The Top 20 Military Strategists Of All Time

In today’s post, I’d like to share what I believe are the top 20 military strategists of all time.

I am stepping into a debate that has been going on for years upon years. Everyone who considers military strategy will probably be prejudiced to their own culture. I am attempting to not allow that to play a roll in this post.

Military strategy is a major component in the education of officers at such places as the United States Military Academy, the Command and General Staff College, the Army War College and many others. It is through learning from previous strategies, both successful and failures, that military leaders can develop new strategies as well as employ ancient ones.

I am open for debate, but before you offer your opinion, please read this post in-depth and try to understand why I put each individual in the spot they are in. No, I am not necessarily agreeing with their methods or the carnage they committed with their armies, but that still doesn’t mean they were not great at military strategy. Just because someone is on the list does not mean I condoned their ways.

military strategists

What is Military Strategy?

So, what is military strategy? Here are two definitions I found online, to give you some perspective.

Military strategy is the planning and execution of the contest between groups of armed adversaries. Strategy, which is a subdiscipline of warfare and of foreign policy, is a principal tool to secure national interests. ~ Wikipedia


Military strategy is the practice of reducing an adversary’s physical capacity and willingness to fight, and continuing to do so until one’s aim is achieved. It takes place in wartime and peacetime and may involve using force, directly or indirectly, as a threat. Military strategy is often divided into four components: ends (objectives), ways (courses of action), means (resources), and risk. The practice of military strategy is described along with military power, which is augmented by nine “principles of war”: objective, maneuver, surprise, mass, economy of force, offensive, security, simplicity, and unity of command. A general will likely use combinations of military strategies, linking them into a series of operations or campaigns.

Therefore, military strategists are individuals who plan or develop military strategy. 

Top 20 Military Strategists of All Time

Now that I have explained that, let’s look at my opinion of the top 20 military strategists of all time:

# 20: Hammurabi

Hammurabi was a King of the 1st Babylonian empire. His reign started as peaceful, and he developed a code of law. The key to Hammurabi’s military tactics was strategic alliances. While enemies attempted to turn certain powers against Hammurabi, he allied with them and ended up controlling all of Mesopotamia.

If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.

If he break another man’s bone, his bone shall be broken.

If a man knock out the teeth of his equal, his teeth shall be knocked out.

If a builder build a house for someone, and does not construct it properly,

And the house which he built fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.

If it kill the son of the owner of the house, the son of that builder shall be put to death. ~ World

# 19: Isoroku Yamamoto

This is where I had to put my feelings to the side. Yamamoto was one of the primary strategists who planned and instituted the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was Commander-in-Chief of the combined fleet during World War II as a Japanese Marshall Admiral.

Yamamoto studied U.S. war strategies and developed his own Naval strategy that kept our forces in check for a long time. Yamamoto was the primary person who declared to Japanese leaders that an attack on U.S. forces at Pearl Harbor was a perfect military move. If they would have listened to him further, the attacks would have come to the West coast also.

Though the United States and Japan were officially at peace, the First Air Fleet of six carriers attacked on December 7, 1941, launching 353 aircraft against Pearl Harbor and other locations within Honolulu in two waves. The attack was a complete success according to the parameters of the mission, which sought to sink at least four American battleships and prevent the United States from interfering in Japan’s southward advance for at least six months. Three American aircraft carriers were also considered a choice target, but these were at sea at the time.

In the end, four American battleships were sunk, four were damaged, and eleven other cruisers, destroyers, and auxiliaries were sunk or seriously damaged, 188 American aircraft were destroyed and 159 others damaged, and 2,403 people were killed and 1,178 others wounded. The Japanese lost 64 servicemen and only 29 aircraft, with 74 others damaged by anti-aircraft fire from the ground. The damaged aircraft were disproportionately dive and torpedo bombers, seriously reducing the ability to exploit the first two waves’ success, so the commander of the First Air Fleet, Naval Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, withdrew. Yamamoto later lamented Nagumo’s failure to seize the initiative to seek out and destroy the American carriers or further bombard various strategically important facilities on Oahu. ~ Wikipedia

# 18: Cyrus The Great

Cyrus The Great was a mighty force in that he conquered and ruled one of the largest kingdoms ever. He conquered the Medians, the Lydians and the Neo-Babylonians. His military skill was uncanny, and I could write a book just on the military strategy of Cyrus The Great.

The main strategy that I see is his respect of the religions and cultures of the lands he conquered. By doing so, the people were subdued, and many even became warriors in his armies.

Diversity in counsel, unity in command. ~ Cyrus the Great

# 17: Sam Manekshaw

This military genius was a part of bringing independence to India. He showed magnificent battle strategies in World War II against the Japanese. But, Field Marshal Manekshaw showed his greatest strategic moves against Pakistan in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, which created Bangladesh. Asked what would have happened if he would have sided with Pakistan, he declared “I guess Pakistan would have won.”

There will be no withdrawal without written orders and these orders shall never be issued. ~ Sam Manekshaw

# 16: Saladin

He was the Sultan of Egypt and Syria, and it was his military strategies that allowed Muslim victory against the Crusaders in Levant. He conquered Palestine and even captured Jerusalem. He was a leader that soldiers would do anything for. Also, he was wise in defending what was already taken and knew how to move troops to key points.

# 15: Subutai

I have heard many people claim that Ghengis Khan was a great strategist, but the man behind the Khan was Subutai. Before radios and such, Subutai controlled armies many miles apart from each other. He is known for conquering more territory than any other commander in all of history.

Subutai was known for using engineers in wars. If Ogedei Khan would not have died, Subutai would have probably conquered the Roman Empire.

# 14: Horatio Nelson

Admiral Lord Nelson was a leader of the British Royal Navy. His strategies in naval warfare have been studied and used by Naval leaders for years. Nelson was wise in ship movement and when to attack and when to retreat.

The sailors led by Nelson had great respect for his leadership abilities. His strategies were fearless and wise.

Time is everything; five minutes make the difference between victory and defeat. ~ Horatio Nelson

# 13: Vasily Chuikov

This Russian Lieutenant General used what he called “Hugging the Enemy” as one of his main military strategies. What that meant were guerrilla warfare tactics. It is how he used these techniques in the Battle of Stalingrad against the Nazis that drove back German forces.

# 12: Joshua

The best-selling book of all time is the Bible. The book is full of military strategy if you look closely, and one who was a great strategist was Joshua. Joshua was known for using ambushing tactics. Against the city of Ai, he chose warriors to go around the back side, and he and his warriors went towards the city and drew them out. As Joshua and his forces ran, the forces he sent behind attacked the armies of Ai from behind, and Joshua turned his forces and they destroyed them which allowed them to take the city.

Besides, believe or not, Joshua had the greatest weapon of all…God.

# 11: Scipio Africanus

He was a Roman warrior who actually defeated the #1 strategist that is on this list. He is also known for great victories all throughout Africa, hence his name. Using great strategic moves against armies using elephants, Scipio used unique means that Roman soldiers did not do in normal warfare. He also used the Roman trumpets to frighten the huge beasts.

He was a Roman general and statesman, most notable as one of the main architects of Rome’s victory against Carthage in the Second Punic War. Often regarded as one of the best military commanders and strategists of all time, his greatest military achievement was the defeat of Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 202 BC. ~ Wikipedia

# 10: Dwight Eisenhower

While D-Day was deadly for allied forces, it was a move that Eisenhower was a major planner in that turned the tide of World War II. His military strategy was so great that the American people made him our President.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. ~ General Ike

nothing ever goes exactly as planned

# 9: Carl von Clausewitz

This Prussian General was a strategic marvel. As many others, a book could be written on Clausewitz’s military strategies and ideas. To put everything in a simple summary, he believed that subordinate leaders of troops must make quick and decisive decisions, and he believed in giving them the power and ability to do so, even if they went against a primary plan.

# 8: Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson

If you study military strategy, you can never leave out one of the greatest Confederate Generals, Stonewall Jackson. Jackson, even when outnumbered used techniques of guerrilla warfare that both surprised and frightened Union forces.

Many claim that if Jackson did not die, the Confederates might have won the war.

War means fighting. The business of the soldier is to fight. Armies are not called out to dig trenches, to throw up breastworks, to live in camps, but to find the enemy and strike him; to invade his country, and do him all possible damage in the shortest possible time. This will involve great destruction of life and property while it lasts; but such a war will of necessity be of brief continuance, and so would be an economy of life and property in the end. ~ General Stonewall Jackson

# 7: Julius Caesar

Caesar was a master of using reverse psychology with his troops. Other leaders were in the rear and on horseback, he walked and was near the front. He respected his soldiers and showed them so. He also punished them in severe ways.

His battle strategy was one at a time. He took and either allied the armies or destroyed them.

Quite simply…Caesar did what had to be done to win.

I came. I saw. I conquered. ~ Julius Caesar

# 6: Erich von Manstein

Hitler listened to the battle strategies of von Manstein consistently. He used the Sickle Cut maneuver to cut off the French and allied forces by cutting through the Ardennes. His tactics against the Russians were wisdom at its finest, but when Germany started losing, Hitler put blame on von Manstein. He was captured by the British and ended up spending 4 years in prison. After his release, he helped the rebuilding of West Germany’s system.

# 5: Erwin Rommel

Known as the “Desert Fox,” Rommel demonstrated suburb military strategies in desert warfare in Africa. He was skilled at moving soldiers through the midst of the enemy in the cover of night and at using flanking maneuvers to attack from both front and rear.

It is claimed that Rommel was a part of the plan to assassinate Hitler. He was forced to commit suicide.

# 4: Sun Tzu

This ancient Chinese military master wrote the book, “The Art Of War.” That book is still considered mandatory reading by military leaders going through the Army War College.

Some may wonder why he isn’t first. I must say that 1-4 are all so close, they all are tops in my book.

Fire attacks come in five forms: burning people, burning provisions, burning tools, burning storage facilities, and burning arms. The use of fire should be rational and for a purpose.

Use fire not to destroy but to create opportunities. The use of fire should be to cause a disruption or vulnerability in your enemy or confuse them. When using fire attacks, the Art of War strategy is to follow-up swiftly to take advantage of the mayhem caused. Finding opportunities in chaos is an important element of Sun Tzu’s strategy. ~ Short

# 3: Alexander The Great

One of the main strategies of Alexander The Great was relying on his skilled soldiers. He put his trust and faith in them. He also was a leader who anticipated enemy movements. And, he would study the possibilities the enemy may attempt, and he would counter them. This is how he built one of the largest kingdoms in the world.

Alexander was 32 when he died in 323 B.C.E. During his 13-year reign as the king of Macedonia, Alexander created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to northwestern India. ~ National

sun tzu quote

# 2: Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon was a great military strategist who used prior strategies designed for his own use. It is just what we should be doing. Napoleon was not fond of new technologies, but using old ones redesigned to meet the needs of he and his troops.

Napoleon was a master of the divide and conquer philosophy. He used this many times against enemies with larger forces. He would find a way to split them, and then defeat the smaller forces one by one.

He was also a pro at outflanking the enemy. The few times when the enemy beat him to the flank, Napoleon’s forces were defeated.

If you build an army of 100 lions and their leader is a dog, in any fight, the lions will die like a dog. But if you build an army of 100 dogs and their leader is a lion, all dogs will fight as a lion. ~ Napoleon Bonaparte

# 1: Hannibal Barca

Hannibal from Carthage is my choice for the greatest military strategist of all time. His skill at reading the strengths and the weaknesses of the enemy were amazing. Even Hannibal’s greatest enemy, Rome learned from his war strategies.

As strong as Rome was, the people and the soldiers feared Hannibal. His cunning mastery of war was second to none.

I will either find a way, or make one. ~ Hannibal Barca

Military Strategies That Worked

Battles and wars are similar to the game of chess. Leaders and commanders must develop plans, strategies, and tactics. Some of these tactics are copies of past strategies that have been successful, and others are completely new ideas.

In the following paragraphs, I am going back in time and looking at some of the greatest military tactics ever used. Many of these strategies could be used in formats that coincide with more technologically advanced military units.

It is my belief that every military leader should study military tactics and strategies. By doing so, they can have ideas when faced with various situations when in any battle.

Here are 7 great military tactics and strategies that worked.

# 1: The Battle of Kiev

Approximately 1,000,000 Russian soldiers were ordered by Stalin to defend and hold the Ukranian city of Kiev. The Germans used a tactic that was amazing. Panzer units moved in groupings all around the city. Using circular rings, they encircled the Russian forces, and one Panzer group attacked from the front. The circles tightened on the city, and in the end, over 600,000 Russian soldiers surrendered, and 50 Russian divisions were destroyed.

# 2: Wei and Ch’i

In ancient China, the Han Dynasty was under siege from the Wei. The King of Ch’i sent his forces, but they were considered incompetent warriors by the Wei. Over the years, many of the Ch’i were known to desert their duties. But, what the Wei did not know was Sun Pin who was a descendant of Sun Tzu who wrote the book: The Art of War, was leading the Ch’i warriors.

Knowing the terrible reputation of desertion of the Ch’i, Sun Pin had fewer fires lit as they marched toward the enemy. This gave the Wei a belief that the Ch’i were losing men. When it seemed the Ch’i had lost over ½ the warriors, the Wei decided to attack only to discover they were outnumbered.

The leader of the Wei, P’ang Chuan, committed suicide knowing they were going to lose.

# 3: Using Religious Observances

The ancient Egyptians worshiped cats. The Persians used this against them. They rounded up all their shields and painted cats on them. They also brought Persian cats to the battle. Seeing all those cats, the Egyptians would not fire upon them, because it was ruled that an Egyptian would be put to death if they harmed a cat.

They died anyway because the Persians destroyed them.

Has this tactic been used recently? I have heard of soldiers dipping their ammo in pork blood and telling Islamic terrorist organizations they did so. The Muslims believe the pig to be quite unclean, and just touching 1 will send them to eternal damnation.

# 4: Camel on Fire

In the 1300’s, Timur who was a direct descendant of Ghengis Khan was invading India. The Sultan sent his armies with warrior elephants who were adorned with chain mail and tusks with poisoned tips. The armies of Timur were overwhelmed and as they started to retreat, Timur ordered that their camels be loaded with hay and set on fire. They drove the blazing camels toward the enemy which frightened the elephants. The elephants destroyed a large part of the Indian Army, and Timur now had elephants instead of camels.

# 5: Q-Ship Deception

Deceiving the enemy is a tactic that has been used successfully many times. In one circumstance during World War I, German U-Boats were attacking ferociously in the Atlantic Ocean. They did have a penchant to surface and fire their main guns at the enemy.

The system used to respond was deception. Q-ships were used. These were civilian ships that were armed with hidden guns. They would sail into waters known to be inhabited with the U-Boats. When the U-Boat surfaced, the Q-ship would drop fire the hidden guns destroying the German U-Boat.

# 6: Gideon’s Deception

Straight from the Bible is another act of deception. Gideon had an army of 10,000 Israelite warriors. Going against the strong Midianites who were encamped, he sent 9,700 of his soldiers to the rear of their camp. The other 300, in the dead of night, surrounded the camp. They pulled out torches, horns and began yelling as if there were many more than 300. The Midianite army ran through the only escape to the rear right into the barrage of 9,700 Israelite soldiers.

# 7: Cannae Flank

Hannibal was one of the greatest military strategists of all time. Up against the mighty Roman forces who were bent on destroying Hannibal and his army, The battle was set at Cannae, and the Romans stacked their forces in the center with a plan of attacking head-on. Hannibal, in anticipation of this Roman move, put his light infantry in the center, just forward of his heavy African infantry. His much more superior cavalry was sent to the left to be able to roll into the Roman right flank.

Hannibal sent the light infantry forward in battle before all. Totally outnumbered, Hannibal’s infantry acted as if they were retreating. The Roman’s surged forward, and the large African infantry moved in on their flanks. The light infantry turned from the “fake retreat,” and entered battle.

The Romans being in the heat of battle did not realize the superior cavalry was moving in for the kill on their right flank. Hannibal’s forces created a bloodbath of Romans that day.

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, this is my opinion of the top 20 military strategists of all time. What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with me? Who are your top two or three military strategists of all time? I dare you to tell me yours, but please tell us why. If you have comments or questions, please post them below. Thank you.

Learn more about my favorite military strategist book of all time, The Art of War.

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chuck holmes

Chuck Holmes
Former Army Major (resigned)

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14 thoughts on “The Top 20 Military Strategists Of All Time”

  1. This is pretty interesting, after watching a movie I googled some strategists, but after reading this I want to study strategy and so I have bought myself the book by Sun Tzu – “The Art of War”. Thank you.

    1. Johndel Callora

      Sun Tzu’s art of war is like poetry and art mixed together to become a perfect weapon. The number 1 and 2 on the list was perfect, Napoleon Bonaparte and Hannibal Barca are in their rightful places on the list. Notable mentions, Oda Nobunaga of Japan and Zhuge Liang(KongMing) of ancient China.

  2. Robin Larsen

    Timor or Tamerlame to western society didn’t make your top twenty list either. He was Definitely a military genius but extremely brutal to the vanquished.

  3. I was mesmerized by Hannibal from the age of 10, not just his smarts and class but the respect all his soldiers had for him, at one point when things got tough he gathered the massive army which was combined of many nationalities and offered to the ones who wanted to go back home to their families and lives a free passage-not one took it. He stands alone in History as a Soldier.

  4. You forgot Kautilya qka ‘Chanakya’, who was not only a strategist but with Sun Tsu one of the greatest minds of all time. He wrote the Chanakya Shasta. You should read up about him. I would put him anywhere in the top three easily or maybe up top.

  5. I would not left out Tuthmose the Third of Ancient Egypt. His military strategies built the Egyptian Empire, he reorganized the army for 400 years to come, as a Pharao he ruled with light hand, never bothering or executing anybody because of religious beliefs. Compare Him to biblical Moses who butchered 40 thousand people as a starter, because they had different religion from the Jews.

    1. That’s very interesting. I didn’t know that. Thanks for sharing and teaching me something new. If or when I do an updated list of military strategists, I will be sure to add Tuthmose the Third. Thank you.

    1. Both great leaders. I left out a lot of great military strategists, now that I reflect on it. It’s hard to keep it to just 20. A top 30 or 40 list definitely would have included both of these people.

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