10 Military Commanders Who Revolutionized Warfare
10 Military Commanders Who Revolutionized Warfare

10 Military Commanders Who Revolutionized Warfare

Khalid Elhassan - June 8, 2018

10 Military Commanders Who Revolutionized Warfare
‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’, by Jacques-Louis David. Wikimedia

Napoleon Bonaparte Became the Model for Generations of Subsequent Commanders

The career of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821), one of history’s greatest military geniuses, spanned nearly three decades, during which he fought over 60 battles, losing only 8 times. He revolutionized warfare with tactical, strategic, and organizational innovations, and for generations after his death, he was the model whom all aspiring commanders sought to emulate.

Napoleon was an artillery officer with an instinctive grasp for its full potential. Until the late 18th century, commanders tended to view field artillery more as a defensive than an offensive weapon. In the years preceding the French Revolution, military theorists had begun to challenge that conception. Napoleon took their ideas, and ran with them.

Napoleon did not see artillery as an adjunct, but as a central part of his battle plans. Instead of using artillery to simply break up attacking infantry or cavalry, Napoleon realized its offensive potential by concentrating it in grand batteries to devastate key enemy positions. He also studied the relationship between the placement of his own guns and the potential movements of his troops and those of the enemy. Napoleon then positioned his artillery accordingly, anticipating the flow of battle and having his guns already in place or ready to move to where they could do the most good.

Napoleon had also spent time in the Bureau of Topography, and he had an instinct for the ground and terrain. One of the secrets behind his success, routine now but often overlooked before Napoleon, was studying the terrain in advance to select the best battlefield. His maxim “know your enemy and know your battlefield better than your enemy“, is as valid today as it was in Napoleon’s day.

One of Napoleon’s greatest organizational innovations was the development of the corps system. He organized divisions into corps of 20,000 to 40,000 men, that were essentially mini armies containing infantry, cavalry, engineers, and artillery. During campaigns, the corps, each headed by a marshal, would march on a broad front, likened to the outstretched fingers of a hand. When one corps made contact with the enemy, it would give battle and attempt to fix the opposition in place, while the other corps closed in on the enemy, turning the outstretched fingers into a closed fist.

On the battlefield, Napoleon overthrew the linear warfare that had dominated battlefields since the days of Gustavus Adolphus – a process begun early in the French Revolutionary Wars, and perfected by Napoleon. When the Revolutionary government enacted the levee en masse and conscripted the entire French population into the war effort, French armies were suddenly swollen by hundreds of thousands of new recruits. France was invaded on multiple fronts by her neighbors’ professional armies, and it lacked both the time and resources to train up the new citizen armies to professional levels.

Making a virtue out of necessity, French military doctrine, as perfected by Napoleon, was changed to deemphasize the linear tactics of lining up against enemy forces and exchanging volleys of musket fire. Such exchanges were usually won by the more professional army. Instead, the French emphasized attacks by massed troops in dense columns, which required relatively little training. The dense formations were psychologically comforting to poorly trained troops under fire. They were also psychologically exhilarating, enabling them to feed off each others’ enthusiasm and elan during an attack. Napoleon mastered the art of using terrain and good timing to throw such columns at vulnerable points in enemy battle lines, to overwhelm and break them with sheer mass.

Napoleon also went out of his way to make his soldiers not only respect him, but love him. He shared his men’s hardships, and spoke their language. A master propagandist, he issued bombastic army bulletins to boost his soldiers’ morale, praising their prowess, and his own brilliance in order to solidify their confidence in him. It was effective back then, when such propaganda was something new.

Napoleon’s armies were also a meritocracy in which commendable behavior was rewarded with decorations and promotions. It was often said of Napoleon’s soldiers that “inside every private’s knapsack is a marshal’s baton“, to describe the potential for rapid promotion and advancement. And indeed, more than one of Napoleon’s marshals had started off as a lowly private.

10 Military Commanders Who Revolutionized Warfare
Helmuth von Moltke. Wikimedia

Moltke the Elder Created an Army Command Structure Used Around the World to This Day

The military philosophy of Helmuth von Moltke (1800 – 1891), also known as Moltke the Elder, was to distill Napoleon’s innovations and precepts, and adapt them to contemporary conditions. An example was his realization that the defensive power of modern firearms had rendered the frontal attacks of Napoleon’s days impractical. So he focused instead on developing tactics to secure victory via enveloping attacks instead of head on assaults.

He viewed strategy through the pragmatic lens of adapting means to ends, and avoiding the pursuit of ends when the means to secure them were unavailable. He also realized that things almost never go as planned in war, and his most famous statement summarizing his thinking is “no plan survives contact with the enemy“. So he emphasized extensive preparations for all possible scenarios.

In 1857, Moltke was promoted to Chief of the Prussian General Staff – a position he would hold for the next three decades. He revolutionized warfare with his innovations to that institution, renamed the Great General Staff after the establishment of the German Empire. Moltke made the commander’s staff a professional and permanent body, and created an infrastructure to handle basic matters such as logistics and supply, transport, intelligence, and coordination. Relieved of those chores, the commander was freed to concentrate on strategy and tactics. Moltke’s Great General Staff was emulated by armies the world over, all of which eventually established their own general staffs.

Moltke was one of the first to realize that the days when a commander could exercise complete control over an army, such as occurred during the Napoleonic Wars, were over. By the second half of the 19th century, armies had gotten too big, and their fields of battle and theaters of operations had grown too massive, for an army commander to see all his forces from a command post atop a hill. In this new environment, senior commanders had to explain their intent to subordinates, then grant them autonomy and trust them to use their own initiative to realize the commander’s intent.

Instead of detailed orders, Moltke gave subordinates clearly defined goals, the forces needed to execute them, and a time frame in which the goal must be achieved. How to accomplish the goal was largely left to the subordinate’s discretion and initiative. That required a revamping of officer training to encourage initiative and independent thinking. German soldiers are often thought of as robotic automatons, but since Moltke’s day, few if any armies have allowed their soldiers as much discretion, or trusted them to use their own initiative, as much as the German army.

Moltke’s innovations made the Prussian army the world’s most efficient, as it demonstrated in a series of swift and successful wars en route to unifying Germany. After defeating the Danes in 1864, then crushing the Austrians in 1866, in accordance was plans drawn by Moltke, Prussia took on France, whose army was reputedly the world’s best. Moltke drew the plans for the Franco-Prussian War, 1870 – 1871, and led the Prussian army in executing his design. The result was a stunning Prussian victory, capped by the creation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirror in Versailles.

10 Military Commanders Who Revolutionized Warfare
Mao Zedong. Nouve Lobs

Mao Zedong, the Father of Modern Guerrilla Warfare Theory

One of the most original military thinkers of the twentieth century was Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976), the communist revolutionary who became the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. He literally wrote the book on the modern theory of insurgency: On Guerrilla Warfare. In it, he described a revolutionary methodology to defeat Japanese invaders, based on strategies and tactics honed during Mao’s struggle against China’s Nationalist government.

Mao developed a Theory of People’s War that divided popular insurgencies into three stages. Stage One is about winning popular support by distributing propaganda and attacking the organs of an unpopular government. Stage Two sees an escalation, with attacks directed against the government’s military forces and vital institutions. Stage Three further ratchets things up by turning to conventional warfare, and making a bid to seize the cities, overthrow the government, and seize control of the country. It was a flexible doctrine, and shifting between stages can go in either direction, depending on circumstances. And the stages need not be uniform throughout the entire country, but could vary depending on local conditions.

Mao’s insurgents fought both the Japanese and the Nationalist Chinese, and ultimately prevailed. Using small groups of combatants in raids and ambushes to defeat bigger and less mobile armies discomfited the Japanese, and eventually secured the communists victory in China. Mao summarized his revolutionary guerilla methodology as: “When the enemy advances, we retreat. When the enemy rests, we harass. When the enemy tires, we attack. When the enemy retreats we advance“. His methods became a model followed by numerous insurgencies around the world, as they fought against colonialism and oppressive native regimes.

Maosit insurgency seeks to win hearts and minds by treating the peasants with a respect that stands in stark contrast with the contempt meted them by their rulers, be they Japanese invaders or Chinese landed gentry and government officials. Revolutionaries also tied the peasants’ economic interests to the success of the revolution, via a redistribution of land, and a lifting of feudal-type dues.

As Maoists and their emulators discovered, at a visceral level, the peasants and the disadvantaged craved simple respect, even more than they craved the economic benefits promised by the revolution. They also harbored significant resentment against the upper classes who had been exploiting and contemptuously looking down upon them for so long. Such stored resentments are a powerful resource that revolutionaries should seek to tap.

After Japan’s defeat in WW2, the communists went on to win control of China in 1949, and Mao’s insurgency model and example were later utilized to great effect throughout the Developing World. The Viet Minh in particular successfully adapted Maoist methods to local conditions, and used them to defeat Vietnam’s French colonial masters. They then waged a protracted war to unify a divided Vietnam, and succeeded despite massive American support for the government of South Vietnam.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Epaminondas

Biography – Philip of Macedon

Encyclopedia Britannica – Gonzalo de Cordoba, Spanish Military Commander

Encyclopedia Britannica – Maurice, Stadholder of the Netherlands

History of Macedonia – Philip II of Macedonia

History Net – Frederick the Great: The First Modern Military Celebrity

Forster, Stig, Journal of Strategic Studies, Volume 10, 1987, Issue 2 – Facing “People’s War”: Moltke the Elder and Germany’s Military Options After 1871

Livius – Hannibal Barca

Marxists Internet Archive – On Guerrilla Warfare

Nimwegen, Olaf van – The Dutch Army and the Military Revolutions (1588 – 1688)

Searching in History – Military Innovation: Gustavus Adolphus

Strategy by Design – Von Moltke on Strategy

Wikipedia – Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba

Wikipedia – Maurice, Prince of Orange