Since the dawn of time, mankind has been synonymous with war. We’ve seen numerous battles over the last thousand or so years and particular men have stood out. Here are 5 of the most incredible military leaders of all time.
10) Napoleon (1769-1821)
Napoleon, for those who aren’t currently biting their keyboards in disgust that he isn’t higher up this list, was a general, consul and ultimately Emperor of France in the aftermath of the French Revolution. He won scores of vast battles fighting essentially the rest of Europe, which is really rather impressive. He revolutionised the use of artillery. He was also loved by his men and inspired them to acts of incredible courage. However, he then “pulled a Hitler” and invaded Russia with 675,000 men. After initial successes, it inevitably all went wrong.
Napoleon legged it back to France, leaving his men to it. Between 600,000 and 650,000 of them died. Forced to surrender after the titanic battle of Leipzig, Napoleon’s total lack of self awareness and his lust for war and power led him to try and attack everyone all over again in 1815. He was then (whatever revisionist historians / Victor Hugo / the film Waterloo try and claim) soundly thrashed by Blücher and Wellington at Waterloo and spent the rest of his life on the island of St Helena trying to explain to anyone who would listen why he was still the best general ever, honest. Which I suppose, in a way, he was, until he buggered it all up.
Not pictured: self-awareness.
9) William Slim, 1st Viscount Slim (1891-1970)
Viscount Slim is one of numerous World War 2 generals who could potentially feature on this list (Zhukov, Rommel, von Kleist, Alexander, Patton, to name but a few). He is also one of the least known. He led what is sometimes called “the Forgotten Army”, made up of troops from all over the British Empire and Commonwealth, against the Empire of Japan, who had invaded Burma. Forced to withdraw to India, Slim recognised the importance of mobility, supply lines, nighttime warfare and preventing disease. He tackled the spread of malaria and worked out how best to resupply cut-off troops by air.
When the Japanese invaded India, Slim defeated them at the simultaneous battles of Kohima and Imphal. He then counter-attacked into Burma, defeating the Japanese with the help of an uprising by the population, and thus taking pressure off the American troops driving the Japanese back from island to island in the Pacific.
8) Jan Zizka (1360-1424)
Jan Zizka makes this list for inventing the tank – in the 14th century – as well as casually being the first general to use cannon primarily as field weapons rather than siege guns and never being defeated in battle. Zizka led the Hussites in numerous wars for many years, before anticlimactically dying of plague. His last request was that his skin be made into war drums, so he could keep leading his men. Zizka’s “tanks”, also known as a “wagenburg” or “tabor”, were wagons chained together in a defensive ring and manned by crossbowmen and men with “pistala” (from where the English word “pistol” comes).
Inside the ring were “houfnice” (from where the English word “howitzer” comes) for shelling the enemy. Yes, strictly speaking, these weren’t tanks in the modern sense but they revolutionised the battlefield and helped start to limit the power of the horsemen that had dominated the Middle Ages.
Pictured: Not a horse.
7) Genghis Khan (and his generals) (1162ish-1227)
Temujin, as he was born, spent most of his childhood living in the wild, abandoned by his tribe after his noble father’s death. He was then kidnapped into slavery, but escaped and married a princess of a neighbouring tribe. She was then herself kidnapped but Temujin and his friend Jamukha (who went on to become Temujin’s greatest rival and enemy) succeeded in a daring rescue. He was now about 16. As starts go to life, this is fairly impressive. From here, he casually united all of the surrounding tribes under his leadership and adopted the title “Genghis Khan” – “Universal Ruler”, which would seem arrogant were it not fairly accurate.
The Mongols pushed out into China, Russia, the Middle East and even Europe. Genghis was often unforgivably ruthless – massacring the entire populations of many cities that fell before him. Conversely, he was also religiously tolerant, incredibly tactically astute (perfecting the trick of the “feigned retreat”) and a master of maintaining supply lines over his gigantic empire which, after his death, grew to becoming the largest continuous empire the world has ever seen.
6) Gustavus Adolphus (1594-1632)
Gustavus Adolphus, or Gustav II Adolph, King of Sweden, is often known both as “Gustavus the Great” and “The Father of Modern Warfare”. During his life, he was referred to as “The Lion of Midnight”. I have no idea what this means but it gives some idea of his character. The Thirty Years’ War was a vast pan-European conflict that lasted from 1618 to 1648. As is often the way, it started because of religion – the sides forming along Catholic/Protestant dividing lines. As is often also the way, this was rapidly forgotten in favour of territorial grabbing and battles for all round political supremacy.
The Protestant side had the worst of it until the intervention of Sweden, led by Gustavus. Gustavus recognised the importance of gunpowder and structured his tactics around the use of muskets and cannons. Perhaps his most famous victory was the battle of Breitenfeld which drove back an army of the Holy Roman Empire and helped change the course of the war. Tragically, at the later battle of Lutzen, Gustavus led a cavalry charge into a wall of fog and musket smoke and disappeared – found dead by his victorious men at the end of the battle.
5) Hannibal Barca (247BC-182ishBC)
Fantastically-bearded elephant-wrangler and Alp-crosser, arch-enemy-of-all-Romans Hannibal Barca is uniformly recognised as one of the greatest “Ancient” generals who ever lived (along with Julius Caesar, Pyrrhus, Scipio Africanus, Demetrius Poliorcetes and Alexander). Relaxing in New Carthage in southern Spain one day, Hannibal (for various reasons) decided to invade Rome. All that stood in his way were the Spanish tribes, the Pyrenees, the Gallic tribes, the Alps and then the invasion itself. In spite of the odds, Hannibal appeared a few months later in Northern Italy and proceeded to trounce the Romans.
At Lake Trasimene, Hannibal performed the first known example in history of a turning movement – outflanking and cutting off the Roman army from its supplies so it had no choice but to retreat. At Cannae, Hannibal “closed the gates” on the vast Roman army by withdrawing his troops in the centre of the battle while simultaneously pushing his flanks forward and round, thus trapping the Romans on all sides and massacring them. Unfortunately for Hannibal, the Romans rapidly realised that the tactic of “refusing battle”, also known as “running away”, meant that Hannibal and his army were left wandering around Italy being a nuisance but slowly running themselves dry. Ultimately, Hannibal was forced to retreat to Carthage where he was eventually defeated by Scipio at the battle of Zama and did himself in.
4) Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)
Everything that Napoleon wasn’t. Less of a tactical genius than Napoleon, Wellington made up for it by an amazing ability to improvise combined with simple but devestatingly effective set-piece defences (as at Talavera, Busaco, Fuentes de Onoro and Waterloo) and bold, rapid attacks (as at Assaye, Salamanca and Vittoria). Fighting almost non stop across India, Spain, France and Belgium for 16 years, Wellington was never defeated in a major battle and never lost a campaign. He is often accused of saying that his soldiers were the “scum of the earth” but the quotation is hardly ever given in full: “our [soldiers are recruited from] the scum of the earth – it really is wonderful that we should have made them the fine fellows they are.”
The difference between Wellington and Napoleon is summed up perfectly by the fact that Napoleon left money in his will to a man who had tried to assassinate Wellington while Wellington lobbied successfully to prevent Napoleon’s execution after Waterloo. While living in Paris after the war, Wellington had affairs with two of Napoleon’s mistresses, Josephine Grassini and Josephine Weimer. Weimer noted of the two lovers that “Monsieur le Duc etait de beaucoup plus fort.” – “The Duke was much the stronger.” He was also the stronger general.
3) John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722) & Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736)
Marlborough and Eugene could not have been more different. The teenage Marlborough took instantly to the military life, joining the 1st Guards as an Ensign and travelling to North Africa for three years. He was so handsome he was described as being “irresistable to man or woman”. When caught red-handed by Charles II having sex with Charles’s mistress Barbara Villiers, the young Marlborough so impressed the King, that Charles laughed it off and let him go. By contrast, the young Prince Eugene was a massive nerd.
He was so sickly and ill in his youth that it was assumed by all that his only option was to enter the church and the 19 year old Eugene was refused commision into the French army. And yet the two very different men grew up to become not only two of the greatest generals of all time but also best friends. They were described as “twin constellations of glory” and Marlborough once remarked: “I not only esteem but I really love the Prince.” They were, in essence, Schmidt and Jenko from 21 Jump Street.
Winning scores of victories seperately, Eugene and Marlborough’s greatest achievements were the battles of Blenheim, Malplaquet and Oudenarde in which together they, like so many other generals on this list, hammered the French, thus helping the Grand Alliance win the War of Spanish Succession.
2) Frederick II of Prussia (1712-1786)
The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were full of great military leaders. Along with Marlborough & Eugene, Wellington and Napoleon, generals such as Robert E. Lee, Robert Clive, James Wolfe, Stonewall Jackson, George Washington and Claude Louis Hector de Villars could also easily be included on this list. Frederick “the Great” of Prussia, however, was undoubtedly the best of them all. In his youth, Frederick wanted nothing to do with war, and was a key follower and patron of music, art and philosophy. He hated his father the King and at the age of eighteen attempted to flee the country with his friend Hans Hermann von Katte, who is thought to have been his lover.
The King caught them and forced Frederick to watch Hans be beheaded. He was then forced into marriage and the military. In spite of this trauma, Frederick, on ascending the throne, became a kind and cultured ruler, launching modernising reforms of the judicial system and civil service and maintaning his support for the art world. He wrote an essay called Anti-Machiavel, refuting the theories of Machiavelli’s famous essay The Prince and instead maintaining that Kings and leaders must be moral and just. He permitted all religions to be practiced freely. At the same time, he turned his attention to war and proved himself a genius of military theory, in tactics, strategy, movement, and supplies.
It helped that Prince Eugene himself was his tutor. In expanding Prussia into a great Protestant power, Frederick fought the Russians, Saxons, French, Swedes and Austrians, often simultaneously, in numerous battles. At the battles of Rossbach and Leuthen, he soundly defeated forces more than double the size of his own, primarily through the two skills he saw as key to victory: speed of movement and speed of fire. Napoleon got it right when, while invading Prussia, he said of Frederick, “If this man were still alive, I would not be here.” Frederick died peacefully in his sleep in 1786.
Looked like my Grandma but was more successful militarily.
1) Alexander the Great (356-323BC)
As anyone who’s seen Die Hard knows, when Alexander looked across the breadth of his domain, he wept because he had no more worlds to conquer. Alexander, at this point, was not yet thirty. Although the area of land that Alexander conquered was not as great as that of the Mongols, he has the distinction that everyone between Macedonia and India, which he eventually reached, desperately and actively wanted to kill him. Alexander casually overcame this to the extent that he founded twenty seperate cities in his name and he continued for centuries to be revered as a God in many of the lands he had conquered.
On his horse Bucephalus, Alexander rode to victory at the head of his cavalry and his pike phalanxes at battles such as the Hydaspes, Granicus, Issus and Guagamela. His tactical genius is still studied in military academies today, over 2300 years later. He died at the age of 33, before many others on this list had even won their first victory, not killed by the enemy, but because he drank an entire (possibly poisoned) vat of wine. He had never been defeated. Enough said.