Examples of successful generals getting promoted with little to no experience

Feb 2018
247
US
I have found the peculiarities of selecting military talent a fascinating problem. One of the most interesting and rare scenarios is when an exceptionally talented individual is promoted outside of the normal meritocratic or seniority military structure for some unusual reason [i,e skipping most ranks]. Then they subsequently win stunning victories and prove that their elevation was the right call all along.

Constraints:
-General is at least a theater-level commander (has an independent command)
-General achieved considerable, documented success (i,e they are worth learning from).
-This will understandably ignore "warlord" type generals like Genghis Khan, Timur, Babur, or Nader Shah, who effectively created their position from scratch.
-I'd prefer to stay away from certain inherited aristocratic commands since nobody actually bet on their military ability.

Some examples I've come across

The Han Dynasty general Han Xin served as a foot soldier, and was then promoted to the lowest officer rank, in logistics. 1 year after his military career began he was promoted to Commander in Chief due to recognition of his "unparalleled talent", stunning the other high ranking generals in the army. He then went on to win campaign after campaign despite often leading newly recruited troops against ludicrous odds, reconquering China in a record 4 years.

The Byzantine General Belisarius, due to his early friendship with Emperor Justinian, was promoted within a couple of years with unknown experience to the Persian theater commander, starting a highly successful career in holding off the Persians and Huns to the east/north while reconquering North Africa and Italy.

The Tang general Li Jing was first rescued from the chopping block by the future Tang Emperor Li Shimin, having previously served in administrative/garrison command roles. Following a brief stint as an advisor to Shimin, Li Jing then effectively lead the campaigns (unofficially) to conquer the various warlords of Southern and Southeastern China, as well as the Turkic Empire to the north.

The Mongol/Yuan general Bayan of the Baarin was promoted from a high ranking administrative/political role (something along the lines of the Secretary of War) to the supreme commander of the army, with his only notable military experience coming two decades prior as a teenage advisor to Kubilai. The previous general Aju, who had substantial success to his name, actually recommended Bayan to take supreme command over himself. Bayan then rewarded their faith by conquering the Southern Song in 3 years with low casualties.

The Joseon Admiral Yi Sun Sin served in the army on the northern frontier, but his career trajectory as stunted because he refused to play along with the cronyism rampant in the Joseon military. Through an act of nepotism, he was promoted to a theater command role in the Navy at the outbreak of the Imjin War. In the war, while all his colleagues performed so badly it is almost beyond belief, Yi Sun Sin played a crucial role in the eventual Japanese defeat by repeatedly destroying their navy and preventing the Japanese from supplying their troops in advanced positions.

Several others come to mind, and I'm sure there's many great examples out there. Do share!
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,930
So we're looking for examples of some form of cronyism that actually worked out rather well then? ;)
 
Feb 2018
247
US
So we're looking for examples of some form of cronyism that actually worked out rather well then? ;)
Yep lol. Or just leaders willing to take a major bet on someone with great potential but no track record. i,e Han Xin was promoted based on a couple informal talks with two high ranking officials, one of whom then pushed for his advancement to commander in chief.
 

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,930
Fieldmarshall Magnus Stenbock had primarily administrative merits – raising money for the Great Nordic War, then governor of Scanie, Sweden's richest province, conquered from Denmark — when in 1710 (king defeated at Pultava in 1709, in exile with the Ottomans) he was faced with a numerically superior Danish invasion looking to retake the province.

He proceeded to defeat the Danes at the battle of Helsingborg (1710), before taking the war to the Danes and Brandenburgers, following it up with victory in the battle of Gadesbuch (1712), after which he was promoted to Fieldmarshall. He courted controversy by sacking Altona in 1713, and the same year, besieging Tönnies, his lines of communications back to Sweden were cut by the Danish navy, leaving him surrounded by massively superior enemy forces and forced to surrender. He died in a Danish dungeon in 1717, after spending several years pleading with the Danish king to execute him rather than just have him waste away.

Stenbock's successes otoh are in part attributable to Carl Cronstedt, the artillery specialist he promoted. (Alongside Torstensson Cronstedt is the artillery genius of Swedish military history.)

Otoh there was never any question that Stenbock was a very competent fellow, just not that he would be highly successful general. It might have been surmised he wouldn't be totally crap at it. As a young man he received a battlefield promotion, in French service in the Battle of Fleurys, to Lt Col at age 25.

He did have a military career in Charles XII's Polish campaign as commander of the Dalecarlian regiment. By training Stenbock was and engineer, and under his command the Dalecarlian regiment effectively transformed into specialised engineering troops. If Charles XII's Carolean army needed a pontoon bridge of the like built, typically they would call up Stenbock and his Dalecarlians. But there was distinct gap between his service as a regimental commander, and suddenly being propelled to the general in charge of heading off the Danish re-entry in to the war and invasion of Sweden.
 
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Feb 2019
1,037
Serbia
Does Davout count? He graduated from a military school and commanded a battalion at the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars, having some distinction in the Austrian Netherlands and the Rhine Campaign but still holding a minor command, being removed from the active list in 1794 due to his aristocratic origin. He was a friend of Desaix who took him to Egypt where he became known to Napoleon, commanding the cavalry of Desaix's division. After Davout returned to France after the Egyptian Expedition he was promoted to General of Division (Despite missing Marengo.) and given a command of the cavalry of the Army of Italy. Later on he was given the command of the Consular Guard Grenadiers and the garrison at Bruges, by the time he was promoted to Marshal in 1804 he was the youngest and arguably the least experienced among his colleagues.

I believe we all know about his actions that followed: He commanded the III Corps, disciplining and leading his soldiers in an excellent manner. He was given important commands such as reinforcing Napoleon's flank at Austerlitz, doing so in a crucial moment after a heavy forced march from Vienna, which he achieved very quickly. He defeated the main Prussian army at Auerstedt despite being outnumbered by more than 2:1 and not receiving reinforcements from Bernadotte's Corps.

While he didn't serve in the Peninsular War, holding a post in the Duchy of Warsaw and a command in the Army of the Rhine he had better performances than most in the Danube Campaign, fighting at Eckmuehl and Wagram. Fighting in the Russian Campaign he had good performances and advised Napoleon to commit the Guard at Borodino, thi would've likely crushed the Russians had Napoleon accepted the proposal. He was unpopular with his colleagues and given the task of defending Hamburg in 1813-14, a relatively minor command but he succeeded, leaving only after being ordered to by Louis XVIII.
 
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Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,930
Napoleon. Appiontted with virtually no command experince, due to political influence. Compared to his divison commanders shockingly inexperinced.
I'll second that. :)

He wrote a Jacobin political pamphlet, entitled "La souper de Beaucaire", detailing a political program for the war in dinner dialogue form. The Robbespierre brothers read it and liked it, and that gave Bonaparte direct support in Paris, which allowed him to get initial purchase on the business of generalship in the first place.

Later he made sure to hunt down and destroy every damn copy he could find of his first and only foray into literary composition.
 
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pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,791
I'll second that. :)

He wrote a Jacobin political pamphlet, entitled "La souper de Beaucaire", detailing a political program for the war in dinner dialogue form. The Robbespierre brothers read it and liked it, and that gave Bonaparte direct support in Paris, which allowed him to get initial purchase on the business of generalship in the first place.

Later he made sure to hunt down and destroy every damn copy he could find of his first and only foray into literary composition.
He did also write a Romance Novel.
 

pugsville

Ad Honorem
Oct 2010
9,791
Does Davout count? He graduated from a military school and commanded a battalion at the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars, having some distinction in the Austrian Netherlands and the Rhine Campaign but still holding a minor command, being removed from the active list in 1794 due to his aristocratic origin. He was a friend of Desaix who took him to Egypt where he became known to Napoleon, commanding the cavalry of Desaix's division. After Davout returned to France after the Egyptian Expedition he was promoted to General of Division (Despite missing Marengo.) and given a command of the cavalry of the Army of Italy. Later on he was given the command of the Consular Guard Grenadiers and the garrison at Bruges, by the time he was promoted to Marshal in 1804 he was the youngest and arguably the least experienced among his colleagues.

I believe we all know about his actions that followed: He commanded the III Corps, disciplining and leading his soldiers in an excellent manner. He was given important commands such as reinforcing Napoleon's flank at Austerlitz, doing so in a crucial moment after a heavy forced march from Vienna, which he achieved very quickly. He defeated the main Prussian army at Auerstedt despite being outnumbered by more than 2:1 and not receiving reinforcements from Bernadotte's Corps.

While he didn't serve in the Peninsular War, holding a post in the Duchy of Warsaw and a command in the Army of the Rhine he had better performances than most in the Danube Campaign, fighting at Eckmuehl and Wagram. Fighting in the Russian Campaign he good performances and advised Napoleon to commit the Guard at Borodino, thi would've likely crushed the Russians had Napoleon accepted the proposal. He was unpopular with his colleagues and given the task of defending Hamburg in 1813-14, a relatively minor command but he succeeded, leaving only after being ordered to by Louis XVIII.
Did not actuall skip a rank was a General de Brigadein in the netherlands before being promoted to Generla de Division by Napoleon.