Most indecisive battles in history

  • #1
Stephen Tashi
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What are good candidates for the most indecisive battles in history?

There are plenty of lists online for the most decisive battles, bloodiest battles, largest battles etc. There ought to be a list of the most indecisive!
 

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  • #2
hutchphd
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It is not clear what you mean. I will provide you with one of the most inept: The Penobscot Expedition in the American Revolution. I recommend i to any serious student of either history or farce.
 
  • #3
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You're going to have to define "indecisive" better.

Is it the battles of the Isonzo? You have twelve battles between Italy and Austria in WW1. Indecisive because it took 12?

Was it the last battle of the battleship Bismarck? Sunk by the RN at substantial cost - but the Bismarck was not exactly effective in prosecuting the war. It was more useful as a threat than a weapon. ("Fleet in being" is the term of art.)

Then there are battles fought after the war ended. The Battle of New Orleans (yeah, they ran through the briers and they ran through the brambles ) is one famous example.
 
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  • #4
Klystron
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Depending on definitions most of the battles in America's modern wars against small countries ended without a decision.

Consider many of the incursions into central Vietnam, particularly following 1968 Tet offensives by the NVA. American Allied units fought bravely and destroyed many enemy at great cost, but with no clear end except an evasive negotiated peace. Memoires from combatants fail to list comprehensive objectives. Cynics might say the Vietnam War lacked decisive objectives beyond expending armaments, testing tactics and some technology, and granting professional military officers required combat experience.

Purists cite defeating global communism as the primary objective but I fail to remember a decisive battle in that regard. The nth battle for Hue from the perspective of the North Vietnamese? Air Marshall General Ky's book states that Allied victory was imminent by 1974 until President Nixon stood aside allowing the North to regroup and take Saigon in 1975.

Perhaps veterans or historians of the Middle East incursions can shed light on objectives and decisions for that combat. After the horrific example of USSR invading Afghanistan then leaving a shambles, how could the USA invade and repeat many of the same blunders? Without clear objectives, such wars never seem to reach a decision, making a long bloody list of indecisive battles.
 
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  • #5
Astronuc
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What are good candidates for the most indecisive battles in history?

There are plenty of lists online for the most decisive battles, bloodiest battles, largest battles etc. There ought to be a list of the most indecisive!
There may be examples of stalemates, where there is no clear victor, but they may be hard to define.

Consider the Battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg) during the American Civil War. One finds a statement "Although the battle was tactically inconclusive, the Confederate troops had withdrawn first from the battlefield and abandoned their invasion, making it a Union strategic victory."
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Antietam

I was thinking of Pyrrhic victories as possible examples, but they are often tactical victories, a series of which lead to strategic loss.

One historian has public a couple of books and covers "Decisive and Indecisive Military Operations in World War II".
http://universitypressblog.dept.ku....decisive-military-operations-in-world-war-ii/
 
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  • #6
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How about the US invasion of Japan in July 1945? Eight sailors from the USS Barb landed on Karafuto, blew up a train, and got the heck out. Success, but not much of an invasion.
 
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  • #7
DennisN
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How about the US invasion of the Japan in July 1945? Eight sailors from the USS Barb landed on Karafuto, blew up a train, and got the heck out. Success, but not much of an invasion.
Wow, I did not know about that. Next time they brought nukes. Two, I believe.
 
  • #8
DennisN
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Since I'm interested in history I did a quick search on Google and found this reddit thread:

What are some of the most balanced and indecisive battles in history?

The top reply was "Take your pick from most battles during WWI."

Quite true, the stalemates of World War I are legendary. The power of the machine guns and artillery made infantry quite immobile, and thus it developed into prolonged trench warfare. Which then led to experiments with chemical weapons (gas) and the development of early tanks in order to try to break through and gain ground.
 
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  • #9
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But a stalemate can be a win depending on the respective political objectives of the combatants- cannot look at battles in isolation like they are some sort of sporting event. For the side with greater manpower and material a stalemate can be a victory. Indecisive battles in the Overland Campaign like the Wilderness were really Union victories as the CSA could not afford the attrition while the Union could. Same with WW1 and WW2.
 
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  • #10
pinball1970
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Since I'm interested in history I did a quick search on Google and found this reddit thread:

What are some of the most balanced and indecisive battles in history?

The top reply was "Take your pick from most battles during WWI."

Quite true, the stalemates of World War I are legendary. The power of the machine guns and artillery made infantry quite immobile, and thus it developed into prolonged trench warfare. Which then led to experiments with chemical weapons (gas) and the development of early tanks in order to try to break through and gain ground.
In Terms of “stalemate” and or “futile” The Somme crops up a lot in searches.

Huge casualties on both sides over several years not much ground gained during that time.

The Iran Iraq war also, many casualties on both sides with no border changes and similarities to trench warfare of WW1 is mentioned.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iran–Iraq_War
 
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  • #11
Klystron
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The battle(s) of two early ironclads, the Monitor and the Merrimac (USS Virginia), during the American Civil War remain a fixture of indecisive but intensely chronicled naval encounters.
 
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  • #12
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How would one characterize the Battle off Samar? Sprague had the stuffing knocked out of him by Kurita, but ultimately Kurita withdrew. Who won that?
 
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Or the Battle of Smolensk that began in July 1941 and continued through September? On the surface a German victory that inflicted nearly 760K Soviet casualties at the cost of around 115K German ones - however the delay and attrition it caused led directly to the failure of Barbarossa later that year, which essentially guaranteed Hitler’s eventual defeat
 
  • #14
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Battle of Cannae. Decisive victory that did not produce decisive results.
 
  • #15
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Then there are battles fought after the war ended. The Battle of New Orleans (yeah, they ran through the briers and they ran through the brambles ) is one famous example.
It resulted in this song. That‘s pretty decisive.




It probably also won Jackson the presidency.

Is it the battles of the Isonzo? You have twelve battles between Italy and Austria in WW1. Indecisive because it took 12?

Was it the last battle of the battleship Bismarck? Sunk by the RN at substantial cost - but the Bismarck was not exactly effective in prosecuting the war. It was more useful as a threat than a weapon. ("Fleet in being" is the term of art.)
There is also ”Sink the Bismarck” by Horton. I loved these songs as a kid. Did he also do a song about Isonzo?

 
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  • #16
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Perhaps it is legitimate to make a list of the decisive battles and say that any battle not on the list is indecisive.
 
  • #17
Frabjous
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Perhaps it is legitimate to make a list of the decisive battles and say that any battle not on the list is indecisive.
We would still need to define what decisive is. In World War II, one could argue that Germany and Japan lost when the US entered the war, so nothing afterwards would qualify as decisive. In this line of thought major/important does not necessarily mean decisive.
 
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  • #18
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We would still need to define what decisive is. In World War II, one could argue that Germany and Japan lost when the US entered the war, so nothing afterwards would qualify as decisive. In this line of thought major/important does not necessarily mean decisive.
Would that make the attack on Pearl Harbor decisive in the defeat of Japan?
 
  • #19
Frabjous
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Would that make the attack on Pearl Harbor decisive in the defeat of Japan?
One could argue that. Stategically, the goal of Pearl Harbor was to convince the US to leave Japan alone in the Pacific. Instead it led to mass mobilization and total war.

Tactically, the oil tanks were not destroyed and the aircraft carriers were not there, so it was not a success there either.

A little off topic. If you are interested in the mobilization of the US economy, you might enjoy Freedom’s Forge by Herman. If you are interested in what the US army was doing to prepare for WW2, you might enjoy The Rise of the GI Army by Dickson.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/0812982045/?tag=pfamazon01-20
https://www.amazon.com/dp/0802147674/?tag=pfamazon01-20
 
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  • #20
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Or the Battle of Smolensk that began in July 1941 and continued through September? On the surface a German victory that inflicted nearly 760K Soviet casualties at the cost of around 115K German ones - however the delay and attrition it caused led directly to the failure of Barbarossa later that year, which essentially guaranteed Hitler’s eventual defeat
I have studied the Eastern front for most of my life, and I have come to the conclusion that the only way Germany could have knocked the USSR out of the war would have been to destroy the Red Army in battles such as they did Minsk, Smolensk, Uman, and Kiev. Barbarossa was flawed from the beginning, it was based on an unrealistic timeline born of overconfidence, and underestimating the industry and manpower of the USSR.

They stood a better chance if they focused on being able to get supplies to the front, and drawing the Red Army into costly counter-attacks and destroyed them using mobile Panzer forces, striking at their flanks and causing battles of annihilation. Even then, I think this is a long shot. Germany simply had everything going against it.
 
  • #21
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Would that make the attack on Pearl Harbor decisive in the defeat of Japan?
One could argue that. Stategically, the goal of Pearl Harbor was to convince the US to leave Japan alone in the Pacific. Instead it led to mass mobilization and total war.

Tactically, the oil tanks were not destroyed and the aircraft carriers were not there, so it was not a success there either.
As I recall, at least one of the Imperial Navy admirals (Yamamoto?) believed that attacking Pearl Harbor was a very bad idea. And the fact that the carriers were not present at Pearl Harbor during the attack led to the destruction of a large part of Japan's carrier fleet in early June of 1942, with four of six carriers sunk during the Battle of Midway. American cryptographers had been able to decode enough of the Japanese encoded signals to determine that Midway Atoll was the target.
 
  • #22
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As I recall, at least one of the Imperial Navy admirals (Yamamoto?) believed that attacking Pearl Harbor was a very bad idea. And the fact that the carriers were not present at Pearl Harbor during the attack led to the destruction of a large part of Japan's carrier fleet in early June of 1942, with four of six carriers sunk during the Battle of Midway. American cryptographers had been able to decode enough of the Japanese encoded signals to determine that Midway Atoll was the target.

There is no proof for the famous “sleeping giant” quote but these seem relevant
“In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.”
“Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it is not enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians, among whom armchair arguments about war are being glibly bandied about in the name of state politics, have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.”
-Yamamoto
 
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  • #23
BillTre
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My son reminds me of the Great Emu War:

The Emu War, also known as the Great Emu War,[1] was a nuisance wildlife management military operation undertaken in Australia over the later part of 1932 to address public concern over the number of emus said to be running amok in the Campion district of Western Australia. The unsuccessful attempts to curb the population of emus, a large flightless bird indigenous to Australia, employed soldiers armed with Lewis guns—leading the media to adopt the name "Emu War" when referring to the incident.

On 2 November the men travelled to Campion, where some 50 emus were sighted.[2] As the birds were out of range of the guns, the local settlers attempted to herd the emus into an ambush, but the birds split into small groups and ran so that they were difficult to target.[6] Nevertheless, while the first fusillade from the machine guns was ineffective due to the range, a second round of gunfire was able to kill "a number" of birds. Later the same day a small flock was encountered, and "perhaps a dozen" birds were killed.[2]

The next significant event was on 4 November. Meredith had established an ambush near a local dam, and more than 1,000 emus were spotted heading towards their position. This time the gunners waited until the birds were in close proximity before opening fire. The gun jammed after only twelve birds were killed and the remainder scattered before any more could be shot.[8] No more birds were sighted that day.[2]

In the days that followed, Meredith chose to move further south, where the birds were "reported to be fairly tame",[11] but there was only limited success in spite of his efforts.[2] By the fourth day of the campaign, army observers noted that "each pack seems to have its own leader now—a big black-plumed bird which stands fully six feet high and keeps watch while his mates carry out their work of destruction and warns them of our approach".[12] At one stage Meredith even went so far as to mount one of the guns on a truck, a move that proved to be ineffective, as the truck was unable to gain on the birds, and the ride was so rough that the gunner was unable to fire any shots.[2] By 8 November, six days after the first engagement, 2,500 rounds of ammunition had been fired.[6] The number of birds killed is uncertain: one account estimates that it was 50 birds,[6] but other accounts range from 200 to 500, the latter figure being provided by the settlers. Meredith's official report noted that his men had suffered no casualties.[2]

Summarising the culls, ornithologist Dominic Serventy commented:
The machine-gunners' dreams of point blank fire into serried masses of Emus were soon dissipated. The Emu command had evidently ordered guerrilla tactics, and its unwieldy army soon split up into innumerable small units that made use of the military equipment uneconomic. A crestfallen field force therefore withdrew from the combat area after about a month.[13]
 
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  • #24
Astronuc
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You're going to have to define "indecisive" better.
This is a good point. One needs to clarify indecisive (or inconclusive) as V 50 indicates. Indecisive in what sense? Is a draw indecisive?

The attack on Pearl Harbor was indecisive (or not decisive) in terms of knocking the US out of the war, which seemed to be the goal of the Imperial Japanese Navy (i.e., they failed to achieve their goal of eliminating the US Navy and carriers). On the other hand, it forced the US to recognize the limits of battleships (vulnerable to attack from the air) and motivated the development of newer, more advanced carriers. In that sense, it was decisive, not for the aggressor, but for the defender.

In some battles, the aggressor did not achieve goals, but there was a cost to both sides. Such battles may be tactically indecisive, but they seem to be decisive strategically, although it might not be apparent until several battles later, or toward the end of a conflict. I'm thinking of the effect of attrition.
 
  • #25
Klystron
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There is no proof for the famous “sleeping giant” quote but these seem relevant
“In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.”
“Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it is not enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians, among whom armchair arguments about war are being glibly bandied about in the name of state politics, have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.”
-Yamamoto
Educated in Russia and USA Isoroku Yamamato spoke and read fluent English. From the encyclopedia entry:
He also opposed war against the United States, partly because of his studies at Harvard University (1919–1921)[9] and his two postings as a naval attaché in Washington, D.C.,[10] where he learned to speak fluent English. Yamamoto traveled extensively in the United States during his tour of duty there, where he studied American customs and business practices.

To me, 'sleeping giant' references Western folklore, specifically Arthurian, similar to the eponymous character in the modern novel "The Buried Giant" by British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. Many Russian authors such as Sergei Lukyanenko include similar references to sleeping or buried giants and powerful entities entombed under hills, dormant until goaded into fierce retribution by stumbling unenlightened warriors.

If factual, Yamamoto not only cautions about the potential technological and economic might of an aroused America, but questions the shortsighted judgment of the arrogant Army leadership flush from easy victories in China.

{Edit 20210510: removed mention of William Safire.}
 
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  • #26
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Pearl Harbor Raid

The 7 December 1941 Japanese raid on Pearl Harbor was one of the great defining moments in history. A single carefully-planned and well-executed stroke removed the United States Navy's battleship force as a possible threat to the Japanese Empire's southward expansion. America, unprepared and now considerably weakened, was abruptly brought into the Second World War as a full combatant.

Eighteen months earlier, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had transferred the United States Fleet to Pearl Harbor as a presumed deterrent to Japanese aggression. The Japanese military, deeply engaged in the seemingly endless war it had started against China in mid-1937, badly needed oil and other raw materials. Commercial access to these was gradually curtailed as the conquests continued. In July 1941 the Western powers effectively halted trade with Japan. From then on, as the desperate Japanese schemed to seize the oil and mineral-rich East Indies and Southeast Asia, a Pacific war was virtually inevitable.

By late November 1941, with peace negotiations clearly approaching an end, informed U.S. officials (and they were well-informed, they believed, through an ability to read Japan's diplomatic codes) fully expected a Japanese attack into the Indies, Malaya and probably the Philippines. Completely unanticipated was the prospect that Japan would attack east, as well.

The U.S. Fleet's Pearl Harbor base was reachable by an aircraft carrier force, and the Japanese Navy secretly sent one across the Pacific with greater aerial striking power than had ever been seen on the World's oceans. Its planes hit just before 8AM on 7 December. Within a short time five of eight battleships at Pearl Harbor were sunk or sinking, with the rest damaged. Several other ships and most Hawaii-based combat planes were also knocked out and over 2400 Americans were dead. Soon after, Japanese planes eliminated much of the American air force in the Philippines, and a Japanese Army was ashore in Malaya.

These great Japanese successes, achieved without prior diplomatic formalities, shocked and enraged the previously divided American people into a level of purposeful unity hardly seen before or since. For the next five months, until the Battle of the Coral Sea in early May, Japan's far-reaching offensives proceeded untroubled by fruitful opposition. American and Allied morale suffered accordingly. Under normal political circumstances, an accommodation might have been considered.

However, the memory of the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor fueled a determination to fight on. Once the Battle of Midway in early June 1942 had eliminated much of Japan's striking power, that same memory stoked a relentless war to reverse her conquests and remove her, and her German and Italian allies, as future threats to World peace.

https://www.history.navy.mil/our-co...nd-events/world-war-ii/pearl-harbor-raid.html

My mother and father worked at Pearl Harbor when the bombs came. I was not born yet.

Hi Klystron. Thank you!
 
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  • #27
Astronuc
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The naval engagement at Dogger Bank (1915) is considered inconclusive by some.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Dogger_Bank_(1915)
The British surprised the smaller and slower German squadron, which fled for home. During a stern chase lasting several hours, the British caught up with the Germans and engaged them with long-range gunfire. The British disabled Blücher, the rearmost German ship and the Germans put the British flagship HMS Lion out of action. Due to inadequate signalling, the remaining British ships stopped the pursuit to sink Blücher; by the time the ship had been sunk, the rest of the German squadron had escaped.

The German squadron returned to harbour, with some ships in need of extensive repairs. Lion made it back to port but was out of action for several months. The British had lost no ships and suffered few casualties; the Germans had lost Blücher and most of its crew. After the British victory, both navies replaced officers who were thought to have shown poor judgement and made changes to equipment and procedures because of failings observed during the battle.

An interesting bit of history:
Before 1914, international communication was conducted via undersea cables laid along shipping lanes, most of which were under British control. Hours after the British ultimatum to Germany in August 1914, they cut German cables. German messages could be passed only by wireless, using cyphers to disguise their content. The Signalbuch der Kaiserlichen Marine (SKM) was captured from the German light cruiser SMS Magdeburg after it ran aground in the Baltic on 26 August 1914. The German-Australian steamer Hobart was seized near Melbourne, Australia on 11 August and the Handelsverkehrsbuch (HVB) codebook, used by the German navy to communicate with merchant ships and within the High Seas Fleet, was captured. A copy of the book was sent to England by the fastest steamer, arriving at the end of October. During the Battle off Texel (17 October), the commander of the German destroyer SMS S119 threw overboard his secret papers in a lead lined chest as the ship sank but on 30 November, a British trawler dragged up the chest. Room 40 gained a copy of the Verkehrsbuch (VB) codebook, normally used by Flag officers of the Kaiserliche Marine.
 
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  • #28
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The British disabled Blücher,

Named after Frau Blücher perhaps?

I wouldn't call it indecisive. The British were able to thwart the Germans' intentions. And while Lion was damaged, she was able to participate in Jutland a month later. Now Jutland is a pretty good candidate for "indecisive", although I'd probably again argue that the British won - they achieved their objectives, but at a higher cost.
 
  • #30
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The Battle of Mont Sorrel in 1915 was pretty indecisive. German troops surprised a Canadian held portion of the line and took over a set of heights around Ypres. A counter attack failed, and then another reclaimed the lost territory.
 
  • #31
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The battle on the interpretation of quantum mechanics here on PhysicsForums, lasting many years already.
 
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  • #32
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The great majority of battles are not decisive. So it would be better to look for series of indecisive battles. I'd say the peak of this was World War One, which was four years of one indecisive battle after another. It inspired the Russian Revolution as the Russians got tired of dying in indecisive battles. Then Germany surrended not from battlefield defeat but from the revolution spreading to Deutchland. There never was a decisive battle in the whole war. Especially considering the scale of the operation, that seems about as indecisive as you can get. Not only that, you could say that the war itself was indecisive as many believe it led directly to World War Two.
 
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  • #33
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most major wars of the last 200 years came down to attrition, with victory going to the side with the most resources - from the Napoleonic Wars through WW1 and WW2

Germany was defeated on the battlefield in 1918

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hundred_Days_Offensive

Tannenburg and the Brusoliv offensive were also decisive WW1 battles
 
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