“The following places have changed hands or been fought over at least half a dozen times.”
MAJOR MEDIA OUTLETS reported last week that President Obama is ordering the U.S. military to execute a new round of air strikes against ISIS targets throughout Syria. The White House is also dispatching an additional 475 troops to Iraq to shore up the nearly 1,200 already in-country.
This widening war against the so-called Islamic State represents the third time in 25 years that Washington has committed troops to the Persian Gulf. While this certainly stands as a grim milestone for war-weary Americans (not to mention Iraqis), the pages of history do contain a number of locations that have been even more hotly contested. In fact, all of the following places have changed hands or been fought over at least half a dozen times.
Claimed by locals to be the oldest continually inhabited settlement in England, for centuries, ancient Malmesbury sat on the frontlines between warring Mercia and lands controlled by the Saxons. Later, the small Wiltshire town, which sits about 40 km east of the port city of Bristol, would once again bear witness to bloodshed, this time during the 12th Century war between Stephen of Blois and Empress Matilda for control of the throne of England. Later still, Malmesbury would play host to more violence during the English Civil War when the town would pass back and forth between the Royalists and Parliamentarians no fewer than seven times.
Iraq’s largest city after Baghdad, Basra has been in the crosshairs of waring armies on at least seven occasions as well, making it one of the most fought over pieces of land in the Persian Gulf region. In the 7th Century, the city was the scene of the first recorded civil war between Muslims. Known as the First Fitna (656 to 661), the conflict arose following the murder of the Caliph Uthman. Two centuries later in 871, Basra was the focal point of a 15-year African slave revolt known as the Zanj Rebellion. In 1914, British and Indian troops spent 10 days driving the Ottomans from the city. Located only 20 kilometres from the Iranian border, Basra was also on the front lines of Iraq’s bitter eight-year war against the Ayatollah Khomeini during the 1980s. In fact, Iranian troops launched two major offensives to grab the city – one in 1982 and another larger assault in 1987. During in the final hours of Operation Desert Storm, American and coalition warplanes would turn a major roadway leading to the city from Kuwait into a killing ground. On Feb 25, 1991, much of Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guard was annihilated from the air as they evacuated the tiny liberated Gulf state. As many as 10,000 fleeing Iraqis perished in the maelstrom. Twelve years later, British, American and Australian troops spent two weeks clearing city of Iraqi troops and Fedayeen guerrillas during the controversial 2003 invasion of Iraq. British bases in and around the city came under repeated attacks in 2007 as Mahdi insurgents infiltrated the city to sow chaos prior to the coalition handover to the Iraqi national army. The following year, British, American and Iraqi troops mounted a six-day blitz of the Basra to clear out 16,000 guerrillas operating in the city. Several hundred enemy fighters were slaughtered in the clash; as estimated 50 civilians also died.
Located 100 km southwest of Moscow, the town of Maloyaroslavets was the site of a fierce battle following Napoleon’s fateful retreat from the Russian capital. On Oct. 24, 1812, Italian troops under Bonaparte’s command fought a desperate action against the Tsar’s army, whose commander Dmitry Dokhturov was keen to deny the French invaders a southern escape route out of the country. During the daylong battle, the town changed hands eight times as both armies fought fiercely for control of a key bridge there. While the Italians eventually managed to drive off more than 25,000 attackers, the battle forced the once triumphant invaders to withdraw from Russia via a more northerly land route, which with the approach of winter proved to be disastrous for the French emperor. Maloyaroslavets would later again be traded between the Nazis and the Red Army during the German assault on Moscow in 1941.
Known as the northernmost town in England, Berwick in Northumberland sits on the northern (and thus historically Scottish) bank of the Tweed River on the North Sea coast. During the 13th and 14th centuries, both the English and Scots stubbornly vied for control of the strategically vital town. Before Elizabeth I managed to secure Berwick in the 16th Century with a cordon of impregnable walls and fortifications, the small seaside village changed hands an amazing 13 times making it perhaps the most fought over piece of land in the British Isles.
Cheorwon, South Korea
Situated on the 38th Parallel, just a grenade’s toss from the demilitarized zone (DMZ), Cheorwon saw more than its fair share of the action during the 1950 to 1953 Korean War. After being overrun by communist forces in the war’s opening days, Cheorwon would be recaptured by the U.S. and UN the following year. From that point on and until the conflict’s ceasefire, the unlucky town sat astride the frontlines, playing host to such battles as White Horse and Triangle Hill to name a few. In fact, by war’s end Cheorwon was captured and recaptured 24 times.
It was Europe’s thirst for rum that turned the island of Tobago into a battlefield in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. From the Age of Discovery right up until the Napoleonic Wars, armies from England, Holland, France and Spain fought for control of the 300 sq. km island that lies just 15 km off the coast of Venezuela. Tobago’s vast sugarcane fields, along with its indigo and cotton plantations, made the southern Caribbean landfall a mercantilist’s dream. Not surprisingly, the colony was invaded, captured and recaptured an incredible 33 times in 300 years, making it arguably the most disputed territory in the New World. The 1814 Treaty of Paris finally resolved the longstanding claims and counter-claims to the region and granted Britain total control of both Trinidad and Tobago into the 20th Century.
Romney, West Virginia
You might think a town like Martinsburg, Virginia — which changed hands 37 times during the American Civil War — must hold the record for being the most conquered city in the United States. Yet according to some accounts, the even smaller town of Romney (pop. 1,848 as of 2010) changed hands a stunning 56 times during the American Civil War — more conservative estimates put that number at 10. Despite this, Union and Confederate armies both large and small passed through the settlement, which sits 160 km west of Washington, D.C and just south of the Pennsylvania border.
Located in the Shenandoah Valley, a well-travelled north-south corridor that links the American capital region and the interior of Virginia, the town of Winchester was effectively at the epicentre of the American Civil War. Locals claim (although not without some controversy) that the town was traded between the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia a total of 72 times throughout the four-year conflict – including 13 times in a single day! While some dispute the numbers, five major battles definitely took place in or around Winchester and nearby Kernstown, with fighting at times raging up and down the town’s main street. The battles of Berryville and Cedar Creek were also fought within a stone’s throw. For much of the war, Winchester was the strategic lynchpin of a number of campaigns through the Shenandoah. Rebel general Stonewall Jackson along with Union generals Phillip Sheridan and Winfield Scott Hancock established headquarters within the town and no fewer than five forts were built around its outskirts. In fact, the region surrounding Winchester was considered so strategically vital, Federal troops occupied it until 1870.
(NOTE: A version of this story originally appeared on MHN in July of 2013)