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The 5 Greatest Armies of All-Time?

May 5, 2011 12:00 AM

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Andrew Dalziel
05-May-2011 10:28

No problem with 1, 2, 3, 5, but really, Nazi Germany. couldn't disagree more. A very poorly balanced armed forces that only ever really worked against demoralised poor opposition like France and Greece and so on. They stalled as soon as they met real opposition as in the Soviet Union. Just look at Barbarossa; most infantry expected to walk to Moscow or Leningrad or wherever, most artillery pulled by horses, very poor logistical support, and appalling intelligence. Sure, they were tough, but only "good" if we ignore what they were fighting for, who they were fighting for, and what they did on campaign. Genocide trumps military skill.

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Württemberger
05-May-2011 15:09

this is a pretty impossible discussion since most army successes can be attributed to its leadership. i think it's valid to discuss which commander was better, but it's quite arbitrary if not impossible to have that discussion about armies. there are too many factors and its hard to evaluate aspects like technological advantage, advantage in numbers, training, weaponry, logistics, individual warrior vs formation and so on and on.

like with the present list this becomes quite obvious. the first three examples can be more or less directly or attributed to their overall commander. the Makedon system was only great under gifted commanders but was a failure in all other instances. the French Army during the Napoleonic Wars was hardly competitive when not under the personal direction of Napoleon himself. even if we compare it's components, i'd say that the Austrian infantry, the Russian cavalry and the British artillery was overall better than the French at least in those departements. what made the French so successful during that time was their leadership and officer corps, not really their fighting men.

@Andrew: genocide was the business of the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS alright, but don't expect the other armies to be much nicer. any large army of conquest has death and destruction on its trails. and the French and Soviet Armies were as much dependend on infantry and horse-drawn artilelry & logistics as much as the German Army. the French in 1940 also had both a larger army and at least some tanks that were the heaviest in the world at the time. the Soviets initially and until the end of the war depended heavily on plain infantry and even cavalry formations who, with the right tactics, worked wonders. sure, the Soviets towards the end of the war had numerous motorized units, still the majority of divisions on both sides were not. i see no reason why to belittle the armies of the countries that succumbed to the wehrmacht, for no obvious reason.

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Jaime
05-May-2011 19:25

I also disagree with Nazi Germany. I think other armies which maintain their status though longer periods, such as Spanish Tercios or the English Victorian Army (the best armies during one century in both cases), both of them responsible of the maintenance of a World-size empire. Nazi army was unbeatable during little time, and only against weaker armies, as Soviet Union and England showed later. Ancient armies are difficult to evaluate, but Persian and Spartan armies are also worthy.

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CMB
06-May-2011 00:51

I have to disagree, Wurttemberger. The Grande Armee's success was attributable to more than good leadership. The force that took the field at Austerlitz had the benefit of two years of constant training. I would agree that the quality of Napoleon's forces declined after years and years of warfare (and heavy casualties). But the Grande Armee of the Austerlitz-Jena period was something special.
How about Sherman's army that marched to the sea, then into the Carolinas? They were well nigh unstoppable. I don't just mean the failure of the Confederates to stop them. So many thousands of men turned loose to forage, yet maintaining enough cohesion to continue to the next objective, is quite impressive.

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Württemberger
06-May-2011 12:21

Bailén was an epic failure, like most of the French Army's performance on the Penninsula. that only happened 2 years after Jena. the Grande Armee already struggled beating the Russians in the 1807 campaign. also, if you study the 1813 (autumn) campaign, you'll find that Napoleons marshals got constantly beaten.

@Jaime: i agree on the Spanish Tercios, who were unbeatable for 140 years in Europe. but Victorian British Army? what were the "superpowers" they fought against? Zulus? Boers? Sikhs? Afghans? all weaker enemies, both technologically and numerically, and not even all of those were victories.

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Silent Hunter
07-May-2011 12:42

Good article. This is the kind of topic that gets discussions going. :-)

1) Alexander the Great's Macedonian Army - The men who enabled the first truly great conqueror to teach the world how to wage war.

2) Hannibal's Polyglot Army - Men of differing nationalities and loyalties united by one brilliant leader who both nearly ruled the known world.

3) Julius Caesar's Legions - Reading Caesar's "Commentaries" elicits awe for his men who were perhaps the best all-around soldiers in antiquity and perhaps all of history.

4) The German Wehrmacht - Brilliant commanders + disciplined and efficient troops= an unstoppable force of nature. It took nearly an entire continent and an overseas country to make it otherwise.

5) The British Redcoats - They created the largest empire then known.

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ekwardle
09-May-2011 18:44

Nations and their armies are like individuals; they go through periods of triumph and success, while at other times they witness only failure and defeat. This is determined by various internal and external conditions. Many assertions of the superiority of this army over that army often lie in the prejudices of the authors writing about them, and these presumptions are more often than not based on little more than patriotic jingoism. That’s why in my estimation a Southerner will often praise Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as one of the best the world has ever seen. Did Lee and his troops perform well, most certainly, but would they have preformed as well under different circumstances?

But for giggles here are my greatest armies of all time (full of my own personal biases):

Ancient World: Augustus’s Legions and Auxiliaries 27BCE – 14CE
Medieval World: the Tagmata of Emperor Basil II
European Renaissance: Gonzalo de Córdoba’s Tercios of the Second Italian War
Napoleonic Europe: La Grande Armée 1805-07
The Modern World: The Canadian Corps 1915-18

As for Napoleonic era “Redcoat”, they were undeniably solid soldiers, but remember that the British army played only a minor role and fought mainly in secondary theaters, often as a supporting force. Furthermore, most British military operation during the period were failures: Flanders 1793-94; Holland 1799; Hanover 1805; Buenos Aires 1806-07; Egypt 1806; the Dardenelles 1807; Spain 1808-09; Holland again 1809; Baltimore 1814; New Orleans 1814-15 to name a few. Even with Wellington at the helm, the Anglo-Allied army in Spain was far from great. The battles of Busaco and Fuentes de Onoro are often sited erroneously as victories. At Salamanca, Old Nosey failed to exploit his success and the French quickly recovered. Finally, the majority of Wellington’s sieges were costly defeats; the failure to take Burgos forced the Anglo-Allied army to give up Madrid and withdraw back to Portugal. If that’s not enough, the majority of British victories during the war were not only won by armies that were lager than their opponents, but also the majority of the men were not even British!

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phil1
25-Oct-2014 01:01

Napoleon's Grand Armee, as in the one that was defeated by the British army.

Alexander's army represented the peak of Greek military evolution, combining the best of Spartan, Athenian and Theban military knowledge. His army was the template for the Roman army. However, the Spartans were undoubtedly man for man the best army of the ancient world. The Spartans were too inflexible and self concerned to be effective on the world stage, and failed to sufficiently update their tactics in later days. By the time of Alexander, they were remnants of an earlier time, their population decimated by war.
But put any equal sized army of the time(I'd go as far to say any army in history pre gun-powder) against the Spartans, on a battlefield and terrain that suited hoplite warfare, and the Spartans would most probably win.

A lot of people fail to understand that the German army and the Nazis were two separate entities. The Nazis were the ruling political party. Saying the German army were the Nazis, would be like saying the American army are the Democrats.
The German army were the best of the day, but they were fighting on too many fronts, one of which was the British army the second best army of the day.

The Roman legions did indeed suffer defeats. The Germanic tribes frequently gave them a bloody nose. However, whereas the tribes would go home after a battle, the Romans would retreat back to a fortified encampment with supply lines extending back into the heart of their empire, and push forward again.
It was however, the tribes of Europe who eventually defeated and sacked Rome, and defeated the Roman Legions. But without a doubt, the Roman army was the best and most succesful of the ancient world.
I would however, attribute their success to the groundwork layed down by the Spartan army. The Romans emulated the Greeks and Greek hoplite warfare, though made more advanced by the Macedonians, owed much to the Spartans.

The most successful army of all time belongs to the country that has had the biggest empire of all time. The British army. They were not invincible, and lost battles due to bad leadership. But no other army has gone further afield from its home country, and been present in so many of the biggest victories in history.
The sun did not set on the British empire. No other country has experienced this level of success in empire building, of which the British army was a key component.

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Heironymo
25-Oct-2014 06:53

I can't really agree with Phil1 - the Macedonian army may have owed some features to to the armies of the Greek states but it was pretty radically different from them and certainly didn't evolve from them. Likewise, the Roman army (post Kingdom) owed nothing at all to the Spartans. The manipular legion was specifically designed to tear open and destroy hoplite armies. The Wehrmacht was very much the creation of the Nazis, although not to the extent that the Luftwaffe was. Nevertheless, Nazi German was a single-party state and referring to it's army as the Nazi army is clearly valid and avoiding doing so runs the risk of being labelled "revisionist". I agree that the Victorian era British army enjoyed a great deal of success, over all. But the actual creation of the British Empire had comparatively little to do with the British army - the Royal Navy, the East India Company Army and colonisation were the true tools of British empire building.

I'd like to throw the army of Tamerlane into consideration for a place on the list - in terms of size, campaigning endurance, flexibility, tactical skill, quality of opponents, battle field success & self belief, it was surely one of the great armies of history.

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