To call a military commander “undefeated” is difficult. Sometimes retreat is the correct maneuver. Other times, you may have won a battle even when your country lost the war. Still, there are some people that historians consider worthy of the title “undefeated”.
There have been many great military leaders across history, but to be able to call yourself undefeated is something incredible. Somehow, across history, out-of-the-box thinkers have time and again proven capable of victory, even in the face of terrible odds.
While not all may have taken the title of “general”, each had controlled the sort of forces a modern general would today.
1. Alexander The Great
The most recognizable name when it comes to undefeated generals is the leader of the Ancient Greek empire, and self-proclaimed conqueror of the known world, Alexander the Great.
Alexander had been tutored by the famed Aristotle and had been taught military skills by his father, Phillip II of Macedonia. At the age of 16, Alexander drove the rebellious Maedi from their lands, renaming the area Alexandroupolis.
Following this, he joined his father in several battles. When Philip was assassinated, Alexander took the role of king at only twenty years of age and began a campaign of expansion that only ended at his death.
Alexander’s conquering extended as far east as the Beas river in India before his armies refused to travel any further, being so far from home and tired of their advancement. Babylonian calendars at the time would speak of “Alexander, King of the World”.
While it is only a myth that Alexander wept when he heard there were still worlds to conquer, it is not difficult to imagine his continued expansion if he had not died at the young age of thirty.
2. Alexander Suvorov
Alexander Vasilyevich Suvorov was the last Generalissimo of the Russian Empire and Count of the Holy Roman Empire. During his time of service in the mid-18th century, Suvorov is said to have fought over sixty separate battles without losing a single one.
His first battle was only at the age of 28, where he commanded 100 cossacks who took a garrison of Prussians. It was the tradition at the time to not attack until one had an idea of the number of enemies ahead, but Suvorov famously exclaimed, “We are here to fight, not to count”, before taking his first victory.
During the rest of the Seven Years’ War, Suvorov made a name for himself, sometimes winning battles where his army was outnumbered 5 to 1. By the time he was forty, he had been promoted to general.
Because of how recently Suvorov’s exploits in history occurred, he is often considered the most important military strategist for new officers to study when training for the military.
3. Sargon of Akkad
Also known as Sargon the Great, the ancient ruler of the Akkadian empire is quite literally a legendary figure – it is difficult to separate myth from fact. The former cup-bearer of a Sumerian King, he later took the city of Akkad by force, beginning a reign that would last somewhere between 30 and 60 years.
Because Sargon reigned in the 24th century, BC, we have few solid details of how his conquests were won. However, we know he destroyed multiple cities, including Uru’a, Elam, Mari, and Ur. According to the Babylonian “Chronicles of Kings”, multiple uprisings were made against Sargon, each failing.
While it is impossible to verify if Sargon really was undefeated, his reign was so impressive that texts from two thousand years later still refer to his ability to lead, and multiple Mesopotamian kings took his name as an indication of their own ambitions.
The military leader that Marlowe would later immortalize as Tamburlaine was the founder of the Timurid dynasty, which controlled Afghanistan, Iran, and a large part of Central Asia during the 14th century.
Timur saw himself as the spiritual heir to Genghis Khan and was passionate about restoring the Mongol empire to its former glory. He was known to massacre entire cities of civilians if they attempted to revolt against him, and some experts estimate that his military conquests lead to the death of up to 5% of the world’s population at the time.
Despite his cruelty against civilians, Timur has always been recognized as one of the greatest military leaders in history, as well as an intelligent world leader.
Furthermore, European historians for many years revered the Turkish-Mongolian leader for his success in capturing the Ottoman Sultan, Bayezid, often portraying him as an ally to European countries.
5. Khalid ibn al-Walid
Khalid ibn al-Walid ibn al-Mughira al-Makhzumi was one of the military commanders in the service of Muhammed and played an integral role in the Ridda Wars, Conquest of Mecca, and the conquest of the Levant.
Khalid’s first battles were against Muhammed, at the Battle of Uhud. It was to be known as the only battle in the Muslim–Quraysh that was lost by the Muslims, and was primarily due to Khalid’s superior tactics.
However, Khalid came to find himself converting to Islam only two years later, and quickly accepted his role as one of Muhammed’s closest military commanders and advisors.
One of Khalid’s greatest successes was at the Battle of Yarmouk, where the opposing army had up to twenty thousand more men. With the advantage of higher ground, Khalid used his herds of Camels to break the lines of the Byzantine fighters, captured the Ruqqad bridge in a night-time operation, and drove a wedge between cavalry and infantry.
Considered one of the most important battles in world history, the success of Khalid’s forces ensured the final destruction of the Byzantine forces in the area, and made way for Muslim forces to recapture Damascus with little resistance.
While historians argue over how many of the exploits recorded about Khalid were accurate, there is no evidence that the commander ever lost a single battle, regardless of the army he was up against.
6. John Churchill, Duke of Malborough
John Churchill’s career as a soldier and politician occurred over five separate monarchs, and his life included a stint in the Tower of London, the quelling of multiple rebellions, and involvement in others.
Throughout this, Churchill gained recognition as an innovative military leader, who moved away from siege warfare and into open-ground battles in which his army could have the advantage.
The Duke of Malborough had many military successes before the War of the Spanish Succession, but it was his repeated victories there that cemented his reputation as a wartime strategist.
Unlike Eugene of Savoy (who won many strikes within these larger battles), Marlborough was rarely in the heat of battle. Instead, his command of larger forces, and ability to see “the big picture” left the Allies in a better position, even when small battles left them with greater casualties.
The Battle of Malplaquet, for example, incurred twice as many casualties for England and its allies but took further towns and cities from the suffering Louis XIV.
7. Scipio Africanus
Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus is best known for being about to defeat the great general Hannibal at the Battle of Zama, ending the Second Punic War. By this time, however, he was already known as a great military leader and lone fighter in his own right.
During the Battle of Ticinus, early in the war, Scipio Africanus charged a force of soldiers alone to save his father’s life. After the massacre of the Roman army at The Battle of Cannae, the 25-yr-old general took charge of the remaining forces and brought them back up to a fighting standard that would eventually win the overall war.
Scipio believed there was no honor in war, only winning. One of these most decisive “victories” was when a small band of soldiers (including himself) snuck into the camp of enemy forces in Utica and set it on fire.
Roman historian Livy estimated that over 40,000 enemies were killed or wounded in the blaze. To defeat Hannibal, Scipio spent time developing traps and tactics to quickly dispatch the dangerous elephants that had become the most intimidating aspect of the Carthaginian army.
8. Baji Rao I
The seventh Peshwa (or Prime Minister) of the Maratha Empire (now a part of Modern India), Baji Rao’s exploits as a military leader are almost mythic in telling.
When he took over his father’s position in 1720, he did so recognizing that the Mughal Empire to the north was in disarray. Seeing an opportunity to defeat a weakened enemy, he began an aggressive campaign that would conquer a great portion of what is modern India, and use tactics that would be studied for centuries to come.
Baji Rao was trained from a young age to be a military and political leader in preparation for taking over from his father. So impressive was his progress that he took over before his father’s death, and made immediate moves to expand the empire.
He is quoted as telling Emperor Shahu, “Let us strike at the trunk of the withering tree and the branches will fall off themselves. Listen but to my counsel and I shall plant the Maratha flag on the walls of Attock (a city in what is now Northern Pakistan).”
Baji Rao’s success was primarily because of his ability to quickly move calvary units long distances with little resources. Modern British general, Bernard Montgomery, was to later call Rao’s ability swift and unpredictable movements a “masterpiece of strategic mobility”.
9. Pepin the Short
Also known as Pepin the Younger, the King of the Franks from 751 to 768 is one of the greatest commanders to take the throne. With close ties to the Church, and supported by the nobility, he became the first Carolingian King after forcing his brother out of power.
There are few specific details about the battles led by Pepin, but his reign included aggressive expansion of the Frankish empire, taking the Rhone Valley, and all land to Bordeaux.
By the end of his reign, Pepin had taken control of all that is modern France (and parts of Italy), without a single military loss.
While Pepin is known for his great military and political maneuvers, he is somewhat overlooked today. Now he is best known for his son, the famous Charlemagne.
10. Fyodor Ushakov
Perhaps the greatest naval general in the history of military warfare, Ushakov has the enviable claim of having never lost a ship in battle. Born in 1745 to rural nobility, Fyodor signed up for the navy at the age of 16. By the time he was 20, he had commanded his own ship in the Black Sea as part of the Russian-Turkish War and was offered the chance to command Catherine II’s ship.
In 1783, Ushakov oversaw the building of a new Naval base in Sevastopol, before going out again into battle. Fighting against the Ottomans, and then the French, Ushakov gained a reputation for aggressive tactics that focused on destroying flagships and never letting the enemy retreat. He was integral to the Siege of Corfu and blocked French forces so that land units could arrive on the Italian coast safely.
Ushakov’s legacy is large. Several warships, a medal, and even a planet have been named after the commander, and in 2001 the Russian Orthodox Church glorified him as a Saint, declaring him the Patron of the Russian Navy.
11. Marshal Georgy Zhukov
Before Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov was made Minister of Defence for Russia in 1955, he was considered one of the most brilliant generals to ever fight for the country.
Conscripted into the Imperial Russian Army at the age of 19, he won the Cross of St George twice and was promoted to Officer by the end of the war. By 1938, he commanded the First Soviet Mongolian Army Group, where he oversaw the Soviet’s first fighter-bomber operation. Zhukov’s innovative use of spreading veterans among recruits, as well as technological ideas such as underwater bridges, tank formations, and targeted bombing, cemented his reputation as a creative and dangerous military leader.
Besides being an undefeated commander and general, Zhukov was also one of the few generals to express concerns about provoking Germany too early in the war. While his signature appears on the initial counter-offensive plan against Operation Barbarossa (a plan which famously failed), he claimed until his death that he was commanded to sign it against his wishes.
12. Prince Eugene of Savoy
Prince Eugene Francis of Savoy–Carignano was a field marshall of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg Dynasty in the 17th and 18th centuries. During this time, he commanded units around Europe in wars against the Ottomans, the Spanish, and the French. It was under his command that the empire won the Battle of Turin and The Seige of Belgrade.
A French aristocrat, Eugene applied to fight under Louis IX at only the age of 19. Refused due to scandals surrounding his mother, Olympia Mancini, he went abroad. Fortunately, his ancestors were part of the Habsburg line and he could join the Imperial service of the Holy Roman Empire.
Eugene was quickly promoted to Lieutenant-General and given the Order of the Golden Fleece. Over the next 30 years, Eugene was to win every battle he commanded, sometimes being the only part of a line that could hold against overwhelming forces.
Eugene left a large legacy, revered by the great military leaders of modern times. Napolean included him among his list of “seven greatest commanders in history”. While modern critics may decry his inability to pass on his knowledge or engage in wider military strategy, his performance as a general in battle was unsurpassed.
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