Book Review: Military Commanders: The 100 Greatest Throughout History

Military Commanders: The 100 Greatest Throughout History, by Nigel Cawthorne

As a military historian, I have engaged in many conversations that discussed the greatest military commanders in history [1] and read more than my fair share about such matters as well. This book consists of about 200 pages of the author’s contribution to that debate, which makes for an entertaining sort of water cooler discussion among fellow military historians of the armchair variety, but often leads to a lot of wacky and idiosyncratic choices that make about as much sense as Kanye’s claims to be the greatest artist of his generation on Twitter. Given the many ways that a military leader can excel in warfare: grand strategy, operations, tactics, logistics, diplomacy, motivational leadership, and so on, and given the large number of obscure but noteworthy military leaders who are worthy of recognition over the long course of human military history, to believe that one can definitively give any list of 100 generals is an act of great hubris. Thankfully, it is an act of hubris that is generally better for entertainment and debate on either a scholarly or a popular level, rather than making up the elements of a Greek tragedy. This book is aimed at a popular audience who may not be aware of the many generals and military traditions that the author leaves off, and impressed at some of the obscure names that the author has chosen that many would leave off of their own non-definitive lists.

Rather than spend much more time ragging on the author’s questionable choices for the list in vague terms, I would like to comment on some of the ways this book could have been made better. For one, the book appears to suffer from a major case of presentism, choosing far too many leaders from World War II, while also choosing far too many British leaders of dubious skill [2]. Whole massive military traditions are left off–no great biblical military leaders like Joshua or David are included, nor Judas Maccabeus, while China during the Warring States period is represented only by military thinker Sun Tzu, and no one from the Three Kingdoms or early T’ang period. Likewise, there are no early Arab or Turk leaders, nor any of the great Byznantine emperors from the Macedonian dynasty, or Russians from the late 1700’s and early 1800’s, or Winfield Scott or Taylor, both of whom were way better generals than, to pick a name at random, Prince Rupert or Bonnie Prince Charlie. There are no fierce conquistadors on the list either, all of whom were pretty ruthless military leaders of astounding skill, nor any Japanese generals from the Sengoku period, like Oda Nobunga or Tokogowa Ieyseu, to give two examples. One suspects that this list was chosen with a goal of showing appreciation to various foreign cultures while also being chosen on the basis of familiarity to a British (and a lesser extent American) military history audience, with some unfamiliar names, but plenty of familiar names from familiar conflicts, some chosen with an apparent desire for balance on both sides of contentious conflicts (the English or American Civil Wars, for example).

Aside from the choices of its generals, which is certainly of a kind to stir up debate among the book’s readers, whoever they are, this is a book that is not long enough to be definitive guide, although it provides enough information to familiarize a casual reader of history with the people that the author considers to be notable leaders, even if they lost most of their battles or ended up having inglorious ends because of treachery or, as was the case with at least one leader, from cirrhosis of the liver aggravated by a sexually transmitted disease. Each of the 100 generals or military thinkers chosen is named, with their (probable or definite) birth and death years shown, a chronology of their life, a picture, a summary of their most notable military activities, and an inset that gives their career highlights, including their most famous battles. On the top right page of each name there is a quote by or about that particular leader, making this a well-organized and skillfully researched book, capable of provoking many debates among military historians of a popular variety about the leaders that were included and left out, similar to the way that the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame serves as a similar subject of debate among music fans with the same concerns about greatness and influence. This is a book to stir the pot, and at just over 200 pages, it will likely do so very skillfully and efficiently, likely encouraging interested readers in further and more in-depth study.

[1] See, for example:

[2] Here is the list of the author’s top 100. Where a particular choice deserves credit for bringing an obscure leader to wider attention, I will mark the name with a [!]. Where the choice made is extremely questionable given the fact that far better names have been neglected, I will mark the name with a [?]. In cases where the choice is both obscure and questionable, I will mark the name with a [!?], similar to the classification system of chess moves, based on my own subject opinion. Here goes:

Leonidis of Sparta
Sun Tzu
Alexander The Great
Scipio Africanus
Gais Marius [!]
Pompey [?]
Julius Ceasar
Marcus Agrippa [!]
Augustus Octavian [?]
Arminius [!]
Claudius [?]
Constantine I
Alaric I
Flavius Aetius [!]
Attila The Hun
Belisarius [!]
Alfred the Great
Athestan [!]
Cnut [!]
Harold II [?]
Charles Martel
El Cid [!]
Richard the Lionheart
Genghis Khan
Alexander III of Scotland [!?]
Edward I
Edward III
Edward the Black Prince
Henry V
Gustavis II of Sweden
Oliver Cromwell
Sir Thomas Fairfax [!?]
Prince Rupert [!?]
William of Orange [?]
John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough
Charles XII
John Campbell, Duke of Argyll [!?]
Charles Stuart [?]
William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland [!?]
Lord Horatio Nelson
Sir John Moore [!]
Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington
Napoleon Bonaparte
Michel Ney [!?]
Lord Howard of Effingham [!?]
Sir Francis Drake
James Wolfe
Shaka Zulu
Sir Colin Campbell [!?]
Charles Gordon
George Washington
Andrew Jackson
Robert E. Lee
William T. Sherman
Ulysses S. Grant
Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson
Cochise [!?]
Red Cloud [!]
Crazy Horse [!]
Frecerick the Great
Graf Helmuth von Moltke
Prince Otto von Bismarck
Alfred von Tirpitz [!?]
Paul von Hidnenburg
John Joseph Pershing
Earl Douglas Haig [!?]
Viscount Edmund Allenby [!]
Sir Henry Rawlinson [!]
Erich Ludendorff
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck [!]
Kemal Ataturk
Carl Gustav Mannerheim [!]
Gerd von Rundstedt
Douglas MacArthur
Archibald Wavell [!]
Viscount Allenbrooke [!?]
Yamamoto Isoroku [!]
George S. Patton
Erich von Manstein
Bernard Law Montgomery [?]
Heinz Guderian [!]
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Erwin Rommel
Harold Alexander [!?]
Mao Tse-Tung
William Slim [!]
Omar Bradley [?]
Georgy Zhukov [!]
Ivan Konev [!]
Vasily Chulkov [!?]
Orde Wingate [!]
Sir David Stirling [!?]
Vo Nguyen Giap [!]
Moshe Dayan [!]
Colin Powell [?]

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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5 Responses to Book Review: Military Commanders: The 100 Greatest Throughout History

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