war battles in order to differentiate them from more normal battles; "Großkampf" (great fight).

A platoon vs. battalion-sized engagement would be - especially in a great war context- nothing bigger than a reconnaissance (if the platoon is moving) or a practice assault for a green battalion.
The attention on small wars during the last years has done us a disservice and clouded our mind. It helps to have a clear linguistic differentiation between a real battle and a small contact between hostile parties that merely gets equal attention as a battle would (for lack of a real battle).

I cannot redefine a language that changed over time, but I wanted to point out that it's important to keep the difference between a small exchange of fire and a real battle in mind. Clarity of language is important for clarity of thought.

S Ortmann

P.S.: The German word "Schlacht" (battle) is a close relative of "schlachten" (slaughtering).


  1. Do you think it could be media related to some extent? A headline that says "Battle of..." is likely to sell better than "gun fight or skirmish or attack of..."

  2. I cannot comment on how this developed in the anglophone world during the last decades. It was indicated to me that civilian reporters in Vietnam who hadn't served in WW2 or Korea were involved in this thing.

  3. An operational-level engagement of combined arms units, with (potentially) strategically important outcome?

  4. Ulenspiegel

    CvC wrote a little bit about Schlachten and Gefechte in "Vom Kriege", I think everything we need is there.

  5. Any contextualy significant action would be my definition for "battle".

    So the normal artilery, mortar and sniper fire of the first world war, despite killing vast numbers, is not a battle, because within the context of the war, it wasnt not significant.
    Whereas "The battle of Pharmacy Road", although involving few assets and little shooting, was contextualy significant in the Sangin Campaign.