Unhinged – 10 of History’s ‘Craziest’ Military Commanders

Adolf Hitler may be history's most murderous psychopath, but he was hardly the only madman to command armies. Prussia's Marshal Blücher was one of them.

Adolf Hitler may be history’s most murderous psychopath, but he was hardly the only madman to command armies. Prussia’s Marshal Blücher, pictured here, is just one of a number of leaders from the ages that is thought to have been insane.

“Consider some of these ‘mad’ commanders from the pages of military history.”

GENERAL GEORGE S. PATTON ONCE DESCRIBED HIMSELF AS the best “ass-kicker in the United States Army.” It’s a claim that’s not without merit.

In just nine short months beginning in July of 1944, the flamboyant four-star led his Third Army half way across France and into Germany killing, wounding or capturing 1.4 million enemy troops and liberating more than 10,000 cities and towns along the way.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, described Patton as “indispensable to the war effort” and wrote that his very name “struck terror at the hearts of the enemy.”[1]

German field marshal Gerd von Rundstedt agreed.

Even George Patton's admirers conceded that the general was 'eccentric'.

Even George Patton’s admirers conceded that the general was ‘eccentric’.

“He’s your best,” the commander of all Axis forces in Western Europe told the American press shortly after his capture.[2]

Yet, George Patton is remembered as much for his many peculiarities as he is for his penchant for winning battles. When he wasn’t hammering the Axis, the former cavalryman, known as “Old Blood and Guts,” scribbled odd poetry. A notorious martinet, Patton demanded his officers wear pressed uniforms with neckties and shave — even at the front. He designed his own outfit for tank crews – a garish green leather tunic with a diagonal row of shiny buttons topped by a gold football helmet.

Patton’s fiery temper was legendary. When not suffering ridicule for publicly upbraiding America’s wartime allies, he faced censure for callously slapping his own shell-shocked troops.

Perhaps most bizarre of all was Patton’s deeply held belief that he was a reincarnated warrior from bygone ages. The general claimed that in past lives he fought as an ancient Greek hoplite, a Roman soldier, a Carthaginian spearman, a medieval knight, a Cro-Magnon hunter and one of Napoleon’s field marshals.

Even Patton’s staunchest defenders described him as eccentric, while his own estate’s official website opts for the word “complicated.” Others have been less charitable. British field marshal Alan Brooke reached for words like “wild” and “unbalanced” to characterize him. [3]

But if Patton was indeed peculiar, he is certainly in good company. Consider some of these mad commanders from the pages of military history: ­

Alexander the Great kills his friend Cleitus.

Alexander the Great kills his friend Cleitus.

Raging Alexander

Alexander the Great may have conquered much of the known world in the 4th Century BCE, but he was still unable to master his own temper. His fits, often brought on by bouts of heavy drinking, bordered on the psychotic. Following one particularly prodigious bender, the 30-year-old emperor went berserk and stabbed his close friend Cleitus with a javelin. Ironically, the murder occurred at the tail end of a banquet held at Samarkand that the Macedonian ruler hosted to celebrate Cleitus’ own promotion.

Luigi Cadorna. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Luigi Cadorna. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Cadorna’s Sadism

When it comes to assailing subordinates, few can match Luigi Cadorna. In fact, at times the 64-year-old Italian First World War field marshal seemed more interested in killing his own men than the enemy. In just one 1915 offensive alone, he callously squandered the lives of up to 250,000 Italian soldiers! And those not cut down by enemy machine gun fire were just as likely to face malicious prosecution by Cadorna for failing to make good on his suicidal battle plans. In fact, nearly six percent of all men in the Italian army were eventually brought up on some charge or another by the aging tyrant; more than 750 were executed on his watch. No nation shot more of its own during the First World War than Italy. [4]

Messianic Complex

Even more dangerous was Hong Xiuquan, leader of the Taiping Rebellion in southern China between 1851 and 1864. Following a series of bizarre hallucinations, the failed civil servant believed himself to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He rose to become a fiery orator and eventually built up a cult-like following that was committed to bringing down the ruling Qing Dynasty. The uprising was mercilessly crushed, but not before it snuffed out the lives of more than 20 million people – an even bloodier butcher’s bill than the First World War!

A 19th Century cartoon of Blücher thrashing Napoleon.

A 19th Century cartoon of Blücher thrashing Napoleon.

Blücher’s Delusions

Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, famous for leading the Prussian army into battle at Waterloo, is less well-remembered for his epic mental instability. Yet the veteran of both the Seven Years War as well as the decade-long fight to defeat Napoleon likely suffered from schizophrenia. Need proof? Consider this: Blücher claimed that he had been impregnated by a French grenadier and was carrying the fetus of an unborn elephant in his stomach. The field marshal was equally convinced that enemy agents were somehow heating the floors of his palace as part of plan to scorch his feet. And to top if off, Blücher would often try to kill ordinary houseflies with his sabre.

The Madness of King Charles

Charles VI of France believed that he was made of glass.

Charles VI of France believed that he was made of glass.

On the topic of delusional, France’s Charles VI was so deranged that he was frequently unable to lead his own army into battle. Also known as Charles the Mad, the 15th Century monarch once drew his sword in a fit of paranoia and attacked members of his own retinue. At times, Charles seemed to not know that he was married, a father or was even the king. And most famously, the manic monarch believed that he was made of glass and wore padded clothes to ensure that he wouldn’t accidentally shatter. His wife, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, eventually refused to sleep in the same room with her demented husband and even went so far as to hire a body double to stand in for her at bedtime. Charles reportedly never caught on.

The 'hero' of the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Seventh Earl of Cardigan, famously threw a temper tantrum in the 11th Hussar's officer's mess over a wine bottle. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The ‘hero’ of the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Seventh Earl of Cardigan, famously threw a temper tantrum in the 11th Hussar’s officer’s mess over a wine bottle. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Black Bottle” Brudenell

History doesn’t remember Lieutenant General James Thomas Brudenell, aka the Seventh Earl of Cardigan as a madman per se, but in 1840 he reportedly was driven into a frenzy when a captain in his 11th Hussars by the name of John Reynolds placed a bottle of wine on the table during a fancy mess dinner — the brute should have used a decanter, Cardigan fumed. After much ranting and raving in front of the whole gathering, he ordered the uncouth officer arrested. A journalist reported the strange story in The Morning Chronicle, which went down in history as “The Black Bottle Affair”. Almost overnight the 43-year-old aristocrat faced ridicule. Crowds jeered, booed and chanted “black bottle” when he appeared in public. He eventually challenged the journalist who penned the offending piece to a duel. Cardigan wounded his opponent, but it was later discovered that the earl had used a weapon with a more accurate rifled barrel — a violation of the code of dueling. He later led his 11th Hussars in the futile frontal assault on Russian guns during the Battle of Balaclava, but unlike so many of his men, Cardigan survived the episode unscathed. Some eyewitnesses claimed that he actually trotted from the field while his men were being slaughtered.

Oliver Hazard Perry sufferd from Taurophobia -- an irrational fear of cattle.

Oliver Hazard Perry sufferd from Taurophobia — an irrational fear of cattle.

Strange Phobias

There is no question that the American naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry was courageous. In September of 1813, the 28-year-old Rhode Islander outfought a British fleet off Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie. Yet despite being able to calmly walk the quarterdeck amid a torrent of enemy cannon fire, Perry harboured one rather odd irrational fear — cows terrified him!

William Tecumseh Sherman gave up his command in 1861 after a crippling bout of depression. (Image source: WikiCommons)

William Tecumseh Sherman gave up his command in 1861 after a crippling bout of depression. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Sherman’s Breaking Point

William Tecumseh Sherman was a rising star in the Union Army during the first year of the American Civil War. But by late 1861, the 41-year-old one-time dean of the Louisiana state military academy, suffered what might best be described as a mental collapse. Those attached to his army in Kentucky noted the general’s growing manic tendencies: He chain-smoked while nervously pacing his headquarters, he was frequently crippled with despair and he often babbled nonstop about a vast unbeatable legion of crack Rebel troops that was poised to invade the relatively quiet border region. Even newspapers from his home state of Ohio reported that the general had lost his mind. By year’s end, Sherman was relieved of command and sent home to recuperate. By the spring he’d recovered sufficiently to take over a division in Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee where he performed admirably. Sherman soon gained a reputation for both competence as well as ruthlessness in the field. During his 1864 invasion of Georgia and the Carolinas, his army laid waste the heartland of the Confederacy.

Ivan the Terrible in one of his storied bouts of madness.

Ivan the Terrible in one of his storied bouts of madness.

An insane Ivan the Terrible murders his own son.

An insane Ivan the Terrible murders his own son.

Crazy Ivan

Ivan Vasilyevich or Ivan IV transformed Russia from a tiny regional power into a sprawling empire during his three-decade reign that began in 1547. A decisive strategist and shrewd ruler, Ivan was often ravaged by bouts of insanity. Much of his bizarre behaviour followed the death of his wife in 1560. Convinced that his bride had been murdered as part of a conspiracy carried out by Russia’s aristocratic boyars, Ivan inaugurated a 20-year “reign of terror” in which he massacred the nobility and established the Oprichniki, a sort of 16th Century version of the KGB. And the older Ivan got, the crazier he became. In one of his more irrational moments, Ivan had ordered the eyes of the designer of the towering St. Basil’s Cathedral (the Kremlin) gouged out — this so the architect couldn’t produce a more stunning building for another monarch. He also supposedly physically assaulted his pregnant daughter-in-law prompting a miscarriage and even murdered his own son in a fit of fury. As Ivan’s health declined later in life, he reportedly embraced witchcraft in a vain attempt to cheat death. He died in 1584 of a stroke — but not before earning himself his more famous sobriquet: Ivan the Terrible.

(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Nov. 3, 2014)

Leave a Reply