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

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
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.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
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.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
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.

The Greatest and Most Cunning Military Innovators
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.

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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)

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