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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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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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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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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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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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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