Great commanders: the secrets of success

Tue Oct 22 09:12:46 UTC 2013

Napoleon, when considering the suitability of a candidate for high command, would always ask – “Is he lucky?” Perhaps this is the pre-eminent quality. Certainly in such a high-risk job, as command on the battlefield, luck was important for survival. Alexander the Great ran enormous and uncalled for risks, as did Nelson. Others, who were more circumspect, still were exceptionally vulnerable. All of Wellington’s staff were either killed or wounded at Waterloo yet the Duke survived unscathed as he had done in almost all of his battles. Yet, it was not only luck in this basic personal sense, but also in the wider context of command. 


Often the great commanders inherited first class military instruments which others had forged. Alexander owed an enormous debt to his father, Philip of Macedon, who had created a superb army for his son to use. Caesar took the organisation and traditions of the Republic’s army and used it boldly but with little innovation. Nelson had, in the late eighteenth century British navy, an outstandingly efficient fighting force. Wellington owed a debt to the training work of Sir John Moore, who, conveniently for Wellington, encountered a French cannon ball, leaving a vacancy for the young general to fill. Napoleon was the heir to a series of innovations ushered in by others - the improved French artillery brought about by Gribeauval before the Revolution, the ideas of the Comte de Guibert on speed and aggression and, above all, the creation of a mass army by Carnot in 1793-4, dwarfing the forces of the other European powers.

Luck was also important in the mistakes made by one’s enemies at crucial times. Napoleon’s greatest campaign of 1805 was helped enormously by the failure of the Austrians and Russians to coordinate their actions initially (they were using different calendars). The headstrong behaviour of the young Tsar at Austerlitz gave Napoleon his greatest battlefield victory. The Roman Consuls at Cannae played into Hannibal’s hands. The massive unpopularity of the Byzantine authorities in Syria made the Arab conquests of the seventh century much easier. The French in 1940 facilitated the success of the ‘Manstein’ plan by doing exactly what the Germans required them to do - dispatching their reserves to the Dutch border and leaving the Ardennes weakly guarded. Peng Dehuai was able to inflict a startling reverse on the Americans in Korea in the winter of 1950/51 because of the overconfidence of Macarthur.


Some of the world’s great commanders actually developed the instruments of military success themselves. Such generals must surely deserve extra credit for this. Hannibal turned a melange of troops, many of them mercenaries, into a fearsome force in Italy. Genghis Khan created a near world-conquering army from the disparate tribes of Mongolia. He imposed discipline and tactical skills on primitive nomads and added the more sophisticated engineering skills of urbanised societies as he conquered. Shaka Zulu created a formidable force of African warriors from virtually nothing and built a great empire with the disciplined force he created. Jan Zizka experimented with guns and armoured wagons to inflict devastating blows on the proud chivalry of medieval Germany. 


Sheer hard work in developing the logistics to move and feed great armies also marked many of the great commanders. Wellington and Marlborough always paid enormous attention to such matters and the great Moltke, in the nineteenth century, founded the success of the Prussian army on the calculated use of railways and efficient supplies of food and ammunition.

Political skills feature prominently in many of the great commanders. Genghis Khan bound the warring tribes of Mongolia to him and his direct descendant, Akbar the Great, the conqueror of much of India was famed for his ability to win over potential or beaten opponents and keep their loyalty. Wellington and Marlborough both wrestled with difficult allies whom they needed to beat the French. Wellington showed great skill in turning the Portuguese into an effective military force and overcoming his frustrations with the Spanish authorities, who constantly tried his patience. Marlborough worked effectively with the Dutch and Prince Eugene, commander of the Austrian forces.

The ingredients of success are many and varied. No simple formula explains military genius. The best of plans break down rapidly after contact with an enemy is established and responding effectively to the resultant chaos marks the great military mind.


Arguing for who was the greatest, is more a parlour game than a respectable academic exercise but it is a useful exercise if it leads the participants to reflect on what qualities are required in a great commander.

Below are twenty contenders for the title. Some like Alexander, Genghis Khan, Frederick the Great of Prussia and Napoleon are almost automatic choices for anyone’s list. Their tactical genius on the field of battle, charisma, grasp of strategy and their position as political rulers as well as generals, able to exercise military power in its broadest sense, give them a special status. Less well known to many in Britain but falling into the same category of general/ruler are Akbar and Shaka Zulu. All six created empires or significantly expanded their territories and left iconic legacies.

The last six on the list were all professional soldiers, answerable to their respective political bosses. They lacked the freedom to take the big decisions alone and sometimes were forced into courses of action of which they disapproved. Giap, the victor in Vietnam over the French and then the USA, did not fully approve of the Tet Offensive of 1968 which turned into a military disaster for the Viet Cong but ended as a political victory. Manstein was forced by Hitler to call off his offensive at Kursk in 1943 and what could, according to some military historians, have been a splendid German victory has gone down as a resounding Soviet one. Peng Dehuai had to play second fiddle to Mao. His achievements as a leader of the Long March, commander of the main Communist Chinese offensive against the Japanese in the early 1940s and then against the nationalist forces in north-west China in the civil war and finally against the USA in Korea, were all bought at tremendous cost to Chinese lives. Zhukov also won his victories at enormous cost, but much of this can be blamed on Stalin, just as Peng could reasonably have blamed Mao for much of the Chinese bloodshed. Grant was answerable to Lincoln and Moltke to King Wilhelm who let Bismarck shape Prussian political strategy. In many ways, the victories of all these professionals were all the more impressive given the constraints under which they laboured.

Khalid, the Sword of Allah, was a follower of the Prophet and then of his successors. His military genius deserves to be better known in view of his hundred victorious battles and the unification of the Arabian peninsula as a result. This is also true of Jan Zizka, innovative and inspirational leader of the Hussite rebellion in central Europe. His use of guns and armoured wagons earn him his place rather than the scale of his operations or the extent of conquest.

Hannibal and Caesar are likely to figure on most lists. Both, while not the rulers of their respective states at the time of their great military triumphs, exercised independent commands and their charisma and leadership qualities have perpetuated their memories for millennia. Hannibal’s victory at Cannae against a superior Roman Army is often given as the most perfect example of battlefield tactical genius. 



The presence of four British commanders might seem to show a national bias. Nelson is the only naval commander in the list. Generally acknowledged as a great leader of men and a master of warfare in the age of sail, his prominent celebratory position in London, reflects his reputation. Cromwell fought only within the British Isles but his string of victories, often, as at Preston and Dunbar, against superior numbers, marks him as a battlefield commander of genius. He was also an outstanding trainer of men and all the more remarkable for beginning his military career over the age of 40. Marlborough and Wellington were more than just British generals. Both led coalition armies, a demanding task at the best of times, and enjoyed European-wide reputations. Napoleon always rated Marlborough as one of the greatest European generals. Wellington, it must be remembered, was not only the victor in the struggle against Napoleonic France but also a successful commander in India where he contributed much to the creation of a British India.

All twenty are worthy of study and the construction of an argument as to why one deserves the top spot will enhance a knowledge of history and the nature of that horrid, but fascinating, human activity - warfare. 

Who was the greatest military commander in History?

Alexander the Great (356-323 BC)
Hannibal of Carthage (247-182 BC)
Gaius Julius Caesar (100-48 BC)
Khalid ibn al-Walid (592-642)
Temujin (Genghis Khan) (1162-1227)
Jan Zizka (1360-1424)
Akbar the Great (1542-1605)
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)
John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough (1650-1722)
Frederick II, King of Prussia (1712-1786)
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1822)
Horatio Nelson (1758 -1805)
Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)
Shaka Zulu (1787-1828)
Helmuth von Moltke, (1800-1891)
Ulysses S Grant (1822-85)
Erich von Manstein (1885-1973)
Georgi Zhukov (1896-1974)
Peng Dehuai (1898-1974)
Vo Nguyen Giap (1911-2013)

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