This list is specifically limited to the period between the beginning of the Spanish War of Succession and the end of the Second World War, and is restricted to generals who were born in the British Isles. There are some controversial additions and the ranking is purely my own personal opinion.
10. Henry Rawlinson – 1st Baron Rawlinson
Rawlinson is a controversial addition to the list for those who know of him. He was a First World War General and, above all else, the shadow of one battle hangs over his career – The Somme. Rawlinson was the general most responsible for planning the battle of the Somme, and it was his army that bore the brunt of the fighting.
Yet despite the failures of the Somme, Rawlinson was a visionary. It was he who planned and conducted the first night battle by a modern army, and it was Rawlinson who pioneered the idea of Combined Arms Operations. His victory at Amiens – called “the Black Day of the German Army” by Erich Luddendorf – was the first battle in history where the efforts of infantry was closely supported by mass artillery bombardment, mass cavalry charges, mass armored advance and aerial support. He showed the future of battlefield tactics and for that he makes my list.
9. Edmund Allenby – 1st Viscount Allenby
Allenby is widely regarded as one of the best commanders of the First World War and is certainly remembered as one of the most successful. He had experience combat in the Boer War, with his Cavalry Column having been engaged in constant combat for two years. During that war he had learned contempt for the established higher command and, on the Western Front, it was this contempt that saw him replaced by Byng after feuding with Haig despite having distinguished himself in combat.
He was reassigned to the Middle-East and there he would prove his worth. He quickly gained the respect of the troops of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force by moving his HQ to a position closer to the front, visiting the troops regularly in the frontlines, reorganizing the EEF into an effective Corps system and imposing discipline and professionalism on the whole command. He gave financial support to T.E. Lawrence’s efforts to unite the Arabs to revolt against the Ottoman Empire. He showed capability in both strategy and tactics and, much like Rawlinson, he became a pioneer of modern warfare with his victory at Megiddo being considered the precursor of Blitzkrieg.
8. Herbert Plumer – 1st Viscount Plumer
Plumer looked the part of a typical First World War British General, with his receding chin and white moustache, yet he was anything but. Plumer was a man who operated in prudent reality: he did not expect his army to break through the enemy lines and charge to Berlin, nor did he expect his men to be superhuman. In his detailed plans he planned for only modest goals – keeping in mind the weather and terrain involved and the morale of his men – then trained his men thoroughly for the task he had set them. “Daddy” Plumer was arguably the finest commander on the Western Front and his victory at Messines was one of the most complete in the entire war.
7. Douglas Haig – 1st Earl Haig
Haig is the most controversial addition to the list. His reputation is a very bad one; he is characterized as a general who sat hundreds of miles behind the front and had a willful disregard for the lives of his men – the Donkey that commanded the Lions. This is inescapable and there is some truth to it.
However Haig did accomplish a few positive things as well. While he was not the most familiar with the modern science of warfare and slow to recognize their uses, he did encourage their development and supported subordinates who proved capable of using them. Under Haig, the British Armies became the most mechanized force in the world. While others relied more heavily on the outdated cavalry, he embraced the tank, enlarged the artillery and, in the final campaign of the war, oversaw the biggest victory ever achieved by Britain in any war in the Hundred Days Offensive, on a scale of men involved and territory fought in.
6. Alan Brooke – 1st Viscount Alanbrooke
Alan Brooke was the premier strategist at the Western Allies’ disposal in Europe in the Second World War. He had proven himself to be an effective commander of troops when he was commander of the II Corps of the BEF in the Battle of France but he would prove his worth far greater as the Chief of the Imperial General Staff. As CIGS, he was responsible for deciding what theatre got what in terms of manpower and logistics, and for choosing the commanders of the various theatres and armies.
However, he was sometimes handicapped in this by Winston Churchill’s interference. Brooke was famed amongst the British high command for his refusal to cave into Churchill’s desires; unless Churchill had an idea that was grounded in sound military thought, Brooke opposed it vehemently. It was Alanbrooke who insisted that the Mediterranean was cleared for Allied shipping before any invasion of continental Europe took place, it was he who demanded that the Italians be knocked out of the war before an invasion of France took place, and finally it was he who insisted that the northern, cross-channel invasion of France received full support and that nothing be transferred to southern France.
He was constantly at odds with the American High Command – some of whom accused him of lacking aggression – and he clashed with Marshall and Eisenhower over Allied strategy, but nobody for the Western Allies had more influence in how the war in Europe unfolded than Alanbrooke. With Churchill, he combined to create the most effective higher command of any nation of the war despite the sometimes flawed judgment and the increasing constraints it operated under.
5. Robert Clive – 1st Baron Clive
Clive of India, as is his most famous name, was the man most responsible for the conquest of India by the British Empire. Before he arrived there were localized groups of armed troops defending commercial interests of the European nations, and he received his first taste of warfare in the First Carnatic War. During that war he was taken ill and had to return to the UK to recuperate. When he returned to India, the balance of power had shifted firmly in France’s favor. His first action was to take Arcot –the capital of the Canatic region – and hold it for 50 days in a siege against the ruler of the region, the French sympathetic Chanda Sahib.
This made Clive famous and led to the British being able to equalize power between them and the French in the region, an equality that only lasted until Clive’s absence when the French retook power. In the Seven Years War, he returned to India. There he retook Calcutta after it had fallen to Siraj Ud Daulah. He then marched through the middle of the Nawab’s camp to break a siege where the enemy had 40,000 cavalry, 60,000 infantry and 30 cannons. Meanwhile, Clive had but 540 British Infantry, 600 British Sailors, 800 Sepoys, 14 field guns and no cavalry. Then he went on to win his decisive and most famous victory at Plassey, which ensured that British presence in India was unassailable. While undoubtedly a daring and skilled tactician and a competent organizer, perhaps Clive’s greatest strength was his mastery of politics.
4. William Slim – 1st Viscount Slim
Bill Slim has been called the greatest commander of the 20th Century. Unlike his high profile contemporary Montgomery, he was a humble man: self-depreciating and candid in talking about the mistakes he made and the lessons he learnt. His 14th Army was an amalgamation of British, Australian, New Zealanders, Indian and African troops, yet he fostered a spirit of unity within them that was unequaled by any other army of the war.
He had the oldest equipment of any Allied army, and had to handle the most trying and difficult of logistical operations. He was inventive with both tactical and strategic operations while not being reckless, and he held down significant numbers of Japanese troops which otherwise could have been used to oppose American operations in New Guinea, the Philippines, Iwo Jimo and Okinawa. Nobody in the Second World War achieved more with less than William Slim.
3. Bernard Montgomery – 1st Viscount Montgomery
Montgomery is another controversial figure of history, with his legacy caught up in nationalistic arguments and his less flamboyant command style overshadowed by the Blitzkriegs of the day.
Monty was a thorough trainer and planner, a high class administrator, and a totally professional soldier and general. However, he was a very difficult man to know and work with on a personal level; he always thought he was right and rarely compromised, usually having to have compromise forced upon him. He was, quite simply, a self-obsessed and self-glorifying bully.
The balance between Monty’s professional virtues and personal faults was often difficult to maintain but usually his professional virtues outweighed his personal faults. He was one of the few commanders to come out of the Battle of France with his reputation enhanced. He beat Rommel at Alam el Halfa and El Alamein and never looked back. He only lost one major engagement in the entire war – Market Garden– and played a major role in the successful execution of Overlord and the defeat of the Ardennes Offensive.
2. Arthur Wellesley – 1st Duke of Wellington
The Duke of Wellington was outstanding in everything he did. He never lost a major battle to any opponent, he beat every commander ever sent against him and ruined many of their reputations and, most famously, defeated Napoleon at Waterloo – with help from the Prussians.
His victories at Assaye, Salamanca and Vitoria were as good as any won during the Napoleonic Wars. His mastery of logistics and forward planning meant that he was never caught out by an enemy and usually picked the field of battle. His insistence on keeping his army from harassing the local population saved him from having to deal with the problem of partisans. His ability to maintain good relations with political elements in the UK as well as in Spain and Portugal ensured that he was never undermined for non-military reasons. His record of success is greater than any other general of his era except Aleksandr Suvorov.
1. John Churchill – 1st Duke of Marlborough
The Duke of Marlborough was, by far, the greatest military man of his generation. He was a ruthlessly ambitious man who was prepared to stoop to almost any level in pursuit of wealth and personal glory. He had a grasp of both the immediate and wider strategic details, and was a master of maneuver and tactics. A high class administrator and master logistician, he spent considerable concern on the welfare of his troops and when tested on the field of battle he always prevailed. His great victories at Blenheim, Oudenarde and Ramilles were as great as any victory ever won on the European Continent and aided a great deal in the increase of Britain’s prestige and influence in Europe.
Written by Martyn Russel