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Sir Arthur Wellesley

7 greatest military leaders in British history

Britain has been involved in countless battles and wars throughout its history so it's needed some pretty skilled military leaders to guide it through.

The portrait of the Duke of Wellington (1815)

For centuries, Britain has been home to some of the greatest military leaders in the world. From the legendary Medieval King Edward I to the famous World War II Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, we take a look at some of the best military minds in British history.

1. Edward I

When the Welsh king Llywelyn ap Gruffudd refused to pay fealty to Edward I in 1274, it kickstarted a war that ultimately led to Gruffudd’s defeat and the subjugation of Wales. Key to the English victory was Edward’s skilful deployment of siege warfare and the use of mobile infantry and cavalry to respond to Welsh guerilla tactics.

With Wales vanquished, Edward turned his attention to Scotland and the rebellion of the Scottish nobleman William Wallace. Again, Edward’s use of combined arms, incorporating infantry, archers and cavalry overwhelmed the Scottish, leading to the surrender of Wallace and his grisly execution. Edward’s victories over the Welsh and the Scottish, as well as his construction of a string of imposing castles to ensure his victories were not quickly overturned, mark him down as one of the country’s greatest-ever military leaders.

2. Oliver Cromwell

Country gentleman farmer turned parliamentarian and soldier, Oliver Cromwell secured his place as one of the country’s greatest-ever military leaders in the English Civil War. Organising Parliament’s forces into what he called the ‘New Model Army’, Cromwell’s strategic brilliance and exceptional tactical prowess saw him defeat the Royalist army of King Charles I at battles such as Naseby and Marston Moor. This eventually led to the surrender and execution of the king and Cromwell ruling the country as Lord Protector.

A controversial figure to this day, especially due to his brutal suppression of Ireland that saw thousands slaughtered and the country subjugated to England, Cromwell is nevertheless acknowledged as one of the most formidable commanders the country has ever produced.

3. John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough

It is for his stunning victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704 that John Churchill is regarded to this day as an exceptional military leader. Facing a superior Franco-Bavarian force, Churchill used the surrounding terrain to prevent the encirclement of his forces and then used a diversion on his enemy’s left flank that drew forces away before launching a devastating artillery, cavalry and infantry attack. This left the French and Bavarians in disarray with hundreds of casualties.

While not the decisive victory in the war, Blenheim secured the stability of the ‘Grand Alliance’ forces lined up against the French, eventually leading to the Alliance winning the war. For his efforts, Churchill was given the title of ‘Duke of Marlborough’ and a large parcel of land was given to him on which he built the magnificent Blenheim Palace.

4. Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson

Renowned for his exceptional leadership skills, tactical genius and colourful love life, Horatio Nelson packed a lot into his 47 years. Joining the Royal Navy at the age of 12, he quickly rose through the ranks, receiving his first command at the age of 20. He showed just how good a commander he was at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797, employing innovative tactics against the Spanish to secure victory. A year later, he scored a decisive victory against the French at the Battle of the Nile.

It is, of course, for his stunning victory at the Battle of Trafalgar that he is most famous. Dividing his fleet into two columns, he sailed right into the heart of the French fleet and then deployed the devastating firepower of the Royal Navy’s warships to cut the enemy to ribbons. Tragically, he was shot by a sniper during the battle and died shortly after his most famous victory.

5. Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

Arthur Wellesley rose to prominence during the Napoleonic Wars, displaying a keen tactical eye for both offensive and defensive warfare. In the Peninsula War of 1807-1814, he used a combination of fortified positions and guerilla tactics to resist Napoleon’s forces, ultimately leading to the French withdrawal from the Iberian Peninsula.

The Battle of Waterloo was his crowning glory. Positioning his forces along a ridge in tight square formations that were difficult to penetrate, Wellington utilised the high ground to repel repeated attacks and cavalry charges by Napoleon’s army. The arrival of his Prussian allies was the final nail in the coffin. The French were routed and Napoleon was exiled. A calm disciplined and cunning leader, Wellington inspired fierce loyalty in his troops and his defeat of Napoleon cemented his reputation as one of the all-time greats.

6. General Sir Colin Campbell

Entering the army at the tender age of 16, Colin Campbell saw action under Wellington in the Peninsula War, as well as commanding a regiment in the First Opium War and a brigade during the Second Anglo-Sikh War. However, it was his actions during the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny that cemented his reputation.

Commanding the ‘thin red line’ during the Battle of Balaclava, he successfully repulsed an attack by the Russian cavalry that could have turned the tide of the battle in Russia’s favour. During the Indian Mutiny of 1857, he was made Commander-in-Chief of India, successfully relieving and evacuating the besieged British residency at Lucknow, and then leading the troops at the Second Battle of Cawnpore that saw the rebellion well and truly crushed. An exceptional, courageous leader who was loved by the men under his command, Colin Campbell is widely regarded as one of the greatest military minds of the British Empire in the 19th century.

Bernard Montgomery takes King George VI through battleplans
Image: Sir Bernard Montgomery (L) outlines his strategy to King George VI (R) in 1944 | Public Domain

7. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery 

Famously arrogant and dislikeable, Bernard Montgomery was nevertheless one of the country’s greatest military leaders. His leadership was instrumental in several major battles of the Second World War, in particular the North Africa Campaign. His ‘Desert Rats’ took on Rommel’s Afrika Korps in a series of engagements culminating in the Battle of El Alamein, where Montogomery’s meticulous planning and tenacity won the day and led to an Allied victory. 

Though ‘Operation Market Garden’ - his ambitious plan to bypass the Siegfried Line by capturing a number of bridges in the Netherlands - ended in failure, his reputation as a master tactician and inspirational leader remained untarnished. He emerged from the Second World War as much a hero to the British as Winston Churchill.