The True Kings of Battle

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Alexander the Great, shown in a 19th-Century engraving, makes Davis' list.

With apologies to the field artillery — who think of themselves as the kings of battle — that crown probably best sits atop the heads of those few commanders from long ago who could survey the entire battlefield, make a quick decision, and ultimately prevail.

That’s what makes military historian Paul K. Davis’ new book, Masters of the Battlefield: Great Commanders from the Classical Age to the Napoleonic Era, such a great read. There’s a lot we can learn from the great war leaders of the past. Davis, who teaches at Southwest Texas State University and the University of London, gives us a close look at 15 of them. Battleland conducted this email chat with him earlier this week:

Masters of the Battlefield ranges from Alexander the Great to Napoleon. Why did you select this timeframe?

I chose this timeframe because of the theme of the book, which is the specialization in the arena of grand tactics.

From earliest times through the Napoleonic era the general could see and respond to action on the entire battlefield, which is the essence of grand tactics.

I chose figures who were in overall command of entire armies, which became less and less the case in later times.


Oxford University Press

What are the common traits you discovered among great military commanders?

The key characteristic is the ability to read and react quickly. Secondly, there were the generals that were responsible for implementing new weaponry or tactics which their opponents could not or would not grasp.

Overall, to see what no one else of the time could see, and act upon it.

Is there a common flaw among them, as well?

No, not really.

Was it easier, or tougher, to be a great commander in the past than it is today? Why?

The use of grand tactics now takes place at a much lower level of command than it did with the generals I have covered.

Top generals today are not on the battlefield itself but in a remote headquarters.

In the modern era, where war is fought at the regimental level and below, the grasp of grand tactics has to be in the hands of colonels and below. However, the need to read and react, to see the natural strength and weaknesses of the terrain on which the battle is fought, is no different than it was for the generals I’ve covered.

Do great military commanders tend to spring from certain kinds of governments, or is that irrelevant?

Other than Epaminondas of Thebes and Julius Caesar, all the generals I discussed operated under some form of monarchy, but I don’t think that’s relevant.

It was certainly helpful, however, when the general was the head of government as well, as in the cases of Alexander, Chinggis Khan, Gustavus Adolphus, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon.


If you broadened your timeframe to the present, who would you add to your list?

From World War I I would add Col. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who fought a very effective guerrilla campaign in east Africa at a time when maneuver warfare was completely missing from the major front.

I would also possibly add the much-maligned Charles Townshend in Mesopotamia who managed to do a lot with a little before he was ultimately besieged in Kut al-Amara.

In World War II I’d probably use George Patton and Erwin Rommel in Europe, as well as Holland Smith in the Pacific for his mastery of amphibious assault.

Finally, I’d add Hal Moore for his development of air-mobile warfare in Viet Nam.