Murphy's Law: July 13, 2001


Just what is a general? From the Middle Ages up to the Napoleon era, the largest permanent "unit" was a regiment (usually 1,000 men), and a regiment was "pure" (infantry regiment, cavalry regiment, artillery regiment, etc.). A regiment was commanded by a Colonel. A general was an experienced officer who would know how to command several of these units, of different types, and get them to work together. Until Napoleon, armies weren't all that big and a nation might have only a few generals who were given whatever regiments were available and needed for the job. These generals are the antecedent of modern "four star" generals, although there was no other type and "stars" did not come along for centuries. As armies got bigger, the Lieutenant General appeared. This was originally an assistant to THE general. As Armies got ever bigger, these LTGs commanded "corps" which were sub-divisions of a field army. Even today, a lieutenant general nominally commands a corps. Sometime around the late 1600s, the first Major Generals (Originally Sergeant Major General) appeared. These were originally junior generals who commanded smaller groups of regiments ("divisions of a corps"), but they often handled day-to-day affairs too tedious for the important General and Lieutenant General. Frederick the Great had a rotating system in which the Major Generals took turns running (not commanding) the Army when it was in the field. Brigadier Generals had always been there, as regiments were often grouped into brigades. Up until the time of Napoleon, the size of a brigade was limited by the voice of the commander (or his trumpeter). Brigadiers were not originally called Generals (the British Army still refers to these types simply as "brigadier"). The US expanded the name to Brigadier General during the Revolution because too many politically-connected people wanted to be generals. On the continent of Europe, there were brigade commanders but these were simply senior colonels, and the lowest general was a Major General. The US created its system of "stars" as a continuation of its symbolic rank insignia. (Lieutenants and captain's wear bars that symbolize a rampart. Majors and lieutenant colonels command so many men they have to climb an oak tree in order to give them a rousing speech. Eagles are higher than trees, and stars are higher than birds.) Brigadiers got one star, major generals two, lieutenant generals three, and full generals four. This gave rise to the old joke that the only time a lieutenant outranks a major is when they are both generals. The US and British Armies still have no name for a four-star general other than General because of the original source of the term. On the continent, this confusion was ended by designating the original "general" a Colonel-General. The next higher rank was Marshal, something that came into vogue with Napoleon although it had existed earlier. Rank equivalencies are not exact and social conventions vary. The Russians (and the World War II Germans) have no brigadier generals; Russian major generals wear one star. The US insists that they are equal to brigadiers, while Russia insists that since they command divisions they are in fact two-star generals. The US responds that Russian divisions are half as big as US divisions. US divisions have always been huge. In World War I they were so big that the French insisted on giving US brigade commanders the same "honors" accorded French division commanders. The Russian concept makes their two-star lieutenant generals equal to our three-star lieutenant generals, their colonel-generals four stars, their Army Generals five stars (the US insists they are four-stars), and Marshals six stars. While this seems a high rank indeed, remember that the Soviet Army was, at least in the number of divisions, about five times as big as the US Army, counting all reserves on both sides. The Russians did, however, insist on confusing things. A Marshal of the USSR (or Russian Federation) is the next rank higher than an Army General, but a Marshal of Arms (e.g., Marshal of Tank Troops) was the same rank as an "Army General", but more social prestige.--Stephen V Cole




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