Brute Force – History’s Largest Armies

Just how big was history's largest army? (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

A number of powers throughout the ages have raised remarkably vast armies. But which nation fielded the largest military of all time? (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

“A number of nations and empires have claimed the title of ‘world’s biggest’ over the past 4,000 years. Here is a breakdown of history’s largest armies.

Soldiers of the PLA, the 21st Century's largest army.

Soldiers of the PLA, the 21st Century’s largest army.

CHINA’S COMMUNIST LEADERSHIP is directing the People’s Liberation Army to “be ready for war”.

In a series of speeches delivered late last year, President Xi Jinping called upon his country’s military to continue with its program of force modernization while stepping up training and increasing overall preparedness.

Although insiders believe this tough talk may be nothing more than a shot across the bow of top army brass who have allowed corruption to fester within the nation’s military, the sabre rattling has set off alarms bells throughout the region.

“Is the Chinese leadership preparing for something?” wondered Kyle Mizokami of The Week. “Are they gearing up for a military operation, or merely the option to carry one out?”

While Beijing’s true intentions remain uncertain, one thing is clear: Since the end of the Cold War, China has emerged as one of the planet’s most formidable fighting forces. With more than 2.2 million men currently under arms, the PLA is by far the world’s largest military. Only the U.S. and India come close with 1.4 million and 1.3 million troops respectively [1]. North Korea and Russia round out the top five with 1.1 and 1 million-man armies. [2]

Of course, China hasn’t always been among the planet’s preeminent military powers. A number of nations and empires have claimed the title over the past 4,000 years. Here is a breakdown of history’s largest armies. 

The First 10,000-Man Army

The Xia Dynasty could wield an army of 12,000 men. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

China’s ancient Xia Dynasty could wield a force of 12,000 men in the second millennia BCE. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

For a time, Chinese emperors controlled the largest armies of the ancient world. In 2000 BCE, the Xia Dynasty maintained a fighting force of 12,000 men – a considerable feat in the primitive Bronze Age. The only western civilization to come close to that during he same era were the Uruks of Mesopotamia. The short-lived empire dominated the Tigris and Euphrates with an army of just 4,000 troops in the third millennia BCE.[3]

The Pharaoh’s 100,000

Egypt's Ramesses II raised the world's first 100,000-man army. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

At its peak, the Egyptian army was the world’s most powerful. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

Ancient Egypt produced history’s first 100,000-man army in 1,250 BCE, during the reign of Ramesses II. [4] Before his death at the then-unheard-of age of 90, the mighty pharaoh, who would become known as the “Great Ancestor”, unleashed his massive military in a series of campaigns against the Hittites, the Nubians and the Libyans.

The Half-Million Mark

The Persian Army has amassed a staggering half-million men by 500 BCE. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

The Persian army had amassed a staggering half-million men by 500 BCE. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

The 6th Century BCE Persian emperor Cyrus the Great was able field 500,000 spearmen, archers and mounted warriors. His was the first army ever to break the half-million-man barrier. In fact, the civilization is still considered to be history’s largest empire proportionally — up to 44 per cent of the Earth’s inhabitants at the time (a total of 50 million people) lived under the Persians.[5] Cyrus’ descendants were eventually bested by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BCE. The world’s next 500,000-man army emerged during the height of the Mauryan Empire of India around 300 BCE. By way of comparison, at the peak of Roman power in 400 CE, the emperors’ legions never exceeded 475,000 men.[6]

The Mongols’ Million

The Mongols ruled the known world in the 13th Century with 1 million soldiers. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

The Mongols ruled the known world in the 13th Century with 1 million soldiers. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

The Mongol army shattered the million mark in the late 13th Century. No other army up to that point had ever achieved such power. From its beginnings as a nation of nomadic herders, the Mongols emerged as a fearsome and near-unstoppable fighting force under their first emperor Genghis Khan. After a century of bloody conquest, the Mongols controlled virtually all of Asia and much of Eastern Europe. Yet within a single lifetime, the vast empire would disintegrate into a patchwork of warring factions. A century later, China’s Ming Dynasty would build a million-man army of its own. The next largest military on earth at the time belonged to the Ottomans. At 100,000 men, it was only a tenth as large as China’s, but it was still the mightiest in the western world. [7]

Modern Mass Armies

France used conscription in 1800 to build history's first 2-million man army. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

France used conscription in 1800 to build history’s first 2-million-man army. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Conscription allowed Napoleon to put an unprecedented 2.5 million Frenchmen in uniform between 1800 and 1815.[8] Over the next century, Europe’s increasingly modern and industrialized militaries would expand considerably, setting the stage for the prolonged bloodbath that was the First World War.

Total War

Imperial Russia's army reached its peak of 6 million in 1914. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

Imperial Russia’s army reached its peak of 6 million men in 1914. Too bad for the Tsar they were no match for Germany on the battlefield. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

By the time of the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, Imperial Russia’s vast military had swelled to just under 6 million soldiers. Only Germany, with 4.1 million men in arms came close to matching the Tsar numerically. By 1918, no country had more troops in the field than France. As many as 8 million men were fighting for the Third Republic by the Nov. 11 Armistice — nearly 45 percent of the country’s adult male population! For its part, Germany put a total of 5 million soldiers on the front lines between 1914 and 1918. But even that wasn’t enough to counter the 42 million the combined Allied powers had mustered by the war’s end. [9]

History’s Largest Army

The United States had 12 million men in uniform in 1945. More than 60 percent of them were stationed abroad. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

The United States had 12 million men in uniform in 1945. More than 60 percent of them were stationed abroad. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

The Third Reich transformed Germany from a defeated has-been power to a European superpower in the space of just a few years. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

The Third Reich transformed Germany from a geopolitical basket case to a European superpower in the space of just a few years. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

Six years of secret Nazi rearmament had transformed Germany’s token 100,000-man self-defense force as proscribed by the Treaty of Versailles into a powerful 4.7-million-man war machine by 1939. It was the world’s largest at the time when war broke out. German troop levels would more than double over the next four years, topping 11 million men in 1943. But by 1945, the United States’ military had reached a peak strength of 12 million soldiers, sailors and airmen. At no time before or since has a nation had so many of its citizens in uniform. [10] Even the Soviet Union, as formidable as it was in the final year of the Second World War, never exceeded 11 million.

China has consistently maintained the world's largest army of the Post War period. (Image source: WikiCommons Media)

China has consistently maintained the largest army of the Post War period. (Image source: Creative Commons)

Post-War Period

Following the victories in Europe and the Pacific, the massive armies of World War Two were cut back significantly. At the height of the Cold War (between 1960 and 1970), the United States reached a maximum force level of 3 million men. During the same period, the Soviet Union had 4.4 million men in uniform. [11] By 1980, China’s army was once again the world’s largest at 4.8 million. [12] It’s remained the largest ever since.

 

LargestArmies

Infographic from MilitaryHistoryNow.com

 

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SOURCES
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/648813/World-War-II/53533/Forces-and-resources-of-the-European-combatants-1939
http://www.halcyonmaps.com/military-superpowers-throughout-history/
http://www.nationalww2museum.org/learn/education/for-students/ww2-history/ww2-by-the-numbers/us-military.html
http://www.businessinsider.com/11-most-powerful-militaries-in-the-world-2014-4
http://theweek.com/article/index/274016/chinas-leader-is-telling-the-peoples-liberation-army-to-prepare-for-war
http://www.mapsofworld.com/world-top-ten/world-top-ten-countries-with-largest-armies-map.html
http://www.businessinsider.com/this-ambitious-graphic-shows-the-size-of-standing-armies-from-antiquity-to-the-present-2014-11

8 comments for “Brute Force – History’s Largest Armies

  1. Alex E
    5 January, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    Very interesting and some serious research went into that. Worth noting that the Indian Army of 1945 was the largest all-volunteer army in history, at 2.5 million.

  2. pyro
    8 January, 2015 at 6:11 pm

    China has always been the preeminent military power in the Ancient world, and always had the world largest standing army and fought the largest wars, heck the Han dynasty could muster up to 350000 cavalry alone, at least research your history before writing something.

  3. pyro
    8 January, 2015 at 6:14 pm

    The warring States era alone have a combined army of over 2 million men during the stages of the Qin unification wars.

  4. Diego
    5 March, 2017 at 5:39 pm

    this article is bullshit, no way Ramesses II had 100k soldiers, he had at best half of that. Also Persian Empire having 44% of the world’s population is bullshit, its not new China and India having a gigantic population. Qin Shi Huang in the 3rd century BC was able to field armies of 600k men. in 1940 Germany sent the bulk of their army to fight the allies, and it was 1,5 million, which means that they had at best 3 million soldiers when war broke out.

  5. Steve
    20 April, 2017 at 1:43 pm

    How is the Soviet Union during World War 2 not number 1? They conscripted 29,574,900 men in addition to the 4,826,907 already in service at the start of the war giving a massive total of 34,401,897 men. This is the largest by far.

    • 20 April, 2017 at 4:38 pm

      It’s been a while since we published this story, but I believe that the United States had the largest number of soldiers, sailors and airmen in uniform as of 1945 than any other army in history. Although the USSR committed more troops to the conflict overall, at any given moment, the Soviets never exceeded the U.S. total as of VE Day. It makes sense when considering the huge casualties Russia sustained during the war — something like 11 million killed wounded or captured.

  6. Kane
    10 September, 2017 at 10:42 pm

    If you include those fit for service, the U.S. military today could field an army over 120 million strong.

    If you think that is impressive, China could field an army 619 million strong. Again, if you include those fit for service

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