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Did Generals Really Lead from the Front?

Originally published under Ask Mr. History. Published Online: July 15, 2014 
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Dear Jim,
Leadership has always required a judgment call between being in a position to know what's going on everywhere on the battlefield and positioning oneself to inspire the troops. After arrogantly allowing himself to be surprised by the Hittites at Kadesh, Ramses II's equally headstrong decision to personally lead his royal guard in a counterattack "set the example" to rally what remained of his divisions and saved his army from a complete rout. Alexander the Great's psychopathic urge to get down and dirty once he'd instilled his commander's intent among his generals often ran the risk of his being unable to revise tactics in the event of something not working as planned, and nearly cost him his life on more than one occasion. Hannibal, once he'd similarly briefed his trusted lieutenants, usually joined his Celtic contingent in order to ensure discipline in its ranks, dressed in a common soldier's armor so as not to be marked by the Romans, but recognizable enough to his own Celts. Gaius Julius Caesar preferred to run his battles from the rear but was quick to draw his sword and lead from the front in moments of crisis. Richard I of England was a psycho along Alexander's lines, but his preference for leading from the front paid off at Arsuf. By the time Temujin became Genghiz Khan, he had worked out a chain of command among his hordes and preferred to stay in the rear to survey the sprawling battlefield and delegate the details to trusted subordinates.
Leadership, therefore, entails knowing when it's best to keep abreast of the big picture and when it's better to get down in the weeds … and the age of gunpowder didn't change that. Brilliant though he was as a tactician, Nathan Bedford Forrest remained a hands-on kind of killer. Stonewall Jackson usually stayed in the rear but when facing the prospect of defeat at Cedar Mountain he did join his men, brandishing his sword for the only time (too rusted in the scabbard to be drawn). Erwin Rommel's presence near the front during his desert campaign inspired his Italian troops as much as his Afrika Korps to fight harder, but unlike his ancient predecessors he was usually in his halftrack Greif, equipped with commander's radio to keep him in touch with what was going on everywhere. That same principal seems to guide Israeli leadership, although it did result in disproportionately high casualties among its officer corps in 1973.



Jon Guttman
Research Director
Weider History Group
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