Driven by ambition, patriotism or simply following orders, these individuals excelled as military commanders 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 General 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 known for uttering this famous line.
9) Horatio Nelson
A 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 co-commander 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)
A 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.
The chief military strategist of the 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 a few managed to do before- the meaning of fear.
3) 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
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.
Also worth checking out : The 11 Most Important Battles In History