What Makes a General Great?

Feb 2019
458
Serbia
#1
Due to the large influx of threads asking questions such as ''Who is the best/worst general of _____ period or _____ empire.'' or ''X vs Y, who was better?'' I am starting to wonder what criteria is there for generals to be considered great? Is it amount of battles won? Is it innovation and leadership skills? Is it grand strategy and planning? Or is it just their influence? What do you think, how should we rate generals and for what general can we say to be ''great'' and for what general can we say that he is ''bad''? Since history is not a competition and we can't really ''rank'' people like this it might seem nonsensical to do this, but for whatever reason these ''vs'' threads encourage debate and discussion. However how should we ''rank'' generals?
 

AlpinLuke

Ad Honoris
Oct 2011
25,887
Italy, Lago Maggiore
#3
First of all the historical context should rule: were there "generals" as we intend them today or there were commanders who were embedded in the administration of the Kingdom [like in Ancient Egypt: think to "general" Horemheb, he was a regent of King Tut, not a banal "general" and actually in Egypt no one called him "general"]?

So, to begin to answer [because the argument is really wide] we need to understand the historical context of reference.
 
Sep 2016
1,102
Georgia
#4
If we are talking about pre-20th century warfare, then I think those are the qualities :

Being able to stay cool-headed in critical situations.

Having a ,, Killer instinct ''.

Adaptability to different situations. Very often initial plans get undermined or hampered by something and you shouldn't strictly adhere to them. Those who better respond to new developments, prevail over their opposition and get the victory. You need to be flexible.

Don't make really complex plans. Simple approach is usually more effective. Especially when your army is bigger than 50 000 men. That also allows general to be more flexible.

Need to pay a lot of attention to logistics.

Being able to inspire your forces. Army's moral is a very important factor.

Ability to create a numerical superiority against a certain critical points of enemy's army. One of the oldest example of this is Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.

Need to have some good luck.

Being able to properly communicate with other officers.
 
Last edited:
Sep 2016
1,102
Georgia
#7
I am starting to wonder what criteria is there for generals to be considered great? Is it amount of battles won? Is it innovation and leadership skills? Is it grand strategy and planning? Or is it just their influence? What do you think, how should we rate generals and for what general can we say to be ''great'' and for what general can we say that he is ''bad''?
If we are talking about pre-20th century warfare, then I think those are the qualities :

Being able to stay cool-headed in critical situations.

Having a ,, Killer instinct ''.

Adaptability to different situations. Very often initial plans get undermined or hampered by something and you shouldn't strictly adhere to them. Those who better respond to new developments, prevail over their opposition and get the victory. You need to be flexible.

Don't make really complex plans. Simple approach is usually more effective. Especially when your army is bigger than 50 000 men. This also allows general to be more flexible.

Need to pay a lot of attention to logistics.

Being able to inspire your forces. Army's moral is a very important factor.

Ability to create a numerical superiority against a certain critical points of enemy's army. One of the oldest example of this is Battle of Leuctra in 371 BC.

Need to have some luck.

Being able to properly communicate with other officers.
 
Mar 2016
1,079
Australia
#8
In my opinion it's a general that shows a high degree of skill in a variety of different aspects that are all related to the military, e.g. campaign strategy, operational maneuver, battlefield tactics, campaign logistics, maintaining morale in the army, effective cooperation with allies, ensuring political support at home, seeking the support of the local populace. I don't think being a great general is strictly related to winning the most battles or winning despite being outnumbered (although both of those things are certainly major considerations). I don't think there has been any one general to tick all of the above criteria at once, although some have come pretty close.

the standards are very low
being less stupid than the opposition usually put you in the "military genius " category
This mostly applies to modern military history, i.e. from the two World Wars onwards, especially in regards to American involvement (cough MacArthur cough Patton cough). Generally if you claim someone is a military genius before the 20th century but it's clear they are not, you will get called out for it and corrected.
 
Feb 2019
458
Serbia
#10
nope , being victorious is about all there is to it
the rest is propaganda
Victorious in what sense? For an example let's look at someone like Charles XII of Sweden. He scored many brilliant victories in the Great Northern War but also made many strategic mistakes and lost in the end. Yet he is considered great. Then we have someone like Soult, his campaign in the closing months of the Peninsular War is something I consider a great display of maneuvering and preserving ones army. He lost almost all battles, thus not being victorious but managed to keep his army in tact and slow down the coalition's invasion of southern France considerably. In this case he was not victorious but he is still worthy of praise. So I think there is more than just being victorious.

This mostly applies to modern military history, i.e. from the two World Wars onwards, especially in regards to American involvement (cough MacArthur cough Patton cough). Generally if you claim someone is a military genius before the 20th century but it's clear they are not, you will get called out for it and corrected.
Considering how warfare changed completely between the Napoleonic Wars and the World Wars the criteria changes also. Who would be considered a military genius by the new industrial standards? A great organiser/reformer such as Jackie Fisher? Someone who is less stupid than his opponent such as the many generals in WWI? I think that these are a part of the criteria. I wonder who is considered a ''great'' general of industrial warfare in this case.
 
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