The 10 Greatest Military Leaders of All Time

Driven by ambition, patriotism or simply following orders, these individuals excelled as military commander but some ,by virtue of their actions, forever changed the course of history. Brilliant on the field and commanding unquestionable loyalty from those they lead, these warriors and generals stand out in history as the greatest military leaders of all time.

10) Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck

A GeneralPaul von Lettow-Vorbeck, greatest military leaders in history, famous military leaders in the imperial German army, Lettow-Vorbeck commanded its forces in German East Africa during WW1. A master
of asymmetric warfare, he successfully kept in check a numerically superior force of 300,000 of allied troops, leading an undersupplied force of just 14,000 men.

A brilliant tactician admired by friends and foes alike, he remained undefeated in the field and returned to Germany a war hero. One commenter said of his exploits “as the greatest single guerrilla operation in history, and the most successful.”

He is also widely know for uttering this famous line.

9) Horatio Nelson

Horatio Nelson,greatest military leaders in history, famous military leadersA distinguished British naval commander, famous for his superb leadership and unorthodox military tactics, he played a pivotal role throughout the Napoleonic war.

His greatest victory, which ultimately cost him his life, was at the battle of Trafalgar.

During the battle, the numerically inferior British navy inflicted heavy losses on the combined fleets of the French and Spanish empire without losing a single vessel.  This ended for Napoleon all hopes of ever invading England.

9) Yi Sun-sin (tie)

A cogreatest military leaders in history, famous military leaders,Yi Sun-sincommander of the Korean Navy during the Imjin war,  Admiral Yi successfully defended the Korean waters against a far superior Japanese fleet.  Despite having no prior naval training and constantly facing overwhelming odds, he remained undefeated in the seas and earned the respect of both friends and enemies.

His most remarkable victory occurred at the battle of Myeongnyang, where with a paltry fleet of 13 warships, he inflicted a crushing defeat on the Japanese navy numbering 133 warships, without losing a single one of his own. Similar to Nelson, he too died after being fatally shot by an enemy marksman.

8) Salahuddin Ayubi (Saladin)

Saladin,greatest military leaders in history, famous military leadersA prominent Kurdish commander, he regained the holy lands from the invading crusaders, became the first Sultan of Egypt and launched military campaigns against his former overloads in Syria.

Pragmatic in his approach to warfare, he would often force the enemy to fight on his terms and avoid unnecessary confrontations. His most decisive victory was at the battle of Hattin, which ultimately crippled the Crusaders’ power and resulted in the surrender of Jerusalem.

At the height of his reign, he ruled over a vast empire covering modern day Egypt, Syria, and parts of Arabia and Africa.

7) Khalid bin Walid

Companion of the prophet Muhammad, Khalid helped the nascent Islamic state secure a number of decisive victories.  Under his military command, the whole of Arabia was unified for the first time in history.

After the Prophet’s death, he continued to serve his successors, leading successful campaigns against the Byzantines and the Persians.A veteran of over a hundred battles, he was never defeated on the field and expanded the borders of the Caliphate from the Atlantic to the gates of India. Because of his great military feats, he earned the nickname “Sword of God”.

6) Trần Hưng Đạo

An accomplished poet and a great military strategist, Dao lead a force of poorly equipped conscripts in defense of Vietnam against the vast hordes of the mighty Mongol Empire.

During his lifetime, he repelled three major Mongol invasions, extensively utilizing the knowledge of the local terrain to his advantage, staging battles in places where he held the advantage.

His most spectacular victory was at the naval battle of Bach Dang River, where he managed to trap and destroy almost the entire Mongol invasion fleet.

5) Subutai

SubutaiThe chief military strategist of Mongol empire, Subutai rose from the rank of a commoner to one of Genghis Khan’s most trusted generals.  Highly intelligent, he planned his campaigns well in advance, using the knowledge of the local terrain, the weather and the military capacity of his opponents to adjust his tactics accordingly.

He employed highly sophisticated strategies to outwit opposing armies and often co-ordinated the movement of his armies separated by vast distances.  He led over twenty campaigns, conquered 32 nations, and remained undefeated in 65 pitched battles.

His greatest feat was during his campaign in Eastern Europe, where his army met the Hungarians and polish forces, utterly annihilating them without two days of each other.

4) Hannibal Barca

The Carthaginian Commander during the 2nd Punic war, Hannibal challenged the might of Rome at her very doorstep by achieving the very unthinkable – crossing his army through the Pyrenees and the Alps into Italy itself.

Despite the numerical and logistical odds, he managed to occupy most of the region for nearly 15 years until a counter invasion of North Africa forced his withdrawal.

His greatest victory occurred at the battle of Cannae where he destroyed the Roman army.  Within a single day, the battle saw the majority of Romans killed, including three Consuls, half of the military tribune present and eighty senators.

Despite ultimately falling in his task to capture Rome and meeting a humiliating defeat at the battle of Zama, he taught the Roman Republic one thing few managed to do before- the meaning of fear.

3) Napoleon Bonaparte

greatest military leaders in history, famous military leaders,Napoleon Bonaparte

If there was any man that came close to ruling the world, it must have been Napoleon Bonaparte. Leading Revolutionary France against a coalition of great powers, Napoleon, through his decisive military campaigns, established a large continental empire and influenced the global affairs for nearly a decade.

A gifted genius, he relied on carefully calculating the order of battle to secure victory. He inspired confidence in his troop and dread in his enemies. Often, his presence on the battlefield was enough to change the tide of battle.

His downfall came following his disastrous campaign in Russia, which resulted in the destruction of his Grande Armée and was finally beaten for good at the battle of Waterloo.

Arguably, Napoleon remains one of the greatest military commanders in history – his image being a global symbol of military genius and political power.

2) Frederick the Great

greatest military leaders in history, famous military leaders

An influential military figure, his astute leadership and tactical brilliance allowed him to lead the fledgling Prussian Kingdom to victory in the Seven-year war against a coalition of continental Europe’s most powerful empires.

With his extensive knowledge of war, driven from his studies and personal experience on the battlefield, he outmaneuvered and outwitted his adversaries, often consisting of numerically larger armies. His greatest military victory was at the battle of Rossbach, where he decimated a combined French-Austrian army twice the size of his while only suffering minimal casualties.

Alongside Napoleon, he remains as one of the most influential military commanders of modern history.

Interestingly, Frederick in his youth was more interested in music than in the art of warfare. That is until his father ordered the execution of his childhood friend Hans and forced him to watch his friend die.

1) Alexander the Great

Taking over the crown of the Macedonian Kingdom after his father’s assassination at age 20, Alexander III of Macedon took over his father’s mission to conquer Persia. His military campaign took him to the Balkans, Egypt and into the heart of the Persian Empire.

Driven by ambition, he expended his territories further into central Asia and parts of India until his tried army mutinied and persuaded him to return to the capital Babylon. In a span of a decade until his death, he ruled over an empire stretching over most of the known world and ushered in a new golden age of Hellenic civilization.

As a military commander, Alexander successfully led a diverse army speaking many languages against his numerous foes, which typically outnumbered him. Being highly intelligent and learned, he employed clever tactics to match his opponent’s style and conclusively win the day. He remained undefeated in battle.

In the opinions of many, he is considered the greatest military leader in history, with his life and tactics still studied in military schools even today 2300 years after his death.

Abdur Rafay Usmani

Abdur Rafay is one crazy son of a gun with a penchant for writing.
Follow him on Twitter @KippieHippie

12 thoughts on “The 10 Greatest Military Leaders of All Time

  • September 19, 2016 at 6:22 pm
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    Yi Sun-sin (tie). How much of his success was due to his revolutionary iron clads, as opposed to his personal skills? Did he invest them, or was he the commander who was able to take advantage of the revolutionary new war-fighting capability?

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    • September 20, 2016 at 6:09 am
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      Nice point there Alastair but technological advantage alone can not explain his strings of victories against the Japanese Navy. The Joseon panokseon were structurally stronger than Japanese ships and did have more cannons but were also noticeably slower and did not have much defense against the Japanese tactic of quickly closing in and boarding the ships.
      Battle of Chilcheollyang is a perfect example of why these slow ironclad ships were never a significant factor. The korean navy under a different Admiral was completely wiped out by a Japanese fleet.

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  • September 19, 2016 at 6:31 pm
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    Weird choices… What about Iulius Caesar, Erwin Rommel, the Duke of Wellington, Djengis Khan, Atilla, and so on, and so on…

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    • September 20, 2016 at 6:14 am
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      Erwin Rommel, Zhukov and the Duke of Wellington were in my mind at the start but ultimately as I researched further, I found those included in our list to be more deserving of the spot by sheer merit.

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  • September 22, 2016 at 2:04 pm
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    Well, mine would include : Marshall Zhukov, Erich von Manstein, Lord Kitchener, ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, Ulysses S Grant, The Duke of Wellington, Gen Henry Rawlinson, Admiral Andrew Cunningham, Air Marshall Arthur Coningham, Gen John Monash.

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  • November 6, 2016 at 4:30 am
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    don’t look only at their military skills of the military leaders, but also what they have achieved for history and for the well-being of the civilians. Napoleon has introduced his civil laws in France and in most of the West-European countries, and most of the actual laws are still based on his “Code Civil”. Although I don’t agree with the fact that he made his family in power, especially in Spain, which triggered off the downfall of his reign, I would put him at place 2 in the total overview of all military leaders, directly after Alexander, and far in advance of all others, whose influeance on the actual world is negligeable

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    • December 1, 2016 at 12:52 pm
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      This is a list of the greatest military leaders not a list of greatest statesmen of history.

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  • November 30, 2016 at 9:26 am
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    I tend to agree with Mark’s comment. Military skills only are not enough per se to define a great military leadet. If so the list will be subject to debate forever. Julius Caesar for example was a gifted mmilitary leadet but his name and influence in the ancient world passed through centuries to these days. More I would say for his skills to exploit the effectiveness of Marius reform of the Roman Armies. The same could apply to Flavius Aetius who through his diplomacy skills, deep knowledge of enemy tactics and inner military skills stopped the Huns and kept alive a long dead Weaterm Roman Empire. So I think the list should be really updated according to overall impact of leaders to their times and what theey left as legacy to these days.

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  • November 30, 2016 at 12:19 pm
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    What criteria did you use? How trustworthy were the historical sources you used? In many cases, especially in more Eastern cultures and the further back in dates you go, the sources are less trustworthy, translations are more interpretive, and unchecked bias is more prevalent. There was little, if any peer review and written sources no longer exist. The main source of biography on Alexander the Great comes from Arrian in the Anabasis and the Indica. Yet Arrian lived 400 years after Alexander. His sources are gone and unchallenged.

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    • December 1, 2016 at 1:14 pm
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      Well Bruce it would have certainly been a folly had today’s historians taken primary sources from the ancient world as they were. Rather accounts are corroborated with ground evidence. For instance a battle chronicled in some tapestry can be found to be valid if excavation at the site do show signs of the said battle; typically high concentration of damaged skeletons, weapons scattered rather randomly. As for the first question, I placed leadership, tactics and overall military significance as the primary ranking criteria. Hope this answer was good enough.

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  • December 15, 2016 at 12:44 pm
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    Scipio Africanus? The man who beat Hannibal at his own cat and mouse game, and in his homeland…

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  • December 16, 2016 at 8:04 pm
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    Napoleon, the man who abandoned his army in the field not once, not twice, but three times. Yes he is among the greatest. NOT!

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