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40K: Loyal Primarchs’ Real Life Military Counterparts – PRIME

12 Minute Read
Jan 22
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Today we look at the nine loyalist Primarchs and determine which real-life general, or military commander, best represents them.

The universe Warhammer 40,000 is a massive, sprawling setting. A hundred thousand story threads weave together to form a sprawling tapestry of tragedy and heroism. Tales of betrayal and loyalty, brotherhood and war, are played out on a galactic stage.  At the heart of 40K is the Horus Heresy and the Primarchs. The Demi-God sons of the Master of Mankind, whose hopes and ambitions tore humanity apart.

Each of these warriors is larger than life; supernaturally gifted individuals created to carry out their father’s will. Above all else, they are warriors, bred to carry their creator’s banner across the stars. And do so they did, writing their names in history in the blood of a million subjugated systems.

In writing the Primarchs, it is clear that GW drew on many sources and inspirations, both real and mythical. No Primarch is a direct copy of an actual figure; they are too complex and mythical to be so. However, it is possible to look at them and draw parallels both to story and history. Today I want to look at the loyalist Primarchs and examine what real-life general, or military commander, best represents them. The generals I’ve picked are picked because they match some integral part of the Primarch’s history or personality. Let’s dig in.

Lion El’JonsonFrederick Barbarossa

The Lion is most heavily based on Arthur, King of the Britons. From his knights, his questing, the fratricidal war that tears apart his home, and his ‘death’ he matches the exploits of the legendary king. Unfortunately for our needs, Arthur isn’t a historical figure. While there may have been an ‘Arthur’ at some point, his actual deeds are highly debated. Unfortunately, this means he is disqualified. Alas, poor Arthur.

Jonson is pretty clearly a Medieval general and ruler, and it is here we find one who I think fits the Primarch of the 1st Legion well: Frederick Barbarossa, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Caliban, with its dark, haunted woods and monsters, certainly bears a resemblance to the mythic elements of the Holy Roman Empire with its Black Forests and sleeping dragons. The Order, the monastic knights of Caliban, are not far off from the Knight Templar or the Teutonic Knight that might be found in Germany. Details from the Gothic touches to early Cailbanite and Dark Angels armor is mirrored in some German armor forms. With these in mind, I think the Lion would understand Barbarossa’s Empire. 

Barbarossa and Jonson were both prodigies, famous even among their famous kin. Tactical masterminds whose contemporaries feared them. Both also lived in tumultuous times and had a host of famous ‘brothers.’ The Lion had the other Primarchs, and Barbarossa had his famous brother kings, such as Philip Augustus of France, Henry Plantagenet, and his son Richard of England and their arch-rival Saladin. Both the Lion and Frederick where Crusaders and knights. After the Lion was struck down, his still-living body was hidden in the bowls of the Rock, waiting for a time of great need to return. Like Jonson, Frederick is also the subject of a King in the Mountain story – for it is said that deep beneath the Kyffhäuser, he sleeps, guarded by dwarves (his small Watchers in the Dark) waiting for a time to return and save the Empire.

Jaghatai KhanGenghis Khan

Do I really need to explain this?

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Yes?

Alright. Of all the matchups Jaghatai Khan and Genghis Khan are the closest, with Jaghatai’s life mostly just being a retelling of the life of the other Great Khan. Jaghatai was transported to the world of Chogoris, where he was found by steppe nomads. They raised him as one of their own. After spending his youth leading combats in the constant feuding of the steppe clans, Jaghatai eventually united them under his banner. He then began a war of conquests against the other parts of the world, especially the more settled lands.

A master of mounted warfare, he used his mobility and organizational skills to crush any who stood before him, excelling at hit and run tactics and feigned retreats. When he attacked cities, he gave them the chance to surrender or be annihilated.  The utter annihilation of some cities convinced many more to surrender. He eventually earned the title of Great Khan and controlled a massive and vast empire. 

Genghis, also known as Temüjin, was born among the Mongolian steppe nomads of Terra. After spending his youth leading combats in the constant feuding of the steppe clans, Genghis eventually united them under his banner. He then began a war of conquests against the other parts of the world, especially the more settled lands. A master of mounted warfare, he used his mobility and organizational skills to crush any who stood before him, excelling at hit and run tactics and feigned retreats. When he attacked cities, he gave them the chance to surrender or be annihilated.  The utter annihilation of some cities convinced many more to surrender.  Eventually earned the title of Great Khan and controlled a massive and vast empire. 
I rest my case.

Leman Russ – Harald Hardrada

Leman Russ, the Wolf King, is a Viking lord and warrior. There is little question that his real-life counterpart is among the ranks of the Norsemen that have captured the imagination of generations. But which legendary Viking warriors fit Russ best? In truth, you find elements of him in several. But for many of them, we verge into the realm of saga and myth and away from the light of the real world. If Arthur would not work for the Lion, then we must likewise discount the likes Beowulf or even Ragnar Lodbrok. Instead, I will turn to a well known historical figure, Herald Hardrada, Harald the Hard Ruler, the almost king of England. 

Harald was born around 1015 CE and died on September 25th, 1066 – shot in the throat by an English peasant. During his eventful life, he was a jarl, a Viking warrior, a mercenary, an explorer, a conquer, a berserker, and a King. All of which (aside from maybe mercenary) are true of Leman Russ, as well. Sometime around 1033, Harald and his followers were in Byzantium, and there he joined the Varangian Guard. This famous force was recruited, at the time, from Norsemen. It served as a bodyguard to the Emperor of Byzantium, as well as his elite shock infantry. In many ways, they are similar to the utterly loyal Space Wolves, and the fact that both Harald and Russ served an Emperor should not be lost on us. Herald met his end fighting the English usurper, or rightful king, Harold Godwinson. Much like Russ was defeated by Horus in Wolfsbane, though Russ survived. In both cases, the damage done by Russ and Harald seems to have played a part in the pretender’s eventual downfall.

Rogal Dorn – Ulysses S Grant

Rogal Dorn is the dour master of the Imperial Fists. A man not known for humor, he is known for unyielding determination and for being a master of siegecraft, both offensive and defensive. On Earth, he finds his counterpart in the American General Ulysses S Grant. Like Dorn, Grant was also caught up in a massive Civil War that tore his people apart, and like Dorn, he stayed utterly loyal even as friends and brothers in arms turned on them.

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Grant, like Dorn, was not a general known for his humor or sunniness, both instead for his unyielding will and for never giving up, even when all seemed lost. Both had the essential trait to carry on. Both also where military masterminds, though often their victories came at high cost. Both were also masters of siege warfare, conducting many famous sieges. Both men were methodical and ruthless when needed. Both also developed close personal relationships with their rulers and, during their respective Civil Wars, worked closely with them. All in all, I think these are two kindred spirits.

Sanguinius – Jeanne d’Arc

 Sanguinius is a bit of an odd one here. Of the Loyalist Primarchs, he is the most mystical and least grounded in reality. More than a historical figure, he is based on the Archangel Saint Michael, down to the posing on his Forgeworld model. Thus it’s a little hard to find significant comparisons among real people. For my money though, the French General and figure Jeanne d’Arc makes a good, if unlikely fit here. Sanguinius is not the only place she has in 40K since arguably the entire Sisters of Battle organization is based on her. 
Looking at Jeanne and Sanguinius, we see two figures that, while grounded in a real-world, serve as inspiration that the divine exists. Both convinced their people that there was something more to be fighting for. More than their strength or their tactical acumen, it was their power as symbols and inspirations that drove their troops on and in both the real world and 40K left a lasting legacy.
Both received their own form of visions – Sanguinius with a limited ability to see the future and Jeanne through her claimed divine inspiration, and both would be accused of witchcraft for this. Both were famously martyred and raised to Sainthood (OK Sanguinius isn’t a saint because he’s more than that, but he occupies the same role, again closer to the Archangel Saint Michael).

Ferrus Manus– Götz von Berlichingen

What better match for Ferrus Manus than the original Iron Hand Götz von Berlichingen? Gotz was a German Knight and Mercenary General active during the 1500s. During a long career, he lived to be 82, Gotz fought in wars all over Europe. He lead peasant rebellions, commanded troops against the Ottoman Turks, fought for various German Princes, and settled several personal scores and feuds. He was a relatively loyal servant of Emperor Charles V, making him like Manus a faithful follower of an Emperor. He was also a shameless self-promoter, leaving a detailed autobiography behind.

Admittedly none of this sounds too much like Ferrus Manus, so why the pick? Well, the most famous thing about Götz von Berlichingen was his right hand, his Iron Hand. In 1504 during a siege, his right arm was shot off by a cannonball – for some, that might have ended their military career. He had an iron prosthetic arm fashioned for him, which he used for the next 58 years, earning him the nickname of Götz of the Iron Hand.

Götz actually had two iron hands, one for use in battle, with which he could hold a shield or reigns, and one for when not in combat. Thus with von Berlichingen, we have a quite literal Iron Hand, a ferrus manus if you will, to match our Primarch. Indeed, he is likely the very first, or the first famous Iron Hand out there and would be at home with the Iron Tenth. Von Berlichingen is also the inspiration for the character Guts from the manga and anime Berserk, another famous mercenary with an iron hand.

Roboute GuillimanAugustus Ceasar

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From armor to weapons to names the Roman inspiration behind the Ultramarines, their worlds and their Primarch is clear. It’s clear that Guilliman was always going to match with a Roman Emperor, and for my money, the best match is the first, Octavian, Augustus, Ceasar. Both share personality traits and a similar history. Both were adopted by a powerful man (Kronar and Julius Ceasar) and raised in their shadow and as their heir. When their adopted fathers were murdered by assassins, both avenged them and then took control of their realms. Both increased their power and enlarged their domain, transforming them into beacons of civilization.

While Augustus wasn’t a master tactician like Guilliman, he was a master of strategy. Guilliman likewise can and does lead from the front, but it is his strength as a strategist and big picture thinker that makes him a real danger. Guilliman was also known for his ambition, equaled only by that of Horus. Octavian too was a massively ambitious man, driven to overthrow the republic and make himself an Emperor; a desire Guilliman might share. Lastly, both were known for their organizational skill and as reformers, organizing nations and armies and people with devastating skills. Like the Khans, this is a match that seems pretty clear.

Adrian Caron De Wiart was a British General who served in the Second Boer War, the First World War, the Second World War, and several other smaller conflicts. During nearly fifty years of service, he received a host of metals from not only the British Government but also the French and Polish Governments, including the Victoria Cross. Though not well known in the US, he is a famous figure and a good match for one major aspect of the Primarch Vulkan.

Vulkan, of course, is a perpetual, an immortal being who shrugs off wounds that will kill other men. Caron De Wiart also seems to have this power. During his service, he was shot in the head, face stomach, ankle, leg, hip, and ear. He lost an eye and hand. In World War 1 alone, he was wounded eight times. Once when a doctor refused to amputate his fingers, he pulled them off himself.

Dispite all these wounds, and being in two plane crashes, nothing seemed to stop him or diminish his lust for battle. At the Somme, having already lost an eye and a hand, he was seen commanding troops from the front line and throwing hand grenades with his one good arm. Of the First World War, he said: “Frankly, I had enjoyed the war.” 1

Given all that Caron De Wiart is about as close to a real-life perpetual as we are likely to see, considering that after all those wounds, he still serves for another 30 years in the army. I think even Vulkan would respect that. In World War 2, after surviving a plane crash, Caron De Wiart was captured and held in an Italian Prisoner of War Camp. The 61-year-old heavily injured general was able to tunnel his way out of the camp and escaped for several days, much as how Vulkan was captured and escaped from The Night Haunter. All in all, I think these two are a good fit.

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Corax grew up on the moon Lycaeus. The moon was a colony of the Forge World Kiavahr. The capitalists of Kiavhar enslaved and explored the populus and workers of Lycaeus using them as cheap labor and a source of raw material, stripping their country bare to feed the homeland. Feeling their plight, Corax began to organize the workers and people into a revolutionary army. Protests and riots soon grew into something more, and Corax stockpiled weapons and trained the workers. The conflicts came to a head at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, err I mean Lycaeus and the local garrison troops were wiped out.

However, the capitalist masters where not done, and the system was soon plunged into the Vietnam War, I mean the War of Deliverance, which pitted the smaller out inadequately supplied guerrilla forces of Corvus Corax against the rich and technological advanced forces of Kiavhar. Through a master of guerrilla tactics and using hit and run attacks, Corax weakened the corrupt enemy until there could launch a final assault and unify the world under a free banner. Though millions of civilians had died, the oppressed were freed, and the technologically superior and arrogant masters were defeated.

Also, Ho Chi Minh did all those things in Vietnam. But hopefully, you can see why I might see some parallels here – revolutionaries, fighting for the workers, guerrilla combat masters. Sadly we will likely never know if Ho Chi Minh also liked Edgar Allen Poe, but the rest seems to fit well.

  1. Carton de Wiart, Sir Adrian (1950). Happy Odyssey: The Memoirs of Lieutenant-General Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart V.C., K.B.E., C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O. ; with a Foreword by the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill O.M

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