What was the largest pitched battle of all time?

I’m reading about the Punic Wars, and I reeled when I read that in the Battle of Ecnomus, the Carthaginians and Romans each fielded as many as 150,000 men. (Well, “fielded” is probably the wrong term, since it was a sea battle. But the tactics of the time meant that the Carthaginians would try to sink the Romans by ramming them, while the Romans would try to position their ships to board the enemy and kill the crew in hand-to-hand combat. So with all the spears and swords, perhaps you could say the men were “fielded”…) So that’s 300,000 souls engaging in a battle over the course of one day!

This got me thinking. Not about naval battles, but about pitched battles on land. What was the largest one? I mean measured by the number of people appearing in one place at one time for the purpose of killing each other.

The largest battle on British soil involved a paltry 80,000 men.

About 300,000 Ottomans showed up on May 29, 1453 to end the Byzantine Empire.

Xerxes marched into Greece with 2.5 million men, if the contemporary historians are to be believed (though most modern scholars apparently don’t). But it doesn’t seem like this entire force was ever brought to bear in a single event.

The Battle of the Bulge in WWII had about 1.3 million participants, but I’m not sure it’s fair to measure a 6-week long engagement against the 1-day affairs of the ancient world.

The Battle of Kursk had 2.2 million participants, but again, lasted two months, so it’s hard to compare. Use your own measuring stick.

What was the biggest? And what’s the best standard to settle this question?

Any of the three battles of Panipat would be a contendor, in the last one, one side lost 100,000 men.

The Battle of Stalingrad is worth mentioning, and is noted by many as the deadliest battle in history with somewhere around 1.5 to 2 million casualties. It’s mind-boggling to read about.

The Battle of Verdun had over 800,000 casualties (including wounded). It also used massive numbers of troops – 75% of all French soldiers fought there (not at the same time, as they were rotated out and replaced with fresh troops after a few months), as did 25% of the German army.

I believe the largest land battle in North America was Gettysburg, where 166,000 troops fought in a single three-day battle. Antietam had about 145,000 troops, but it was fought in a single day.

I would have thought the battle of the Somme would have qualified. Without precise figures 14 allied Divisions charged ahead- say 500,000 troops. If the Germans had similar figures a lot of men on the first day.
Verdun as well may qualify.

Operation Bagration was a major Soviet offensive against the Germans in 1944. Being as it was a single campaign with a unified objective (encircle and destroy the German Army Group Center in Byelorussia) it could be considered as a 27-day-long battle. Over three million soldiers fought in it (2,300,000 Soviets and 800,000 Germans) and there were over 500,000 casualties.

Probably my pick. When an offensive or campaign becomes a “battle” is pretty subjective as there is really no precise definition of such. I’d generally say that if the combat is more or less continuous ( and that “more or less” has some slop, especially in pre-modern times when fighting would often cease at night, only to start again the next morning ), it qualifies.

As to the OP’s quoted numbers, they mostly look to be exaggerations. Even modern counters with some expertise and technique at crowd estimation can be off by quite a bit when trying to gauge the size of a large mass of more or less densely packed people. In the pre-modern era when innumeracy was the rule, quoted numbers with nothing to hang on them become more and more useless the larger they climb. Ibn Khaldun, a medieval scholar who was something of an exception that proves the rule in terms of numeracy, famously noted the absurdity of some of these ancient claims with purported numbers that dwarfed the largest existing cities by a factor of ten and yet somehow managed to feed themselves on the march with the skimpiest of logistic systems.

So for example the idea that Xerxes commanded 2.5 million men is just ludicrous. No ancient commander could have recruited, fed and maintained such an enormous host. Let alone it probably outnumbered every man, woman and child in Egypt, the most densely populated contituent of the empire.

Another is the Fall of Constantinople. You quote 300,000 Turkish troops - that’s from Greek eyewitnesses. Venetians were entirely more moderate at 150,000. Steven Runciman in his classic account The Fall of Constantinople 1453 ( 1965, Cambrdge University Press ) estimated the number at more like 100,000. Even that is probably too high. Rhoads Murphy estimated a very generous upper limit for full-blown Sultan-led campaigns of ~80,000 combat troops in Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700 ( 1999, Rutgers University Press ). It is doubtful that Mehmed II fielded larger armies than 16th century Sultans like Suleiman I, what with their larger standing army and still healthy timariot system.

In the spirit of one day battles, I propose the Battle of Cannae.

It began and ended on a single day and has a (single day) loss of life that was not replicable until modern technology made killing easier (Somme).

The Battle of Leipzig involved some 560,000 troops. It occurred over three days, but still lays far better claim to being a single battle than something like Verdun.

A number of battles through Chinese history have involved many hundred thousands of combatants. The Battle of Changping, during the end of the Warring Kingdoms period, a force of 400,000 troops was enveloped, forced to surrender, and made to literally dig their own graves.

That would’ve been my guess, though estimates of the number of troops on each side vary widely.

I saw a documentary film recently depicting a famous ancient battle where 300 soldiers took on a million.

If only i could remember the title.

Even disallowing exaggeration, the people involved might have not been able to accurately count how many they had. I’m reminded of line from the Decameron in which it was said of a plague-hit city that “more people died than had been previously thought lived in the whole city”.