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15 August: On this day in history

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15–20 August AD 636: Thousands die at Yarmouk

A Muslim army puts Roman forces to the sword

It is 15 August AD 636, and on the southern border of present-day Syria one of the most decisive battles in world history is about to begin. For two years the armies of Islam, sweeping north from the deserts of Arabia, have been ravaging the Eastern Roman empire. Now the Romans have come for revenge. Sweltering in the punishing heat, tens of thousands of soldiers wait for the signal to attack. In the next six days, the destiny of the entire Middle East will be decided.

For historians, the battle of Yarmouk is one of the most frustrating showdowns imaginable. We do not even know how many men were involved: estimates for the Roman army veer from just 15,000 to an unlikely 400,000. What does seem likely, though, is that the Romans outnumbered their adversaries. The imperial troops were a mosaic of ethnicities: their field commander, Vahan, was an Armenian, while many soldiers were Arabs and Slavs. Their Muslim opponents were fewer but more united, and their commander, Khalid ibn al-Walid, has gone down as one of the greatest generals in history.

From dawn on the 15th, when Vahan sent his most seasoned champions to attack the Muslim lines, the battle took six gruelling days. It must have been a desperate, bloody business: day after day the Roman infantry pounded at the Arab lines, straining for a breakthrough that never came. Even on the fourth day, when the Muslim right almost broke, Vahan never managed to press home his advantage. Two days later he paid the price. Overnight, Khalid moved 500 horsemen to the Roman rear; meanwhile, he used the rest of his cavalry to push his opponents back towards a ravine. By the end of the day, Vahan’s army had fallen apart, hundreds falling to their deaths, thousands more stream- ing desperately towards Damascus.

Yarmouk was a turning point. Roman power in the east was broken; the way was open for the Muslim conquest of the Levant. But Syria was merely the beginning. Within seven years Egypt, for centuries the empire’s richest province, had fallen, and by the end of the century the Arabs had taken north Africa too. Today, there are more than 1.5bn Muslims across the world. But it could have been a different story. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook


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Archbishop Konrad von Hochstanden lays the foundation stone of Cologne’s cathedral, which becomes one of Germany’s most famous landmarks.


15 August 1281

An enormous fleet sent by Mongol emperor Kublai Khan to conquer Japan was destroyed in a typhoon, which the Japanese described as a ‘Divine Wind’ or Kamikaze.


15 August 1552

Death of courtier and soldier Sir Anthony Wingfield. Wingfield fought at Tournai in 1513, helped suppress the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 and served at Boulogne in 1544. In 1540, he supervised the arrest of Thomas Cromwell.


15 August 1769

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio, Corsica, the second son of lawyer Carlo Buonaparte and his wife Marie-Letizia.


15 August 1843

The Tivoli Gardens, which will become one of the world’s most famous amusement parks, opens its gates in Copenhagen. Denmark for the first time.


15 August 1940

In the most intensive day’s fighting of the Battle of Britain, the German Luftwaffe flew over 2,000 sorties and lost 75 aircraft to Fighter Command’s 34.

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