In one novel I am currently reading a traitorous commander who is responsible for atrocities against the people he should protect and killing the remainder of the army he once belonged to was promoted to leader again after getting captured. As "reason" it is indicated that he is the last able commander in the army.

While I found other novels of the series quite entertaining, this is breaking the suspension of disbelief. I cannot think of any other action which is more damning that the person is unfit for command than betrayal. In fact, the usual course of action is that if the traitor is caught, his former superiors show profound displeasure with the actions.

Knowing that humans are capable of truly disturbing amounts of stupidity:

Was there ever a case that a traitorous military commander took command again for the side he betrayed and the superiors knew that he is a traitor?

Because "traitor" is often used as polemical term, I rule out some at least comprehensible edge cases. If the military commander acted because he reasonably feared that he was to be executed or ruined not because of misbehavior, but as a political sacrifice or because someone sees him as an inconvenient person, I don't count it. I also don't count it if the actions of the superiors can be reasonably counted as betrayal itself (Offering a defended city if the own life and belongings are spared). I also exclude whistleblowing, showing that something is profoundly wrong without personal gratification.

What I want is really a stab-in-the-back-and-turn-around-the-blade betrayal. Selling secrets or necessary equipment for money. Fall own units in the back or abandon them because it suits oneself. Trying to build an own empire without provocation. That kind of thing.

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    You mean for his original side? Because Benedict Arnold for instance, took command in the British army.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 17:03
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    Benedict Arnold did not serve the Brits before he joined the American Continental Army.
    – sds
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 18:39
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    @sds - He served it after he switched though, so he was a commander (in the other army) after he'd shown a propensity for changing sides.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 19:20
  • @TomAu Yes, sorry if that was unclear. And even then it happened, see andejons answer. Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 21:59
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    I kind of want to know the novel, I might enjoy it.
    – Fake Name
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 20:54

8 Answers 8


Perhaps Napoleon's marshal Michel Ney? He was first one of the marshals that forced Napoleon's abdication, and was promoted when Louis XVIII was put on the throne. During the Hundred days, he promised to bring Napoleon back in a cage, raised a force, but defected to Napoleon at first chance and commanded the army that fought Wellington at Quatre Bras and the left flank at Waterloo. After the defeat of Napoleon, Ney was executed. Granted, this was more of treachery on the personal level, but I think it fits the intent of the question.

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    And Michel Ney not only was promoted, but hold an oath of allegiance to Louis XVIII. Definitely treachery. And after kissing Napoleons hand he was one leader of the force at Waterloo after the mutiny at Fontainebleau. Un-be-liev-able. And I thought nobody could be that stupid. And Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, what a perfect match. Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 21:39
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    Uhm and at what point he betrayed Napoleon before defecting to Napoleon again? Or do you consider his execution as being in command under Louis again after he betrayed that way round? Otherwise I don't get how this answers OP.
    – Zaibis
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 8:41
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    He led the army's mutiny against Napoleon in 1814. Up to that point he had served Napoleon with distinction.
    – andejons
    Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 8:53

(1) Alcibiades, of course.

During the course of the Peloponnesian War, Alcibiades changed his political allegiance several times. In his native Athens in the early 410s BC, he advocated an aggressive foreign policy and was a prominent proponent of the Sicilian Expedition, but he fled to Sparta after his political enemies brought charges of sacrilege against him. In Sparta, he served as a strategic adviser, proposing or supervising several major campaigns against Athens. In Sparta too, however, Alcibiades soon made powerful enemies and felt forced to defect to Persia. There he served as an adviser to the satrap Tissaphernes until his Athenian political allies brought about his recall. He then served as an Athenian general [...] for several years [...]

(2) George, Duke of Clarence almost fits - but maybe not quite. He sure switched sides twice but he was not given a military command upon re-defection - perhaps because there was no war going on. Had there been one, I presume he would have commanded part of Edward's army.

(3) Vladimir Gil (Rodionov). He was a lieutenant colonel in the Red Army. Early in the German invasion of the Soviet Union he was captured by the Wehrmacht and joined the German side.

He quickly rose in prominence in the German service and was able to create his own SS "eastern legion"-type unit, which was eventually known as the 1-я русская национальная бригада СС «Дружина» (1st Russian National SS Brigade Druzhina).

Then, in August 1943, after some clandestine negotiation with the partisans he had been fighting so far, Gil defected back to the Soviet side with his entire unit (killing the German officers attached to it in the process), which was now promptly renamed as «1-я Антифашистская партизанская бригада» (1st Antifascist Partisan Brigade). Gil remained in command, retained his rank, and was even awarded the Order of the Red Banner.

He died of wounds sustained in action in 1944, so we cannot tell how his fate would have played out post-war but I doubt he would have been able to weasel his way out of a court-martial and possible execution. As long as the war lasted, though, he was useful to the Soviet command.

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    +1 for Alcibiades and Vladimir Gil. By the way, the German wikipedia don't even know him. Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 6:55
  • I think, these Alcibiades and Vladimir Gil are the answer. Because all others on the page participated in some feudal conflicts or civil wars and their changing the sides was not classic treachery and should be judged separately.
    – Gangnus
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 12:10
  • @Gangnus I object. While Ney could have been reasons for his mutiny, after swearing allegiance and promising to bring back Napoleon in a cage kissing Napoleons hand is not only treachery, it is exactly stab-in-the-back-and-turn-blade-around treachery. There is simply no excuse. And the question mentions only sides, not especially countries or other separate entities. Alcibiades and Gil are also very good examples, but andejons answer was the first pinpoint answer. Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 16:38
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    @JohnDee I think OP wanted examples of betraying the original side, which Alcibiades sure did. Commented Aug 21, 2017 at 8:26
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    Alcibiades, I believe, ended up betraying every side he served. He was often brilliant but sometimes undermined his position by his lack of self-control (and huge ego?). Getting the King of Sparta's wife pregnant is just one example (and doing so while the king was away on campaign and could thus not possibly be the father of his wife's child wasn't very smart). Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 14:07

If you define "traitorous" as "rebelling against a country you once served", then there's Joseph Wheeler who served in the US military, went to fight against the US military as a Confederate officer, then later fought for the US military in the Spanish American war.

There are many in the US who take great exception to the idea that Confederate soldiers were "traitors", though.


I would suggest Thorkell the Tall, a Viking commander who attacked England in 1010 for the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard. His army, for instance, laid siege to Canterbury, took the city, and burned its cathedral.

In 1013, Thorkell and his army defected and fought for King Æthelred against Sweyn and his son Cnut, keeping him in check during the siege of London. After Sweyn's death, Æthelred's forces turned against every Viking in England and Thorkell went back to Cnut and fought for him again in the conquest of England in 1017. After their victory, Cnut gave control of East Anglia to Thorkell.

In the end, he fell out (again) with Cnut, but that's another story.

It seems that Thorkell and the legendary Jomsvikings were very valuable and that Thorkell taught King Cnut how to fight and this is why Cnut accepted his allegiance again.

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    When I saw this question, I immediately thought about how in feudalism the vassal relationships changed fairly regularly (if my memory serves me.) But I'm not sure that's the same thing. These were essentially independent armies that would be more like our current concept of alliance. A minor lord essentially served himself and wouldn't be a traitor in the same sense as we think of it now. Or that's my understanding, which could be wrong.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 14:50
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    @JimmyJames Yes I think you're right ! It's clearly not the same relationship but since he fought both for and against the Danish King, I feel like it was worth mentioning it :)
    – Furlevent
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 16:55

Lü Bu (Eastern Han dynasty) was pretty famous for switching sides. I'm oversimplifying, but:

189: Served under Dong Zhuo, capturing the capital of China. Promoted to general.

192: Helps assassinate Dong Zhuo. Goes to Yuan Shu (though rejected).

194: Commanded soldiers under Yuan Shao. Yuan Shao tries to assassinate him. Join's Zhang Miao's successful rebellion against Cao Cao.

196: Defeated by Cao Cao, and sheltered by Liu Bei. Recruited by Yuan Shu to betray Liu Bei, which he does successfully.

197: Betrays Yuan Shu.

198: Joins Yuan Shu again, to fight Liu Bei. Captures land from Liu Bei for Yuan Shu.

198-199: Besieged by Cao Cao. Captured by Cao Cao and executed.

His service under Yuan Shu is an example of a traitor being given command again, when his treachery is well-known.

  • ...wow. Now we need only one more leader from Africa... Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 22:35

Marshall Conde of France took part in the "Fronde" insurrection in France, in the mid-17th century. He (and his sister) were "excused" because they were upholding the sister's husband, not in their own right. According to Wikipedia:

"She, [the sister] alone among the nobles who took part in the folly of the Fronde, earned respect and sympathy. Faithful to a faithless husband, she came forth from the retirement to which he had condemned her to fight for his freedom."

He was taken back by Louis XIV and served faithfully thereafter. even though the Fronde had been "flirting" with Spain, a foreign power.

  • I think internal insurrection is somewhat different from betraying one's country to a foreign power.
    – sds
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 18:34
  • @sds: The sister "entered into negotiations with Spain..." a foreign power.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 18:36
  • "sister", not the Marshall. "negotiations", not actual service. nevertheless, your example is good, and, probably, the best that can be found, as the OP indicates himself.
    – sds
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 18:39
  • @sds He did negotiated with Spain and Cromwell's England before attacking Paris. Moreover he was cousin with Louis XIV. He even officially defected to Spain. His pardon was included in a peace treaty between France and Spain. In the next war against Spain, he fought in the french army.
    – xrorox
    Commented Nov 15, 2019 at 16:51

There was a near-miss in US history. In 1873, the Spanish navy captured an American vessel, the Virginius, that was transporting Cuban insurgents, and executed 53 Americans found aboard. During the standoff that followed, former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest volunteered to lead an expedition against Spanish positions in the Caribbean. President Grant was considering the offer when the Spanish government apologized and the crisis was resolved.

(Whether Forrest, or Wheeler in another answer, counts as a traitor is obviously a highly contentious point, but cases like these may inform your understanding.)

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    I would say that even according to the limited legal definition of treason in the US constitution "treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort" Forrest & Wheeler where definitely traitors.
    – MAGolding
    Commented Feb 14, 2019 at 19:32
  • Treason consists only in levying war against the United States or adhering to our enemies — but it does not consist entirely of that. Do you regard Võ Nguyên Giáp as a traitor to the US? What about Wilhelm Keitel? They certainly levied war against the US, to the best of their abilities (which were quite good). 18 US Code §2381 says "Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them" commits treason. Forrest and Wheeler did not claim any allegiance to the Union. Commented Feb 15, 2019 at 5:51

Many participants in Rákóczi's War of Independence.

If you include "rebels" in the definition (one side's traitor is another side's freedom fighter), the officers who sided with the independence movement were defecting from their positions as officers in the imperial army. The reason for this was that Hungary was formerly split between the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Empire, the remainder forming a mostly independent Principality of Transylvania. After the end of the Great Turkish War, all of the above three territories ended up under the control of the Habsburg Empire. Francis II Rákóczi, prince of Transylvania, rebelled against the emperor and wanted to liberate all of Hungary from Habsburg control. Obviously, most of the military under his command fought previously in the Ottoman wars under the Habsburg banner.

As the war dragged on for 8 years, the Habsburgs offered many rebel generals their old positions and lands back if they switched back to their side. Some accepted, most notably Ocskay László. He fits the question the most, because he betrayed the emperor to join the rebels, and then betrayed the rebels to join the emperor again. Interestingly, after a series of failures in the emperor's employement, he was captured and was ready to betray the emperor again, but this time the rebels didn't believe him and, executed him. Another interesting example is Károlyi Sándor, another former imperial commander who joined the independence movement. Near the end of the war, Rákóczi gave him command over all the military with the order to continue fighting, but after evaluating the situation, he has seen more fit to arrange for a very forgiving peace treaty instead.

After the war ended peacefully with the treaty of Szatmár, the rebels were granted full amnesty, and many military officers resumed their duties in the emperor's army.

  • "After the war ended peacefully" I love how you use the adverb "peacefully". Another good question to ask would be : "When the war ends, is it always peace ?"
    – Evargalo
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 8:35
  • @OlivierPucher I used it intentionally. If you look up the Treaty of Szatmár, and the events leading up to it, you will understand why. From the point of view of the empire, it was a rebellion. And after a rebellion is defeated, in many cases the rebels are massacred, their leaders imprisoned or executed, their families' lands conficated. What happened here instead, was that everyone was allowed to return into the employ of the empire, keeping their old ranks and keeping their lands. Most of them accepted it, and the few who didn't, were allowed to go into exile. Pretty peaceful I would say.
    – vsz
    Commented Aug 18, 2017 at 18:47

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