The Ten Greatest Military Tacticians in History

The Ten Greatest Military Tacticians in History

Stephanie Schoppert - July 9, 2016

History has seen several numerous leaders who led their empires to greatness. Famous for their brilliance, tactical knowledge, facing incredible odds, expanding their empires and defending their homelands, the following men are some of the most renowned leaders who ever lived.

Although ranking military tacticians is a challenging task, we have made a list of ten some of history’s best military strategists. These individuals have been studied throughout the ages for the notable feats they were able to accomplish and the strategies that they developed.

10. Saladin

The Ten Greatest Military Tacticians in History

Formally known as Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb, Saladin was the West’s nemesis during the Second and Third Crusades. However, for people in the Middle East, he was and still is, revered as the one who re-captured Jerusalem and Levant cities and returned them to Muslim hands.

He is also recognized for his generosity and chivalry toward his enemies and Christians. Born a Kurdish Muslim in modern-day Iraq in 1137/38 AD, he worked his entire life to consolidate power in the Middle East and unite the warring Arabs against the Crusaders. He started by disintegrating the Shi’ite Fatamid caliphate in Egypt (which he did by betraying them while serving as vizier) then he aligned the government with Sunni Abbasid caliphate. He has later proclaimed the sultan of Egypt and Syria. He also took control of Palestine and northern Mesopotamia through skillful diplomacy and military accomplishments.

His success did not come from utilizing new techniques. Instead, it came by uniting and training hundreds of thousands of unruly Muslim forces. His best achievement against the Crusaders was at the Battle of Hattin in Northern Palestine in July of 1187. It was there that overconfidence, thirst and lack of military sense defeated most of the panicked and trapped Crusader army in one blow. Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, and other generals were captured and beheaded, except for Guy himself who was later ransomed. Within three months the Crusaders lost most of their territory and Jerusalem fell after a long siege, ending 88 years of Frankish rule over the city. This prompted the Third Crusade, which re-conquered some territory back but not Jerusalem and ended with a peace treaty between Richard the Lion Heart and Saladin after three years of belligerence. Saladin fell ill and died in Damascus months later.

9. Genghis Khan

The Ten Greatest Military Tacticians in History

“I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed great sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.” Named Temujin at birth, Genghis Khan (Great Khan), was the founder and first Khan of the largest empire on Earth: The Mongol Empire (1206-1368). At its peak, his empire covered an area of more than 10 million square miles or about 20% of the world’s land area. His army was almost unstoppable as it rode through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Had it not been for his death in 1227, nothing would have stood in his way as he headed toward Eastern Europe and the rest of the Middle East.

Born in 1162 in a land full of nomadic tribes and living a harsh life due to raids and attacks between the tribes, he became Khan of the Mongols at the age of 24. By 1206 he had unified all the other tribes. He created single political and military force to maintain peace. He then adopted the title of Genghis Khan and embarked on a quest to conquer Asia.

Rather than basing his rule as an aristocracy (as it was in the tribes) he followed a meritocratic method, instituted a new code of law, and integrated rival tribes into his own which inspired loyalty. He built an extensive spy network and communication lines. He adopted new ideas and technology such as the Chinese siege weapons. His army was fast and versatile, largely due to the use of mounted archers. They were trained to shoot accurately while riding and shoot in all directions; even from behind. No infantry at the time could withstand Khan’s marching hordes led by his generals such as Subutai and Jebe, which were actually the ones responsible for extending the empire.

Most of his campaigns involved sophisticated strategies and coordinated attacks, even from miles away. Many were indeed ruthless, adopting mass murder, massacres, enslavement and destruction of entire cities and towns, mostly seen in the Khwarezmian Empire and Chinese Xia lands. At Urgench, more than 250,000 Turkish were slaughtered, and the rest enslaved, in one of the bloodiest genocides in history. He died in 1227, just when the capital of Western Xia has fallen.

8. Julius Caesar

The Ten Greatest Military Tacticians in History

Gaius Julius Caesar is regarded as one of the best military general and leaders in the history of the Roman Empire. He formed the First Triumvirate with Pompey the Great and Crassus after he was elected consul and proconsul in 59 BC. He was given the Cisalpine and Transalpine provinces and made a name for himself after successful campaigns that led to the annexation of Gaul (modern-day France), parts of Germany and Britain. His forces were even able to subdue Celtic tribes in Brittany and Normandy.

At the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC, he was outnumbered by Vercingetorix’s troops 60,000 to 80,000 with 100,000 more incoming reinforcements for Vercingetorix. So Caesar fought a war of attrition. He ordered the construction of circumvallation around the city. When some of the enemy troops escaped looking for reinforcements, he ordered a contravallation to be built. Despite being attacked on both sides, Caesar and his army were still able to defeat the relief army and force them to retreat. Vercingetorix surrendered the next morning.

His growing power scared many in the Senate and they asked him to dissolve his forces. He refused and marched across the Alps with his army, which was prohibited by the Senate. This started a civil war that was to last until late 49 BC, where he emerged victorious over Pompey and Crassus. He chased Pompey to Egypt, and upon arriving there he fell in love with Cleopatra and stayed in Egypt for years. When he finally did return to Rome it was as a victorious leader.

Although he became a dictator for life in 44 BC, he was later assassinated by several senators who had conspired against him. He was supposed to appear at a session of the Senate on the Ides of March on 15 March of 44 BC when the assassination plan was carried out.

7. David IV of Georgia

The Ten Greatest Military Tacticians in History

Largely forgotten in the annals of history as a great leader and tactician is David IV of Georgia. The Kingdom of Georgia in 1089 was located between Turkey and Russia and the Black and the Caspian Sea, stopped the Turks in their tracks during their seasonal migration. Being located in a strategic zone, Georgia had been conquered by different empires in the past. But under David Aghmashenebeli (the Builder), Georgia got the chance to become the strongest kingdom in the region, if only for a few years.

Taking control of Georgia in 1089 while it still was a vassal kingdom to the Seljuk Sultanate, he stopped paying tributes to the Turks and stopped allowing the Turkish migration. He started raising and leading small armies against isolated Seljuk Turk troops. For the next 30 years, he was able to liberate eastern and southern Georgia gradually. The Turks repeatedly attempted to invade and restore their seasonal migration, but all their efforts failed.

Boosted with 40,000 families from the entire Cuman-Kipchak tribe from South Russia, he was still outnumbered 2 to 1 in 1121 for the final invasion when the Seljuks declared a jihad against him. The fate of the Turks and of David was decided at the Battle of Didgori near Tbilisi, the last Muslim enclave.

As a good tactician, he sent 200 cavalrymen to the Turkish camp and pretended they wanted to join. When their hosts greeted them, they unsheathed their swords and attacked them. Seeing the confusion on the Turkish camp, David IV gave the order to attack. Lacking leadership and full of confusion, the Turkish troops fell in disarray and disorder, and the battle ended in 3 hours. The triumphal victory, passing to history as the “miraculous victory”, allowed them later to take Tbilisi and emerged as a great military power in the region.

In his many victories, David IV never mistreated the Muslim population. He was religiously tolerant and accepted multi-ethnic subjects. Under his leadership, Armenia was also liberated, and the economy and cities flourished.

6. George S. Patton

The Ten Greatest Military Tacticians in History

General Patton is known for helping liberate Western Europe from the Nazis by using their blitzkrieg technique against them. This allowed his troops to storm the Germans without allowing them to prepare defenses.

General Patton first rose to prominence fighting against Erwin Rommel in North Africa. After that, he moved to Italy and used the same technique throughout the Italian campaign. Afterward, he was given command of the Third Army, to which the Germans referred as “Patton’s Army”. His blitzkrieg tactic was opposed by British General Montgomery, who thought that more planning and defensive maneuvers were better. However, Patton became known for the American blitzkrieg which was so successful some thought that he was even better at it than the Germans.

At the end of 1944, Patton and his men stopped near Metz, France to resupply after a successful campaign, before moving on to invade Germany. The Germans took the opportunity to make a surprise attack and final offensive in the Ardennes in what was to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. His mobilization of the Third Army into the Ardennes saved the day and was able to relieve American troops fighting in Bastogne.

The tactical decisions and boldness of Patton at the Battle of the Bulge is still studied today in military schools. After this, he marched his troops into Germany and reached Berlin. He then became the military governor of Bavaria but was relieved soon after. He died in Germany on December 21, 1945, after he had suffered injuries from an automobile accident.

5. Erwin Rommel

The Ten Greatest Military Tacticians in History

Nicknamed the Desert Fox, German general Rommel fought against the Allied offensive of Generals Montgomery and Patton in North Africa. After showing brilliance in the Axis push toward France and Belgium, he was promoted to general of a Panzer division and transferred to North Africa. He was ordered to hold a foothold there until the Furher had conquered either Britain or Russia. Reinforcements would have later been sent to make an all-out attack against Britain and the United States later on.

However having lost air superiority in Europe and needing the troops in the eastern and western fronts, Hitler refused to send Rommel more supplies and troops. Instead, he gave the order to retreat. Even though he was vastly outnumbered, Rommel was able to inflict massive damage on Allied troops.

The Battle of Gazala, in May and June of 1942, was one of the largest engagements in history occurred. Although both sides suffered high casualties, Rommel took the upper hand, only suffering around 80,000 casualties and losing 114 tanks, while the Allies suffered about 175,000 casualties and lost 540 tanks. After pushing the Allies to Egypt, both sides stopped at El Alamein.

Unlike the Axis, the Allies received fresh supplies and reinforcements which allowed them to continue hostilities and win. Even so, Rommel held the Allied army to a tactical draw. On his retreat toward Tunisia, he was still able to delay the Allies and make offensives, until he returned to Germany and was then assigned to Greece and later to Normandy.

He was presumably forced to commit suicide after being found guilty of a plot to kill Hitler on July 20 of 1944.

4. Sun Tzu

The Ten Greatest Military Tacticians in History

Although historians are not completely sure about Sun Tzu’s life, it is accepted he was an accomplished military general, strategist and philosopher during the 5th and 4th century BC in China. Sun Tzu (Master Sun), also called Sun Wu, is credited as the author of The Art of War. A widely influential work of military strategy that has affected both Western and Eastern philosophy.

Sun Tzu served under the King of Wu and allowed the king’s troops to challenge the western kingdom of Chu. It is said the king told Sun Tzu to prove his expertise by turning his harem into a well-trained force. Sun Tzu divided the concubines into two groups and picked the favorites of the King to each lead a division. When Sun Tzo presented the troops he noticed that they were sloppy and not taking the drills seriously. So he ordered the two leaders of the concubines to be killed. After that, the concubines took their drills seriously knowing the penalty for failure.

Although much is not known about him besides his successes, he left an important 13-chapter book on military theory, tactics, and philosophy which influenced Eastern and Western military thinking. It is still studied today in East Asia (as it was for more than a millennium) and is required by some business schools. The book has basic principles of warfare, and each chapter covers one aspect of it: espionage, specific battle strategies, logistics, etc., which are permeated with philosophical thinking such as “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”.

Unlike emphasis on force or strength, the book stresses psychological and stealth warfare, with a focus on terrain, weather and knowing the enemy and one itself. The book also recommends divide and conquer, avoid battles, use enemy tactics against itself, and surprise attacks. People influenced by the book include Mao Zedong, Douglas MacArthur, Napoleon, and Henry Kissinger.

3. Alexander Magnus

The Ten Greatest Military Tacticians in History

Famously known as Alexander the Great, he was one of the greatest kings in antiquity and precursor of Hellenization. Alexander III of Macedon, or Megas Alexandros as the Greeks called him, extended the Macedonian Empire of his father from the southern Balkan Peninsula to Egypt (where he established Alexandria) and India in less than 15 years.

Born in 356 BC to Phillip II, King of Macedon, he spent his early years under the tutelage of Aristotle and fighting Persians as a young warrior. After his father’s death in 336 BC, he took the throne and led the almost-unbeatable Macedonian phalanxes across the extensive Persian Empire and close to India. They fought 17 major battles – many of them outnumbered – winning all of them and only losing less than 17% of his army in each battle.

At Issus and Gaugamela against King Darius III, where he had half of the Persians’ forces, Alexander only lost about 7000 men and around 1000 men respectively, while the Persians lost 20,000 men and more than 40,000 men, respectively. After Darius III’s assassination days after Gaugamela, Alexander charged beyond Persepolis toward the Indus River only to be stopped by Indian kingdoms and his own men who were tired and wanted to head home. Alexander the Great died in Babylon on his return in 323 BC, having established the largest empire of its time. The Empire was later divided among 4 of his generals and plagued with civil strives.

2. Napoleon Bonaparte

The Ten Greatest Military Tacticians in History

Had it not been for the Quadruple Alliance (Russia, Prussia, Austria and the UK) and other countries, Napoleon Bonaparte would have been close to achieving what nobody had done before and what Hitler dreamed 130 years later: to conquer all of the Europe.

He was a short man but he still commanded the respect of his armies with his tactic maneuvers and brilliance. He led his Grande Armee on a 4-year streak of victorious battles such as at Austerlitz and Ulm, where he was outnumbered.

At Austerlitz, being outnumbered by 20,000 more troops, he forged a risky plan to get the upper hand and break through the Allied front. He tricked the Russian-Austrian allies into attacking his right flank, thereby leaving their forces weak in the center. Napoleon attacked the weakened center and send the Allies retreating. His modernization of artillery also led to the success, with cannon artillery becoming more mobile. However, after the 1812 invasion of Russia, his Grande Armee never recovered.

Beating the Russians back to their motherland, he made a mistake of not equipping his troops for harsh winters. January and February arrived and froze his troops in their way, killing more men than any battle during the war. The Russians also implemented a scorched earth policy, denying the French troops food and shelter.

Of the 600,000 troops that marched toward Russia, only about 200,000 made it back. After he had been sent to the island of Elba, he managed to escape, raise an army and fight his last battle at Waterloo against the British General Duke of Wellington. However waited too long to attack, and the badly needed reinforcements from Wellington saved the day.

He was then exiled to the island of Saint Helena where he spent the rest of his years and died in 1821 at the age of 51.

1. Hannibal Barca

The Ten Greatest Military Tacticians in History

Hannibal Barca, a Punic general from Carthage (near modern-day Tunis), came closer than anyone else to defeat the Roman Empire. Today Hannibal is known to some as the father of military strategy and one of the greatest military commanders who ever lived.

In a monumental military feat and lighting campaign, he crossed the Pyrenees and Alps with more than 40,000 soldiers and 30 war elephants. He fought the Romans for about 15 years on their own ground during the Second Punic War (218-202), being outnumbered many times. His major victories at Cannae, Trebia, and Lake Trasimene cemented his reputation as an enemy to be feared.

Born in 247 BC in Carthage, the young Hannibal grew up hating the Romans and took the place of his brother-in-law, Hasdrubal, as commander of the Carthaginian-Iberian forces. He soon marched across Iberia and Gaul, making alliances with Gaulish tribes and taking the Romans by surprise when he crossed the Alps. He destroyed hundreds of towns in his wake and turned some of them against Rome. His ambushes, outflanking and guerrilla tactics turned the battle to his favor, allowing him to win over highly respected generals several times and inflict tens of thousands of casualties, while only losing a fraction of his own.

At Cannae he famously outflanked tens of thousands of Roman phalanxes, obliterating more than 50,000 and only losing a tenth of it. Despite this success, he still could not reach Rome. Carthage did not send enough reinforcements and Fabius Maximus, a consul with temporary dictatorial powers, started waging a war of attrition against Hannibal. An attack on his home city in 203 made him be recalled, and he was finally defeated in 202 by Scipio Africanus at the battle of Zama.

After some years as a suffette and military advising Antiochus III of Syria, Hannibal then fled to King Prusias of Bithynia where he presumably poisoned himself.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Extra – Why Does Saladin Have Such An Enduring Reputation?

Live Science – What Killed Medieval Sultan Who Conquered Jerusalem During the Crusades?

History Collection – Ten Amazing Things That You Need To Know About Julius Caesar

History Daily – Cleopatra and Julius Caesar’s Relationship: What Happened And Why Were They Together

History Channel – The Art of War

Titusng – The Test of Sun Tzu’s Art of War On Concubines

World History Encyclopedia – The Price of Greed: Hannibal’s Betrayal by Carthage