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These are History’s Best Generals

Yaqub

In 2017, Ethan Arsht applied baseball sabermetrics principles to the ability of history’s greatest generals to win battles. It begins by comparing the number of wins from that general to a replacement general under the same conditions.

First and foremost, where is all of this information coming from? Although Wikipedia is an imperfect source, Arsht compiled data from 3,580 battles and 6,619 generals. He then compiled a list of key commanders, total forces, and the outcome. The forces of the general were classified, and his numerical advantage or disadvantage was weighted to reflect tactical ability. The real power comes from ranking the general’s Wins Above Replacement (WAR) score.

The general receives a weighted WAR score for each battle, with a negative score for a loss. At the Battle of Borodino, for example, where Napoleon faced Russian General Mikhail Kutuzov, the French had a slight numerical advantage over the Russians. So, according to Arsht’s model, Bonaparte had a WAR score of.49, implying that a replacement general had a 50% chance of still winning the battle. Kutuzov receives a -.49 for Borodino, implying that a replacement had a 51% chance of winning anyway.

The more battles a commander fights and wins, the more chances they have to improve their score. Fighting fewer battles is also ineffective. The model revealed some surprises, such as the apparent failures of generals such as Robert E. Lee and more modern generals. That can be attributed to the relatively small number of battles commanded by modern generals.

 

  1. Alexander the Great

Alexander was a great strategist, but because his life was cut short and he only had nine battles to draw data from, the model has very little to work with. Nonetheless, the conqueror of the known world ranks far higher than other leaders with comparable numbers, such as Japanese Shogun Tokugawa, German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, and Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart. It should be noted that Alexander has the highest per-battle WAR average of anyone on the list.

  1. Georgy Zhukov

Zhukov has only one more battle than Alexander, and his overall score just edges him out. Surprisingly, his score exceeds that of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Confederate Generals Jubal Early and John Bell Hood. Overcoming the odds has that effect on your WAR score.

  1. Frederick the Great

The enlightened Prussian ruler earned the number 8 spot on this list after ruling for more than 40 years and commanding troops in 14 battles across Europe. His per-battle average was also lower than Alexander’s, but he was simply a better tactician overall.

  1. Ulysses S. Grant

Grant’s command of Union troops in 16 battles earned him the seventh spot on the list – and the presidency of the United States. Although his performance on the battlefield clearly outperformed that of his contemporaries, it should be noted that his Civil War adversary, Robert E. Lee, is so far below him on the list that he has a negative score.

  1. Hannibal Barca

Once captured by Scipio Africanus, Hannibal is said to have given Scipio his own ranking system once the two began talking. His personal assessment was not far off the mark. He mentioned Alexander the Great as well as himself. Both of whom are still in the top ten centuries later.

  1. Khalid Ibn Al-Walid

Khalid was a companion of the Prophet Mohammed and one of the most capable military leaders of the Islamic Empire. He defeated the Byzantine Empire, the Sassanid Persians, and helped spread Islam throughout the Middle East in 14 battles. In comparison to others who fought a comparable number of battles, his score surpasses even Frederick the Great.

  1. Takeda Shingen

Being one of the best military minds in feudal Japan is a huge deal, because almost everyone seemed to be a military mind, and being better than someone else could lead to a duel. The Tiger of Kai reigned supreme after 18 battles – at least in Japan.

  1. Arthur Wellesley (1st Duke of Wellington)

It’s quite an accomplishment to be the man who handed the “Master of Europe” a solid defeat. The Duke of Wellington, Napoleon’s old adversary, also saw command of 18 battles, but his WAR score is significantly higher than Takeda Shingen, his nearest challenger.

  1. Julius Caesar

Although Caesar did not command as many battles as Shingen or the Duke of Wellington, his WAR score reflects far more risk and shrewdness in his battlefield tactics. However, Caesar was unable to surpass Alexander’s per-battle WAR average.

  1. Napoleon Bonaparte

Yes, as you may have guessed by now, the Emperor holds the top spot. Napoleon is not even close to the normal distribution curve created by the data for these 6,000-plus generals. He has a WAR score of more than 16 after 43 battles, which far exceeds the competition. There is no doubt about it: Napoleon is the greatest tactical general of all time, and the math backs it up.

 

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