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Portrait painting from Carl von Clausewitz

7 greatest military strategists from history

Military battles from yesteryear might look like they were violent 'free-for-alls', but in reality, they were fought using great strategies implemented by these inspired tacticians.

Image: Written in the 19th century, Carl von Clausewitz's revolutionary book 'On War' remains one of the cornerstones of military strategy to this day | Public Domain

While some of the greatest military minds in history displayed their tactical genius on the battlefield, others left a lasting impression through their writing on the subject of waging and winning war. Here, we take a look at some of the greatest military strategists of all time.

1. Sun Tzu

Possibly the most famous book on military strategy ever written, the Chinese strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is still in print and being read by military planners over 2,000 years after he wrote it.

‘All warfare is based on deception,’ Sun Tzu wrote, seeing it as the key to defeating an enemy in battle through the use of cunning, strategy and adaptability. Sun Tzu emphasised the importance of understanding an opponent’s mind and turning that against them, exploiting their weaknesses to secure victory. He was an advocate of using intelligence as well as brute force.

Sun Tzu also urged military leaders to focus on the strategic importance of positioning of armies, and how terrain played a vitally important role when doing so. To Sun Tzu’s mind, planning and logistics were the key to military success and he has been proven correct time after time ever since writing The Art of War in the 5th century BC.

2. Alexander the Great

Born in 356 BC, Alexander the Great’s time on earth was brief, but what he achieved marked him as one of the greatest military strategists of all time. Inheriting the kingdom of Macedon at the age of 20 in 336 BC, Alexander set about expanding the empire his father, Philip II, had built. His genius lay in his natural ability to adapt to situations and improvise on the battlefield. Across Greece, Egypt, Persia and India, his skill as a strategist, in particular by deploying the combined might of his infantry, cavalry and siege engines, marked a departure from traditional Greek battle tactics, and made him an unstoppable force.

A natural-born leader, Alexander’s courage in fighting on the frontlines endeared him to his men and inspired fierce loyalty. This, combined with tactical brilliance, made Alexander and his army one of the most formidable forces of the Ancient World, as witnessed at the Battle of Gaugamela in 331 BC where Alexander enveloped the army of his Persian foes in a daring pincer movement that threw them totally off guard and helped Alexander secure a decisive victory.

Alexander’s innovative strategic brilliance, adaptability during battle and the unwavering loyalty he inspired in his men made him one of the all-time greats of military strategy.

3. Julius Caesar

It was for his leadership in the Gallic Wars and the subsequent Civil War against his former ally Pompei that Julius Caesar is considered one of history’s most outstanding military strategists. He proved himself an adaptable and innovative commander, with an ability to innovate on the fly, such as when he built two bridges over the river Rhine to attack Germanic tribal raiders who had thought themselves safe on the river’s east side.

The most notable example of Caesar's military genius came at the Battle of Alesia in 52 BC. In what would prove to be the last act of the Gallic Wars, Caesar’s army laid siege to the settlement of Alesia. Caesar ordered the building of two lines of fortifications - one to keep the Gauls in Alesia encircled and another behind his troops to keep relief from reaching the besieged. The bold tactic worked, and Rome was finally able to bring Gaul to heel.

A legendary general and politician with a singular strategic vision, Caesar's achievements in Gaul and in the Civil War earned him a reputation as one of the greatest strategists in history, and his innovative tactics on the battlefield are still studied and admired to this day.

4. Scipio Africanus

Born in 236 BC, Scipio Africanus was the Roman general who proved to be Hannibal’s nemesis. After Hannibal’s astonishing feat of bringing African war elephants over the Alps to meet and defeat the Roman Army in several battles on their home turf, he occupied large swathes of Italy for 15 years. Eventually driven out by the Roman General Fabius Maximus, it was Scipio Africanus who devised the bold counter-offensive against Hannibal’s forces in North Africa that proved his undoing.

Africanus’ genius as a strategist was to study the tactics deployed by Hannibal and then turn them against him. The lesson that Africanus took from Hannibal’s victories was the importance of speed, surprise and overwhelming force. Accordingly, he launched an attack on Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC with a force of infantry, cavalry and, yes, elephants, that overwhelmed the Carthaginian general and beat him at his own game.

Africanus’ defeat of Hannibal had a huge influence on Roman military doctrine, and his name has gone down in history as a brilliant strategist and military thinker.

5. Frederick the Great

King of Prussia between 1740 and 1786, Frederick the Great has gone down as one of history’s greatest military strategists. Over the course of commanding the Prussian Army during 16 major battles, Frederick proved himself a master tactician, favouring speed, flexibility, adaptability and deception to win the day.

As was witnessed at the Battle of Leuthen in 1757, Frederick favoured the ‘oblique order’, which he used to devastating effect when facing a much larger Austrian army. After creating a distraction on one part of the battlefield whilst hiding the bulk of his army from his Austrian opponents, he issued the ‘oblique order’, focussing his attack on one flank of the Austrian army. Confused, the Austrians collapsed and Frederick’s reputation across Europe as a master tactician was secured.

It wasn’t just on the field of battle that Frederick proved himself a formidable strategist. He wrote extensively on military matters, and his The Instruction of an Army General continues to be studied and much admired by tacticians to this day. A titan on the field and a great thinker off it, Frederick turned Prussia from an also-ran into one of the most powerful countries in Europe throughout his reign.

6. Carl von Clausewitz

Born in 1780, Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian soldier, military theorist and outstanding strategist. Written after the Napoleonic Wars between 1816 and 1830, Clausewitz’s revolutionary On War remains one of the cornerstones of military strategy to this day.

In his magnum opus, Clausewitz drew on his experience of fighting against the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte for the vast majority of his military career, emphasising how victory in war could be achieved by first getting the populace onside and then using the full weight and resources of the state to defeat the enemy. He also came up with the concept of the ‘fog of the war’, which acknowledged the uncertainties and confusion that war creates, and he urged generals to factor this into their planning. He also emphasised the need to be cautious when planning attacks, and to not overstretch one’s forces, highlighting the delicate balance required to achieve strategic success.

Clausewitz’s book earned him a towering reputation as a military strategist and his insights have shaped the thoughts and actions of military leaders ever since.

7. Napoleon Bonaparte

When it comes to military strategy, one man’s name rises above all others - Napoleon Bonaparte. From childhood poverty to Emperor of France, Napoleon’s rise to the very top was based on one thing and one thing alone - his genius as a military strategist.

Napoleon invented the ‘Corps System’, a revolutionary tactic that organised his army into tight, small units. This allowed for great flexibility, as units could be rapidly deployed to any part of a battlefield, strengthening attacks and plugging weaknesses.

The pinnacle of Napoleon’s military career came at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. Facing the combined forces of the Russian and Austrian Empires, the battle is cited by many historians as the finest example of Napoleon’s strategic mastery. By giving the impression that his army was vulnerable on its right flank, he lured the enemy into launching an attack. This allowed him to concentrate his forces on the Russian and Austrian centre. Once that had been demolished, the opposition collapsed and fled the battlefield in panic. The result was one of the most impressive victories of Napoleon’s extraordinary career and it marked him out in many people’s eyes as the greatest military strategist of all time.