The Greatest General

There has been quite a discussion on the nature of scholarship and generalship here, here, here, and here. Much of the discussion related to the utility of having a corpus of military history knowledge, and on the utility of having our military professionals and foreign policy wonks reading that corpus.

It might be instructive to see who we think is worthy of making our collective list. List in hand, we might be able to deduce a few defining qualities that make for superior generalship, and whether the victor in battle is also the scholar.

Granted, no list can ever be exhaustive, but such lists can be instructive, and fun (I like thinking about these things, anyways).

First, a couple of guidelines:

1) No fictional generals. (I’m a huge fan of Sam Damon and Ender Wiggins, but let’s keep it real.)

2) Other ranks are fair game: Go ahead and mention the Air Vice Marshalls, Crown Princes, and Dukes of Earl.

My list:

  1. Alexander the Great
  2. Belisarius
  3. Mao & Giap
  4. Napoleon
  5. Rommel, tied with von Mellenthin
  6. Hannibal Barca
  7. Washington, FDR, Truman
  8. Grant, Lincoln
  9. Douglas MacArthur
  10. Matthew Ridgway

Honorable Mentions: Patton, Nimitz, Bradley, Eisenhower, Zukhov, HM Smith, Alexander Vandegrift, Spruance, Mitscher, LeMay, Pershing, Lewis Puller, OP Smith, Geiger, Zinni, Mattis, Petraeus

Crossposted at Smitten Eagle.

33 thoughts on “The Greatest General”

  1. Welcome to ChicagoBoyz Smitten Eagle! A great opening post.

    It is difficult to rank something like this, of course. My specialty is WW1 and 2 so I pretty much have to limit my additions to that. I would put in the top ten Nimitz and Halsey. Granted while not land generals, both were superior in their roles controlling one of the largest forces assembled in all of history.

    For land Generals, I add Robert E. Lee and Sherman from the Civil War. Napoleon I think deserves top ten mention as well. There are so many that are deserving, this only starts to scratch the surface.

  2. Perhaps Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, who led the creation of Britain’s air defense system and commanded Fighter Command during the most critical period of the Battle of Britain. His deputy, Keith Park, also deserves much credit.

  3. My list: Alexander the Great, Belisarius, Subutai, Napoleon, Hannibal Barca, Julius Caesar, John Churchill (1st Duke of Marlborough), Marshall, Frederick the Great, Robert E. Lee. Honorable mentions: Togo, Turenne, Zhukov, Maurice of Nassau, Washington, Nimitz, von Manstein, Stonewall Jackson, Patton, O’Connor, Sherman.

  4. If by best you mean did the most good for the country they fought for then 3-6 are among the worst generals in human history.

  5. I am a sucker for a list.


    I will put some restrictions on myself.

    First, the general has to be modern, i.e. gunpowder era or later. I do not know enough about the earlier era and I think the skills may have been different. I just don’t see how to compare, say, Tamerlane or Subotai to Peyton C. March or Harold Alexander.

    Second, he has to be someone who had a lengthy enough career that he had to deal with a variety of challenges, especially adversity as well as favorable conditions.

    Third, I would make a separate category for supreme political-military commanders, such as FDR or Clemenceau or Lincoln or William Pitt or Churchill. Different skills, different responsibilities. This category deserves its own top ten list.

    Fourth, I will limit it to battlefield commanders, rather than desk generals. I mean no disparagement of this category. George Marshall, Alan Brook, Alexander Vasilievsky all made huge contributions to Allied victory — as managers. Eisenhower falls more into this category, I think. So does Foch. The category of supreme “military managers” deserves its own top ten list, too. This also rules out generals who were primarily theorists like Tukachevsky.

    Fifth, I will limit it to ground commanders. Admirals and to some extent air commanders have their own, distinct criteria. I agree with David that Hugh Dowding is one of the most important commanders in world history — but due mostly to winning bureaucratic battles (for radar and fighter planes) before a shot was fired in anger.

    Finally, the scale of impact they had on the world, the importance of their military careers goes into the mix. This necessarily limits the list to senior commanders, and not inspired juniors such as Orde Wingate.

    Here’s the list:

    1. Napoleon
    2. Wellington
    3. Frederick the Great
    4. The Elder von Moltke
    5. U.S. Grant
    6. Maurice of Nassau
    7. Marlborough
    8. Washington
    9. Turenne
    10. Zhukov

    Some runners-up: Giap, Sherman, Slim, Currie, Monash, Pilsudski, MacArthur, Patton, Rommel, William of Orange, Cromwell, Condé, de Saxe, Suvorov, Davout, Gustavus Adolphus, Wallenstein, Manstein, Chuikov, Model, Kitchener, Montgomery … .

    This is all terribly arbitrary. Some picks are more arbitrary than others. There are also all kinds of corners of military history I just don’t know enough about. I would like to know who put down the Tai-Ping Rebellion, for example.

    I look forward to other people’s lists.

  6. I feel wholly unqualified and my list would be sorely lacking insight so I’ll not offer one. It does occur to me, though, that Julius Caesar is conspicuously absent from the lists I’ve seen so far.

    Also, from the occasional readings over the years, R. E. Lee seems to me generally over-rated when judged strictly as a military commander.

  7. Good list.

    I think Kesselring needs to be considered for his air work and defensive battles in Italy. He can earn part credit for each, plus a bonus for his public relation skills at cheating death post-war.

  8. This has been part of my life since I was a cadet back in the late fifties. It is impossible to compare generals, tennis players or Formula 1 race drivers at different times, but we humans keep trying.

    My partial lists:

    1. John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (never defeated in battle, all the time fighting under strenuous circumstances)
    2. Horatio Nelson (never defeated in battle, but with the whole might of the Royal Navy behind him)

    1. William (Big Bill) Tilden
    2. William (Little Bill) Johnston
    3. Rod Laver
    4. Björn Borg
    5. John McEnroe

    1. Juan Manuel Fangio
    2. Stirling Moss
    3. Jim Clark
    4. Tazio Nuvolari
    5. Ayrton Senna


  9. I think this is how my last bar fight started.

    I think it depends on whether we divide generals into those who win battles and those who win wars. Alexander the Great, for example, won battles but absolutely failed to create any kind of strategic vision. Likewise, Hannibal won battles but fumbled the strategic parts of his war. I think the generals we really want to study and emulate are those who won wars as well as battles and who left a lasting legacy. Generals who were merely brilliant flashes in the pan don’t really interest me.

    I prefer the often boring generals who envisioned grand lasting strategies. People who thought big and long term.

    By that standard in no particular order:

    1) Eisenhower — Not only directed WWII in Europe but also the much more subtle conflict of the Cold War afterward.
    2) Wellington
    3) Marlborough
    4) Frederick the Great
    5) Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus
    6) Kitchner
    7) Winfield Scott
    8) Washington

    Heck, can’t really think of any others off the top of my head.

  10. Good lists, generally. And you are correct–I left the Corsican artilleryman out, and by pure accident.

    Mark Olson-
    Why would anybody rank Tommy Franks higher than a Patton, Ridgway, or MacArthur?

    Shannon Love-
    Now, there’s nothing wrong with a good bar fight. I’m sure US Grant started his career not at Westpoint, but instead at some seedy establishment. And I’ve learned more in the O-Club than…you get the picture.

    Strategic Vision is an interesting term that gets plenty of use without many knowing what it actually is. How do you define it? And how did Alexander the Great lack it?

    I disagree with the charge that Alexander had no strategic vision. His strategic vision did change–he began seeking revenge against the Persian menace, and as he conquered territory, and especially after the Battle of Guagamela, his strategy changed to one of fusion–that is, merging Greek and Persian politics, to the point of adopting Persian dress, taking a Bactrian wife, and allowing the practice of Prostration in his court (all of which greatly offended Macedonian/Greek sensibilities). This shift in strategic vision allowed him to take several Satrapies in the eastern edge of the Persian empire without a fight, and did have some pretty strong cultural implications for the Middle East.

    I think it might be easier to blame Alexander for not creating a more lasting political organizaion, but he was the product of his time. The political machinery available wouldn’t allow anything but a strongman leading a feudal order.

  11. My short list –

    Subutai – operating that distance in that historical context and annihilating all comers. How many modern armies without their modern technology could accomplish that today?

    Alexander – not so much for a great battlefield and strategic turn, but for the elimination of the threat to and the expansion of the classical Greek culture and sponsoring establishment of cities that exist and thrive to this day.

    Zhukov – a mad man in front of him, a mad man in back of him, and he survives.

  12. I don’t understand the reasoning that puts Rommel in the top 5 and Manstein not even on the honorable mention list.

  13. I suppose you’re looking for generals and not theorists, but in other ranks I would propose John Boyd. Also HR McMaster.

  14. Has anyone no esteem for the great Khan? Surely, if Alexander is to be included on a list then Temujin may also. And perhaps a Saladin should deserve an honorable mention.

    and I also throw in for Zhukov, starting with his tank victories over the Japanese to his direction over the greatest land front in history (until the next big Asian conflagration).

    As for an American general, I am partial to Grant.

  15. Actually, after thinking about it, the greatest generals in history are those forgotten individuals who accomplished their groups strategic goals without firing a shot. Of course, having prevented great events from unfolding, they never got any attention.

    Everybody wants to grow up to be a fireman, no one wants to grow up to be a fire safety inspector.

    Perhaps it might be a good exercise to try to think of military leaders who won without actually fighting. I suppose most of those would be actual military leaders. For example, John Von Neuman invented the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that prevented nuclear war. George Kennan created the doctrine of containment.

  16. Like Tyouth, I feel wholly unqualified to make a list (but am willing to kibitz) and am surprised that Julius Caesar is not a contender. On the top 10, I’d enhance Grant/Lincoln as Sherman/Grant/Lincoln. Per other commenters, IMHO a case exists that Subutai/Temujin belong in the top 10.

    How about Timur?

    Additional possibilities for runner-up or honorable mention: Bolivar, Shaka, Zizka.

    Sun Tzu and Reagan?

  17. “… the greatest generals in history are those forgotten individuals who accomplished their groups strategic goals without firing a shot.”

    Shannon, good point. Three examples come to mind.

    Henri Guisan. He led the Swiss Army during World War II. The Germans never invaded, despite numerous threats and scares. Deterrance held, in large part because the Swiss were ready to fight. A huge achievement, too little known.

    Curtis LeMay. By making SAC into a supremely efficient and disciplined organization, he made deterrance totally credible during the worst years of the Cold War. The Soviets could never doubt for a second that SAC could and would turn them into smoldering, irradiated rubble if they ever crossed the line scratched in the sand. Peace was his profession.

    Francisco Franco. He placated the Germans while they were winning, but did not get sucked into the war. Then he let himself be coopted by the Allies. All the while, he kept both sides at bay and prevented his country from getting invaded. In fact, Spain managed to make money on the war.

    There must be other examples, not including the ones we will never know about … .

  18. Similar to Franco, İsmet İnönü maintained the strong Turkish army, and kept Turkey of World War II until it was effectively over. He then wisely guided Turkey toward alliance with the West as the Cold War heated up, though he was out of office before Turkey joined NATO. He knew when to stay neutral, and when to join an alliance.

  19. As I said, earlier, no list can be exhaustive, so the fact that some omitted Tamerlane or Saladin or [insert name here] is forgivable.

    I’ll make a few comments:

    1) Virtually everyone included a large number of “Maneuverist” type generals, meaning they sought to place the enemy in a POSITION of disadvantage, vice using purely superior force protection and firepower. These types seem to win with a smaller emphasis on logistics.

    2) There are few non-Maneuverist (Attritionist) generals. These include Bernard Law Montgomery. It is worth noting that these types seem to only win when superior logistics favor them.

    With these thoughts in mind, what kinds of institutions do you think are worth having to create the type of general you favor?

  20. For Honorable mention, two rulers: Henry VII of England, King by his own hand and Peter the Great, both of whom faced a multitude of better armed, better financed opponents and prevailed while setting their realms on the road to modern greatness.

  21. I cannot comprehend a list of this type that does not include, in a very high position, the name of George Marshall. Everything that the famous names on these various lists attempted to do, he actually accomplished on a world stage far more complex than any of the others ever had to deal with, and against foes as fanatically dangerous and evil as any ln history.

    Did he move regiments around on a set piece battlefield? No. He formed and directed the most astonishing military force in history, engaged on a global scale, in three dimensions, and deservedly was considered indispensible by the supreme political animal of the 20th century, FDR, who famously said he couldn’t allow Marshall to take command of Overlord because “I can’t sleep when Gen Marshall is out of the country.”

    Finally, there is more to leadership than exercising command authority. There is steadfast devotion to duty.

    I know of no other national commander in history who would have quietly stood by when the political leader suddenly died in the midst of the conflict, and allowed a minor figure like Harry Truman to assume command of the most powerful military complex in history.

    Marshall’s repeated attempts to retire after the end of WW2, and be relieved of the burdens of public life, to me, only enhance his honorable service.

    We had Cinncinatus in our midst, and we did not see him for the treasure that he truly was. I would place him with Washington as the most complete example of the truly American military commander, and statesman, in our history.

  22. Nice tribute to Marshall, I agree. The man never put himself or the Army above the interests of his country and refused to ask FDR for the command of Overlord that he badly wanted and that Secretary of War Stimson insisted that Marshall should have ( confidence in Ike was not yet high).

    Incidentally, Churchill found him indispensible as well.

  23. “… the command of Overlord that he badly wanted …”

    One theory, which I think is likely, is that FDR was holding Marshall in reserve in case Overlord failed, which everyone believed was possible. In that case, FDR would have cashiered Eisenhower, and sent Marshall to Britain to pick up the pieces and start preparing for a second try. No one else would have had the personal authority after the disaster. Only Marshall could have rebuilt the material and moral foundations of the Allies, from Churchill down to the youngest private.

    FDR always had a few cards in reserve, in any situation.

  24. “There are few non-Maneuverist (Attritionist) generals. These include Bernard Law Montgomery. It is worth noting that these types seem to only win when superior logistics favor them.”

    Montgomery’s genius was understanding the limitations of his army. It could not fight in the German style. It had to wage a materialschlacht because it lacked the competence to fight in any other way. So, his approach was to pin the enemy, then pulverize him, then grind forward. All the Allied armies used a variant of this approach. You never got into a fair fight with the Germans, because they would beat you. Ultimately, this method worked.

    This leads to your question:

    “…what kinds of institutions do you think are worth having to create the type of general you favor?”

    This is a very large question. I respectfully suggest that it is too big for this comment thread!

    I request that you start your next post with this question, and a sketch of your own answer, then we shall see what the rest of the crew here comes up with in response.

  25. Lex-

    “This is a very large question. I respectfully suggest that it is too big for this comment thread!”

    It is a big question…and I’m working up a post for that. But I’m happy to solicit input in the meantime.

  26. A great general is a little like a great scientist or a great basketball player. It is a combination of innate talent, a system (or a specific leader) that can recognize and cultivate that talent, appropriate training, and appropriate experience.

    And luck. Napoleon legendarily asked “is he lucky?” before promoting a man to be a general. “Luck” in this setting is a way of saying that things seem to go well when this person is in command, and even if you cannot articulate why, if he has been at it long enough to be up for general, in some intangible way, which he may not understand himself, he is making his own luck.

    This means that any system must tolerate a certain amount of judgment on the part of the people making promotions, a reliance on their “gut”. If it is just a matter of collecting checked boxes on pre-printed forms, you will not get what you need. Napoleon and George Marshall both exercised ruthless culling of subordinate officers, and very rapid promotion of those who were proving themselves worthy. They both tolerated odd personalities if the person could deliver on the battlefield (Patton, Murat). But they were operating under the stress and at the tempo of major war. How, in peacetime do you identify, cultivate, train, and promote such people? How do you protect them from their own personality flaws, which all talented people have, in peacetime, so that in wartime when their talents can shine, they are available?

    All very difficult things to do.

    The Prusso-German system seems to have done the best at this. But the old British system, with its purchased commissions, and family connections, and favoritism, still produced some extraordinary commanders. If you looked at it on paper, you would say, this could never work. But it produced Marlborough and Wellington.

    Some random thoughts. This is a very good subject.

  27. One semi-obscure one who almost played a big part in history is Von Lossberg from WW1. He pursuaded the Germans to pull back to a reverse slope defense in WW1 on the West front, enabling them to shift forces (effectively) to the East and Balkans and take those actors out of WW1. He was known as a “defensive genius” in an era where defense was prized due to attrition. I haven’t read much about him, though, because I can’t seem to find it.

    Another one that is pretty obscure is Von Lettow-Vorbeck who ran the African campaign in WW1, but he accomplished a lot with almost nothing.

    Need to consider Yamammoto here… his attack on Pearl Harbor (yes the British attacked Taranto previously) could have really been smashing had the US aircraft carriers been there, and with Midway was a hairs-breadth away from victory (YOU try to win as the Americans with those balances of forces). He did not push for this war, but tried his best to win it.

    As far as great leaders, there is Mannerheim of Finland…

    “Stalin told a Finnish delegation in Moscow in 1947 that the Finns have a great indebtedness to their old Marshal. Due to him Finland was not occupied.” – this is from Wikipedia, but I have seen it elsewhere.

    To not be occupied by the Soviets was the greatest gift a leader could give to his peoples. There is no statue of “the unknown rapist” in Helinski…

  28. Good ones, Carl von Chicago.

    Perhaps there’s something in the water in Germany that breeds tactical and grand-tactical/operational genius (and perhaps strategic idiocy too). Mannerheim was a Finn descended from German immigrants. I am also familiar with Lettow-Vorbeck, and he certainly deserves an honorable mention.

  29. Actually, we know it is not in the water. The Germans were not considered particularly good soldiers until the rise of Prussia. It was the Prusso-German General Staff, and its training methods and operational and tactical style, that turned Germany into a factory for military skill. And, as you note, they were not good strategists. Nor were they good at intelligence or logistics, or turning industry and science efficiently into the production of war materiel.

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