Once again, Deadliest Blogger presents its list of Greatest Commanders of history. This time, we tackle the difficult period of the Renaissance; defined here as the period from the second-half of the 15th century through the 17th century.
While some scholars would quibble with this broader time scope, it works very well militarily. During this 250 year period of history, the advent and integration of gunpowder weapons (“firepower”) on the battlefield reaches its fruition; replacing shock-and-melee weapons and tactics as the dominant force on the field. This is a period of increasing military professionalism, with many of the pioneers and great innovators of modern war taking the stage. The possible candidates for this list are so great and varied that many great commanders had to be overlooked, rated lower than those here. Some will of course take issue with the order in which I rate these, in itself an obviously subjective selection. But that is the fun of lists: to stimulate thought and conversation!
So let us begin:
25. Edward IV
Edward was born in 1442, the second son of Richard Duke of York. A branch of the Plantagenet royal family, the House of York found itself in a power struggle over the Protectorate of England during the reign of King Henry VI; when that king experience a period of madness. Henry was the third king of the Lancastrian-branch of the royal family; and their claim to the throne was technically weaker than that of the House of York. The result was the War of the Roses, a civil war that raged intermittently between the nobility for 32 years. Despite having most of the great nobles against them, York triumphed under the leadership of Edward. Becoming leader of his faction upon the execution of his father after the Yorkist defeat at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460; he reversed his family’s fortunes by defeating the Lancastrians at the Battles of at Northampton on 7 July 1460, at Mortimer’s Cross on 2–3 February 1461 and at Towton the following month. Edward was declared King in March 1461 after capturing London. Though the Lancastrians would defeat Edward’s chief supporter, Richard Earl of Warwick (the Kingmaker) at the Second Battle of at St. Albans on17 February 1461, their fortunes were in sharp decline. Edward found himself driven from the throne when his great vassal and right-hand-man, Warwick, turned against him; joining the Lancastrians and restoring Henry VI briefly to the throne in 1470. Edward fled to Flanders, accompanied by his younger brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the future Richard III). With the aid of his brother-in-law, the Duke of Burgundy, he raised a force and returned to England to reclaim his throne. At the Battle of Barnet on 14 April 1471 Edward defeated Warwick, and the Earl was killed in the subsequent rout. Edward secured his throne and brought the War of the Roses to a close for the remainder of his 12 years on the throne by victory over the Lancastrians at the subsequent Battle of Tewkesbury, on 4 May 1471. Edward was an accomplished amateur commander, who provided determined and aggressive leadership. While not in the same category of other great Plantagenet kings such as Richard the Lionheart or Edward Longshanks, he won nearly every battle he commanded in, often against superior enemy forces. He also had the gift of resiliency: he took misfortune in stride as readily as success; and always found a way to turn-the-tables on his enemies. He was among the handsomest of a line of kings noted for its good-looks. His impressive physique and height (approximately six feet four inches) along with his noted courage also made him a formidable fighting man in an age where a commander was often expected to trade blows with the enemy.
24. Pierre Terrail, Chevalier de Bayard
Often regarded as “the Last Knight”, an anachronism in his own time, it is often overlooked that Pierre Terrail, the Chevalier Bayard was a superb cavalry leader; and understood the military arts of his day as much or more than any other captain of the age. Born to a minor branch of the French nobility, his family enjoyed the dubious distinction of having a Terrail killed in battle in every generation for two centuries. Bayard was very early in his life involved in France’s Italian Wars, beginning as a teenager in Charles VIII invasion of Italy. Bayard distinguished himself at the Battle of Fornovo in 1495, capturing an enemy standard; and was knighted after the battle. In 1503, Bayard was the hero of a celebrated combat of thirteen French knights against an equal number of Spanish. At the Battle of Garigliano he single-handedly defended the bridge of the Garigliano against 200 Spaniards, gaining French forces much needed time. He played a key role as commander of the French vanguard in Louis XII’s 1508 Genoese campaign. In 1509 he was commissioned to raise and command a mixed company of infantry and cavalry; which became a model for discipline and professionalism. At the Battle of Agnadello his company played a key role in saving the French vanguard from destruction. Throughout the minor skirmishes and sieges that marked the next decade of the French Italian Wars, Bayard’s company and leadership were ever evident and effective. In 1513, he was in northern France to repel Henry VIII of England’s invasion. Though the French were routed at the Battle of the Spurs (Guinegate), Bayard won distinction and when captured, so impressed King Henry by his good humor and gallant bearing that he was released without ransom. At the Battle of Marignano in 1515, one of the great battles of the age, Bayard led repeated and effective charges by the French gendarmes (armored lancers) against the Swiss pike phalanx; the combination of French artillery and Bayard’s armored cavalry bringing the French victory that day. After the battle, Bayard had the honour of conferring knighthood on his youthful sovereign, King Francis I. He was given command of the retreat of the French army at the River Sesia. Bayard succeeded in extricating the army from a trap, but while directing the rearguard was shot in the back by an arquebuse, and died that afternoon in the care of his Spanish enemies. As a soldier, Bayard was considered the epitome of chivalry and one of the most skillful commanders of the age. He was particularly adept and keen in the arts of mounted reconnaissance; and was noted for the completeness of the information he gathered on enemy’s movements. Unusual in his age, he created a well-arranged system of espionage in the districts in which he campaigned, and was never caught unawares. In the long history of mounted warfare, he rates highly as one of the greatest cavalry leaders of all time. In an age of mercenary armies, Bayard remained absolutely disinterested but remained ever loyal to his king and country. To his contemporaries he was known and remembered for his romantic heroism, piety, and magnanimity: the fearless and faultless knight (le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche). His gaiety and kindness won him, even more frequently, another name bestowed by his contemporaries, le bon chevalier.
23. Gustav Horn
Born to a Finnish noble family in 1592, Horn studied military sciences under Maurice of Nassau (above). Promoted to colonel, he took part in siege of Riga in 1621 and was seriously wounded. He acted with distinction in Livonia, his troops conquering Tartu. With count Jakob De la Gardie, he led defense of Livonia against Poland in late 1620s. At the age of 35, he was elevated to the rank of field marshal, by king Gustav II Adolphus (See below). He was Gustavus’ second-in-command and among his best commanders. He commanded the Swedish left at the Battle of Breitenfeld in 1631; saving the day when the Saxon allies fled, leaving exposed the Swedish center-left. On his own initiative (King Gustavus was away with the cavalry on the far-right of the battle) he wheeled the Swedish line back at a right angle; preventing their envelopment by the right of Tilly’s (see above) Imperialist forces. Following the death of Gustavus at Lützen in November 1632, Horn and General John Banér were appointed to the overall command of the Swedish forces in Germany. He supported Bernard of Saxe-Weimar at the latter’s disastrous defeat battle of Nördlingen in 1634; and was taken prisoner. He was held till 1642, when he was exchanged for three Imperial generals. Following his exchange, Horn was appointed Minister of War. During the war against Denmark in 1644, Horn led the attack on Skåne and conquering the province, and laying siege ot Malmö. The Treaty of Brömsebro brought the war to an end before the siege ended. The conquest of Skåne became known as “the Horn War.” Horn later served as Governor-General in Livonia and Lord High Constable of the empire. When war broke out again against Poland in 1655, Horn directed the defense of Sweden against possible Polish invasion. He died in 1657, and is remembered as one of the most capable of the Swedish commanders of his age. His particular skills were in arranging defenses for every sort of situation. In an age when armies of mercenaries were often maintained by pillaging the local population, Horn was noted for maintaining strict discipline, not allowing his troops plunder the population. (In this he was in stark contrast to either Wallenstein (below) or his fellow Swede, Torstensson (see below).
22. Sir Thomas Fairfax
Fairfax was the creator of the New Model Army, and second only to Cromwell in reputation at the end of the English Civil War. He was born in 1612, a member of the English-Scottish nobility in the north of England. Because his father’s title was in Scotland, he was able to take a seat in the English House of Commons. He learned the arts and sciences of command under Sir Horace Vere in the Netherlands, fighting for Prince Maurice of Nassau in the 80 Years War. In 1639 he commanded a troop of the King’s Dragoons in the short-lived First Bishops’ War; and in the Second Bishops’ War the following year he commanded his troop as part of the English army which was routed at the Battle of Newburn. Fairfax nevertheless distinguished himself, and was knighted for his services in January 1641. In the lead-up to the Civil War, he was among those who urged King Charles I to find accommodation with Parliament. When the civil war broke out in 1642, his father, Lord Fairfax, was appointed general of the Parliamentary forces in the north, and Sir Thomas was made lieutenant-general of the horse (second-in-command) under him. Both distinguished themselves in the early campaigns in Yorkshire. Though defeated at the Battle of Adwalton Moor, they survived as a viable force; Lord Fairfax retreating into the port of Hull, where he was resupplied by the Parliament navy; while Sir Thomas raided with a force of cavalry around York, a Royalist stronghold. The Parliamentary alliance with the Scottish Covenanters led to a Scottish army under the Earl of Levan (a veteran of Swedish service in the 30 Years War) marching south to join with Fairfax and the newly arrived army of the Earl of Manchester (and Manchester’s Lieutenant General of Horse, Oliver Cromwell); resulting in the Siege of York. Fearing the loss of their northern bastion, King Charles dispatched his chief andn most talented lieutenant, his nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine to rally Royalists forces and break the siege. This led to the Battle of Marston Moor (2 July 1644) which proved the decisive battle for control of the north. Sir Thomas Fairfax commanded the rightwing, with John Lambert as his second in command with several of the regiments of foot in support. During the bloody fight that followed, Fairfax’s wing collapsed, and he rode to Cromwell on the opposite side of the field. There, Cromwell had routed Prince Rupert and the Royalist left. Fairfax rode beside Cromwell in his decisive counter-attack that crossed the field and shattered the hitherto successful Royalist left under Goring. Marston Moor ended the Royalist cause in the north, and made Cromwell’s reputation as a leader of horse. Fairfax was severely wounded, but acquitted himself gallantly. The following year Parliament passed the New Model Ordinance, which replaced the locally raised Parliamentary regiments with a unified, “New Model Army”. Sir Thomas Fairfax was selected as the new commander-in-chief with Cromwell as his lieutenant-general and cavalry commander. This new organization and command quickly proved its worth in the decisive Battle of Naseby (14 June 1645). The Royalist cause was lost, and the First Civil War soon came to an end. When the Second Civil War broke out two years later, Fairfax effectively led the New Model Army against the revived Royalists in England; while Cromwell defeated the King’s Scottish allies at Preston. At the trial of King Charles, Fairfax was originally the chief among the judges; but he left the court, refusing to take part in a trial that would ultimately condemn the king to death. Fairfax’s last service as commander-in-chief was the suppression of the Leveller mutiny at Burford in May 1649. After this he resigned his commission, and Cromwell replaced him as Lord General of the Kingdom (and eventually Lord Protector of the Kingdom). His break with his more radical associates and refusal to condemn the king led to his exemption from punishment a decade later when The Restoration returned Charles II to England and the throne. He took up arms for the last time to aid the restoration, when George Monck invited him to assist in the operations undertaken against John Lambert‘s army. In December 1659 his appearance at the head of Royalists forces was enough to cause 1,200 cavalry to quit Lambert’s cause and joined him. This was speedily followed by the breaking up of all Lambert’s army, end resistance to the restoration of the monarchy. Along with Monck, he was the head of the delegation sent to Holland to escort the new king home, and Charles II rode into London on a horse provided by Fairfax, at the king’s side. He died eleven years later in retirement in his native Yorkshire. His legacy is that of an organizer and a leader of horse. Though eclipsed by Cromwell both as a commander and a politician, his reputation remained intact with both the supporters of Parliament and his erstwhile enemies, the Royalists. He was an honorable gentleman to the end, who remained moderate in politics, gracious in victory and stoic in defeat.
21. Henry of Navarre
Military leader of the Huguenots in the latter half of the Wars of Religion in France, Henry of Navarre was baptized as a Catholic as an infant; but raised as a Protestant. As a teenager, he joined the Huguenot forces in the French Wars of Religion. He inherited the throne of Navarre in 1572 upon his mother’s death. Narrowly escaping murder two months later in Paris (for his wedding) during the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, he was a virtual prisoner at court till 1576. Escaping to Tours, he abjured the Catholic cause and rejoined the Huguenots. In 1584 he became the presumptive heir to the throne, something unpalatable to the majority Catholics in the country. This triggered the War of the Three Henries; a three-way struggle for the crown between Henri III and the Royalists, the Catholic League led by Henri of Guise, and Navarre leading the Huguenots. In his first battle as commander, at Courtras in 1587 Navarre defeated the Royalist general (and intimate favorite of the king), Anne Duke of Joyeuse. His tactic of interspersing his three columns of pistol-and-sword armed cavalry with supporting groups of musket or arquebuse-armed infantry (the first rank of which were ordered to kneel, allowing greater concentration of fire in the first volley), broke-up the charge of the heavily armored lancers; followed by a counter-charge that shattered and routed the now disordered Royalists. This tactical innovation presaged Gustavus Adolphus’ later use of “commanded muskets” to support his squadrons of Swedish horse. Two years later, both Henri III and Guise were dead; and Navarre fighting to confirm his kingship. His forces, now mixed Huguenot and Catholic, represented the “Royalist” faction. His opposition was the still powerful Catholic League, now led by Guise’s brother, the Duke of Mayenne; supported financially and materially by Catholic Spain. At Arques in Normandy, Navarre caught Mayenne’s much larger League army in a field too narrow for their numbers to be brought to bear. Several days of skirmishing took place, until a well placed battery and repeated charges of cavalry (Navarre always at their head) routed the enemy. At Ivry in 1589, near Paris, the opponents met again in the decisive battle of the struggle. Tactically, the battle became one of the most instructive of the century; a harbinger for what was to come. While the League infantry were equal portions of pike-to-shot (many of which were Swiss and German mercenaries), and the best of their cavalry were lance-armed; not a single trooper of Navarre’s Royalist cavalry carried anything but sword and pistol. While among the infantry, the proportion of shot-to-pike in the Royalist force was 3-1 in favor of fire-units over melee (clearly influencing the later tactical innovations of Maurice of Nassau and Gustavus Adolphus, below). The League cavalry, mixed German reiters and Guise-faction lancers were unable to coordinate their actions; harassed and disorganized as they advanced by Royalist arquebusiers. Navarre timed his charge perfectly (ordering his men to “follow his white plume”), catching the retreating reiters passing through the oncoming lancers and neither prepared to meet his charge. Galloping thigh-to-thigh, his lighter horse discharged their pistols in the face of their enemies; following up with sword. The Royalist squadrons broke through, and routed the League forces. It was a defeat from which the League never fully recovered. Thereafter, Navarre had to contend with Spanish forces, intervening directly to prevent a Huguenot king from ascending the throne of France. Now facing the foremost soldier of his day, the Duke of Parma, Navarre was baffled at every turn. Only that great soldier’s premature death turned the tide in his favor. Through statecraft rather than force of arms, he brought the war to a conclusion and secured the throne: he agreed to become a Catholic, in return for the surrender of Paris and the acceptance of his rule (“Paris is worth a Mass”). He ruled France well and wisely for another 17 years, before assassinated in 1610. As a leader of horse he was gallant and brave to a fault; with the great leader’s gift for timing. But it was as a tactician that he truly shone; his innovations and battle practice inspiring the most influential tacticians of the next century.
20. Hernán Cortés
Cortés was perhaps the ultimate military adventurer. Born of the minor gentry in Medellin, Spain, he immigrated at a young age to Hispaniola. It was 15 years before he was given the opportunity to show his native military talents; when, in 1519, he was appointed to lead a small expedition to explore Mexico. Upon landing on the eastern coast with a force of 500 men (13 of which were mounted), he burned the 11 ships that had conveyed them; by this gesture announcing to all his conviction to advance and conquer or die in the process. Marching deep into the heart of the Aztec Empire, a nation of several million and capable of fielding over 100,000 warriors, he displayed a brilliant combination of audacity with caution; statesmanship and diplomacy combined with calculated terror. He benefited greatly from and played upon the native superstitions, which suspected him of being the god Quetzalcoatl, returned. He first defeated and then formed an alliance with those tribes independent of and hostile to the Aztecs, particularly the fierce Tlaxcalteca. Through diplomacy, he gained for himself and his army peaceful admittance into the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, “The Heart of the One World“. Once there, he took prisoner the Aztec ruler, Moctezuma; using him as a puppet till that king was killed by his own outraged subjects during an explosion of outrage directed against the Spanish interlopers. Besieged in the heart of Tenochtitlan, his tiny force fought bravely, benefitting from superior weapons technology and European tactics. As the situation grew increasingly desperate, Cortez attempted to escape the city under the cover of night. In the process, his army was ambushed while crossing along the narrow causeway’s leading out of the city, in what came to be called La Noche Triste (“The Night of Sorrows”). Much of his force was destroyed, yet despite this nearly fatale reverse, a week later he defeated a large Aztec army at the Battle of Otumba. Buoyed by this success, Cortez retreated into the territory of his native allies, to rebuild his army. He returned the following spring and laid siege to Tenochtitlan; whose defenders were greatly weakened by a smallpox epidemic brought by the Spanish. After a two-and-a-half month siege, in which Cortez cut off all supplies to the island city by blockading the causeways into the city and interdicting canoe-born resupply by building and launching armed caravels upon Lake Texcoco; the Aztecs surrendered to Cortez. Cortez was the first and greatest of the “Conquistadors”, an amateur military genius who achieved more with fewer resources from his home-country than perhaps any conqueror in history. He was an accomplished diplomat as well as soldier, skilled in the ways of a Renaissance courtier; and his conquest would have been impossible had he not augmented his meager European forces with native allies. In battle he was courageous and aggressive. Both militarily and politically, he was an opportunist with an instinct for finding his opponent’s jugular. He would rate much more highly on this list, had he not faced an opponent armed only with weapons of flint and obsidian; or whose style of warfare emphasized capturing rather than killing their enemies.
19. Selim the Grim
Sultan Selim I, nicknamed Yavuz, “the Stern” (but often rendered in English as “the Grim”) was born around 1470, the youngest son of Sultan Bayezid II. He successfully rebelled against his father when his brother was named heir to the throne in 1512; exiling his father and killing his brother and nephews, in order to eliminate potential pretenders to the throne. His first challenges as Sultan was the growing power of Shah Ismail and the Shia Safavids. In 1511, Ismail had supported an pro Shia/Safavid uprising in Anatolia, the Sahkulu Rebellion. In 1514, Selim attacked the Safavid kingdom to stop the spread of Shiism into Sunni Ottoman lands. The two armies met at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514. The Ottoman army, using modern tactical methods borrowed from the Hungarians and Hussites, triumphed over the largely cavalry Safavid forces. Selim next turned his attention to the Mamelukes of Egypt; defeating the Mamluksfirst at the Battle of Marj Dabiq, and then at the Battle of Ridanieh. This led to the Ottoman annexation of the entire sultanate: from Syria and Palestine to Hejaz and Tihamah in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as Egypt itself. Ottoman power extended south to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, hitherto under Egyptian rule. After this, Selim took the additional title of Caliph; along with its emblems, the sword and the mantle of Muhammad, which had been in Cairo since the 13th century. He died in 1520, preparing to invade Hungary; a campaign his son Suleiman would take up five years later. Selim led the Ottoman Turks from a regional power to world power. His conquests of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt broke the back of his rival Muslim powers, the Mamelukes and the Safavids, annexing the former’s empire into his own. While strategically he was aggressive, his tactical methods, adopted by the Ottomans from the Hungarian and Hussite model, were based upon tactical defensive and emphasized the use of cannon and solid infantry (provided by the Janissaries). His victory at Battle of Chaldiran presaged and was the model for Babur the Mughal’s victory at Panipat in 1526.
18. Matthias Corvinus
Son of the famous Hungarian warlord and national hero, Janos Hunyadi (see Greatest Commander of the Middle Ages), Matthias Corvinus (or Hunyadi Mátyás in Hungarian) had been groomed by his father, whom he accompanied on campaign from the age of 12, as both a soldier and a scholar. In the disorders that followed his father’s death, he was at first a pawn of powerful factions. In January1458, however, he was elected to the throne of Hungary by the will of the townsfolk, who were loyal to his father’s memory; and by the efforts of his uncle and his father’s veterans. The young king (he was just 15) and his throne found themselves beset by enemies on all compass points: Germans from the west, Poles from the north, and Turks from the south, and by the Magnates of Transylvannia to the east, who considered him an upstart (he was the first king of Hungary not of royal blood). Dispite his youth, he delt swifly with and surely with these threats as he could. He struck first to eliminate the threat from the disgruntled Tryansylvannians, deposing those noble disloyal to his crown. That same, first year he recaptured a key fortress in the south from the Ottomans; and successfully campaigned in Serbia and Bosnia, receiving their submissions. For the next few years, Corvinus began the creation of the Black Legion (which grew to become Hungary’s Black Army, Fekete sereg); a full-time, professional fighitng force whose loyaly to the Hungarian crown. This project was inspired by his childhood reading of the campaigins of Julius Caesar. Initially, this force was comprised chiefly of Hussite renegades from Bohemia; but grew within a decade to 6,000 soldiers, and by their peak in the 1480s to a force of 28,000. It was a mixed force of heavy and light, infantry and cavalry. At time when all over Europe gunpowder weapons were only about 10% of any army, the number in the Black Army was 25%. Tactically, Matthias’ based their training and tactics on the Hussite model; though the proportions of cavalry were far higher. With this force he bolstered his authority over the nobility, and defeated enemies at all points. During the 1460s he campaigned repeatedly and ultimatley successfully against the Empire and the Bohemians (becoming King of Bohemia in 1469). He was wounded and defeated at the Battle of Baia by Stephan the Great of Moldavia. At Breslau, in 1474, he put his army into a fortified camp, where he was beleaguered by a Polish army. Corvinus so harried the besiegers that the Poles agreed to an advantageous (to Matthias) treaty the following year. In 1479, a force of the Black Army led by Pál Kinizs (one of Matthias’ officers, a commonor promoted by merit to high rank) helped defeat the Turks in Transyllvania at the Battle of Breadfield. In 1480, when the Ottomans seized Otranto at the heal of Italy, Matthias responded to a Papal appeal for help by sending a Hungarian force to recover the fortress, which surrendered to him on May 1481. In 1481, war broke out again against the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III. Matthias and the Black Army defeated the Germans repeatedly, taking every important castle and fortress in Austria. In 1485, he captured Vienna, marching into the city in triumph, followed by 8,000 men of the Black Legion. Till his death five years later, Vienna remained as the capital of his growing Hungarian empire. In 1488, Matthias took Ancona in Italy under his protection, and the County was occupied with a Hungarian garrison for a time. The king died just before Easter, 1490. He left Hungary the strongest Kingdom in Europe, having extended its borders to their greatest extent. His military legacy was the continuation and evolution of the Hussite tactical system begun by Jan Ziska; and of a professional, standing army. His tactical methods and organization influenced the neighboring Turks; and Selim the Grim’s tactics at Chaldiran in 1514 clearly reflect this.
17. John III Sobieski
John Sobieski was born in 1629, son of the Voivode (Governor-General) of Ruthenia and Castellan of Kraków. His mother was a granddaughter of Hetman Stanislaw Zólkiewski (see below). After graduating from the Nowodworski College in Kraków in 1643, he toured western Europe with his brother; where he met many influential military figures, including “The Great Condé”. He returned to Poland in time to fight in the first stages of the Khmelnytsky Cossack Uprising in the Ukraine. They founded and commanded their own banners (cavalry companies), (one light “cossack” banner, and one of heavy Polish hussars). Sobieski was promoted to the rank of pulkownik (Colonel); and fought with distinction in the titanic Battle of Berestechko in 1651. After this he was sent as a royal emmisary to the court of the Turkish Sultan in Constantinople; where he studied Turkish military traditions and tactics. It is likely he participated in the Battle of Okhmativ in 1655, with the Polish-Tartar allied force; thwarting a major Cossacks-Muscovite offensive. That year, Poland was overrun and devastated by a Swedish invasion (which, along with the current war against Russia and the Cossack rebels, came to be known as as “The Deluge“). Sobieski rose to prominence during the struggle; and in 1665 was promoted to the rank of Grand Marshal of the Crown and, the following year, to the rank of Field Hetman of the Crown. After defeating a combined Cossack/Tatar army in the Battle of Podhajce in 1667, Sobieski was promoted to Grand Crown Hetman, the highest rank in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth after the king. In November 1673 he achieved another major victory, defeating the Turks in the Battle of Chocim. The victory coincided with the death of the Polish king. Sobieski, the most celebrated leader in the Commonwealth, was crowned King of Poland on February 2,1676. Over the next couple of years he worked to establish a strong southeastern border in the Ukraine, fighting successfully against the Turks. In 1677, a Tartar invasion was expelled; and a peace treaty arrived at. This gave Sobieski time to rebuild the shattered Polish state, and to reorganize the army. To further strengthen Poland’s southern border and to prevent another attack from all sides, similar to the Deluge, he made alliance with Leopold I, of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1683, he won Poland’s greatest victory (and possibly saved Europe) at the Siege of Vienna. Besieged by the Turks, Sobieski led a Polish army to join his ally. On September 11, 1683 the Allies launched an assault upon the Turkish lines, to relieve the city. Sobieski charged the Turks at the head of the fabled “Winged Hussars”; one the most famous cavalry charges in history. The Turks were broken, and the city saved. (In commemoration of which the croissant, a pastry shaped like the Turkish crescent symbol, was created.) The Pope called Sobieski the “Savior of Vienna and Western European civilization” for this action. The following month the allies defeated the Turks again at the Battle of Parkany. He returned to Poland a hero, reigning 13 years. Sobieski was the greatest warrior king of Poland, in an age when Poland was second only to Sweden as the premiere military state in Europe. He fought in 20 major battles, commanding in all but eight of these; and was successful in all of these. To his Turkish enemies he was the “Lion of Lechistan“. As a king, he found Poland a hollow state, devastated by invasion; and left it strong and united, respected by all Europe.
16. Maurice of Nassau
Maurice was the son of the Dutch leader William the Silent. He became leader of the Dutch struggle for independence from Spain upon of his older brother in 1618. Maurice showed a genius for organization and tactical theory. He organized the Dutch rebels into a coherent, successful force and won fame as a military strategist; conducting an almost Fabian strategy against the superior Spanish forces. Maurice was inspired by and revived the tactical concepts of the ancient Romans (though much of this had been explored earlier by Machiavelli), updated for a pike-and-shot army. He pioneered new European forms of armament and drill, inspiring later leaders, including Gustavus Adolphus (see # One, below). Even before becoming the Dutch leader, he won a series of victories during the period known as the Ten Glory Years, beginning in 1590. Though he defeated the Spanish in open battle at Nieuwpoort (1600), the inconclusive nature of the victory convinced him that sieges of isolated Spanish garrisons was the wiser course. He is credited with the introduction of volley fire, at Nieuwpoort; a tactical method which enabled soldiers to compensate for the inaccuracy of their smoothbore weapons by firing as a group. This tactic would become the normal method used by all European infantry into the next two-and-a-half centuries. He instituted intensive and regularized drill in firearms and other weapons-handling; another feature that became standard throughout Europe, and allowed European armies to dominate the globe in the centuries that followed. Many of the captains on this list either learned their trade at his feet, or from those who did.
Raimondo, Count of Montecúccoli was the chief Imperial general of the late 17th century. Like his oft times opponent, Turenne, he was a general of the maneuver school of warfare; and was known for his brilliant strategic marches that bewildered his opponents. An Italian by birth, he served in the armies of the Austrian Imperial monarchs; beginning his apprenticeship in arms during the 30 Years War. He was captured by the Swedes at Breitenfield; and wounded at Lutzen. He made a name for himself as a cavalry commander in the later years, and rose in rank. The victory of Triebel in Silesia won him the rank of General of Cavalry, and at the Battle of Zusmarshausen (the last major battle of the 30 Years War, in which the enemy commanders were Turenne and Condé) only his stubborn rearguard action saved the Imperial army from destruction. He campaigned in Poland (where he may have been influenced by the methods of some of the great Polish hetmen of the day). In the campaign of 1673 he completely outmaneuvered the master, Turenne. His defeat of the Turks in the Balkans earned him the title of “Savior of Europe”. With Turenne and Condé he occupied in his day the first place among European soldiers. As a military writer and theorist, he influenced future commanders till the Age of Napoleon.
14. Oliver Cromwell
The leading Parliamentary general in the English Civil War, Cromwell was both a brilliant and indomitable captain of horse, as well as an insightful and unpredictable strategist. When the English Civil War broke out, Cromwell, a member of the minor gentry with little military experience recruited a cavalry troop in Cambridgeshire to serve in the Parliamentary cause against the Royalists. His troop joined the army too late to take part in the debacle that was the Battle of Edgehill; and spent the next 6 months recruiting-up to a full regiment of horse. Cromwell imposed a singular discipline and infused a religious and patriotic zealotry in his “Ironsides”; his regiment becoming the model for the Parliamentary “New Model Army” that he helped to create. At Marston Moor his cavalry were instrumental in the Parliamentary victory; which secured the north of England for their cause. At Nasby his cavalry dealt the decisive blow to the Royalist forces, breaking the opposing horse on the Royalist left. Unlike his counterpart, Prince Rupert, on the opposite flank who also routed his opponents Cromwell kept half of his squadrons in reserve; and with these turned upon the flank and rear of the Royalist foot, winning the day. After the Civil War, Cromwell showed even more political skill in manipulating events; and after orchestrating the trial and execution of King Charles I, was declared “Lord Protector” of England. During this time, the New Model Army was drilled to a perfection; England’s first professional, standing army. (For the first time, English soldiers were issued red coats.) In subsequent campaigns, in Scotland and in Ireland, Cromwell and the army he perfected showed their worth. At Preston in 1648 Cromwell inflicted a crushing defeat a Scottish Covenanteer army (many veterans of the 30 Years War) more than twice the size of his own. In 1650, Cromwell invaded Scotland. Though outmaneuvered by the redoubtable David Leslie (a veteran of Gustavus’ army in Germany), he saved his army and his fortunes at Dunbar; with a brilliant dawn attack which pinned Leslie’s center and left while enveloping his right. 3,000 Scots were slain and another 5,000 marched off to England (and subsequent deportation to America) in chains; while Cromwell occupied Edinburgh. However, another Scottish army led by the young King Charles II had landed in England, deep in his rear. In the subsequent campaign, Cromwell showed a strategic brilliance in a campaign reminiscent of Edward I’s that led to victory at Evesham. At the Battle of Worcester Cromwell destroyed the Royalist army, killing 3,000 again and taking 10,000 prisoners; at the cost of a mere 200 casualties. Cromwell ruled England till 1658, defeating every foe, military or political. He left a reputation as a dour and brilliant soldier and statesman. Hated in Ireland, a land he ruthlessly pacified as no English would-be conqueror had ever been able to do before, his methods were (as always) both harsh and effective. Upon his passing, he left England stronger, in a more secure position, and with a more effective army and navy than it had enjoyed since the days of Edward III.
13. Jan Karol Chodkiewicz
Chodkiewicz was a Polish-Lithuanian commander of renown, in an age of great Polish military leaders. Born in 1560, his father was the Grand Marshal of Lithuania in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. He studied at Vilnius Jesuit College and the Vilnius University, and continued his studies abroad at the University of Ingolstadt in Bavaria. (Education was a hallmark of the Polish nobility of this era, and along with the Sarmatis-Polish culture contributed to the glut of great military leaders Poland experienced in this era.) He returned to Poland in 1590, and soon formed his own rota (company); serving against rebellious Cossacks in the Ukraine under Stanislaw Zólkiewski (see below). He fought in the battle of Kaniów in 1596, and in the siege of the Cossack tabor near Lubney. He won such distinction during this conflict that in 1599 he was appointed the starost (Elder) of the Duchy of Samogitia in northern Lithuania. He served under Jan Zamoyski in his victorious Wallachian campaign, fighting in the battle of Ploie?ti in 1600. That year he was promoted to Field Lithuanian Hetman, the second commander-in-chief of the Lithuanian detachment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth army. When the Polish–Swedish War (1600–1611) broke out over the question of control of Livonia, Chodkiewicz accompanied Zamoyski north. He commanded the Lithuanian units on the right wing of the Commonwealth army in its victory in the battle of Kokenhausen in July 1601. The following year, he took command in this theater when Zamoyski returned to Poland. He captured Dorpat (modern Tartu), and defeated the Swedes at the Battle of Weissenstein on 23 September 1604. He won his greatest victory, though, the following year at the Battle of Kircholm in September 1605. With barely 4,000 troops, mostly the heavy cavalry of Hussars, he annihilated a combined-arms Swedish army three times the size of his force. It was a masterpiece of cavalry warfare (and perhaps the only time in the history of the period that lancers defeated pike squares). For these services he was rewarded with the rank of Grand Lithuanian Hetman. When the the Sandomierz rebellion broke out in 1606 between king Sigismund III and the Commonwealth nobility (the szlachta), Chodkiewicz was one of the few magnates who remained loyal. He commanded the right wing of the royal army during the Battle of Guzów in 1607, in which the insurgents were defeated; and then quelled the unrest in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, fighting against another rebellious magnate, Janusz Radziwill, until Radziwill negotiated a settlement with the king in 1608. The following year, he was operating once again against the Swedes, who had once again invaded Livonia. Marching towards Riga, which was blockaded by the Swedes under Mansfeld, Chodkiewicz saw a chance to destroy the Swedish naval squadron based in the Port of Salis. Gathering an improvised fleet, he dealt a surprise blow to the Swedish Navy at the Battle of Salis. The Port of Salis, together with stocks of weapons, ammunition and food, fell into his hands. Relieving Riga, he then recapture of Pärnu, and defeated Mansfeld’s army in battle near the river Gauja. This brought a halt to the Swedish offensive in Livonia; and a truce was signed in 1611. The Commonwealth was meanwhile also engaged in the Dimitriad wars with Muscovy. Chodkiewicz was sent against the Muscovites, operating near Smolensk and Pskov. Despite many Polish victories (including the capture of Moscow: see Zólkiewski below), the war was underfunded by the Polish parliament (the Sejm). Over the next few years, in the period of 1613-1615, Chodkiewicz defended the Commonwealth gains in the Smolensk area, and dealt with unrest in Lithuania as well. The Polish-Muscovite War had no sooner ended with the treaty of Deulino than a crises developed on the southern frontier; where the Turks, in the opening phase of the Polish–Ottoman War, defeated the defending Polish forces at Cecora, killing Hetman Zólkiewski. Chodkiewicz was hastily dispatched southwards, crossing the Dnieper in September 1621, with an army of 60,000; half of them Cossacks under their Hetman, Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny. He was opposed by an immense Turkish army of 120,000–150,000 Ottoman and Tatar forces, and another 13,000 Moldavian and Wallachian troops; led by Sultan Osman II in person. Chodkiewicz entrenched his army around the fortress of Khotyn/ Chocim, blocking the path of the Ottoman advance. The earthworks were designed to break the Ottoman assault and to allow counter-attacks by Polish and Cossack cavalry. During the Battle of Chocim the Turks assaulted the defenses repeatedly for over a month; frustrated in every case. A few days before the siege was raised and the Ottomans decided to open negotiations, the aged Chodkiewicz, already suffering from illness since the very start of this campaign, died in the fortress on 24 September 1621. His stubborn, last battle had saved Poland’s southern frontier. Polish historian Wanda Dobrowolska wrote that he was renowned for his talent as a strategist and organizer; possessed an iron will, which he was able to impose on the troops under his command. More respected and feared than beloved by his troops, he was an energetic and explosive antithesis of the composed Zólkiewski, another great hetman of this era, whom Chodkiewicz disliked and competed with throughout his life.
One of the foremost Imperial commanders in the early phase of the 30 Years War, Albrecht von Wallenstein was born of a minor branch of a Bohemian noble family. However, by advantageous marriage he gained some measure of wealth. At the start of the 30 Years War, he raised a regiment of cuirassiers at his own expense, and joined the on the Catholic side in the service of the Emperor Ferdinand II. During the early phase of the war, he won distinction fighting in the Imperial cause in Moravia and Bohemia; and was promoted rapidly. He served at the Battle of White Mountain, in which the Bohemian forces were decisively defeated by the Imperials. For his services in the Emperor’s cause, he was allowed to confiscated and consolidate Protestant lands in northern Bohemia; which became the Duchy of Friedland, with Wallenstein becoming its Duke and made a Count Palatine of the Empire. In 1625 he was granted an Imperial commission to raise an army. He succeeded beyond expectation, forming and equipping at his own expense an Imperial army of 30,000 (which grew to 50,000); which with Tilly’s Catholic League forces campaigned in Germany. That year Denmark entered the war on the Protestant side; and along with Tilly, Wallenstein campaigned against Christian IV and the Protestant princes. He was rewarded for his successes by being made Duke of Mecklenburg; after reducing that Duchy to submission. After capturing Danish Jutland, he was stymied at the Siege of Stralsund in 1628. This reverse, along with jealousies at Court, led to his dismissal; though he partially regained Imperial favor by a last-minute victory over Christian at the Battle of Wolgast (September 1628); which knocked Denmark out of the war. Wallenstein retired to his Czech estates (where he lived in an atmosphere of “mysterious magnificence”) for the next few years. During this time the Swedes entered the war, and the genius of Gustavus Adolphus unraveled all Imperial gains of the previous years (see below). After Tilly death at the Battle of the Lech, Gustavus occupied Munich and invaded Bohemia. Alarmed, the Emperor was forced to swallow his pride and beg Wallenstein’s to raise a new army. Within his private domains in Friedland, Wallenstein had built what was essentially a modern fascist state; where all the national energy was devoted to the preparation for war. The entire population had been put to work at weaving, preserving food, and building and stockpiling armaments. Wallenstein accepted, but only upon the Emperor granting him extraordinary terms: he was to be made a Palatine-Elector of the Empire, ruling absolutely such Hapsburg lands as Bohemia and Brandenburg (once regained); a Prince of the Empire. He would have absolute authority over the army, and the right to conduct diplomacy with a free hand. In mere weeks, he raised a fresh force of 40,000, mercenaries and scattered Catholic supporters eager to serve under so generous an employer. With characteristic alacrity, he drove Gustavus’ Saxon allies from Bohemia; then advanced against the Swedes in Bavaria. His strategy was Fabian, avoiding meeting the King of Sweden in battle, accept on his terms; which was to occupy by skilled maneuver advantageous positions, and stand on the defensive. He thwarted Gustavus at Nuremberg, defeating him at the Battle of the Alte Veste, while holding just such a strong defensive position. Marching into Saxony, he was surprised at Gustavus’ lightning march in response, catching Wallenstein unprepared at Lutzen. In a dense fog the Battle of Lützen (1632) followed, and after a bloody and confused struggle the Imperials were bested and forced to withdraw; but not before Gustavus Adolphus was killed. After this, Wallenstein then withdrew to winter quarters in Bohemia. Here, the Emperor grew alarmed that Wallenstein was plotting treachery; and the general was assassinated in his bedroom. Wallenstein was perhaps the foremost condottiere of all time. As much a military entrepreneur as general, he was a master of raising and training what amounted to private armies. As a general, he was cautious and never fought at a disadvantage. Strategically he took the offensive, a master of maneuver; tactically, he preferred the defensive, placing his troops strong positions. His vision seems to have been to unite Germany under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire centuries before Bismarck, and his chief disagreement with Ferdinand in the end was one over the primacy of religious matters. Ferdinand and his ally, the king of Bavaria were Catholics first and Germans second. Not so the Czech generalissimo, who would work as well with Catholics as Protestants; so long as it achieved his ends. In Freiberg he created a “modern” totalitarian state, well-ordered and devoted to war. Had he succeeded in uniting Germany, he might have created a militarized Prussian Empire three-and-a-half centuries before Kaiser Wilhelm.
11. Stanislaw Zólkiewski
Born in 1547, he started his career as a secretary and aide to Jan Zamoyski, future Grand Hetman and Chancellor, a notable commander in his own right. Zólkiewski gained his first military experience under King Stefan Batory during the Danzig rebellion in which he commanded a rota (squad) of Polish hussars. He subsequently participated in Batory’s Livonian campaign. In 1587–1588 the War of the Polish Succession erupted, between two rival candidates for the Polish throne: one Sigismund III Vasa, the Swedish candidate; and the other Austrian Archduke Maximilian III. At Byczyna (also called the Battle of Pitschen), the decisive battle of that struggle, Zólkiewski commanded the left wing of the Polish-Vasa army. The hussars under his command dominated the battle; and his skillful and heroic actions broke the enemy right, leading to the general rout of the Polish-Austrian army. In the final charge, Zólkiewski captured an enemy standard, but in the process received a knee wound, laming him for life. He was rewarded with the rank of Field Crown Hetman. In the next two years he was successful in repelling a Tartar invasion; and took command of the key border fortress of Lvov. However, his requests for reinforcements to strengthen Polish positions against the Tatars went unheeded. In 1595 he campaigned with Zamoyski against the Turks and Tatars in Moldavia; taking part in the successful Battle of Cecora. In the following year, he campaigned against rebellious Cossacks. In 1600 he returned to Moldavia, once more a subordinate to Zamoyski. He took part in the Battle of Bukowo, where the Poles handlily defeated the invading Wallachian forces commanded by Michael the Brave. In the following years Zólkiewski campaigned in the north and south, against Swedes and Russians, as well as Turks, Cossacks and Tatars. In 1610 he led Polish forces in the the Polish–Muscovite War. At the Battle of Klushino he won a striking victory against the Muscovites; and subsequently captured Moscow and Czar Vasiliy Shuyskiy. However, his plan to unite Moscow with the Polish Commonwealth failed when Polish King Wladyslaw IV Vasa refused to convert to Orthodoxy, a condition for his acceptance by the Russian Boyars. Returning to Poland, in 1612 Zólkiewski became a teacher and tutor of Stanislaw Koniecpolski (number 4 below). That year he returned to Ukraine to deal with continuing Tatar and Moldovan incursions, and to quell Cossack unrest. In 1618 became the most powerful man in Poland after the King, by becoming both the Grand Crown Hetman (Chief-of-Staff of the Polish Commonwealth forces), and Grand Crown Chancellor. He died at age 73 fighting the Turks at the disastrous Battle of Cecora, in the company of his student, Koniecpolski. His legacy is that of a supremely capable soldier who rose by merit to the highest place in Polish military and civil society. He was a masterful cavalry commander, a doughty warrior, and a skilled diplomat. His victory at Klushino was as seminal as it was surprising. Faced with a similar tactical situation as the Takeda samurai faced against Oda Nobunaga at Nagashino, that of a cavalry army having to dislodge a pike-and-musket armed infantry force firing from behind a fence and hedge, he succeeded where Takeda Katsuyori failed. He was a wise statesman, whose policies towards the Ukrainian Cossacks were moderate and fair; and had they been adheared to by the Polish government might have staved-off future Cossack rebellions. His negotiations with the Russian Boyars after capturing Moscow very nearly achieved a historical unification between the two countries, one that would have significantly changed both nation’s history.
Johann Tserclaes was a Walloon, born in February 1559 in Castle Tilly, in what is now Belgium, but was then part of the Spanish Netherlands. He joined the Spanish army at age fifteen and learned his trade under the estimable Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma (see below) against the Dutch rebels in the Eighty Years’ War. He took service in the Holy Roman Empire’s campaign against the Ottoman Turks in the Balkans as a mercenary in 1600. He saw rapid promotion, and became a field marshal in only five years. When the Turkish Wars ended in 1606, he remained in the service of Rudolf II in Prague until he was appointed commander of the Catholic League forces under Maximilian I, the Elector of Bavaria in 1610. He trained the League soldiers in the Spanish Tercio system, thought to be the most effective system at the time. At the outbreak of the 30 Years War, he led an army of both the Catholic League and Imperial forces against the Bohemian rebels following the Second Defenestration of Prague. He decisively crushed the slightly larger Protestant Bohemian forces at the Battle of White Mountain on 8 November 1620. This victory ended resistance in Bohemia for the remainder of the war. Tilly then advanced through Germany, and after three victories against German protestants in 1622 captured the city of Heidelberg. His defeat of Duke Christian of Brunswick a second time at the Battle of Stadtlohn; losing a mere 1,000 men for the loss of 13,000 of the enemy; broke Protestant resistance in Germany, ending the ‘Palatine Phase’ of the Thirty Years’ War. When Christian IV of Denmark entered the Thirty Years’ War in 1625 on the Protestant side, Tilly marched against the Danes. At the Battle of Lutter on 26–27 August 1626 his disciplined, veteran infantry broke the inexperience Danish forces; with more than half the fleeing Danes cut down by Imperialist cavalry in the pursuit. Tilly was joined by Wallenstein (above), and their two armies subsequently gained central and northern Germany, and their joined forces invaded Danish Holstein in September 1627 and advanced through the Jutland peninsula. Only their lack of sea power saved the Danish islands from being invaded. Denmark was forced to sue for peace, and the Treaty of Lübeck, signed in June 1629 ended the brief “Danish Phase” of the war. At this time Tilly and Wallenstein stood supreme in Germany, and 100,000 Catholic troops under their command stood along the Baltic. This threat triggered the involvement of Swedish in 1630, under their brilliant and warlike king, Gustavus Adolphus (see below). Before the Swedes could intervene, Tilly laid siege to Magdeburg, which had promised the Swedish king support. After two months and Gustavus’ capture of Frankfurt an der Oder, the Imperial commanders decided to storm the city. On 20 May 1631 the walls were breached, and Imperial troops swarmed into the city. Tilly either lost control of his men or deliberately allowed them to work their will; in any case, the soldiers massacred of the populace: 25,000 of the 30,000 inhabitants of the city perished. Along with the fire which destroyed much of the pillaged city, this was a disaster from which Magdeburg has never recovered. The Protestants of Europe were inflamed by this atrocity, and the Elector of Saxony joined Gustavus; giving his army permission to pass through his territory. Tilly marched against the Swedes, his army laying waste to Saxony as they passed. The armies met near Leipzig, at the Battle of Breitenfeld on 17 September 1631. In this battle Tilly found himself up against a master of war; and a tactical system much more flexible and able to deliver more effective firepower than any he had every faced. His army was broken and fled; only the second (and the greatest) defeat of his career as a commander. He retreated and regrouped his forces; but was killed trying to prevent Gustavus’ from crossing the River Lech and entering Bavaria. A devout Catholic, Tilly was called “The Monk in Armor”. Though he began his career as a mercenary, once he entered Imperial service he was a loyal to the Empire. He was a capable and highly competent soldier, who had learned the arts of war from the consummate master of his age (the Duke of Parma). He created in the Catholic League army a highly disciplined and effective fighting force. After the defeat of the Danes, he briefly achieved the unity of Germany under a single master. However, against Gustavus he was up against a true genius, and an army pioneering a new (and more advanced) tactical doctrine. Had he died before Breitenfield he would be remembered as the greatest German general of the 30 Years War, and perhaps one of the best of the Age?
9. Lennart Torstensson
The last great commander of Swedish forces in the 30 Years War, Torstensson began his military career as a page of his King, Gustavus Adolphus. He rose rapidly during Gustavus’ war in Poland; demonstrating initiative and showing a natural talent as a military engineer and artillery officer. In 1629 he became Gustavus’ commander of artillery; and contributed to the victory at the Battle of Breitenfeld. Captured at the Battle of the Alte Veste in August 1632, he was held for a year; and thus was absent at Leutzen, where Gustavus fell. He served well under Johan Banér till ill-health returned him to Sweden. Upon Banér’s sudden death, and though he was racked by gout (to the point where he could barely ride or even sign his name), the prematurely-aged Torstensson was sent back to Germany with 7,000 raw recruits; as Field Marshal and Generalissimo of Protestant forces. The Swedish and allied main army had become a collection of hardened rogues, and was in a murderous state of mutiny upon his arrival in camp. Last of the great names of the old days, the dour and ferocious old warrior succeeded in restoring order and imposing his fierce will upon this army of brigands. After a period of reorganization and recruiting, in which he gathered to his banner as hardened a collection of villains the world has ever seen, he invaded Imperial-held Saxony in 1642, crushing the Imperial army at the Second Battle of Breitenfield. For the next 5 years, he led his army in as brilliant a series of campaigns as the war had seen since Gustavus’ arrival in 1631. From Bohemia to Denmark, his army marched and counter-marched throughout Germany; bringing death and destruction to the Imperial cause wherever they passed. By this time both Torstensson and his army were past any notion of moderation; and rather than pay his forces with money that was in any case unavailable from a bankrupt government, he legalized rapine and pillage in lieu of pay. Amidst a war already famous for its depredations, Torstensson gained for the Swedish/Protestant forces (and himself) a truly demonic reputation. (Much of the modern German loathing for the memory of Gustavus and the Swedes fairly belongs not to Gustavus, but to Torstennson and this phase of the war.) At Jankau in Bohemia he won a victory as disastrous for the veteran Imperial forces as Rocroi was for the Spanish; destroying the Bavarian horse that along with the Spanish tercios had been a mainstay of the Hapsburg forces. At the gates of Vienna, Torstennson and his army finally ran out of steam and ground to a halt. His health finally broken, the Swedish Marshal laid down his command and returned home; leaving Germany (and the Imperial cause) a burning wasteland. Though the French under Turenne (below) would win the final victory at Zusmarshausen; like Sherman’s march through the South it was Torstennson’s brilliant chevauchée through Germany that broke the Imperialist will to continue the war. Torstennson’s achievement is all the more remarkable in that his lighting marches, which took his army from Denmark to the Danube was conducted by a general that often had to be carried in a litter!
8. Gonzalo de Córdoba
The foremost Spanish soldier at the dawn of the 16th century, he began his career in 1468 in the service of Isabella of Castile, sister of the feckless King Henry IV. In the subsequent civil wars that followed that monarch’s death, and which brought Isabella and her husband, Ferdinand of Aragon to the throne of Castile; de Córdoba gave good and faithful service. With the Reconquista coming to a close, he served in the final war against the Muslims of Granada; where he mastered the arts of “small war”: skirmishes, outposts, and vedettes. When Granada surrendered in 1492, he was one of the officers chosen on the Castillian side to arranged the terms. Three years later, when the Spanish decided to intervene against the French in Naples (the beginning of the Italian Wars between the Hapsburg and the Valois), de Córdoba (then in his mid-forties) was chosen by the Queen to command the tiny Spanish vanguard of 5,000 men (3,500 of which were sailors); dispatched while a larger force was gathered. Joining forces with the Neapolitan army under King Ferdinand II (kinsman of his namesake, the King of Spain). At Seminara, in Calabria, de Córdoba was overruled in suggesting caution and battle was joined against the qualitatively superior French army of occupation. The result was a defeat for the Neapolitan forces, the French Gendarmes and Swiss mercenaries proving a dangerous combination. De Córdoba won distinction, however, saving the retreating army through a spirited rearguard action. This would be the last time de Córdoba lost a battle. Profiting from the experience, he used the lighter Spanish infantry and cavalry in a guerilla campaign to drive the French from Calabria. The mountainous terrain, so much like Granada, favored the Spanish sword-and-bucker men (“Rodeleros”) and arquebusiers and the tactics of small war he was familiar with. However, he realized that to defeat the French in open battle the Spanish would need new tactics. To this purpose he created the colunella, a combined-arms battalion of pikemen, rodeleros, and arquebusiers; with which Spanish armies could face heavy cavalry or Swiss pikes in open battle. This was the nucleus of the later Spanish tercios, which would dominate European battlefields for the next century-and-a-half. After driving the Turks out of Cephalonia, de Córdoba was back in Italy in 1501 to face the French again. At Cerignola in 1503 he defeated the French, using field works to protect his arquebusiers from being overrun. This was the first victory in history attributable to gunpowder small arms. Later that year he inflicted a second, decisive defeat at the Garigliano; only the heroic actions of the Chevalier Bayard (see above) in holding a bridge securing the safe retreat of the French army. Thereafter, the war in southern Italy came to an end; and he ended his career as Viceroy of Naples. His legacy is that of the first “modern” general; called the “Father of Trench Warfare”. He changed Spanish military practice from an army geared to conduct skirmishes to one that would dominate Europe. He earned the title, “El Gran Capitane”: The Great Captain!
7. The Duke of Parma
Alexander Farnese was a nephew of both Philip II of Spain and Don John of Austria, victor of Lepanto. At 26 he fought in that titanic naval battle. Subsequently, in 1577, Farnese was sent at the head of reinforcements to join Don John; who was battling the Dutch rebels under William the Silent in the Netherlands. He became his uncle’s top subordinate, showing great ability as strategist. He won distinction at the Battle of Gembloux in 1578. Shortly afterwards he succeeded to command of all Spanish Forces in the Netherlands; upon the death of Don John. His strategy against the rebels was to divide the intractable Protestants in the north from the Catholics in the south; and in this he was successful. His veteran army campaigned tirelessly, recovering many of the cities and districts previously lost. Using bold and innovative methods, he succeeded in capturing Antwerp in 1584. By 1589, the situation was sufficiently restored in the Netherlands for the Spanish government to order him to intervene in the French Wars of Religion; where the Huguenots under Henry of Navarre (see above) were in the ascendency. Parma marched south, breaking the Navarre’s siege of Paris; and outmaneuvering that great soldier and confounding him time-and-again. Only his wounding at Rouen, which subsequently led to his death, saved Navarre’s cause and allowed the Huguenot leader to fight on to a negotiated settlement. Parma died at 47, in 1592. During his life, he was considered the foremost captain in Europe. His legacy is one of a soldier of excellence: methodical and determined, a professional’s professional. Like Caesar, he excelled in military engineering and siege craft; capturing Antwerp by throwing a fortified bridge across the Scheldt and closing off the city’s supplies. In Normandy, he saved his trapped army by throwing a bridge across the Seine, departing silently in the night, leaving his enemies an empty camp for prize. His greatest legacy, however, lies in what might have been: In 1586 he was poised to lead his veterans to the invasion of England. Only the defeat of the Armada prevented Parma from perhaps being remembered as the first and only man to conquer England since William the Bastard in 1066.
6. Stanislaw Koniecpolski
One of the most important and successful commanders in Polish history, Koniecpolski defeated Poland’s enemies from the Baltic to the Black Sea. His career began in 1610, during the Polish war against Moscow; and he fought at the Battle of Klushino, Zólkiewski’s masterful victory over the Russians and the Swedes. Under the command of Grand Lithuanian Hetman Jan Karol Chodkiewicz, he took part in the effort to relieve and supply the besieged Polish forces in the Moscow Kremlin. He fought under Zólkiewski again in the Ukraine two years later; and benefited from that great Hetman’s patronage and instruction, becoming his son-in-law in 1615. He was entrusted with many independent commands against rebel Cossacks, and against the Crimean Tartars. In 1619 he and Zólkiewski led a small Polish army into Moldavia to oppose the Turks and their Tatar allies. At the disastrous Battle of Cecora the Polish force was destroyed. Zólkiewski was slain, and Koniecpolski spent several years in captivity. When he returned, he was soon engaged in defending the southern frontier against Tatar raids. In June 1623, Koniecpolski was given command of local Commonwealth forces and ordered to stop these incursions. After multiple minor engagement, in February the following year Koniecpolski intercepted one of the Tartar armies and destroyed it at Szmankowice and Oryszkowce. Later that year, Koniecpolski defeated Khan Temir of the Budzhak Horde at the Battle of Martynów; thus partially avenging Cecora. His tactics against the light Tatar horsemen was to use the equally light Cossack cavalrymen to drive the Tatars toward fortified camps where Polish artillery and small arms could decimate them; followed by a charge of Hussars to finish the job. In 1625 he put down a Cossack rebellion; negotiating a settlement. The following year was spent again repelling Tartar raids deep into Polish territory. During these operations against the Tartars, Koniecpolski was aided by a highly capable Cossack officer, Bohdan Khmelnytsky; future leader of the great Cossack Rebellion (1648–1657). In 1626 a prolonged war broke out against the Swedes, when Gustavus Adolphus (see below) invaded with an army of 14,000; defeating the army of King Sigismund III in battle near the village of Gniew. The king retreated and called upon Koniecpolski to come and take command in this theater of operations. In the resulting campaigns, Koniecpolski succeeded in besting the greatest general of the age, Gustavus Adolphus, in several engagements. At every turn, he thwarted the technologically superior Swedish forces; choosing to engage in “small war”, attacking isolated outposts and detachments and making the Swedish situation in Poland untenable. However, he was defeated and personally wounded by Gustavus near Danzig. He returned the favor at Trzcianka in 1629, inflicting a sharp defeat on a Swedish cavalry force, wounding and nearly capturing Gustavus in the process; in what was the last battle of this war. (It was bullet embedded in his shoulder, received during this struggle and incapable of being removed, that in later years prevented Gustavus from wearing a steel cuirass in battle.) Throughout this campaign, Koniecpolski was hampered by lack of funds. Nevertheless, he fought on tirelessly till victory was achieved. For this he was promoted to Crown Grand Hetman, senior military officer in the Commonwealth. A believe in modernization, as Grand Hetman he worked tirelessly to improve Polish artillery and musket tactics. While the superb Hussaria remained the striking force of every Polish Commonwealth army well into the next century, Koniecpolski improved the quality of the supporting infantry and artillery. He spent much of the latter half of his life in the Ukraine, battling Cossacks, Tatars, and the Turks. In 1644, he won another great victory over the Tartars at the Battle of Ochmatów; which won him universal praise throughout Europe. He died peacefully two years later, basking in the glory of his triumphs. As a general, he was a believer in combined arms. His legacy is perhaps reflected in his performance against his nation’s greatest foe: of all the generals of the age, only Koniecpolski repeatedly bested Gustavus Adolphus.
5. Stephan the Great (of Moldavia)
Stephen was born in 1433, and was a member of the ruling House of Mu?at. At age 18 he was forced to flee his native land when his father, Bogdan II, was murdered at a wedding by his half-brother, Petru Aron in 1451. Stephan sought refuge first with Janos Hunyadi, the great Hungarian hero (see Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages); then with his first cousin, Vlad III Dracula (Vlad Tepes). In 1457 Dracula gave him 6,000 horsemen to regain the throne of Moldavia. Stephan defeated his uncle first at Dolje?ti, near Roman, and again at Orbic. Petru Aron fled to Poland, and Stephen was crowned Prince of Moldavia. Two years later, after a failed incursion into Poland to put an end to Petru Aron, he signed a treaty with King Kazimierz IV Jagiellon; whereby he became the Polish king’s vassal, and Aron was contrained from entering Moldavia. His reign as Prince of Moldavia was marked by wars against powerful neighbors; and efforts to strengthen and expand Moldavia. King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary (see above) invaded in 1467 in an attempt to subdue independent Moldavia after Stephan seized the powerful Black Sea harbor-fortress of Chilia. (The fortress had also been claimed by the Turks, and to buy time Stephan agreed to pay an annual subsidy to the Sultan.) Though outnumbered three-to-one, Stephan mounted a night attack against the Hungarian army encamped in the town of Baia. In the resulting street battle, the Hungarians were defeated in the Battle of Baia and Corvinus wounded three times. The Hungarian army was driven from the land, and Hungary gave up any attempt to dominate Moldavia. In the summer of 1470 (other sources give 1469), Mamak/Ahmed Khan, the Great Khan of the Great Horde, invaded Moldavia. Stephan’s forces defeated two of the three Tartar spearheads; but a third was in the process of carrying off a great number of captive women and children as well as cattle, horses, and flocks of sheep when Stephan intercepted them at Lipnic on August 20th. There is no clear description of the battle, but it seems that Stephan may have prepared an ambush ahead of the Tartars in a lime tree forest; then used his main army to force the Tartar column to divert towards the ambush. The Tartars were defeated, loosing their booty and a number of prisoners, including the Khan’s son. To protect his eastern frontier, Stephan strengthened the Orhei and Tighina fortresses and built the Soroca fortress, along the river Nistru. Feeling at last strong enough to confront the Turks, and in order to secure his southern frontier from Ottoman threats, Stephen attempted to liberate Wallachia in 1470. There his cousin and former patron, Vlad Tepes had been replaced by his brother, Radu the Handsome, an Ottoman puppet; and Ottoman troops garrisoned the land. Stephan invaded the country and burned down the town of Braila. Desultory warfare continued for several years, during which time Stephan was diverted by a brief war against the Crimean Tartars. In 1474, Sultan Mehmed, tired of what transpired in Wallachia, gave Stephen an ultimatum to forfeit Chilia, to abolish his aggressive policy in Wallachia, and to come to Constantinople and do homage. Stephan refused, and in 1475 the Turks mounted a retaliatory attack into Moldavia with a huge army. Stephen’s army (with a Polish and Hungarian contingent) defeated the invaders at the Battle of Vaslui; the same location where his father, Bogdan II, had defeated the Poles in 1450. Contemporary (though not necessarily accurate) accounts place Ottoman casualties at 45,000, including four Pashas killed and a hundred standards taken. In the following year, Mehmed invaded the country with an army of 150,000, which was joined by 10,000 Wallachians. At the same time, 30,000 Tatars under Meñli I Giray, attacked with their cavalry from the north; pillage the countryside. Stephan took chase after them, and utterly routed the Tartars, knocking them out of the war. In July 1476, Stephen was defeated at the bloody Battle of Valea Alba. Though he was forced to flee to the north (possibly even into Poland) to rebuild his army), the Turks were unable to capture his well-fortified strong-places. Guerrilla actions by Moldavian nobles and a counter-attack by Stefan Báthory, Voivode of Transylvania into Wallachia forced the Turks to withdraw with no gain. The result was Vlad Tepes was returned (briefly) to the Wallachian throne; and Stephan returned to Moldavia. In the 1490s, relations with Poland soured when the Polish king John I Albert attempted to replace Stephan with his brother, prince Sigismund (later king, as Sigismund I the Old). Stephan made peace with the Turks to secure his southern border, agreeing to pay an annual tribute to Constantinople. He defeated the invading Poles at the Battle of the Cosmin Forest in 1497; ambushing the Poles while they were marching on a narrow road through a thickly wooded forest. The Poles were unable to deploy their forces, and the forested terrain rendering the excellent Polish hussars nearly useless. Poland gave-up all further designs on Stephan’s throne. Stephan died in 1504, following a failed surgery to correct an old leg wound. He was subsequently canonized by the Romanian Orthodox Church as a defender of the faith, the only commander on this list to also be a “saint”. During his reign, he strengthened Moldavia and maintained its independence against the ambitions of Hungary, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire. During his life he achieved fame thoughout Europe for his long resistance against the Ottomans; Pope Sixtus IV calling him a verus christianae fidei athleta (true Champion of Christian Faith). He was victorious in 46 of his 48 battles, a remarkable record.
4. The Great Condé
Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé (called by contemporaries and later historians, “The Great Condé”) was the foremost French commander in the first decades of the reign of Louis XIV. A “Prince of the Blood” (his father was a first cousin-once-removed of Henry of Navarre, above), he started his career at a very young age, as the Duc d’Enghien. At 22 years old he was appointed commander of the French army facing the Spanish in the northeast of France. That year, 1643, he engaged a veteran Spanish army at the Battle of Rocroi. In this, his first battle, he led a brilliant and dashing cavalry attack that stripped the Spanish tercios of their flank protection; encircling and isolating them in a maneuver reminiscent of Hannibal at Cannae. The battle resulted in the decimation and near destruction of the Spanish forces; destroying forever the legend of Spanish invincibility established by de Córdoba and Parma. Forever after, Condé (so styled after his father’s death when he inherited the title, Prince de Condé) was noted for the boldness and aggressiveness of his actions. During the civil wars that came to be known as The Fronde, he was the leader of the anti-monarchists. At the Battle of the Dunes, he led the Spanish left, at the head of a contingent of French Frondist cavalry. His force was one of the few that fought successfully and with distinction in that defeat for Spain. Unlike his contemporary Turenne (below), he preferred great battles to campaigns of maneuver. Like Alexander and Napoleon, his particular genius lay in the coup d’oeil; the ability to size up the enemy at a glance and seize upon the proper course of action to overthrow them. He was as capable in his first battle as in his last; and his prowess never decayed with age. Also unlike Turenne, he was not sparing of his men’s lives; like Napoleon at times engaged in bloody frontal assaults. Upon the Condé’s death, Louis XIV pronounced that he had lost “the greatest man in my kingdom.” His legacy is more of military dash and glory than any lasting tactical or strategic method. He was cut from the ancient model, and unlike Turenne or Montecúccoli had little influence on future generals or the conduct of war.
James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, was first a Covenanter and later Royalist commander during the English Civil War. He became Earl of Montrose upon his father’s death in 1626, at the age of 24. Though he had no formal military education or experience (he was a dilettante in politics, poetry, and war), in1638 he became a leading commander of the Covenanter forces during the Bishop’s War; opposing the King’s attempt to impose Episcopalian doctrine upon the mostly Presbyterian country. He won an early victory at the Bridge of Dee against the Royalists; which victory helped bring the King to grant major concessions to the Covenanters. Between 1644 and 1651 Scotland was involved in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, as the Civil War raged to the south in England. Graham, now elevated to the title of Marquis Montrose, became the leading Royalist commander. King Charles, however, had no material aid to grant; against a foe that held every strong place north of the Tweed. He crossed the border into Scotland disguised as a groom, with but two followers and four “lean nags”. He knew that Scotland bristled with discontented men, just awaiting a leader. To the western Highlands he traveled, followed by three Covenanter armies, hunting him. Highlanders (particularly the Macdonalds) rallied to his standard, as well as 1,500 experienced Irish troops; who became the core of his tiny force. Though ill-equipped (in his first battle, at least some of the Highlanders were told to use rocks to “brain” their opponents and then take their arms) his fierce western Highlanders proved a terror on the battlefield, and the Irish were brave and steady. His subsequent Scottish campaign proved masterful, and showed that he was the only Royalist commander of the time who equaled the best of the Parliamentary commanders, such as Fairfax and Cromwell. Montrose’ highly mobile army outmaneuvered every opponent. At Tippermuir near Perth, on September 1, 1644 he faced a Covenanter army three times the size of his own. This was perhaps the last major European victory won by an army that relied upon battle axes and archery. Lord Elcho’s infantry were brought to a halt by a barrage of arrows and stones. Montrose then ordered his Highlanders to charge the Covenanter center; banking that the Lowland town’s militia would not stand before a Highland charge. He was not disappointed, as the wild Highlanders swinging claymore and Lochebar axe soon routed enemy; with a loss of some 2,000 to Montrose’s few dozen. Twelve days later he engaged a second Covenanter army at Aberdeen. Though most of his Highlanders had gone home with the loot taken from Perth, leaving him a mere 1,500 to face the Covenanter’s 2,500; he again won a tactical victory. After the sack of Aberdeen, many more of his Highlanders departed with their loot (a perennial problem with these effective but ill-disciplined irregulars). His diminished force of a mere 800 was confronted by the Marquis of Argyll and 4,000 Campbells at Fyvie. Taking a strong position on a hill surrounded by bogs on two sides, he concealed a portion of his small army off a flank. Indiscipline led to the trap being sprung too early, and the Argyll forces were able to back-out with scant casualties. However, Montrose now embarked upon his most ambitious maneuver. Leaving Argyll’s superior forces unaware, he vanished into the mountains; and by rapid marches debouched into the undefended Campbell lands on the other side of the Island. Its defenders away with Argyll, one Campbell stronghold after another were devastated. His clan’s lands being laid waste, Argyll marched rapidly to catch his nimble opponent. Montrose again outmaneuvered his enemy, disappearing again into the wildest mountains on the British Isles. Debouching at Inverlochy, he surprised Argyll’s forces in a dawn attack; leading to a decisive victory which gutted the Campbell power for a generation and brought much-needed support from Clan Gordon; who now joined the Royalist cause. The following years, he was confronted by veterans of the English Civil War, returned to Scotland to bolster the Covenanter cause. Again, against superior forces, he defeated all comers. His victory at Auldearn in May 1645 was a masterpiece of deception and tactical innovation. Soon after, at Alford, he again concealed forces behind either flank; nearly annihilating the Covenanter army. His crowning victory at Kilsyth was won again against Argyll; who despite outnumbering him more that two-to-one, were utterly destroyed for a cost of a few hundred. This victory left him master of Scotland, as Edinburg and Glasgow both capitulated soon after. Only the complete defeat of the Royalist cause at Nasby in the south and King Charles subsequent surrender ended Montrose’s string of victories on his behalf. Montrose would struggle on in later years with no support or success, in the cause of King Charles II. He would eventually be betrayed into his enemy, Argyll’s hands; and was executed as a traitor (despite being the King’s most loyal general). His reputation in Scotland was justly restored after the Restoration. He was the only general in the Royalist cause that could, perhaps, have turned the tables on Cromwell and the New Model Army; had he been used correctly or come to prominence earlier in the struggle (he was not commissioned as Charles’ commander in Scotland till after Marston Moor). Fortescue, in his “History of the British Army” ranks him: “…as perhaps the most brilliant natural genius of the Civil War.” No commander of the Age (and few in history) made better use of maneuver, surprise, or tactical deception. A natural and untutored genius, his generalship embodied the principles outlined in Sun Tzu. His victories are all the more remarkable considering the paucity and indiscipline of his forces, particularly his weakness in the cavalry arm; always against much larger forces. He is remembered in Scotland as “the Great Montrose”.
Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, Vicomte de Turenne was (along with The Great Condé) the foremost French commander during the French-phase of the 30 Years War; and was widely acclaimed as the premiere soldier of his day. At the age of fourteen he went to learn war in the camp of his uncle, Maurice of Nassau, and began his military career (as a private soldier in that prince’s bodyguard) in the Eighty Years’ War. The rest of his life was devoted to soldiering, as he rose through the ranks; and few commanders of his day were so singularly dedicated to arms alone. He was a master and primogenitor of the maneuver school of warfare, which became common in the following (18th) century. Though often constrained by political considerations and a paucity of manpower and funds, he achieved much to elevate France and the French military to primacy in Europe; a position it would enjoy for over a century. He was shrewd and at times cautious, and seldom wasted his men needlessly. He was a soldier’s-soldier, and both knew his men and was admired by them. In his campaigns he ever found ways to maneuver his opponents to their disadvantage. When he gave battle, it was always after gaining some advantage, and his battlefield conduct was rapid and audacious. He was the first of his age to use true turning movements, and at the Battle of the Dunes (which Napoleon called his masterpiece) he timed his cavalry flanking maneuver with the ebbing of the tide; which exposed the Spanish flank (previously anchored on the surf-line) to attack. In his memoirs, as with his dispatches to the Court, he was unusually candid. In these he always confessed his mistakes, and took full responsibility for any reverses. His friend, rival, and sometimes opponent Condé (his polar opposite in many ways) came to rely upon his sound military judgment. After Turenne’s death, when faced with a tactical conundrum, Condé turned to an aid-de-camp, and remarked, “What now would I give for a quarter hour’s worth of conversation with the ghost of Turenne!” After his death, King Louis XIV promoted several men to replace him as Marshal of France. Of these, Madam de Cornuel, famous for her witty aphorisms, remarked “They are but small change (compared) to Turenne.” Napoleon observed that while most generals decline with age, only Turenne improved with every campaign till his death; and instructed all of his subordinates to read the life and campaigns of Turenne to learn the art of war.
No name stands higher in this era than that of Gustavus Adolphus (“The Lion of the North”). The greatest of the Vasa line of warrior-kings, Gustavus was tall and powerfully built. He took command of the Swedish nation and its army at the age of 17 in 1611; and campaigned nearly every year till his death in 1632, on the field of Lutzen. He is often called “The Father of Modern Warfare”; understanding better than any contemporary the power of combined arms in battle, the importance of a well supplied and secure base, and the value of well planned and audacious strategic movement. His greatest contribution to the art of war was the development of professional field artillery corps; which he made both mobile and accessible at the regimental level. In battle he was fearless, like Alexander leading at the point of the decisive charge. No commander was more eager in battle, and like Condé believed in the decisive effect of the well-timed cavalry attack. Not since the great ancients do we find a commander who exhibited such effortless mastery of war. In outpost and garrison, he worked tirelessly, never trusting to others duties he could best do himself. He was noble and aloof, yet approachable to all; and only Marlborough surpassed him in the patient and tactful handling of fickle and unreliable allies. By his efforts he took Sweden from a second-rate, regional power to a dominant power in Europe; larger than any other state but Russia and Spain. The Baltic became a Swedish lake, and the empire he created lasted for 80 years after his demise. His reforms of the Swedish army focused on integrating light field guns at the regimental-level; and he increased the firepower of his brigades by greatly increasing the proportion of musketeers-to-pikemen. By lightening both the musket and the regimental field guns, he made both more mobile; thus improving their utility on the battlefield. He improved the performance of his poorly-mounted cavalry by supporting them with small detachments of musketeers; who by adding firepower increased their shock effect. In Poland, he was “schooled” by the great Polish hetman, Koniecpolski; and profited from these lessons in maneuver and the handling of cavalry, to good effect in his German campaigns. His bold thrust deep into Germany, where the Imperialist cause was everywhere triumphant, was as daring as Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. His tactical masterpiece was at Breitenfield, where he broke the redoubtable Pappenheim and routed Tilly’s veterans, even as his Saxon allies deserted the field; leaving his center now the exposed left flank of his army. Despite this reverse, his well trained army merely wheeled in good order 90 degrees, and fended off the Imperialist’s flanking maneuver while their king won the battle on the opposite flank. At Lutzen, he was slain when isolated from his bodyguards in a fog; and surrounded and shot down by Imperialist cuirassiers. His legacy was of a humane and brilliant captain of war; who in a brutal age and in the most brutal war of that age conducted himself in a civilized and “Christian” manner. He allowed no pillaging of the populace, and conducted no massacres of hostile populations. Though he mastered both north and (for a time) south Germany, the Swedish forces never resorted to the kind of terror common to armies of the time. He inspired other commanders by his example, as a man and a commander, till Napoleon; and the armies that followed Turenne, Condé, and Cromwell were based heavily upon the edifice he erected.
If you like this, check out 25 Greatest Commanders of the Ancient World
And the 25 Greatest Commanders of the Middle Ages
This was a difficult list to compose, considering the wealth of military talent in this age. The Renaissance brought an explosion of scholarship into the military theories of the ancients. Machiavelli and others wrote widely admired treatises on ancient methods, and how they could be applied to the armies of the day. Maurice of Nassau, likely the most influential innovator of the day, was heavily influenced by the ancient Romans; and the New Caesars of the Age led professional armies that, for the first time since the fall of Rome in the west would have been a match for those that followed Caesar or Alexander.
This was the great age of the Polish Commonwealth, when Poland produced the greatest cavalry and some of the greatest commanders in European history. It was also the Spanish century, when the Hapsburg-Spanish Empire was the greatest power in the world, and the Spanish infantry were the most feared in Europe. Spain’s place at the tope of the military food chain was challenged by France and Sweden. The Age began with Spain establishing dominance, and ended with Sweden and France the most powerful states in Europe.
Eastern Europe also produced several great commanders, beginning in the previous Age (and list) with Zizka and Hunyadi; continuing with his son Corvinus, Stephan the Great, and the great Polish commanders on this list. The Turks were also a great power in Eastern Europe; but their victories were more a product of a divided enemy (who all too often acted with suicidal stupidity on the battlefield) and an early adoption of combined arms tactics and gunpowder weapons (including history’s first heavy artillery siege train); than of great generalship. Only Selim can be credited as a great general; even his son Suleiman the Magnificent, who won many victories, relied on “underlings” to command his forces.
A superb article! Well researched and written. I only recognised 21–those darn Eastern Europeans! I would quibble that Wallenstein is too low and Montrose too high, but just excellent.
I found this from Big Board Gaming and will delve into the blog with interest. Thanks!
Thank you, Terry. I will continue to add new material. In the meantime, you can busy yourself perusing the archives.
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i always though though that vlad the impaler was extremely underrated as a military commander and that he was definitely one of the best generals of the period. What would you say?
He seems to have had some skills as a leader, but I see nothing to justify putting him on this list. Can you site more than one battle in which he defeated his enemies? Any lands he conquered, or how many times thwarted invaders (I can think of two).
they were all ugly
they ate to mutch cereal
Who, pray tell, ate “to mutch” cereal?
Shouldn’t Ieyasu Tokugawa be included as a talented battle commander of the late Renaissance seeing as how he instituted complete control over all Japan for 350 years
As noted in the piece, this list is restricted to the west and the Middle East.
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