Did anyone actually lead from the front?

In every epic fantasy battle, the leaders are right at the front of the army and always lead the wedge-shaped charge straight into the enemy lines. Now, this seems to me to be a supremely stupid position to put yourself in. The guy at the very front must be the guy most likely to get killed, especially if he’s the king/lord/hero that everyone on the other side wants dead most of all. Of course, in fantasy it makes a certain amount of sense since the leader is usually the best fighter by a pretty wide margin, but in reality I imagine that was rarely the case.

So, are there any historical examples of this? Did the leader ever actually lead his troops into combat? If so, any survivors?

English kings used to lead their troops into battle all the time, and several were killed doing so. I assume any administrative advantage of keeping the king safe would be more than outweighed by the loss of faith this would cause among his troops. “Fight for a bloke who’s back home hiding under the bed? Not me!”

Captain W.P. Nevill, of the 8th East Surreys did. At least, briefly.

John Keegan’s book “Mask of Command” is all about how styles of command have evolved over the centuries, and he spends a lot of time talking about how in earlier eras the field general did indeed “lead” the troops into battle. See, for example, his discussion of Alexander the Great, who sometimes got out ahead of the rest of his men (putting himself at significant risk).

Lots did. I can recommend Richard Holmes’ Acts of War: The Behaviour of Men in Battle if you’re interested on more on the psychology, along with plenty of historical anecdotes (including the Falklands War, when Lt Col H Jones, commander of 2nd Battalion The Parachute Regiment, charged an Argentinian position with a submachinegun).

The motto of the Officer’s Training School at Fort Benning Georgia was “Follow Me.” The casualty rate amoung platoon leaders, 2[sup]nd[/sup] Lt. was exceptionally high in WWII.

I was reading “Under a Northern Sky”, a book about the Battle of Gettysburg, and it was mentioned that at the time, if an officer did not lead from the front of his men, confusion and dire circumstances could occur. One incident involved a Confederate unit, intending to march in a line directly towards a Union position (presenting a narrow profile while they did so) accidentally meandering to one side without the officer in front to keep them going the right way (somethign to do with the terrain). A result of this was the unit marching paralell to the Union unit within firing range, and they were gunned down like ducks in a row.

According to “We Were Soldiers”, the airborne cav officers also tended to lead from the front, which naturally led to high casualty rates of young officers (recalling the military history class I took a couple years back, during Vietnam, officers made up 5% of the casualties, which was somewhat disproportionate compared to how many officers there were in the military).

And as far as I know, in military aviation, the commanding officer tends to lead from the front. During WWII, the safest place you could be in a bomber formation was the very front, since the defenders needed time to fine-tune the altitude settings on their AA guns. Thus, a bomber group commander could both inspire his men while leading from the front and have a higher chance of not getting his arse shot off (unlike the guy in the back).

Alexander the Great led from the front. He got wounded a lot. I believe he almost got killed once after being the first over a wall.

Actually hardly any time at all was required to get the altitude dead on. The first bursts were nearly always right on altitude.

However, the Group Commanders flew missions just like everyone else and usually but not always as the formation lead.

I agree, though, that anti aircraft wouldn’t use the lead plane as the aiming point. Because of normal dispersion that would mean that roughly half of the rounds would burst out in front of the formation. Much better to use an aiming point someshere in the center of the formation.

It is unclear to me how a junior leader can do anything but lead from the front. That is the business of Corporals and Sergeants. Even junior officers must lead from the front, there is no other way to get anything done.

If you go, the men will generally follow you.

Did they? Including whom? I know Richard III got taken down in battle, but I don’t know that he was leading any charges at the time.

There was a Swedish king who was notorious for doing this, and did indeed come to a sticky end, during Sweden’s brief moment in the sun in about the 1600s. I can’t remember which one it was though.

Gustaph Aldolph, hell of a guy during the Thirty Years War. Of course his great enemy, Tilly also lead from the front.

Picton (An ancestor of mine)

No, they didn’t survive.

Battle of Lützen (1632). He was killed leading a cavalry charge.

Too bad he didn’t have any West Virginians to back him up. :wink:

Greek generals were expected to be in the front of the hoplites. The Spartan general Brasidas was killed in such an engagement. Leonidas killed by the Persians at Thermopylae, was another Spartan leader who led from the front, under somewhat different circumstances.


James H. Coffman Jr. led from the front.
So did Mark E. Mitchell
So did Brian Chontosh and Paul R. Smith.

There is plenty of leadership at the front.


Put Captain Charles Hazlitt Upham, VC* on the list too.