The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators

Khalid Elhassan - February 25, 2022

William Tecumseh Sherman might have been America’s most influential general when it comes to lasting legacies. War was always horrible, but in the early modern era, there was a belief – or at least hope – that it could be limited to rival armies, with civilians left out of it. Then came the US Civil War and Sherman, who rubbished such notions as naïve in the context of modern warfare. He advocated – and demonstrated the effectiveness – of what he termed “hard war”, which later generations named total war. Below are thirty things about that, and other generals who shaped military history.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Battle of Atlanta depiction in the Atlanta Cyclorama. Blend Space

30. The American General Who Fathered Modern Total War

On September 2nd, 1864, after a hard-fought summer campaign followed by a hard-fought siege, Union troops led by General William Tecumseh Sherman entered Atlanta, Georgia. The conquest of that key Confederate city, known as “the Gateway to the South”, saved President Abraham Lincoln from what seemed like inevitable defeat in that fall’s election. It ensured the continuation of a federal administration committed to fighting out the Civil War until final victory. Everybody expected that Sherman would garrison the city, then head north to Virginia to help Ulysses S. Grant, who was stalemated against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The victor of Atlanta had other plans, though.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
General Sherman’s men wreck a railroad in Atlanta. Wikiwand

Early in the war, the Union followed a conciliatory policy. It fought a relatively limited war on the assumption that most in the Confederacy had not supported secession, and that their states’ governments were illegal and unrepresentative of the popular will. So Union forces leaned over backward to gently treat Southern civilians and their property – including those hostile towards the Union. By 1862, attitudes had changed. Pragmatists began to advocate for “hard war” and “directed severity” against secessionists, and Sherman emerged as a key proponent of that hardline. In 1864, he revolutionized modern warfare and transformed “hard war” notions into total war that targeted not only enemy armies, but also civilians who supported those armies.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Engraving depiction of the devastation wrought by Sherman’s men in their March Through Georgia. Wikimedia

29. A Nineteenth-Century Scorched Earth Campaign

By the autumn of 1864, the Civil War had dragged on for more than three bloody years, with a horrendous and steadily mounting toll in blood and treasure. Both the Union Army’s commander, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, and his friend General William T. Sherman realized that the conflict could only end if the Confederacy lost its ability to wage war. So Sherman planned an operation comparable in broad outline to modern scorched earth campaigns. He and his army would strike out from Atlanta and march along a broad front across the heart of Georgia.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Matthew Brady portrait of General William T. Sherman, circa 1864. Wikimedia

They would live off the land and destroy all infrastructure in their path that was useful to the Confederate war effort. 62,000 Bluecoats marched out of Atlanta, which they left a smoldering ruin. They then divided into two columns, abandoned their supply lines and plunged into the Peach State. As Sherman put it, he wanted to “make Georgia howl“, and how it did. Union forces advanced along a sixty-mile front, wrecked military targets along the way, destroyed industry and infrastructure, lived off the land, and – against Sherman’s orders – looted civilian property. It conclusively demonstrated that the Confederacy was a hollow shell, incapable of protecting its heartland or citizens.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Path of General Sherman’s march through Georgia and the Carolinas. US National Park Service

28. The Long-Lasting Legacy of Sherman’s Marches Through Georgia and the Carolinas

General William T. Sherman was not a cruel man, but he certainly believed in cruel war. As he put it: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it. The crueler it is, the sooner it will be over“. He did not coin the phrase “total war” – its first use can be traced to the 1930s. However, he birthed the concept of modern total war. He wrote in a letter dated December 24th, 1864, that the Union found itself in a situation where it was: “not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war, as well as their organized armies“. His destructive march through Georgia was followed by an even more destructive march through South and North Carolina.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Sherman’s men burn a railway station. University of Southern Florida

Sherman’s marches left a legacy that lasted long after the Civil War. Not only in the memories of aggrieved Southerners, but in modern military science. The morality of the destruction wrought by Sherman has long been debated, but few contest its effectiveness. In subsequent major conflicts such as the first and second world wars, combatants took it for granted that they faced not only enemy armies, but also the civilian infrastructure and population that supported them. US Air Force General Curtis LeMay updated the concept in 1949 when he defined total war in the nuclear age as an overwhelming atomic strike that could go so far as “killing a nation“.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The Spartans were the ancient Greek world’s scariest warriors. Imgur

27. The Badass General Who Invented Basic Battlefield Tactics

Millennia before William T. Sherman, war broke out in 378 BC between the ancient Greek city states of Thebes and Sparta. The Thebans had their work cut out for them. Other Greek city states staffed their phalanxes with citizen-soldiers – civilians who temporarily took up arms in wartime. By contrast, Sparta’s citizens were professional soldiers. They began to prepare for a lifelong martial career at age seven in a brutal military academy and spent the rest of their lives training for war. Sparta could afford that because of massive slavery. It conquered its Messenian neighbors in the eighth century BC, then turned the entire Messenian population into state slaves known as Helots.

To control the Helots, who outnumbered the Spartans ten to one, Sparta became a military state and society. It also became a police state, with a secret security force known as the Krypteia that terrorized the Helots, and killed any who seemed restive or showed leadership potential. It was lebensraum writ small – the Nazis actually drew upon Sparta when they planned their conquest of Eastern Europe: the locals were to be enslaved to toil for the “Master Race”. The deck seemed to be stacked overwhelmingly in favor of the Spartans, but fortunately for the Thebans, they had a badass general, Epaminondas (died 362 BC). As seen below, he countered Spartan superiority by inventing basic battlefield maneuver tactics.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The Battle of Leuctra. World History Encyclopedia

26. The Greek Commander Who Deliberately Sought to Take the Scary Spartans Head On

The end result of the Spartans’ constant drill and training was an elite Spartan phalanx, unmatched anywhere in the world for discipline and toughness. By the fourth century BC, Sparta was Greece’s preeminent power, and the Spartan phalanx was one that nobody wanted a piece of. That is, until Epaminondas showed up, and broke the spell of Spartan invincibility when he broke the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC. There, the Theban general led an army of 7000 hoplites, plus 600 cavalry, against a bigger Spartan army of 10,000 hoplites, plus 1000 cavalry.

The Theban phalanx was spearheaded by an elite unit of 300 warriors known as The Sacred Band, comprised of 150 pairs of homosexual lovers. The Spartan elite was a unit of 1000 full Spartan citizens, who had trained for war since childhood. The Greek norm was to place the best troops at the right side of their line. As such, it was rare for the best troops of both armies to face each other. Epaminondas changed that when he put his best troops on the left side of his line, directly opposite the Spartans. Then, as seen below, he introduced two innovations that revolutionized warfare.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Thebans, right, take on the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra. Pariakai

25. The Theban General Who Shattered Sparta

Epaminondas’ first innovation was to depart from the norm of a formation with lines of a uniform depth – usually 8 to 12 men deep in Greek hoplite warfare back then. Instead, the Theban general stacked the left side of his line 50 deep, by thinning the rest of his formation. That is, he concentrated force at the decisive point. His second innovation was to not follow the usual script and advance in line abreast, in which the entire formation hits the opposite formation simultaneously. Instead, Epaminondas echeloned his army so that his powerful left was the first to reach the enemy, and his weak right was the last.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The death of Thebes’ great general, Epaminondas. Clark Art

The Spartan right, stacked twelve deep, shattered when it was struck by Epaminondas’ left, fifty deep. It lost 1000 men, including 400 of the Spartan elite citizenry, and the Spartan King Cleombrotus I. The myth of Spartan invincibility never recovered. Epaminondas went on to invade Sparta, freed its Helots, and formed them into an independent state. Since its society and economy had depended on the slave labor of the Helots, Sparta was forever reduced to minor player status. Thebes’ great general died in 362 BC, killed in battle as he dealt Sparta yet another disastrous defeat. His innovations outlived him, and formed the bedrock of King Phillip II of Macedon’s military principles, and those of his son, Alexander the Great.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
King Philip II of Macedon. The Famous People

24. The Badass General Who Built on Epaminondas’ Innovations and Professionalized Warfare

While Thebes and Sparta vied for the position of top dog in the ancient Greek world, a new power was rising in the north that would soon eclipse both. In 359 BC, a twenty-three-year-old Philip II (382 – 336 BC) ascended the throne of Macedon. Within two decades, he would demonstrate his chops as a general to such an extent that neither Greece nor warfare would ever be the same again. It shocked the Greeks, who viewed Macedon as a barely civilized kingdom that spoke a barely intelligible Greek dialect. That, despite the fact that Macedon had plenty of potential, both in manpower and resources that far exceeded those of any Greek city state.

Philip unified the fractious Macedonian tribes and transformed them into the world’s most respected and feared military machine. He made soldiery a full-time job and highly paid professional occupation. That allowed him to drill his men regularly, and ensure their discipline and unit cohesion. Epaminondas had impressed Philip, and he built on the deep phalanx innovations of the Theban general. He improved upon them when he armed his Macedonians with a long spear, the sarissa. Philip also reduced his men’s armor, and gave them smaller and lighter shields to increase their mobility. That enabled them to march at speeds that few other armies could equal.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The Macedonian phalanx of Philip II. Weapons and Warfare

23. The Man Who Formed and Trained the Ancient World’s Most Formidable Army

Philip II also made Macedon’s cavalry the world’s best, when he recruited the sons of the nobility into what came to be known as the Companion Cavalry. He equipped them with long lances that gave them greater reach than their opponents and trained them in shock tactics. To break enemy lines, Philip taught the Companion Cavalry to ride in wedge formations that were well suited to penetrate enemy lines and were also more maneuverable than traditional formations in which cavalry rode abreast. Another innovation was Philip’s creation of a corps of engineers to design and build new instruments of war. The Macedonian monarch and general further revolutionized warfare when he perfected the coordination of different types of troops in a battlefield synergy that enabled them to support each other. It was the birth of combined arms tactics.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The kingdom of Macedon at the death of Philip II. Wikimedia

Philip’s heavy infantry, light infantry skirmishers, archers, slingers, cavalry, and engineers, all worked together. Their mutual support made their collective whole greater than the sum of their individual parts. His signature combined arms tactic came to be known as the “hammer and anvil”. In it, the infantry phalanx in the role of the anvil fixed an enemy in place. Then the cavalry closed in with shock tactics and acted as a hammer to shatter the foe. Philip’s military machine was unstoppable, and by 338 BC, he had mastered Greece. He then began preparations for his life’s ambition: an invasion of the Persian Empire. However, just before he set out to conquer Persia, Philip was assassinated at a wedding. It would be his son, Alexander the Great, who would use Philip’s military machine and tactics to become the Ancient World’s greatest general and conqueror.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Hannibal Barca. Putty and Paint

22. The Badass General Who Perfected Battlefield Tactics

The Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca (247 – ­circa 182 BC) elevated the role of strategy in warfare. He led a motley and multinational army out of Spain, through southern France, and across the Alps into Italy, and thus brought the Second Punic War (218 – 201 BC) to enemy territory. In Italy, Hannibal earned and cemented his reputation as one of history’s greatest military commanders. He accomplished that with his perfection of battlefield tactics that allowed him to consistently best bigger Roman armies.

Hannibal inflicted a series of humiliating defeats upon the Romans. That shook Rome’s hold on her Italian allies and client states, and many of them jumped ship and either joined Hannibal or declared neutrality. His greatest victory came in 216 BC, when the Romans amassed their biggest army to date, 87,000 men, and marched off to crush the Carthaginian general. As seen below, he met them with 40,000 men at Cannae and crushed them instead in a military masterpiece that is still studied as an example of the near-perfect battle.

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Hannibal. Pinterest

21. The Mark of a Great General

The mark of a great general is his ability to get the most of what he has available, even if it is not the best or most ideal raw material. Hannibal’s army was a mishmash of ethnic units of varied abilities. It functioned only because of Hannibal’s ability to deploy each group so as to maximize its strengths and minimize its weaknesses. A significant part of his army were Gaulish levies recruited from northern Italy. While brave, they were not as professional as Hannibal’s African infantry and Greek mercenaries. So at the Battle of Cannae, the Carthaginian general placed the Gauls in the center, in a formation that bulged outwards.

To either side of the Gauls, Hannibal positioned his more professional African heavy infantry. On the flanks, Hannibal positioned his cavalry. When combat commenced, Hannibal expected that the Gauls would be forced backward under relentless Roman pressure. Eventually, the Gaulish formation which had started off bulging outwards, would bend and bulge inwards, and form a bowl shape or sack. The confident Romans would scent victory as their foe gave ground, and push into the sack. Once that happened, as seen below, Hannibal knew he had them.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The Battle of Cannae. Dickinson College

20. The Perfect Battle

In Hannibal’s plan for the Battle of Cannae, once the Romans were in the sack, the African infantry positioned to the Gauls’ sides would wheel inwards and attack the Roman flanks. By then, the Carthaginian cavalry would have defeated the Roman cavalry. It would then turn around, and attack the enemy infantry’s rear, and thus completely encircle the Romans. Things worked out exactly as the Carthaginian general had planned, and in a battle viewed as the gold standard for tactical generalship, the Romans were nearly wiped out. Only 10,000 out of 87,000 Romans escaped, and the rest were either slaughtered or captured.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Hannibal’s army celebrates victory with their general after the Battle of Cannae. World History Gallery

Alas for Hannibal, he had won a great victory, but not the war. The Romans learned their lesson, and from then refused to take the Carthaginian general head on. They kept him bottled up in southern Italy for years, while they attacked Carthage on other fronts, seized its empire in Spain, and defeated its allies in Sicily. Eventually, Roman general Scipio Africanus led a counter-invasion against Carthage itself, and Hannibal was recalled to defend his homeland. There, he lost the climactic battle of the war at Zama, in 202 BC. He was eventually forced into exile, and took his own life circa 182 BC in Bithynia, in today’s Turkey, to avoid capture by the Romans.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
A 1470 battlefield illustration, depicting two medieval soldiers, on the left, with arquebuses. Wikimedia

19. The Badass General Who Revolutionized Warfare With Firearms

The invention of gunpowder revolutionized warfare, but it did not happen overnight. It took centuries before gunpowder weapons, first used in battle in the fourteenth century, came to dominate warfare in the sixteenth century. Canons were the first to leave their mark in the late fifteenth century, when King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy. He used mobile artillery to breach castle walls up and down the Italian Peninsula. Firearms, held back by their slow rate of fire, took a bit longer to make their mark. When they did, it was thanks in no small part to Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba (1453 – 1515).

A Spanish general known as El Gran Capitan (“the Great Captain”), de Cordoba revolutionized warfare when he innovated tactics that enabled firearms to dominate battlefields forever after. Firearms had been in use for centuries before Cordoba appeared on the scene. However, infantry armed with such weapons were handicapped by their slow rate of fire. After the firearms were discharged, they took considerable time to reload. Long enough for enemy cavalry or even swift-footed infantry, to close in and chop up the firearms users before they managed to get off another shot. As seen below, de Cordoba came up with a solution for that problem.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
El Gran Capitan, Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba, examines the corpse of the opposing general after the Battle of Cerignola. Wikimedia

18. An Upset Victory That Changed Warfare

Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba, El Gran Capitan, solved the problem of firearms’ inordinately long reload times at the Battle of Cerignola in 1503. There, he made liberal use of the arquebus – an early long-barreled firearm – and arquebusiers. In that engagement, de Cordoba led an army of 6300 men, whose numbers included 1000 arquebusiers and 20 canons. They faced a French army of 9000 men, mostly heavy cavalry and elite Swiss pikemen, supported by 40 canons. De Cordoba deployed his arquebusiers in a defensive position behind a ditch and field fortifications. He then waited for the French to attack, and they obliged.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
An early arquebusier. Wikimedia

From behind his fortifications, the Spanish general won an upset victory when his arquebusiers shot the attackers to pieces. Battlefields were dominated by firearms-bearing infantry from then on. De Cordoba furthered that revolution with the invention of formations that allowed infantry equipped with firearms to operate without the benefit of fortifications. The result was the Tercio, a formation that combined pikemen with arquebusiers. That allowed the latter to shelter behind the pikes of the former while they reloaded their firearms. Spanish infantry in the Tercio formation went on to dominate European battlefields for the next century.

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Maurice of Nassau. Wikimedia

17. The Badass General Who Kicked Off the Modern Military Revolution

Maurice, Count of Nassau (1567 – 1625), became Prince of Orange and stadtholder of the Dutch Republic from 1585 onwards. In his years in office, Maurice cemented his reputation as a great general when he led his Protestant countrymen’s fight for freedom from Catholic Spain, and secured the Dutch Republic’s de facto independence. While at it, he changed warfare when he implemented radical innovations in military strategy and tactics, and laid the foundations for what came to be known as The Military Revolution.

Ever since he was a tot, Maurice had been fascinated by all things military, such as ballistics, engineering, and mathematics. A bookworm and history buff, he developed military theories that he was eager to put in practice. As soon as he was confirmed as Prince of Orange in 1585, at age eighteen, he proceeded to energetically implement his innovations. His first step was to reorganize the Dutch army. He then led it in what came to be known as the Ten Glory Years, in which he and his men captured vital fortresses and towns from the Spanish. That rounded out the borders of the Dutch Republic, and make it more defensible.

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Maurice of Nassau introduced drill by the numbers. Flickr

16. The Man Who Learned From the Ancients

The victories of Maurice of Nassau in the Ten Glory Years solidified the Dutch cause and established his reputation as the era’s greatest general. Many commanders who rose to prominence in the Thirty Years War and the English Civil War a generation or two later, learned their military skills while they served under Maurice. At the heart of his reforms was an emphasis on drill, streamlining logistics, and the simplification of battlefield tactics. He was an avid student of Roman and Byzantine military history. He read about the role of rigorous training in the success of Rome’s legions, and drew lessons from classical authors such as Vegetius, Aelian, Frontinus, and Emperor Leo VI of Byzantium.

Maurice pioneered the decentralization of units. He made his infantry more maneuverable and flexible by splitting large Spanish-style tercio regiments, of about 3000 men each, into smaller battalions of 580 men. He also simplified logistics when he reduced his artillery to just four basic calibers. In 1599, Maurice went a step further and had the entire army of the Dutch Republic reequipped with muskets of the same caliber and size. That greatly eased the lives of quartermasters. However, as seen below, the bedrock of Maurice’s reforms was drill and discipline.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Maurice of Nassau at the Battle of Nieupoort, 1600, one of his greatest victories as a general. Rijksmuseum

15. The Innovations of This General Changed the World Beyond the Battlefield

Maurice of Nassau trained his men constantly and introduced drills to reduce tasks such as loading and discharging canons or firearms to rote. The routine motions became operations that were, literally, done by the numbers. That allowed soldiers to function in the heat and chaos of battle, and perform their jobs by falling back on muscle memory from repetitive drills. That system of discipline and drill became the model for European armies for centuries to come. Maurice’s Military Revolution had knock-on effects that went beyond the military. The new way of war relied on high levels of training, expertise, discipline, and organization. That could only be provided by professional, full-time soldiers, who had to be maintained even in peacetime.

That made soldiers far more expensive than they had been in earlier armies. Before, soldiers were cobbled together from hastily recruited and hastily trained conscripts, who were discharged soon as the war was over. The pay of the new permanent armies required higher taxes, and that in turn required an expansion in the authority and administrative machinery of governments. Gone were the days when fractious aristocrats could successfully challenge the crown and raise armies from their retainers and peasants. Such ad hoc forces stood no chance against the central government’s professional, drilled, and trained armies. Only other governments could afford to raise, equip, and pay standing armies of similar quality.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
King Gustavus Adolphus leads a cavalry charge. Osprey

14. The Badass Swedish General Whose Template Was Followed for Centuries

King Gustavus Adolphus II (1594 – 1632) ruled Sweden from 1611 to 1632, during which time he transformed his kingdom into a great power. He reformed the Swedish army and introduced military innovations that emphasized linear tactics and the efficient use of combined arms. That made Sweden the premier military force in the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), and revolutionized warfare by creating a model that was copied by military commanders for hundreds of years afterward. The Swedish monarch built upon the innovations of Maurice of Nassau, and simplified logistics with the standardization of his army’s artillery and muskets.

Like the Dutch general from whom he liberally borrowed, Gustavus Adolphus paid attention to drill and discipline, until his Swedes became Europe’s most professional soldiers. The Swedish king went Maurice of Nassau one better when he cross-trained his men, such as teaching Swedish infantry and cavalry how to operate artillery pieces. That enabled them to serve as gunners at a pinch if their own artillerists fell in battle. Also, if they captured enemy guns, they could immediately turn them on their foes. In like vein, if the need arose, a killed cavalryman could be replaced by an infantryman or vice versa.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Gustavus Adolphus prays at the head of his army. Discerning History

13. A Swedish Military Model from the 1600s That is Followed to This Day

Although Maurice of Nassau had reformed the Dutch army, dense Spanish-style tercio formations remained the norm throughout the rest of Europe. Gustavus Adolphus adopted Maurice’s smaller infantry battalions, and reduced their density to only five or six lines. That allowed most of the soldiers to participate in combat. By contrast, because they were so densely packed together, only about half of a tercio’s soldiers could directly engage in their opponents, unless and until those in front of them were killed or wounded. The Swedish king also introduced artillery to the lower levels of command. Before Adolphus, artillery was centralized and controlled by the army commander. Adolphus equipped his regiments with light field pieces that could keep up with attacking infantry. That gave lower-level commanders greater firepower in both defense and offense.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Gustavus Adolphus at the Battle of Breitenfeld, 1631. Wikimedia

Between the reduction of formations’ density and the equipment of regiments with artillery, a Swedish brigade of about 1300 men could pour out more firepower than a tercio of 3000 men. Adolphus also trained his infantry to fire in volleys. He was innovative with cavalry as well and reintroduced shock tactics when he trained his horsemen to charge enemy lines. As artillery softened up the opposition, Swedish infantry would advance, halt a short distance from the enemy, fire a deadly volley from close range, then charge the reeling foes before they recovered. When the enemy broke or was about to break, the cavalry would be unleashed to finish him off. That combined arms model, in which artillery, infantry, and cavalry acted in conjunction, became the standard emulated by western armies for centuries. The broad outline is still followed to this day.

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Frederick the Great. Pinterest

12. The Badass General Who Revolutionized Skilled Battlefield Maneuvers

King Frederick II (1712 – 1786) ascended the Prussian throne in 1740. He became known as Frederick the Great after he fought a series of wars that greatly expanded Prussia’s territory, and transformed it from a minor power into a major one. Along the way, he demonstrated that he was his generation’s greatest general. Frederick reformed the Prussian army and introduced military innovations, particularly skilled battlefield tactics that revolutionized eighteenth-century European warfare. He emphasized tactical training and transformed Prussia’s army into a well-oiled machine that could execute intricate battlefield maneuvers on the fly. That multiplied his forces’ effectiveness and allowed them to frequently attack and defeat bigger opponents.

Frederick’s father, King Frederick William I, had been a martinet who devoted his life to the Prussian army, and became known as “The Soldier King“. However, he lavished resources to create an army that looked great on the parade ground, not in the field of battle. An example was his Potsdam Regiment, known as the Potsdam Giants, which was composed of exceptionally tall and big men – minimum height 6 foot 2 inches to join, and some stood at 7 feet tall or more. Frederick William’s agents combed Europe in search of extra tall recruits and kidnapped them if they did not willingly enlist. The Soldier King liked nothing more than to spend hours drilling his giants on the parade ground. His son was markedly different, to say the least.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Frederick the Great leads his troops at the Battle of Zorndorf, 1758. Wikimedia

11. The Great Modernizer

When Frederick II ascended the throne, he immediately disbanded his father’s expensive Potsdam Giants, and redirected their budget to raise 7 new regiments and 10,000 troops. As the kingdom’s chief general, he modernized the Prussian army, and emphasized not only drill and discipline, but also the training of officers. The resultant well-trained officer corps allowed Frederick to grant his subordinates greater autonomy to use their own initiative to further his overall plan. It would become a German military hallmark. Frederick also introduced annual maneuvers, in which the Prussian army tested out new formations and tactics.

The Prussian army was relatively weak in cavalry, and relied instead on infantry. Frederick’s favorite unit was his 1st Guards Battalion, of about 1000 men, which he used to test out new theories. He also used it as a military academy to train new officers, and as a refresher for officers he thought could use more training. His next favorite outfits were grenadier units, comprised of select soldiers with at least two years’ experience in regular infantry battalions. The bulk of Frederick’s army were musketeers in standard infantry regiments. His men carried about 55 pounds of equipment, and they routinely marched about 15 miles a day.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The Battle of Leuthen, Frederick the Great’s most stunning victory as a general. Imgur

10. Frederick the Great Made Prussia’s Army a Model for the Rest of Europe

As a general, Frederick the Great was a tactical genius who owed much of his success to the quick and skillful movement of his troops. The Battle of Leuthen, 1757, illustrates the effectiveness of his innovations. In that engagement, Frederick led 36,000 Prussians against an Austrian army of over 80,000 men. Despite the odds, he went on the offensive and won a stunning upset victory. To open the battle, Frederick attacked the Austrian right flank, and lured the enemy into shifting forces to meet that threat. Frederick then took advantage of hills in front of the Austrian position that masked his movements, and marched the bulk of his army to fall upon the Austrian left. In an oblique order attack – a version of Epaminondas’ tactics at Leuctra that concentrated forces on a single flank – Frederick wrong-footed his foes and shattered their left.

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Frederick the Great and his staff at the Battle of Leuctra. Wikimedia

The Austrians suffered a crushing defeat, and lost 22,000 men to the Prussians’ 6000. At the time, only Frederick’s well-trained men were capable of such skilled battlefield maneuvers. Prussia’s army became a model for other European powers. However, military innovation does not stand still, and Frederick’s successors rested on that great king’s laurels, and failed to keep pace with new military developments. As a result, the Prussian army ossified, and was easily crushed by Napoleon in 1806 – 1807. After his victory, the French Emperor stopped by Frederick’s tomb, and paid him a great compliment when he told his officers: “Gentlemen, if this man was alive, I would not be here“.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
A young General Napoleon Bonaparte leads his men in a charge at the Siege of Toulon. Look and Learn

9. The Badass General Who Became a Model for Generations of Other Generals

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821), one of history’s greatest military geniuses, had a military career that spanned nearly three decades. In that time, he fought over sixty battles and lost only eight times. He revolutionized warfare with tactical, strategic, and organizational innovations, and for generations after his death, he was the model general whom all military commanders sought to emulate. At heart, he was an artillery officer, with an instinctive feel for the cannons’ potential. Until the late eighteenth century, commanders usually saw field artillery more as a defensive than an offensive weapon. However, in the years that preceded the French Revolution, military theorists began 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. Rather than use artillery to simply break up attacking infantry or cavalry, Napoleon realized its offensive potential. He concentrated 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, in anticipation of the flow of battle. When things began to happen – and happen quickly as they often do in battle – he had his guns already in place or ready to move to where they could do the most good.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Napoleon inspects the terrain and battlefield. Extra

8. Napoleon’s Great Organizational Innovation

Early in his military career, Napoleon spent time in the Bureau of Topography, where he developed an instinct for the ground and terrain. One of the secrets behind his success as a general, routine now but often overlooked before Napoleon, was to simply study 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 back then. Another of his great innovations was the development of the corps system.

Napoleon organized his divisions into corps of 20,000 to 40,000 men, which were essentially mini armies that contained infantry, cavalry, engineers, and artillery. In his campaigns, the different 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 foe, it would give battle and try to fix him in place. In the meantime, the other corps closed in on the enemy and turned the outstretched fingers into a closed fist.

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Citizen soldiers of the French revolutionary army. Wikimedia

7. How This General Made a Virtue Out of Necessity

On the battlefield, Napoleon overthrew the linear warfare that had dominated battlefields since the days of Gustavus Adolphus, above. That process had begun early in the French Revolutionary Wars and was 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. As seen below, they made the best of it and turned lemons into lemonade.

Swamped with massive numbers of untrained recruits, Revolutionary France lacked the time or resources to train and drill them as well as other European armies. So French military doctrine, as perfected by Napoleon, made a virtue out of necessity. It was changed to deemphasize linear tactics whereby soldiers lined up in neat rows opposite enemy forces to exchange volleys of musket fire. Such contests were usually won by the more professional army. Instead, the French emphasized attacks by massed troops in dense columns. That required relatively little training. As seen below, it worked even better than expected.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
General Napoleon Bonaparte leads French revolutionary soldiers across a bridge at Arcole. Foundation for Economic Education

6. The General Who Made His Men Love Him

The dense French column formations turned out to be effective in more ways than one. In addition to their core function of getting a heavy mass of troops to the enemy lines, their very density proved to be a psychological comfort to poorly-trained troops under fire. They were also psychologically exhilarating and enabled the French soldiers to feed off of each other’s enthusiasm and elan in an attack. Napoleon mastered the art of terrain selection and good timing to throw such columns at vulnerable points in enemy battle lines, to overwhelm and break them with sheer mass. The soldiers’ spirits were further raised by the measures Napoleon took to make them not only respect him, but love him.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
‘Napoleon Crossing the Alps’, by Jacques-Louis David. Wikimedia

He went out of his way to eschew the comforts of a general, and share his men’s hardships and speak their language. A master propagandist, he issued bombastic army bulletins to boost his soldiers’ morale. He praised their prowess, as well as his own brilliance in order to solidify their confidence in him. It was effective back then when such propaganda was still 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.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Helmuth von Moltke the Elder. String Fixer

5. The Badass German General Who Created a Command Template Used to This Day

One of the most brilliant military minds in the generations that followed Napoleon Bonaparte was Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke (1800 – 1891). His military philosophy 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, whether in dense columns or in line, impractical. So he focused instead on the development of tactics to secure victory with envelopment attacks instead of head-on assaults.

Moltke viewed strategy through the pragmatic lens of adapting the means available to the ends sought. As a general, he avoided the pursuit of ends when the means to secure them were unavailable. He also realized that things almost never go as planned in war. His most famous statement to summarize that was the military gem: “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.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
The German General Staff, originally the Prussian General Staff and officially Great General Staff , was a full-time body at the head of the Prussian Army and later, the German Army. Imgur

4. Adapting to the Massive Increase in Numbers and Scope of Modern Warfare

Helmuth von Moltke is often known as Moltke the Elder to distinguish him from his nephew Helmuth Johann Ludwig von Moltke, who led Germany’s army at the start of World War I. The elder Moltke made the commander’s staff a professional and permanent body. He created an infrastructure to handle basic matters such as logistics and supply, transport, intelligence, and coordination. The commander, relieved of such chores, was thus freed to concentrate on strategy and tactics. Moltke’s Great General Staff concept was copied by armies the world over, all of which eventually established their own general staff.

Moltke was one of the first to realize that the days when a commander could exercise complete control over an army, such as in the Napoleonic Wars, were over. By the second half of the nineteenth-century armies had simply gotten too big. Their fields of battle and theaters of operations had also grown massive, to such an extent that an army commander could no longer 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.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Prussian soldiers march to the front during the Franco-Prussian War. Reddit

3. The Most Efficient Military Machine of its Day

Rather than give his subordinates detailed orders, Helmuth von Moltke gave them clearly defined goals, the forces needed to accomplish them, and a time frame in which to fulfill their tasks. How to accomplish the goal was largely left to the subordinate’s discretion. That required major changes in officer training to encourage initiative and independent thought. It is ironic, in a way, because German soldiers are often thought of as robotic automatons. Since Moltke’s day, however, few if any armies have allowed their soldiers as much discretion, or trusted them to use their own initiative, as much as Germany’s.

Moltke’s innovations made the Prussian army the world’s most efficient military machine. It demonstrated that in a series of swift and successful wars en route to the unification of Germany under Prussia’s leadership. First, it defeated the Danes in 1864. Next, it crushed the Austrians in 1866, in accordance was plans drawn by Moltke. Then 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 army in the execution of his design. The result was a stunning Prussian victory, capped by the creation of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirror in Versailles.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Mao and Chinese communist guerrillas in the 1930s. BBC

2. The Chinese Commander Who Revolutionized Guerrilla and Insurgency War

Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976), the communist revolutionary who founded the People’s Republic of China, was one of the most original military minds of the twentieth century. 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 sets out to win popular support with the distribution of propaganda, and attacks against the organs of an unpopular government. Stage Two sees an escalation, with attacks directed against the government’s military forces and vital institutions.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Chinese communist guerrillas of the 8th Route Army. Imgur

In Stage Three, things are further ratcheted up with a turn to conventional warfare. This is when the revolutionary general and his forces make a bid to capture the cities, overthrow the government, and seize control of the country. It was a flexible doctrine, and shifts between stages can go in either direction, depending on circumstances. Also, the stages need not be uniform throughout the entire country but could vary based on local conditions. Mao’s insurgents fought both the Japanese and the Nationalist Chinese, and ultimately prevailed. They used small groups of combatants in raids and ambushes to defeat bigger and less mobile armies. The discomfited the Japanese, and eventually secured the communists’ victory in China.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Mao addresses a group of his followers in 1944. Flickr

1. A Guerrilla Warfare Model Followed by Insurgents to This Day

Mao Zedong 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. To win hearts and minds, Mao’s insurgents treated the peasants with a respect that stood in stark contrast with the contempt meted them by their rulers. Be those rulers 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 the abolition of feudal-type dues.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
Mao Zedong in his younger days. Wikimedia

At a visceral level, as Maoists and their emulators discovered, the peasants and the disadvantaged craved simple respect. They craved it even more than the economic benefits promised by revolution. They also harbored significant resentment against the upper classes who had exploited and looked down upon them for so long. Such stored resentments are a powerful resource that Mao urged revolutionaries to tap. After Japan’s defeat in WWII, the communists went on to win control of China in 1949, and Mao’s insurgency model was 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 and direct intervention on behalf of the government of South Vietnam.


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

Biography – Philip of Macedon

Bucholz, Arden – Moltke and the German Wars, 1864-1871 (2001)

Chandler, David G. – The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier (1966)

Davis, Burke – Sherman’s March (2016)

De Groot, Gerard J. – The Bomb: A Life (2004)

Duffy, Christopher – Frederick the Great: A Military Life (1985)

Dupuy, Trevor Nevitt – The Military Life of Gustavus Adolphus, Father of Modern War (1969)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Gonzalo de Cordoba, Spanish Military Commander

Encyclopedia Britannica – Maurice, Stadholder of the Netherlands

Foote, Shelby – The Civil War: A Narrative, Vol. 3, Red River to Appomattox (1974)

Hanson, Victor Davis – The Soul of Battle: From Ancient Times to the Present Day, How Three Great Liberators Vanquished Tyranny (2001)

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

History Collection – 12 Generals You Won’t Believe Switched Sides and Defected to the Enemy

Lamb, Harold – Hannibal: One Man Against Rome (1958)

Livius – Hannibal Barca

Marxists Internet Archive – On Guerrilla Warfare

Nimwegen, Olaf van – The Dutch Army and the Military Revolutions, 1588 – 1688 (2010)

Purcell, Mary – The Great Captain: Gonzalo Fernandez de Cordoba (1962)

Searching in History – Military Innovation: Gustavus Adolphus

Sherman, William T. – Memoirs of General William T. Sherman (2019 Wentworth Press Edition)

Short, Philip – Mao: A Life (2001)

Thompson, James Matthew – Napoleon Bonaparte: His Rise and Fall (1952)

Thrillist – The Most Badass Generals in US History

World History Encyclopedia – Epaminondas

Worthington, Ian – Philip II of Macedonia (2008)