Who was Britain’s greatest ever foe? The contest, run by the National Army Museum, lends itself to controversy and debate. And that is exactly what the museum encouraged by hosting a day long event with presentations on behlf of five leading contendors followed by questions, discussion and a secret ballot.
The list was narrowed down from a long list of twenty to the top five by a public vote on the museum’s website. The top five foes (in order of votes cast) were:
1. George Washington (30)
2. Michael Collins (14)
3. Napoleon Bonaparte (12)
4. Erwin Rommel (7)
5. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (4)
Three, perhaps four, of these names are well known. I personally would not have identified Atatürk as one of Britain’s foes and I read the case for his inclusion with interest. The reson for his inclusion was soon obvious – Atatürk masterminded the campaign against the allied forces at Gallipoli. His defence of the Dardanelles forced the disastrous evacuation and withdrawal of the allies from Turkey. This alone merits his inclusion in the list – Britain’s failure to force the Turkish front prevented the piercing of the Central Powers’ soft southern underbelly.
Did Washington deserve to win? Probably. As my learned American friend informs me, he is the only one who unquestionably led a foreign power to defeat the British Empire. Napoleon’s France, Rommel’s Nazi Germany and Atatürk’s Ottoman Empire were all ultimately defeated. Whilst Collins’s Ireland won her independence, there was no decisive military defeat of Britain in the Irish War of Independence.
Another obvious question is where is Adolf Hitler? This is, in some ways, answered by the official title of the museum’s contest and online exhibition: “Who Was the Greatest Commander to Face the British?” The contest focused on military commanders and Hitler was excluded by virtue of not exercising direct military command. As the National Army Museum website states: “In assembling the shortlist our main criterion was that each commander must have led a force against the British in the field of battle”.
The full list of twenty foes presents a wider range of adversaries across the centuries and continents. I had to read most of the entries to find out when these other fifteen foes fought against Britain. They are listed below along with details of the relevant conflict in brackets.
Akbar Khan (First Afghan War)
Andrew Jackson (War of 1812)
Eduard Totleben (Crimean War)
James Fitzjames (War of the Spanish Succession)
Louis Botha (Second Boer War)
Maurice de Saxe (War of the Spanish Succession)
Ntshingwayo kaMahole (Anglo-Zulu War)
Osman Digna (Sudanese uprising)
Paul von Hindenburg (First World War)
Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck (First World War)
Rani of Jhansi (Indian Mutiny)
Riwha Titokowaru (New Zealand Land Wars)
Santiago de Liniers (Napoleonic Wars)
Tipu Sultan (First and Second Mysore Wars)
Tomoyuki Yamashita (Second World War)
A full list of the leaderboard of the online vote shows the public vote had the same top five, but in a completely different order to the secret ballot:
1. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (3,090)
2. Michael Collins (2,787)
3. Erwin Rommel (470)
4. Napoleon Bonaparte (304)
5. George Washington (139)