Human history is often the story of conflict and warfare. And, rightly or wrongly, the characters who are best remembered from history are often those who successfully led men into battle. Napoleon is said to have asked about one of his generals, “I know he’s a good general, but is he lucky?” and good fortune no doubt plays its part as well as tactical genius. Here are ten leaders who, at least some of the time, managed to combine luck with a skilled generalship.
Saladin, or An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub to give him his full Arabic name, was born in 1137 into a Kurdish family in the city of Tikrit, located in present-day Iraq. As a Sunni Muslim, much of his education involved studying the Koran, and it’s been said that he was more interested in religion than military affairs when young. However, that was to change drastically.
The defining events of Saladin’s life in the 12th century Middle East were the Crusades, the military campaigns waged by Europeans to conquer the Holy Land in the name of Christianity. And Saladin’s fame rests on the fact that he drew together disparate Arabic forces and turned them into an effective fighting force. His crowning military victory came at the Battle of Hattin, where he defeated the Crusaders, wresting control of Palestine and Jerusalem from them 88 years after they’d taken the Holy City.
9. Genghis Khan
Born around 1162 not far from the contemporary capital of Mongolia, Ulan Bator, Genghis Khan’s family were nomadic tribespeople. After his father was poisoned by a rival tribe, Genghis Khan’s family was left destitute and survived by hunting and foraging. Worse came when he was captured and enslaved, but he escaped and in time came to be the greatest of the Mongol warriors.
His great achievement was to unite the warring tribes of Mongolia and to turn them into the formidable force that rode across the steppes sweeping all before them. Probably his most outstanding victory came at the Battle of Yehuling in 1211 when he routed the army of the Chinese Jin dynasty. This precipitated the empire’s collapse.
8. Julius Caesar
Perhaps the best known Roman of them all, Julius Caesar was born into an aristocratic family in 100 B.C. Caesar was only 16 when his father died, thrusting him into the position of head of the family. It was a turbulent time in Rome with civil war smoldering. Caesar fell victim to a rival faction and lost his inheritance and the priesthood he’d been endowed with. But losing his career as a priest left him free to follow a path in politics as well as in the military.
This he did with enthusiasm, rising to prominent political power as a Consul in 59 B.C. And as for his military career, his greatest achievement was the conquering of the Gauls, the people who lived in modern-day Germany and France. In his many battles, Caesar’s forces were often outnumbered and sometimes defeated, yet he still prevailed. His ultimate victory came at the Battle of Alesia when he defeated the Gallic leader Vercingetorix.
7. Heinz Guderian
Guderian was born in 1888 in the Polish city of Kulm, which was then in Prussia. He joined the army in 1907 and served during World War I as a signals officer. Like many of his compatriots, Guderian was appalled when Germany accepted defeat and signed an armistice in 1918, believing the country should have fought on.
Guderian was an early proponent of the warfare method known as blitzkrieg. This involved using fast-moving formations of tanks and armored vehicles carrying infantry to overwhelm opposing troops. Early in World War II, Guderian’s tactics were highly successful in defeating the French and British armies in France as well as overrunning the Poles. And he initially achieved a high level of success in the German campaign against Russia. But defeat loomed in the future as Hitler and the Germans overreached themselves.
6. Alexander the Great
Born in 356 B.C. in the city of Pella in what is now Greece, Alexander was a member of the Macedonian royal family. He succeeded his father to the throne of the kingdom when he was still only 20 years old. His father had been assassinated and Alexander quickly executed the suspected murderers, the princes of Lyncestis, and other potential rivals. He was to carry this ruthless streak into his military career.
Alexander vanquished the great Persian empire led by Darius by force of arms. Various battles were fought, but the conclusive engagement came at the Battle of Issus when Alexander routed an army led by Darius himself. Alexander’s conquests, including the taking of Egypt in 332 B.C. and the invasion of India, went on to become the stuff of legend.
5. Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon was born on the Mediterranean island of Corsica in 1769 into a family of minor Italian aristocracy. The island had been a part of the Italian city state of Genoa but was ceded to France shortly before his birth. From the age of nine, Napoleon was educated in Paris. He then attended military college and joined the French Army as a second lieutenant in an artillery regiment.
After France’s 1789 revolution, Napoleon continued his artillery career and fought against counter-revolutionaries, gaining rapid promotion until he became commander of the Army of the Interior. As a general, he had many victories against the Austrians and the Russians, with perhaps his greatest being the defeat of their armies at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. His string of victories led to him becoming the Emperor of France.
Hannibal Barca was born in Carthage, in modern Tunisia, in 247 B.C. His father, Hamilcar Barca, was a Carthaginian general and leader who fought the Romans in Sicily. Hannibal took command of the Carthaginian army in 221 B.C. at the age of 26. Hamilcar demanded that his son swear always to be an enemy to the Romans, an oath he never betrayed.
Hannibal is, of course, best known for trekking across the Alps in 218 B.C. with a squadron of elephants, although the truth is most of the 38 beasts died crossing the mountains. His plan was a surprise attack on the Romans, and at the Battle of Trebia he won a famous victory, outwitting the Roman infantry with superior tactics.
3. George S. Patton
Patton was born in 1885 in San Gabriel, California. His family had a strong tradition of military service and Patton followed this path by attending the Virginia Military Institute followed by West Point. He saw action in both world wars, but it was as a general in the second conflict that he rose to prominence.
Patton was given command of the 2nd Armored Division in 1941 and it was in tank warfare that his outstanding tactical abilities were most apparent. He led the U.S. Seventh Army in the Mediterranean, invading North Africa in 1942 and then leading his troops in the Sicilian invasion and on to Italy. After the D-Day invasion of Northern France, Patton led his men across Europe into the heart of Germany, crushing determined Nazi resistance along the way.
2. Duke of Wellington
Born in Ireland in 1769 Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, became known as the “Iron Duke.” After spending his early childhood in Dublin, the Duke attended Eton College and then spent a period in France perfecting his equestrianism and learning French. He joined the British Army in 1787 as an ensign with the 73rd Regiment of Foot.
There then followed a distinguished career during which he led troops in India and in the Peninsular War in Spain. But what he’ll be forever remembered for is the Battle Of Waterloo in France in 1815. Napoleon Bonaparte was still at the height of his powers. But Wellington, with the assistance of the Prussian general Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, was a match for him. Napoleon surrendered himself into British captivity a month after the battle.
1. Attila the Hun
Little is known of Attila the Hun’s early life, but he’s believed to have been born around 406 A.D. The Huns were a nomadic people who roamed Eurasia, moving further west from about 370. Attila led an alliance of tribes from 434 until he died in 453, perhaps from overindulging in alcohol.
Attila is best remembered for invading and vanquishing the might of the Roman Empire. He started in 441 by attacking the Eastern Roman territories, the Byzantine Empire. He succeeded in overwhelming the Eastern Romans and then marched on Gaul, which he failed to seize. He then turned his attention to Italy, devastating the northern provinces with his skilled javelin throwers and mounted bowmen. But for his untimely death, he might well have taken Rome itself.