You need strategic skills, charisma and political savvy to lead armies. Here are ten standout commanders

William the Conqueror

FRENCH CIRCA 1028-1087

In 1035, William became Duke of Normandy, but his detractors preferred to call him William the Bastard. He used his political and military skills to put down a series of rebellions between 1046 and 1055. By far his biggest success was the invasion of England in 1066. After a day-long battle against Harold II’s army on 14 October at Hastings, he emerged victorious. Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king, was killed and his army fell apart. William crowned himself and established a strong Norman influence in England. Returning to Normandy, he spent the rest of his life dealing with continental disputes.


ZULU CIRCA 1787-1828

As the leader of the Zulus, Shaka trained 50,000 warriors over 11 years to create a brutal force, which fought primarily with short spears and shields. His innovations included surrounding enemy armies and then wiping them out.

Rather than colonising and incorporating new territories, he simply destroyed settlements and enslaved or massacred the inhabitants. Shaka is renowned for being easily offended.

Napoleon Bonaparte

FRENCH 1769-1821

Napoleon rose to power during the French Revolutionary Wars that raged from 1792 to 1802. He made himself emperor in 1804 and successfully repelled the advances of the Russian and Austrian armies at Austerlitz in 1805. His army was able to secure most of western Europe for his empire, but in 1812 it suffered a major defeat in Russia.

Two years later, a coalition of forces defeated him at Leipzig, Germany. Napoleon managed to escape from exile to raise an army in France, but was ultimately defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 by the Seventh Coalition force commanded by the Duke of Wellington (see page 26 for more details).

Jalaluddin Muhammad Akbar

INDIAN 1542-1605

Known as Akbar the Great, he was tolerant of the majority Hindu population in India and established firm administrative control of the Mughal Empire. He used a system of ranking called mansabdari to assign his troops into 33 classes for maximum efficiency. Akbar’s armies won many victories in northern India and, during his rule, he tripled the size of the Mughal Empire.



Caesar began his military career in Asia. When he was kidnapped by Cilician pirates, his powers of persuasion and military skills came into play. He convinced them to ask for a higher ransom for his release, and as soon as Caesar was freed, he returned to capture them. Caesar led four Roman legions to keep control of Gaul and invaded Britain in 55 BCE. It was claimed that during the conquest of Gaul, a million enemies were killed.

In 48 BCE, his army defeated that of his political rival Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey) and Caesar declared himself dictator of the Roman Republic.

Caesar then became embroiled in a civil war between the Egyptian rulers Cleopatra VII and Ptolemy XIII. In 47 BCE, his small army survived the Siege of Alexandria and — with help from reinforcements — they defeated the Egyptian army at the Battle of the Nile.


GREEK 356-323 BCE

Alexander III of Macedon (in northern Greece) won virtually all of his many battles. In 334 BCE, two years after succeeding his father to the throne, he launched a series of military campaigns against the Persian Empire. In 331 BCE, his greatest military victory occurred at the Battle of Gaugamela in northern Iraq. His expansionist policies even included an ill-fated attempt to invade India, and shortly before his death he planned to launch an attack on Arabia.

His empire covered an area of 3.2 million square kilometres (2 million square miles), ranging from Greece and eastwards towards India and southwards to Egypt. His style of rule and tactical genius helped international trade flourish using Greek as a common language and culture.

Attila the Hun


Attila was able to consolidate the Hunnic Kingdom and expand his influence from Hungary into Poland, Austria, Germany, Russia and south-east Europe. His forces had a reputation for looting and pillaging, and were so feared that even the Roman Empire negotiated a peace treaty in order to ward off their advances.

Roman forces, along with the Visigoths, stopped his progress into Gaul at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451 BCE. This ( defeat did not stop him invading Italy the following year, though on this occasion a lack of supplies and famine drove him back.

Hannibal Barca


Hannibal commanded his Carthaginian armies against the might of the Roman Republic. One of his most audacious campaigns was to invade northern Italy by marching his army over the Alps. He fought his opponents by determining their strengths and weaknesses, and then capitalising on this knowledge to defeat them.

His tactics won three major battles (Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae) in Italy, which he occupied for 15 years. The Romans eventually forced Hannibal back to Carthage (in Tunisia), where Roman General Scipio Africanus defeated him at the Battle of Zama in 202 BCE. Nonetheless, his strategic skills were later employed by Prusias I in Asia Minor to great effect to repel Roman forces on land and sea.



Saladin was a Muslim leader who successfully fought against the Christian Crusaders. In 1174, he led an invasion of Syria and his forces came to dominate much of north Africa; he was declared Sultan of Egypt and Syria in 1175. At the Battle of Hattin in 1187, the Crusaders suffered a heavy defeat fighting Saladin’s army. This enabled Saladin’s forces to regain control of many key settlements and cities, including Jerusalem.


AMERICAN 1885-1945

In 1913, Patton designed the Model 1913 ‘Patton Saber’ based on his study of swords and sabres in battle. He went on to apply his knowledge of cavalry battle techniques to the use of mechanised warfare during WWI.

In WWII, he successfully led the invasion of Casablanca in 1942 and introduced tough discipline to the demoralised US II Corps in northern Africa. He led the Seventh Army in the invasion of Sicily and commanded the Third Army after the invasion of Normandy in 1944. He decisively mobilised forces at the Battle of the Bulge to quell the last-ditch offensive by the German army.

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