Throughout history you have leaders and followers. Naturally one cannot work without the other, but most if not all of the time, history remembers the leaders, the revolutionaries, erstwhile the followers are mere footnotes if they can be so lucky. In this article we will be exploring the field of military genius, a list of the most famous military figures in history. Their cunning, their audaciousness and sheer brilliance will come to the forefront. They come but once in a lifetime, and in that lifetime they, albeit through the unpleasant act of war rise above the rest and rightly or wrongly leave their mark on human civilization.
This might seem like a rather odd choice but to not include the military commander that was known as Skanderbeg on the list would be unfair. The reason I include him is the great odds that were stacked against him and how despite the adversity, he prevailed.
Born under the name George Kastrioti in the tiny kingdom of Albania to a local ruler, Skanderbeg was taken as a hostage by the mighty Ottoman Sultan as a bargaining chip to tame his father’s desire to rebel. Growing up under Ottoman tutelage he rose to be one their greatest generals, earning the title Skanderbeg, meaning Lord Alexander, equating his heroics with those of Alexander The Great. This of course did not deter Skanderbeg from deserting the Ottoman cause to go back to his homeland and start the rebellion his father never could. By doing so he earned the wrath of the entire Ottoman Empire, sending invading armies for 25 years to crush him…without success.
With his forces never numbering above 20,000 and going up against ten times as many enemy troops, Skanderbeg was able through a potent mix of guerrilla tactics, his direct insiders knowledge of the enemy and direct attacks to humiliate the Ottomans to come to the negotiating table…at least temporarily. For protecting Western Europe from the Ottoman hordes, The Pope bestowed upon Skanderbeg the title of Athleta Christi or Champion of Christ.
9. Attila The Hun
His name has become synonymous with fear and brutality. Born into the royal family of the rapidly expanding Hunnic Empire, Attila became King after the death of his father. Not content with settling what his father left for him, Attila went on an invasion spree. Stretching his campaigns from Persia all the way to modern day Germany, Attila was on the verge of conquering Western Civilization, earning the moniker….”The Scourge of Europe.”
Although he failed to conquer Constantinople and Rome, he did occupy vast chunks of Eastern and Central Europe, laying waste to those that resisted. As he was preparing for a broad invasion of the Western Roman Empire, Attila died under mysterious circumstances and his Empire began to falter and branch off piece by piece soon thereafter.
8. Genghis Khan
Here is a historical figure that makes the aforementioned Attila the Hun pale in comparison in terms of brutality and sheer terror. Known as the founder of the Mongol Empire, Genghis Khan arguably created the largest land based Empire in history.
The Mongol invasions were typically accompanied by wholesale slaughter of civilians if their governments resisted. Despite the reputation that Genghis Khan and his Mongol armies get, he was also instrumental in enforcing religious tolerance within the Empire and started a relatively advanced system of meritocracy. Unlike other Emperors, when Genghis Khan died his Empire grew even further, stretching from modern day Korea in the Pacific to the gates of Europe in Hungary, encompassing not only a vast amount of land, but a wide array of diverse cultures, languages and religions.
The world of religion is often a complicated and messy one. The Crusades were no exception. Having lost the “Holy Land” to invading Muslim armies, the Christian world began a frenzy of religious zeal to try and win it back. This culminated with the Pope’s blessing in 1096 to start a campaign…a crusade to liberate Jerusalem. Though the task was accomplished with the sacking of Jerusalem and the expulsion of the Muslim armies, the Crusaders found out that keeping it was going to be harder than taking it. They soon realized the unpleasant truth that their little “Kingdom of Heaven” was in fact surrounded by vast hordes of Muslim armies ready to re-take Jerusalem. At the helm of these armies was a wily and pragmatic military commander by the name of Salahuddin.
Keen on not repeating the mistakes of the past, Salahuddin opted for a strategically patient approach….goad the Crusaders to leave the relative safety of the city and fight in the desert. He achieved this in the Battle of Hattin and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Christian armies. Allowing him the opportunity to re-take Jerusalem soon thereafter.
6. Erwin Rommel
Erwin Rommel is regarded as THE father of modern tank warfare. Born into an aristocratic German family, Rommel first saw combat in WWI during German campaigns in Romania and Northern Italy. During the interwar period, he gradually moved up the ranks and eventually became a military instructor on tank warfare in Berlin.
When WWII broke out, Rommel answered his call of duty and was called into active duty once more. Though he loathed the Nazi ideology as most old-school aristocratic German officers did, he nevertheless begrudgingly served the Reich and amassed an aura of legend around his victories.
Rommel was thrust into prominence during the German invasion of France and the Low Countries when his division was given the nickname “The Ghost Division” on account of how far his unit advanced into enemy territory, losing radio contact with central command. Soon thereafter, Rommel cemented his legendary status in North Africa, earning the personal nickname of “The Desert Fox” owing to his wily tactics that bedeviled his opponents.
Tragically, his life was cut short when evidence was discovered that he had taken part in several plots to assassinate Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
5. Georgy Zhukov
This next military figure is credited with virtually winning the land war in Europe during WWII.
Although the Soviet effort to crush the Nazi invasion and ultimately capture Berlin was a collective one as all wars are, Zhukov is seen as the individual that outwitted and outfought the Nazi war machine. By the time Hitler broke his pact with Stalin on June 22nd, 1941, Zhukov was already a high ranking officer. Tasked by Stalin to defend Moscow and drive back the Germans, Zhukov did just that, setting up an elaborate and ringed defense of the capital the Red Army under his command halted the German advance and inflicted on Nazi Germany its first major defeat. Zhukov would go on to win several more epic battles against the Germans, notably in Stalingrad; encircling the enemy and in Kursk, known as the largest tank battle in history, where his knack for predicting enemy intentions and movements proved to be key. With the gradual turn of the tide, Zhukov’s armies marched westward until they reached the capital of Nazi Germany, Berlin in the spring of 1945. Zhukov’s zenith coming in June 1945 where he participated in the Moscow Victory Day Parade.
4. Sun Tzu
Alright, when you write a book about military tactics and its still teaches and inspires military leaders 2,500 years later….you are doing something right. That something is The Art of War by Sun Tzu: our next military leader on the list.
Sun Tzu’s name is now famous, particularly due to that one book. Sun Tzu’s brilliant work is not merely about putting your pieces on the board correctly, it’s all-encompassing, ranging from philosophical matters of war to the nitty-gritty details, such as logistics, climate and camouflage. Sun Tzu epitomizes the ancient Chinese art of strategic patience to get ones way, be it in war or other endeavors, as the book has shown to be quite popular even with the non-military crowd, such as diplomats, CEO’s and sports coaches.
What makes him a fascinating military figure is that he generally opted for a less bloody approach. Rather than stack up the kill count, Sun Tzu preferred to win battles before they even commenced. THAT, is genius!
3. Napoleon Bonaparte
Say what you will about Napoleon Bonaparte’s height, the man conquered all of Europe and North Africa in a relatively short amount of time.
Born into a minor noble family on the island of Corsica, initially hailing from Tuscany, Napoleon received a formal military education and graduated as an artillery officer, being the first Corsican to graduate from the military academy in Paris. Coming of age during the tumultuous years of the French Revolution and subsequently the Reign of Terror, Napoleon experienced a meteoric rise. Through the chaos of the conflict between Republican and Monarchist factions in France, Napoleon arose to quash the various squabblers and take power for himself. In doing so Napoleon went about restoring France’s might, going farther than any ruler before him, conquering continental Europe and challenging the mighty British Navy, though failing to defeat it.
Like all great rulers, Napoleon succumbed to the allure of hubris and made the fateful mistake of invading Russia and was comprehensively defeated. Though he tried one last ditch effort to make a comeback he was defeated once more and exiled for good. His legacy lives on though, not just in his revolutionary military tactics, but in in the wide array of legal and administrative reforms he enacted known as the Napoleonic Code.
2. Alexander The Great
Alexander The Great does manage to beat out Napoleon Bonaparte in terms of achieving his conquests in a faster amount of time. Crowned king at the tender age of twenty, after his father Philip was assassinated, Alexander set about to conquer the known world….literally.
Fulfilling his father’s ambition to invade Persia, Alexander did so and conquered it in a few years, deposing King Darius. Not content with such a handsome acquisition of territory, Alexander marched forward towards more conquests in modern day Afghanistan and Central Asia. Searching for the elusive outlet into the sea to create a circular ocean route from India back to Macedon, he attempted to invade India but was driven back and eventually persuaded by his soldiers to return to Babylon where he died at the age of 32, having conquered the known world, named over twenty cities after his himself and spreading Hellenistic Civilization for centuries to come.
1. Hannibal Barca
So after so many illustrious names from history, who could possibly be worthy of occupying the top spot? It’s hard to choose, given the respective achievements many of the listed and even non-listed military strategists have made. The number one military strategist in my humble opinion of course is Hannibal Barca of Carthage. Why, you might ask? There are so many others worthy of the number one spot. Perhaps that is true, but none have accomplished the feats that Hannibal did. This was the man that was dubbed…”The father of strategy” by his peers. This was the man that duped the Romans into thinking he was going to invade by sea…when in fact he pulled off the most audacious logistical feat in military history. 50,000 Men and animals including Elephants, marching across the dangerous Pyrenees and Alps to invade Italy from the north. Though he failed in his objective of capturing Rome, he was known as the first person in history to teach the Romans the meaning of fear. His name was so associated with fear that Roman parents would scare their children into submission with the simple words “Hannibal Ante Portas,” Hannibal is at the gates. To elicit such a panicky response out one of the arguably most powerful civilizations of the time must earn you the top spot on this list.