History’s worst general?

By Rob Morgan

A while ago a small debate, if you can call it that, sparkled in this journal about leaders in battle, with contributions from Jim Rohrer, George Banic, and myself. It deserves to develop in terms of solo wargaming.

I’m presently writing a few reviews of an astonishing book in this field, The Worst Military Leaders in History, a substantial 300+ page work, edited by Jennings & Steele of the US Air Force Academy, in which 15 writers and academics choose an historical leader and deal with his, shall we say, faults! They are divided into five categories: criminals, frauds, the clueless, politicos, and bunglers. They are a lovely and wide cross section of potential incompetence, sometimes in more than one category.

Unfortunately, when you ask military historians to choose one man in one category, you might not get what you expect and in this case half a dozen of the chosen warriors are frankly unknown, frankly, to all but the most involved readers. Quite a few better known and prominently inadequate leaders don’t appear, surprisingly.

It amazed me that Nathan Bedford Forest, of the Confederacy, turns out to be to blame for most of the USA’s strategic problems since Lee surrendered! The book says that. Mind you most of the Federal generals early on were politico and into which category, or how many categories, would you slip the Union’s Major General Benjamin Butler?

Anyway, my review of that follows. To carry on the earlier discussion, you would want the best (or worst) leader opposing your field army, naturally, and might well march towards his force and not face another one.

Bonaparte is a good example of this modus operandi. You’d choose, in the Napoleonic Wars, to avoid, say, the Prince of Schwarzenberg, who fought for and against Boney and was usually on the winning side. While the sad Austrian General Mack (of Ulm fame) or the rigid Archduke Charles would be good bets for opponents and easily second guessed. The uncooperative, xenophobic, and arrogant Spanish commander, Cuesta, is an ally any allied commander would want to ditch ASAP and made a splendid, almost self-defeating opponent, if you could pin him down.

Can you choose your opponent in battle?

Well, yes, in many cases, though not always. Marlborough sometimes managed it, so did Eugene and Turenne, but Wellington couldn’t often do so, nor could Gustavus Adolphus.

Rule One, “know your enemy”, eh?

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2 Responses to History’s worst general?

  1. George Banic says:

    G’day Rob,

    I have to admit, I am now very much looking forward to your book review!

    Also, the idea you floated about generals seeking to pick their opponent is intriguing.

    Have you got any ideas how to implement this in a solo wargame?

    If you know the caliber of the opposing leaders in advance, then that would make it easier to target the weakest link. However, if the enemy leadership is an unknown quantity, then the quality of leadership (and by extension army performance) on first contact would appear to be a case of pot luck.

    In facing a leader and army of unknown quality, one would expect that a cautious approach would be taken (unless there is a rash general driving), using limited and/or deliberate thrusts to test the mettle of the opposition before committing to a decisive engagement?

    I recall reading a few historical accounts where a weaker force, by deliberately showing a lot of confidence and aggression, fooled a much larger and more powerful force into bypassing them in the mistaken belief they were either more numerous than they were or were too tough a nut to crack, so moved on to easier pickings. This scenario would be much more likely to occur where the enemy being met was an unknown quantity with resulting greater reliance on (potentially misleading) first impressions!


  2. Martin S. says:

    Interesting piece, and would love to see the review when finished. Will it be on the SWA reviews?
    Choosing your opponent- I know this is a solo forum, but when I venture out to tournaments there are some opposing ‘generals’ I’d definitely prefer to be drawn against than others, from a ‘possibility of a win’ perspective. (eg In a recent tournament I accompanied a good friend and occasional opponent 200 miles to the event…and then got drawn against him in round one ….and he’s a bit good….went down in flames).

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