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100 Greatest Generals

By Brian Sobel with Jerry D. Morelock
4/11/2016 • Military History Magazine

A list of history’s 100 best military commanders, from ancient to modern times.

We combed through 3,000 years of history to identify “standout” military commanders whose battlefield prowess, impact on the conduct of war in their respective eras, or significant contributions to the development of warfare helped create the world we live in today. Some leaders are best known for a single significant battle; Leonidas at Thermopylae and Alexander Nevsky at Lake Peipus fall into this category. Others on the list such as Alexander the Great and Napoleon are famous for their consistent excellence in numerous encounters and campaigns. Many of the “top 100” experienced war at the “sharp end” – Chesty Puller and Hal Moore are prime examples – while men like Helmuth von Moltke and Dwight Eisenhower directed operations from staff headquarters located far away from the fighting lines. Yet regardless of where these men commanded – whether on land, sea or in the air – each proved to the world that he was an extraordinary leader.

ANCIENT ERA

(chronological)

Joshua: Joshua was an ancient Israelite commander and Moses’ successor. His most famous victory was the capture of Jericho, and he also conquered Canaan (circa 1200 B.C.).

Leonidas: Sparta’s King Leonidas led “the 300” against thousands of Persians during the heroic defense of the mountain pass at Thermopylae (480 B.C.).

Themistocles: Themistocles, an architect of the Athenian Empire, ended the Persian threat with his triumph at the naval Battle of Salamis (480 B.C.), preserving Western civilization.

Miltiades: Miltiades was an Athenian general whose innovative tactical deployment allowed his outnumbered force to destroy the Persians at Marathon (490 B.C.).

Philip II: Macedonian King Phillip conquered the Greek states (by 337 B.C.) and created the magnificent army that he bequeathed to his son, Alexander.

Alexander the Great: Son of Philip II of Macedon, Alexander took the army his father had forged and conquered the known world from the Ionian Sea to India (336-323 B.C.).

Qin Shi Huang: As first emperor of China (221-210 B.C.), Huang built the Great Wall, established a centralized government and unified the country through military conquest.

Hannibal: Considered Rome’s “public enemy number one,” Hannibal was a brilliant Carthaginian general who won the ancient world’s most famous battle – Cannae, the classic double envelopment (216 B.C.).

Scipio Africanus: Victor over Hannibal’s army at Zama (202 B.C.), Scipio conquered Carthage for Rome, adding North Africa to the Roman Empire.

Julius Caesar: Through tactical skills and personal magnetism, Caesar (100-44 B.C.) defeated Rome’s enemies – and his political rivals – launching ancient Rome on the path to imperial glory.

Marcus Agrippa: One of Rome’s finest commanders, Agrippa led the victory at the Battle of Actium (31 B.C.), a triumph that gained Octavian (Caesar Augustus) control of the ancient world’s mightiest empire.

Arminius (Hermann): The Roman-educated Teutonic rebel leader Arminius inflicted the empire’s most disastrous defeat, destroying Varus’ three legions at the Battle of Teutoburger Wald (9 A.D.).

Attila the Hun: Known as the “Scourge of God,” Attila ruled the vast Hun Empire of Central Europe, and his armies reached the gates of both Constantinople and Rome (circa 450 A.D.).

MEDIEVAL ERA

(chronological)

Flavius Belisarius: Flavius, one of Byzantium’s greatest generals, defeated the Vandals and retook the African part of the Roman Empire. He then captured Rome, Naples and Milan (536).

Khalid ibn al-Walid: A Muslim commander for Muhammad and his successors, Khalid was undefeated in over 100 battles against various tribes, the Byzantines and the Persian Empire (625-638).

Charlemagne: Considered “the father of modern Europe,” Frankish King Charlemagne (742- 814) fought numerous campaigns to re-establish the old Roman Empire as a new European power.

William the Conqueror: William, Duke of Normandy, won medieval warfare’s most famous and decisive European encounter, the Battle of Hastings (1066), which led to the Norman conquest of England.

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar: Better known as “El Cid,” Diaz (1044-1099) developed creative battle strategies that led to victories against both Moorish kings and Christian armies.

Saladin: One of history’s most famous Muslim commanders, Saladin fought three campaigns against the Crusaders. The Peace of Ramala (1187) left Jerusalem in Muslim hands.

Genghis Khan: After Genghis consolidated Mongolian tribes, his military conquests established history’s largest contiguous empire, stretching from the Caspian Sea to the Sea of Japan (by 1227).

Subutai (Subudai): Subutai (1176-1248) was Genghis Khan’s most talented subordinate commander. He excelled at siege warfare and at adapting tactics to battlefield conditions.

Alexander Nevsky: Nevsky, Russian prince of Novgorod, defeated invading Teutonic knights at Lake Peipus in his most celebrated victory, the Battle of the Ice (1242).

Edward I: Son of England’s Henry II, Edward brought Wales under English rule and marched against Scotland, defeating William Wallace at the Battle of Falkirk (1298).

Tamerlane: Born in what became Uzbekistan, Tamerlane amassed a huge army of nomads, Muslims and Christians that conquered vast regions of western and central Asia (1370-1405).

Mehmed II: Mehmed, sultan of the Ottoman Empire, captured Constantinople (1453), penetrated Europe to the Danube and fought some 25 military campaigns.

Suleiman I: Suleiman “the Magnificent” extended the Ottoman Empire from Asia Minor to North Africa, but he was stopped at Vienna (1529).

Ieyasu Tokugawa: After winning the battle of Sekigahara (1600), Tokugawa was proclaimed shogun and Japan was unified under his rule. His castle at Edo grew into Tokyo.

RISE OF PROFESSIONAL ARMIES AND NAVIES

(chronological)

Francis Drake: The English privateer and explorer Drake led a preemptive strike at Cadiz (1587) that delayed the Spanish Armada’s attack for a crucial year. He was instrumental during the English fleet’s defeat of the armada (1588).

Maurice of Nassau: The Prince of Orange (1618-25) applied a systematic study of military history, strategy and tactics to his reorganization of the Netherlands’ armies, resulting in tremendous battlefield success.

Gustavus Adolphus: This Swedish king (1611- 32) has often been called “the father of modern warfare” for his development of a professional army featuring mobile artillery and improved infantry and cavalry formations.

Oliver Cromwell: Cromwell created and led the “Ironsides” cavalry, the shock force of England’s New Model Army (1645) that destroyed Royalist forces, sealing Parliament’s victory.

Turenne: Turenne, a marshal of France (from 1643), was considered one of warfare’s “Great Captains” by Napoleon, who urged his soldiers to “read and reread” Turenne’s campaigns.

Duke of Marlborough: John Churchill, victor at the Battle of Blenheim (1704), was the most impressive English commander of his time. He dominated European battlefields during the War of Spanish Succession.

Maurice de Saxe: De Saxe, a marshal general of France, achieved his most important victory at the Battle of Fontenoy (1745). His notable contributions to the era’s warfare included organization, training and tactical innovation.

Frederick the Great: Prussia’s redoubtable king (1740-86) relied on iron discipline, solid battlefield leadership and innovative tactical formations to defeat numerous coalition enemies.

George Washington: As commander in chief of America’s Continental Army (from 1775), Washington held the force together until a decisive battle could be won – a strategy that paid off at Yorktown (1781).

NAPOLEONIC WARS

(chronological)

John Jervis: Jervis was a British admiral (later, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1801-04) whose greatest victory, the naval Battle of Cape St. Vincent (1797), ended the invasion threat posed by revolutionary France.

Mikhail Kutuzov: Kutuzov proved Russia’s savior. His scorched-earth policy and the heavy French losses he inflicted at Borodino (1812) turned Napoleon’s invasion of Russia into an empire-ending disaster.

Horatio Nelson: Nelson, England’s most distinguished naval commander in the age of sail, destroyed the French-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), one of history’s pivotal naval encounters.

Andre Massena: Perhaps the best of Napoleon’s marshals (Napoleon thought so), Massena (1758-1817) boasted a battlefield success record that ranked second only to the emperor’s.

Michel Ney: Ney was one of Napoleon’s original 18 marshals of France. His daring leadership style made him “the bravest of the brave” during campaigns such as Jena (1806), the retreat from Moscow (1812) and Waterloo (1815).

Napoleon: Considered history’s most brilliant commander, Napoleon exhibited a mastery of strategy, tactics and administration that won France an empire and led to the use of the term “Napoleonic” to describe an entire era of warfare (1799-1815).

Duke of Wellington: “Iron Duke” Arthur Wellesley frustrated Napoleon’s armies in Spain and then defeated them at Waterloo (1815) to become England’s most renowned commander of the Napoleonic Era.

CONQUERORS AND FREEDOM FIGHTERS

(chronological)

Francisco Pizarro: Spanish conquistador Pizarro led a small force that defeated 30,000 Inca warriors (1531-33), conquered Peru and helped Spain gain control of most of South America.

Hernando Cortés: With 600 Spanish conquistadors, Cortés defeated the Aztec Empire that numbered 6 million (1521), winning Mexico and Central America for Spain.

Simon Bolivar: Bolivar “the Liberator” led the struggle against Spanish domination in South America that freed Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela (by 1821).

Shaka Zulu: The conquests of Shaka Zulu, founder of the Zulu Empire, were due to his military innovations in organization, training, weapons and tactics that led to the creation of a nearly invincible army (by 1828).

Geronimo: Geronimo, the famous Chiricahua Apache war leader, used guerrilla tactics to outfox the U.S. Army for nearly 25 years in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico, until his final capture (1886).

Louis Botha: Botha was a Boer general who achieved stunning victories over much larger British forces at Colenso (1899) and Spion Kop (1900). His devastating guerrilla campaign lasted until the end of the Second Boer War.

INDUSTRIAL AGE AND EARLY MODERN ERA

(alphabetical)

David Farragut: Farragut, the U.S. Navy’s first admiral, captured New Orleans (1862) and Mobile (1864) in decisive naval victories that emphasized the strategic importance of seapower in the Civil War.

Nathan Bedford Forrest: Perhaps the greatest natural military genius of all the Civil War commanders, Forrest (1821-77) combined daring leadership with an uncanny ability to match winning tactics to any military situation. (When surrounded, he advised, “Attack ‘em both ways!”)

Ulysses S. Grant: Western victories, especially Vicksburg (1863), made Grant Lincoln’s choice as general in chief. His tenacious 1864 Virginia Campaign led to the final defeat of Robert E. Lee’s army.

Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson: Stonewall Jackson was Lee’s most brilliant subordinate. His premature death from friendly fire after his stunning victory at Chancellorsville (1863) was the Confederacy’s greatest loss.

Robert E. Lee: Lee is an American military icon. Until his defeat at Gettysburg (1863), his operational brilliance gave the Confederacy its greatest chance for Civil War victory.

Helmuth von Moltke: As chief of the General Staff (1857-88), Moltke was the principal engineer of Prussia’s victories over Denmark (1864), Austria (1866) and France (1870) – triumphs that led to Prussia’s leadership of the new German Empire.

William T. Sherman: Often cited as one of history’s first “modern” generals, Sherman inflicted “total war” on the South in his Atlanta Campaign (1864) and subsequent March to the Sea.

Heihachiro Togo: Japanese hero Admiral Togo destroyed the Russian Baltic fleet in the Battle of Tsushima (1905), one of history’s most decisive naval encounters.

WORLD WAR I

(alphabetical)

Edmund Allenby: Allenby’s infantry and mobile force strategy led to the defeat of the Turkish army and the capture of Palestine (1918). It has often been cited as a precursor to the blitzkrieg warfare of a generation later.

Ferdinand Foch: Although Foch earned his pre-World War I reputation as a tactician, his greatest contribution to Allied victory was as supreme commander of French, British and American forces (1918).

Paul von Hindenburg: Hindenburg was a German field marshal who along with General Erich Ludendorff formed a virtual military-industrial dictatorship that ran Germany’s war machine (1916-18).

John Jellicoe: Jellicoe, who Winston Churchill once claimed was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon,” won a strategic British victory at Jutland (1915), the largest naval battle of World War I.

Mustafa Kemal: Renowned as “the founder of modern Turkey,” Ataturk led the successful repulse of the British invasion of Gallipoli (1915) and commanded in the Caucasus and Palestine.

Thomas Edward Lawrence: “Lawrence of Arabia” led the Arab Revolt that helped Britain defeat Turkish armies (by 1918). His influential books on irregular warfare are still read today by those seeking insight on insurgencies.

Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: While commanding German forces in East Africa during World War I (1914-18), Lettow-Vorbeck proved a master of guerrilla warfare, keeping 100,000 British and Allied forces tied up with only 15,000 troops.

Erich Ludendorff: The other half of Germany’s Hindenburg-Ludendorff team. Brilliant but temperamental, General Ludendorff was the “brains” behind the German war effort in World War I’s final years (1916-18).

William “Billy” Mitchell: The intellectual and spiritual “father of the U.S. Air Force,” this airpower theorist commanded 1,500 American, French, British and Italian aircraft at St. Mihiel (1918), one of history’s first coordinated air-ground offensives.

John Monash: Touted by some as the best general on the Western Front (1916-18), the Australian Monash developed groundbreaking tactics that proved highly successful at overcoming World War I’s brutal trench warfare.

Henri Petain: Petain was a master of defensive tactics. His stubborn defense of Verdun (1916) made the German plan to “bleed the French army white” as deadly for German troops as it was for French.

John J. Pershing: As American Expeditionary Force commander (1917- 19), Pershing insisted that his 3 million-man army fight under U.S. command. He (and George Washington) rose to America’s highest military rank, general of the armies.

Henry Rawlinson: The famous military theorist Basil Liddell Hart, a harsh critic of Britain’s Western Front generals, praised Rawlinson for innovative tactics at the Battle of the Somme (1916).

William Robertson: After enlisting as a private (1877) and serving in every rank, this Boer War veteran rose to the position of Britain’s chief of the Imperial General Staff (1916-18), an accomplishment nearly unheard of in the British army.

WORLD WAR II

(alphabetical)

Vasily Chuikov: Chuikov’s dogged defense of Stalingrad (1942) proved crucial to winning one of World War II’s most decisive battles. Later, the Soviet commander was instrumental in the tactical fight that captured Berlin (1945).

Karl Doenitz: Doenitz was the architect of Hitler’s deadly U-boat campaign that nearly strangled Britain (1939-43). Later, the German admiral succeeded Hitler as Nazi Germany’s last head of state.

Hugh Dowding: Dowding was head of the RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain (1940). His “Dowding System” integrated radar, raid plotting and radio control of fighters to defeat the Luftwaffe in the skies over England.

Dwight D. Eisenhower: Commanding the most successful Allied Coalition in history (1943-45), “Ike” led the Normandy invasion, defeated the German Ardennes Offensive and smashed Hitler’s Western Front armies.

Heinz Guderian: Guderian, whom many consider “the father of blitzkrieg,” literally wrote the book on tank tactics ( Achtung Panzer! 1937). He rolled over France (1940) but was stopped at Moscow (1941).

William Halsey: Sometimes characterized as a naval version of George Patton, “Bull” Halsey was Nimitz’s most aggressive subordinate – and Japan’s most implacable enemy (1941-45).

Arthur Harris: “Bomber” Harris devised and ruthlessly prosecuted Britain’s nighttime “area bombing” of Nazi Germany (1939-45) that, combined with the U.S. Air Forces’ daylight strategic bombing, devastated German cities.

Ivan Konev: Konev was a Russian Civil War veteran. During World War II, his army liberated Odessa, Kharkov and Kiev, drove German forces out of Eastern Europe and then played a key role in the storming of Berlin (1945).

Curtis LeMay: LeMay developed the B-29 firebombing tactics that devastated Japan’s cities, and his planes dropped the atomic bombs (August 6 and 9, 1945) that ended the Pacific War.

Douglas MacArthur: Brilliant yet often controversial, MacArthur commanded in three wars – World War I, World War II and Korea. He achieved remarkable success in the Pacific Theater (1941-45) despite his inadequate supplies and limited numbers of troops and ships.

Carl Gustav Emil Mannerheim: Mannerheim commanded the vastly outnumbered Finnish defense forces that defeated the initial Soviet invasion during the Winter War (1939-40), and he fought the Continuation War (1941-44) against the U.S.S.R. as a German ally.

Erich von Manstein: Manstein, the mastermind behind Germany’s stunning victory over France (1940), was one of Hitler’s most successful Eastern Front commanders.

Bernard Montgomery: Monty was Britain’s most famous World War II commander. He defeated Rommel at the turning-point Battle of El Alamein (1942), commanded Allied ground forces at Normandy (1944) and then drove into the heart of Germany.

Chester Nimitz: As commander in chief of the Pacific Ocean areas (1941-45), Nimitz commanded World War II’s largest geographical expanse. Spearheading his drive with carrier-based naval airpower, he led history’s greatest armada to victory.

George S. Patton Jr.: “Old Blood and Guts” was America’s best field commander of World War II. He led the 3d Army in an astonishing “race across France” (1944) and then overwhelmed Germany in a “blitzkrieg in reverse.”

Konstantin Rokossovsky: Rokossovsky was instrumental in the decisive Eastern Front victories at Moscow (1941), Stalingrad (1942) and Kursk (1943). Some believe the Soviet marshal was better than Zhukov.

Erwin Rommel: The “Desert Fox,” Germany’s most famous World War II commander, was respected by both sides. His notable campaigns included France (1940), North Africa (1941-43) and Normandy (1944).

William Slim: Slim was World War II’s best British general. His leadership overcame monumental challenges – terrible terrain, miserable weather, supply shortages and an implacable enemy – to beat the Japanese in Burma (1945).

Holland M. Smith: “Howling Mad” Smith led numerous Pacific island invasions (1943-45). Many consider the Marine general “the father of amphibious warfare,” and he was one of its most successful practitioners.

Raymond Spruance: Spruance’s “incredible” victory at Midway (1942) was the turning point in the Pacific War. The naval commander’s defeat of the Japanese fleet at Leyte Gulf (1944) sealed Japan’s fate.

Isoroku Yamamoto: The genius behind Japan’s devastating attack on Pearl Harbor (1941), Yamamoto realized that carrier-based airpower had supplanted the “big gun” battleship in naval warfare.

Tomoyuki Yamashita: Known as the “Tiger of Malaya,” Yamashita led a brilliant 70-day campaign that defeated a British force twice the size of his army, capturing the “impregnable” fortress of Singapore (1942) and inflicting Britain’s greatest defeat.

Georgi Zhukov: Zhukov was the U.S.S.R.’s most successful marshal. This savior of Moscow (1941) and conqueror of Berlin (1945) may have been “the man who won World War II” against Nazi Germany.

MODERN ERA

(alphabetical)

Moshe Dayan: Israeli commander Dayan served as chief of defense staff and as minister of defense. His most stunning victory in four Arab-Israeli conflicts was the Six Day War (1967).

Vo Nguyen Giap: Giap, victor over the French at Dien Bien Phu (1954), implemented a protracted war strategy that outlasted the Americans and led to the defeat of South Vietnam (1975).

Harold G. “Hal” Moore: Moore’s legendary command of outnumbered 7th Cavalry troopers at the Battle of Ia Drang Valley (1965) established the pattern U.S. combat operations followed for the rest of the Vietnam War.

Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller: A highly decorated U.S. Marine, Puller followed his World War II Pacific combat exploits with an incredible “attack to the rear,” extricating his Marines from Chinese encirclement at Korea’s frozen Chosin Reservoir (1950).

Matthew B. Ridgway: A famed airborne commander during World War II (Sicily, D-Day, Battle of the Bulge), Ridgway succeeded MacArthur in Korea (1951). There, he revitalized U.N. forces and turned back powerful Chinese offensives.

Mao Zedong: A successful leader against Nationalist Chinese (1926-49) and Japanese opponents (1937-45), Mao Zedong was both a practitioner and a theorist of unconventional warfare. His influential book On Guerrilla Warfare (written in 1937) has guided numerous post-World War II revolutionaries.

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