The Ten Longest Wars in History

The following article is from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader.

Historians often disagree on whether certain wars should be considered one continuing conflict or a series of separate wars. But that doesn’t stop them from compiling lists of the longest wars ever fought. Here is the most popular version.

10. THE VIETNAM WAR

Length: 19 years (1955–1975)

Details: Although there was no official declaration of war, the Vietnam War began on November 1, 1955, when the United States began providing military support to the newly created nation of South Vietnam in their war against communist-controlled —and Soviet- and Chinese-supported— North Vietnam. Major fighting didn’t really begin until 1963 (total number of U.S. troops killed in Vietnam prior to 1962: fewer than 100), when the war was escalated, first by President John F. Kennedy and then by President Lyndon B. Johnson. The war officially ended on April 30, 1975, when the last American forces left Saigon and North Vietnam took control of the entire country, reunifying the North and South into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Estimated deaths: 2.4 million

9. THE GREAT NORTHERN WAR

Length: 21 years (1700–1721)

Details: This war’s two main adversaries were Russia, under Peter the Great, and the Swedish Empire, under Charles XII, with various allies fighting on either side at different points— including Denmark-Norway, Poland-Lithuania, the Ottoman Empire, and Great Britain (which actually fought on both sides at different times over the course of the war). Winner: Russia. The outcome drastically reshaped the power structure of Europe, reducing what was then a very powerful Swedish Empire to a minor player in European affairs. Russia, in turn, was officially renamed the Russian Empire, with Peter the Great as its first emperor. The victory marked Russia’s emergence as a major world power.

Estimated deaths: Historians believe the number of battle deaths, along with deaths due to disease and famine brought on by the war, was more than 300,000.

8. FIRST PUNIC WAR

Length: 23 years (264–241 BC)

Details: This was the first of three wars between the powerful North African city-state of Carthage (now Tunisia), and the Roman Republic over control of the lucrative trade routes in and around the Mediterranean Sea. The First Punic War was the longest of the three and was fought primarily over control of the island of Sicily, where much of the fighting took place. In one notable battle near the city of Panormus (now Palermo), the Romans not only killed an estimated 20,000 Carthaginian soldiers in one day but also captured 100 elephants, which the Carthaginians famously used in battle. The elephants were sent back to Rome, where they are believed to have been killed in the games in the Coliseum. The First Punic War ended in 241 BC, with the Romans emerging as victors, gaining control of most of Sicily. (Rome won the Second Punic War as well, when Roman general Scipio defeated Carthaginian general Hannibal in 201 BC. By the end of the Third Punic War in 146 BC, the Romans had demolished the Carthaginian army; destroyed the city of Carthage; enslaved, sold, or killed all its inhabitants; and annexed every last inch of Carthaginian territory.)

Estimated deaths: Around 250,000

7. THE ACHINESE WAR

Length: 31 years (1873–1904)

Details: This war was the result of an effort by the Dutch to consolidate their rule in the Dutch East Indies, the former colony that is the nation of Indonesia today. In 1873 the Dutch attacked the Sultanate of Aceh (pronounced ah-che), an independent kingdom on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, in order to take control of the region’s lucrative black pepper industry. The Dutch captured the capital of Kutaraja in 1874 and declared victory. But they badly underestimated the Acehnese, who took to using guerrilla tactics, and the war dragged on for a total of 31 years, with territory changing hands several times over that period. In the late 1890s, the frustrated Dutch began a scorched-earth campaign that led to the destruction of Aceh villages and the slaughter of thousands of civilians, including women and children. By 1903 the war was basically won (by the Dutch), but fighting continued in some pockets of the region until 1914. Today Aceh is a province of Indonesia, which gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1949.

Estimated deaths: 90,000

6. THE PELOPONNESIAN WAR

Length: 27 years (431–404 BC)

Details: Remember the Greek city-states that banded together and beat the mighty Persians in the Greco-Persian War? Well, once that was settled, the Greeks got back to what they did best— fighting each other. In this war, Athens, which had grown into a powerful empire, fought the Peloponnesian League, a coalition of allied city-states led by Athens’ archrivals, the Spartans. (Sparta is located on the Peloponnese Peninsula, a large landmass that makes up much of southern Greece.) Fighting raged throughout southern Greece and as far away as western Turkey and southern Italy. This included massive sea battles, the last of which, the Battle of Aegospotami, off Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, saw the Spartans decimate the mighty Athenian fleet, sinking approximately 150 ships and executing more than 3,000 sailors. Athens surrendered some months later, and by 404 BC, the war— and Athens’s superiority over the region— was history.

Estimated deaths: Unknown

5. THE WARS OF THE ROSES

Length: 30 years (1455–1485)

Details: This war for the right to the English throne was fought by supporters of two royal houses: the House of Lancaster, whose heraldic symbol was a red rose, and the House of York, whose symbol was a white rose— hence this war’s name. Over the course of the war, the throne changed hands three times. One king was killed in battle; another king was executed after being captured; two more kings died of natural causes; and scores of lords, dukes, earls, and other royal figures lost their lives— after which many had their heads put on pikes for public display. When it was all over, the House of Lancaster had won: Henry Tudor, the Lancastrian claimant to the throne, defeated the Yorkist claimant, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and became King Henry VII. The following year, he strengthened his position by marrying Elizabeth of York and started a new house, the House of Tudor, which ruled England for the next century.

Estimated deaths: Around 100,000

4. THE THIRTY YEARS’ WAR

Length: 30 years (1618–1648)

Details: On May 23, 1618, a crowd of angry Protestants stormed the royal castle in the city of Prague, in the Kingdom of Bohemia, and threw three members of the newly appointed Catholic government out of a castle window. (All three somehow survived the 70-foot plunge.) That event, known as the Defenestration of Prague, ignited Protestant rebellions all across the region. That eventually escalated into an all-out— and incredibly destructive— war between the great powers of Europe. The main belligerents: the powerful Holy Roman Empire, comprising all of the German states and several neighboring regions, allied with the Spanish Empire against France, Sweden, and Denmark. The losers: the Holy Roman Empire and Spain, both of which lost huge amounts of territory and influence. The big winners: France and Sweden, which emerged as major powers, although Sweden was unable to sustain that position for very long. (See entry number 9.) 

Estimated deaths: 8 million

3. THE GUATEMALAN CIVIL WAR

(Image credit: Trocaire/CAFCA archive)

Length: 36 years (1960–1996)

Details: In 1954 a right-wing army colonel, Carlos Castillo Armas, led a successful coup d’état against the democratically elected leftist government of Guatemala. The coup was engineered by the U.S. State Department and the CIA. In 1960 a group of left-wing army officers led a coup of their own— but failed to take power. What followed was 36 years of war between the Guatemalan military, which eventually took control of the country, and various leftist guerrilla groups. Fighting didn’t stop until 1996, with the signing of a peace treaty between the rebel groups and the government; concessions were made on both sides, but it was largely deemed a win for the rebel groups. The conflict is one of the first in which a terror tactic known as forced disappearance was used: the Guatemalan army and National Police forces kidnapped, tortured, and murdered between 40,000 and 50,000 people, primarily civilian activists. Most were native people, especially Mayans, and their bodies were dumped into mass graves or dropped into the sea from helicopters. (The fate of most of those victims remains unknown today.)

Estimated deaths: 200,000

2. THE GRECO-PERSIAN WARS

Length: 38 years (between 499–449 BC)

Details: This was actually three conflicts, fought over a period of 50 years, that historians bundle into one major war. The fighting was between a coalition of several ancient Greek city-states led primarily by Athens and Sparta, and the Persian Empire— at the time the largest and most powerful empire on Earth. (Think that’s an exaggeration? At its peak— including the period during which this war was fought— the Persian Empire encompassed approximately 50 million people, or about 44 percent of the world’s population.) The war began with a series of revolts by Greeks in territories that the Persians had conquered decades earlier, followed by full-scale invasion attempts by the Persians, and counterattacks by the Greeks— all with varying degrees of success and failure. Finally, after 50 years, the winner: the Greeks, who successfully repelled the Persians and won back their territories.

Estimated deaths: Unknown  

1. THE HUNDRED YEARS’ WAR

Length: 116 years (1337– 1453)

Details: Fought primarily between England and France, the Hundred Years’ War is usually divided into three main component wars— one of which raged for 38 years: the Lancastrian War (1415– 1453). The fight was over English-controlled territory in France and control of the French throne. (The rulers of England and France had been related for centuries, so the English claim to the French throne actually had some merit.) The war ended with the surrender of the English in 1453, after more than a century of bloodshed. The winners: the French, who took back almost all of England’s holdings in France, beginning a long era during which England was left mostly isolated from European affairs. And within two years, the English were engulfed in yet another long conflagration. (See #5.)

Estimated deaths: Possibly as high as 3.5 million

Bonus: Several of William Shakespeare’s best-known plays center on events that occurred during the Hundred Years’ War, including Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, all of which detail the lives of English kings who ruled during the war. Another famous character from the Hundred Years’ War: Joan of Arc, who, at the age of 18, led the French to several victories before being captured by the English and burned at the stake in 1431.

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The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader. The 28th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories and facts, and comes in both the Kindle version and paper with a classy cloth cover.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!


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What about the Eighty Years' War? Surely that belongs in this list somewhere (even taking into account the 12 year truce) Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eighty_Years%27_War
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