The Great Unknowns: 6 of the Best Military Commanders You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

The Great Unknowns: 6 of the Best Military Commanders You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

Patrick Lynch - January 20, 2017

When it comes to discussing the greatest military generals of all time, most people will opt for Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar or Napoleon. History is littered with the names of well-known commanders who achieved great victories and overcame seemingly impossible odds. In this article, I will look at lesser known military geniuses and shed light on their careers. While hardcore history lovers will doubtless have heard of all six, some of the names should be new to a large proportion of readers.

1 – Belisarius (505 – 565)

Flavius Belisarius is one of the greatest Byzantine generals and served under the reign of Justinian I. He was born in 505 and probably educated amongst Thracian peasants according to Edward Gibbon. The historian refers to Belisarius as the ‘Africanus of new Rome’ because of his success in reclaiming African provinces for the Empire. Unlike Scipio, Belisarius did not have the advantage of noble origin to help him along the way.

The Great Unknowns: 6 of the Best Military Commanders You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Belisarius Under The Walls of Rome by AMELIANVS. Deviant Art

He began his career as a bodyguard to Justinian before the great ruler became emperor. Belisarius is credited with developing the bucellarii which was a new type of heavy cavalry armed with a sword, lance, and bow. The flexibility of this new fighting force ensured it was the best cavalry of the age. Justinian appointed Belisarius as leader of the empire’s border forces with Persia. It was a big risk because Belisarius was just 22 and while he had shown talent, he was completely untested as a military commander.

It was a masterstroke as he destroyed the Persians at Dara in 530 despite being outnumbered by at least 2:1. During this battle, he anticipated the enemy attack and dug covered ditches which the Persians plunged into during their cavalry charge. The Eternal Peace was signed between the two powers in 532 although it only lasted eight years. Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople that year, after his reputation had been damaged by a defeat at Callinicum in 531.

Upon his return to the capital, Belisarius was quickly called into action to crush a rebellion against Justinian in Nika. He was rewarded with command of the empire’s forces in its quest to reclaim African provinces lost to the Vandal kingdom. Within a year, he achieved his objective; this campaign included a brilliant victory in a battle where he was outnumbered 3:1. By now, Justinian had decided to reclaim as much of the Western Roman Empire as possible and ordered Belisarius to attack the Ostrogoths in Italy. He took Naples in 535 and Rome in 536. After defending Rome successfully, Belisarius took Ravenna in 540 and the Ostrogoths asked him to be their king! He refused, but a wary Justinian recalled his general as soon as possible.

Rome was retaken by the Goths soon after Belisarius left so he returned and beat them once again to reclaim Rome and depose the emperor the Goths had installed. His progress was hampered by a lack of supplies and an outbreak of the plague, so the campaign fizzled out. Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople yet again. His last campaign took place in 559 when he repelled the Bulgar attack on the capital. He was convicted of corruption and put in prison in 562; the charges against him were almost certainly false. Justinian pardoned him and made him a favorite at the imperial court. After several years of quiet retirement, Belisarius died in 565. He is one of the few commanders to have achieved military success on three different continents.

The Great Unknowns: 6 of the Best Military Commanders You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Khalid Ibn Al Walid Mosque in Homs. youllhavehadyourtea

2 – Khalid ibn al-Walid – (585 – 642)

Also known as Sayf Allah al-Maslul (Drawn Sword of God), Khalid ibn al-Walid was Islam’s first great military commander and one of the greatest of all-time. He was born in 585 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and was a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. Khalid was originally a commander for the Meccan tribe of Quraysh which was in opposition to Muhammad’s clan. Indeed, Khalid played a pivotal role in the Battle of the Uhud against the Muslims in 625. However, his tribe signed a peace agreement of ten years with the Muslims at the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah in 628. Muhammad reportedly told Khalid’s brother, Walid, that a ‘man like Khalid can’t keep himself away from Islam for long.’ Walid apparently wrote numerous letters to his brother urging him to convert; his insistence proved worthwhile as Khalid ultimately converted to Islam.

He soon proved to be a worthy addition to the Muslim army and was named commander after three prominently leaders died during the Battle of Mu’tah in 629. Khalid had to galvanize the troops during the battle against the Ghassanids and Byzantines, and he successfully transformed certain annihilation into a successful tactical retreat despite being severely outnumbered. He was given his ‘Sword of God’ name after this battle.

Over the next nine years, Khalid was involved in over one hundred battles and was never defeated. Upon the death of Muhammad, several of the strongest Arab tribes broke away and rebelled. Khalid was entrusted with the task of quelling the revolt which he did after a series of impressive victories. The end came at the Battle of Yamama in December 632. Abu Bakr was the first Muslim Caliph after Muhammad’s death and set his sights on expanding the empire.

The result was an invasion of the Sassanid Empire of Persia which had been severely weakened after a quarter of a century of war with the Byzantines. Once again, Khalid defeated all before him and effectively destroyed the Persian Empire after capturing the fortress city of Firaz in 633. Abu Bakr recalled Khalid and ordered him to attack Roman Syria. This placed the Muslims in direct conflict with the Byzantine Empire. Khalid conquered Damascus in September 634 after a siege but was relieved of his command by his cousin Umar who had become the new Caliph.

He quickly realized his mistake after a Muslim army under the new commander was surrounded at Abu-al-Quds. Khalid was sent to rescue them and defeated the Byzantine and Christian Arab army he faced near the town. Further successes occurred soon after until Khalid won perhaps his greatest victory at the Battle of Yarmouk in 636. He destroyed the Byzantine army and ended their influence in the Levant. After more successful campaigns in Armenia and Anatolia, Khalid was a national hero and loved by his soldiers. However, he was dismissed from command after accusations of misappropriation of funds.

Khalid died in 642, and his tombstone shows a list of over 50 major battles he won. Not only was he unbeaten in combat, Khalid never even lost a skirmish or a duel! It was common for him and his trusted officers to challenge the commanders of enemy armies to a duel before battle. A win would ruin the morale of the opponents. The best military minds of two great empires couldn’t produce a commander or even a soldier to beat this genius.

The Great Unknowns: 6 of the Best Military Commanders You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

3 – David IV of Georgia – (1073 – 1125)

David IV of Georgia is also known as David the Builder and became king of Georgia in 1089. He is deemed to be Georgia’s greatest ever ruler and military commander and his feats helped start the Georgian Golden Age. As well as reforming the army to make it a formidable fighting force, David’s administrative skills helped unite the country and bring much of the territory in the Caucasus under his nation’s control.

He inherited a weakened kingdom when he took the throne. During the reign of George, the powerful Seljuk Turks invaded Georgia, and several provinces became depopulated. Ultimately, George had to sue for peace in 1083 as the nation became a tributary of the Turkish Sultan Malik-Shah I. Originally; it was assumed that David became king because his father died. However, some sources suggest that George abdicated to allow his son take the crown. George probably died in 1112, and while he held the royal title until his death, he took no part in the kingdom’s affairs.

Although David was only 16 when he became king, he was determined to revive the fortunes of his country. He sent small sets of troops around the kingdom to destroy enemy forces, and he prepared to take on the Turks. David had to deal with rebellious lords within Georgia and exiled one of the most powerful feudal lords in 1094. By the beginning of the 12th century, he stopped paying annual tribute to the Turks and began pushing them out of Georgian territory. He was helped by the fact that the Turks had to focus on the threat posed by the crusades.

His supporters took the province of Kakheti in 1104 and reunited it with the rest of the country. The following year, he routed a Seljuk army at Ertzukhi and took several key fortresses by 1118. He reformed the military, so every family had to provide at least one soldier, horse, and some weaponry. David’s greatest ever victory came at the Battle of Didgori in 1121. His army of around 56,000 men defeated a Turk army of at least 250,000. It was a stunning success and paved the way for further conquest. Tbilisi was taken in 1122, and within two years, the Seljuks had been driven out of Georgia. The so-called Sword of the Messiah died in 1125 after ensuring his nation was a major force in the region.

The Great Unknowns: 6 of the Best Military Commanders You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Statue of Tran Hung Dao. Suoitien

4 – Tran Hung Dao – (1228 -1300)

Tran Hung Dao is regarded as one of Vietnam’s greatest heroes and was an outstanding military commander who helped defeat two Mongol invasions in the 13th century. He wrote numerous warfare treatises which have helped historians learn more about this great leader’s tactics. During the middle of the 13th century, the Mongols were laying waste to Eastern Europe and Central Asia. The first of their three failed invasions of Vietnam occurred in the 1250s.

Tran became Supreme Commander of the Army in Vietnam and was faced with the toughest challenge of his career when Kublai Khan and a massive Mongol army attempted to conquer Vietnam. Khan invaded Northern Vietnam in 1283/84; instead of immediately facing them in an open field battle, Tran wisely adopted guerilla warfare tactics to frustrate the enemy. Nonetheless, Khan captured the Vietnamese capital in 1285 only to discover the nobles had burned down the city to prevent the invaders from plundering.

Tran exploited the weaknesses of the pursuing Mongols with a series of brilliant counter-offensives. He also lured the enemy into naval battles thus eliminating their cavalry advantage. The Mongols retreated, but Khan returned with another force in 1287. Again, Tran gave up ground and allowed the enemy to occupy Hanoi. Eventually, Tran went on the offensive and defeated the Mongols at the Battle of Bach Dang River in 1288. During this naval battle, the Mongols were lured into a trap where their junks were torn apart by iron-tipped spears hidden beneath the surface. The entire Mongol fleet was destroyed and its admiral executed. The rest of the Mongols fled back to China.

Despite having supreme command of the army, Tran never showed any signs of betraying his emperor. His tactic of using guerilla warfare against a vastly superior invading force was used as a model for the Vietnamese defense against America in the Vietnam War. Additionally, Tran’s ability to mobilize the entire nation was used as inspiration for the North Vietnamese forces during the Indochina Wars of the 20th century.

The Great Unknowns: 6 of the Best Military Commanders You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Statue of Yi Sun-sin. Flickr

5 – Admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545 – 1598)

Yi Sun-sin was born in Seoul in 1545 and is arguably the greatest admiral in history. He is a Korean national hero and helped repel the Japanese invasions of the 1590s. He won all 23 naval battles he fought and was hugely outnumbered in the vast majority of cases. Yi became a military officer in 1576 and served at several army and navy posts although he was dismissed twice after being on the wrong end of false accusations by jealous colleagues.

Yi became commander of the Left Cholla province’s naval forces in 1591 and developed the famed ‘turtle ship’ which is believed to be the first ironclad battleship ever created. The upper deck of the ship featured armored plates to protect the men and spikes to hurt the enemy. There was a dragon head on the bow which fired a cannon and the ship even emitted smoke to hide its location. It was also possible to fire cannon and guns from the sides and stern of the turtle ship.

While the rest of the Korean military was unprepared for the Japanese invasion of 1592, Yi was ready and quickly enjoyed victories on the south coast which cut off enemy supply lines. It was the Year of Four Campaigns for Yi where he won at least 15 battles and sank hundreds of Japanese ships. He was given command of the nation’s fleet in 1593, but peace with the Japanese followed soon after.

Negotiations broke down in 1596 and the war recommenced. In 1597, Yi was relieved of command for refusing to follow what he believed was a dangerous order. He was tortured almost to death and was only spared because of his previous record. Yi was demoted to the rank of common infantry officer but was recalled when the Japanese threatened Korea once again and won a major victory at the Battle of Chilchonryang.

It was their only naval victory, and when Yi returned, he produced a miraculous feat at the Battle of Myeongyang in 1598. He commanded just 13 ships, none of which were his famed turtle ships and faced over 300 Japanese vessels. Yi destroyed 31 Japanese ships with no losses on his side, and the victory demoralized the enemy fleet. The Battle of Noryang was Yi’s final fight as he was killed by a stray bullet during the conflict. His nephew, Yi Wan, wore his armor to ensure the men didn’t panic and the Korean fleet forced a retreat. Even today, Admiral Yi is seen as a naval commander without equal and a man with great intellect, strength, courage, and loyalty.

The Great Unknowns: 6 of the Best Military Commanders You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Suvorov on the 25 Transnistrian ruble. World Banknotes and Coins Pictures

6 – Alexsandr Suvorov – (1729 – 1800)

Alexsandr Suvorov was born in Moscow in 1729 and is yet another incredible general who also became a national hero. He was the Prince of Italy, Count of the Holy Roman Empire and the last Generalissimo of the Russian Empire. Suvorov has the distinction of being one of the few military commanders who never lost a battle; a remarkable feat since he was involved in over 60!

It certainly didn’t seem as if Suvorov would go on to great things. While he was born into a noble family, he was considered weak and sickly by his father who thought he would never be able to follow anything other than a civilian career. Suvorov had other ideas and what he lacked in physical ability, he more than made up for in intellect and determination. He was obsessed with all things military from a very young age and impressed Abram Gannibal so much that the famed general asked Suvorov’s father for permission to develop his son’s obvious potential. Suvorov lied about his age to get into the Semyonovskiya Life Guards Regiment aged 13 and studied the works of great tacticians in history along with several languages.

He began his military career in 1748, and by 1759, he was a major. Suvorov became a colonel in 1762; it was the year that Empress Catherine the Great took the throne and the commander once claimed that the first meeting with Catherine was his first step on the path to glory. During the War of the Bar Confederation, Suvorov displayed his brilliance by pushing back the attacking Polish and French soldiers despite being outnumbered 5:1.

Suvorov was promoted to the rank of major-general and was sent to fight the Turks during the First Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774). One of the most significant wins of his career came at the Battle of Kozluca where his 8,000 man army defeated a 40,000 strong Ottoman force. However, he was sentenced to death after being found guilty of ‘unauthorized actions against the Turks.’

Fortunately for him, the Empress had no intention of upholding the verdict and Suvorov was free to defeat the Turks in the Second Russo- Turkish War (1787-1792). At the Battle of Rymnik in 1789, Suvorov’s army of 25,000 defeated the 100,000 man force of the Ottomans. In 1790, he took the supposedly unconquerable fortress of Izmail; a victory which played a significant role in the Russian victory in the conflict.

The seemingly indefatigable Russian crushed a Polish revolt in 1794 and was later awarded the title of Field-Marshal. When Catherine died in 1796, her son Paul dismissed Suvorov and placed him under surveillance. However, he was reinstated in 1799 due to concerns over the rise of Napoleon and quickly won victories over French forces. Suvorov was sent to Switzerland to aid a Russian army, but it was defeated before the Field-Marshal could arrive. He was obliged to withdraw and led a masterful retreat through the Alps. While he lost several thousand men, his actions saved the army from annihilation and for this feat; he was awarded the title of Generalissimo.

The Tsar ordered the army to return home, and Suvorov’s planned hero’s welcome was canceled. The exhausted veteran became ill and died in 1800. The Generalissimo was brave, fearless and a stickler for discipline. He famously said “Train hard, fight easy” and was adored by his soldiers. Suvorov believed in communicating his ideas to the men in an easy to understand manner and always took it upon himself to ensure his army was well treated. With an estimated total of 63 major battles and no defeats, Suvorov deserves his reputation as one of history’s greatest ever military commanders.