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The article is organised as follows:


5.0     Introduction

A four-star officer, with a NATO code of OF-9, is a senior commander within the armed forces of a nation, although exact seniority is country specific.

Typically termed ‘General’, it usually ranks above a Lieutenant General (OF-8) and below a Field Marshal (OF-10), although sometimes it can be the equivalent of either of these two ranks. It is typically either the third or fourth grade of general officer.

In some countries a General is known as an Army General or Colonel General but, when translated to English, is typically termed General for convenience.

5.1     History of the Rank and Formation

An army is a large organised force, armed and trained for war, especially on land. The term may be applied to a large unit organised for independent action (usually termed field army), or it may be applied to a nation’s or rulers complete military organisation for land warfare, for example the British Army.

The word ‘army’ comes from the Latin Arma, meaning arms or weapons. The equivalent of an army is typically an air force, or air army in some countries (e.g. France), in a nation’s air arm and fleet in the navy.

In days gone by, rulers maintained their authority through the power/presence of their army, some political figures used the power and loyalty of their army to further their own agenda’s – Julius Caesar and Napoleon are famous examples. Some countries maintained a foreign army to maintain order and exert their authority, for example the (British) East India Company. By the early 1800s, at the height of its rule in India, the British East India Company had a private army of approximately 260,000 – twice the size of the British Army composed largely of local soldiers known as Sepoy.

Both China and India provide some of the earliest examples of organised armies (Majumdar, 2003). Probably one of the earliest examples of a ‘professional’ army is Sparta. At the age of seven, boys were sent to a ‘barracks’ to train for war, having to pass some gruelling ‘assessments’ along the way. If they completed this process they would then be available for military service until they died in battle or reached retirement age. Due the Spartan use of serfs/helots to conduct manual labour (for planting and harvest seasons), Spartan men (citizens) could be available for military service all year which gave them a significant military advantage, especially over their neighbours.

However, for most people, Rome’s organised and efficient military organisation is the most easily recognised early example of an army. Like Sparta, the early Roman army consisted of citizen soldiers – although military service was initially based on strict eligibility criteria which restricted the manpower available – and the army stood down after military operations. In 107 BC Gaius Marius, a Roman general and statesman, introduced military reforms due, in part, to a shortage of manpower. Roman landless masses, the capite censi, men who had no property to be assessed in the census could now join the Roman legions. Another aspect of the reforms was the formation of a standing army (meaning it existed all year). Marius was able to standardise training and equipment throughout the Roman legions, and drilling and training took place all year round, even in times of peace, not just when war threatened. Although collectively known as the Roman Army, each legion acted as a field army which could combine with another legion(s) when required or split into smaller units (cohorts) when military operations did not require a full legion – the Roman Army was high flexible, giving it significant advantages over other ‘armies’ of the time. Rome also made use of auxiliary troops (non-Roman citizens) to augment their own numbers and capabilities.

By the time of the Middles Ages, the concept of a standing army had pretty much disappeared and the nobles and lords of a nation were obliged to provide soldiers (levies) to their liege lords for military operations. Mercenaries also came to prominence during this period – although they had been around since at least the Roman Republic – and could make effective soldiers, with ‘free companies’ (i.e. no state affiliation) numbering from hundreds to thousands.

Form approximately the 1400s some nations passed laws restricting military recruitment and training to the monarch – this reduced the risk of rebellions and ‘corporate’ takeovers by disgruntled nobles. Monarchs started issuing commissions to nobles giving them authority to command the army or raise regiments. Monarchs usually kept a small standing army, typically a small bodyguard/household guard and the general populace was nominally required to provide some form of military service for a period of time each year.

During the 1600s and 1700s, due to almost continual fighting and skirmishes, nations started changing their criteria for military service and increased the size of their armies. By the time of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, nations fielded armies of unprecedented size and within a number of different formations – which evolved into the extant organisational structure of most modern armies.

The rank of general can trace its origin to the Middle Ages where the title of Lieutenant General was held by the second in command (or field commander) on the battlefield, who was normally subordinate to a Captain General. The Lieutenant General was usually a leading noble of the nation whilst the position of captain-general or general was reserved for the ruling sovereign/monarch. Prior to the French Revolution being a general implied one was part of the nobility.

Within the French ancien régime, the officer in nominal command of all the regiments of a particular branch of service (e.g. infantry or cavalry) was known as the colonel general, although this was an office of the crown and not a rank.

In 1760, the British Royal Marines received their first “General” who was “to be taken from officers in the Royal Navy.” (Beatson, 1788, p.364).

Prior to the French Revolution, a General in the French army of the monarchy was an appointment conferred on a Lieutenant General who acted as the commander-in-chief of a campaign. During the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, the rank of Lieutenant General was renamed Divisional General (Général de Division) and the appointment of General was renamed Général de Chef.

During the Napoleonic Wars countries started reorganising their general officer ranks. For example, German general officers were organised as follows:

  • Generalmajor (OF-6), roughly equivalent to brigadier general;
  • Generalleutnant (OF-7), roughly equivalent to major general;
  • General of [branch] (OF-8), roughly equivalent to lieutenant general (The title of General (three stars) included the officer’s branch of service, leading to the titles of General der Infanterie (general of the infantry),
  • General der Kavallerie (general of the cavalry) and General der Artillerie (general of the artillery);
  • Generalfeldmarshall (OF-10), roughly equivalent to general.

In March 1799, the US Congress (1799, p.752) stated “That a commander of the army of the United States shall be appointed and commissioned by the style of “General of the Armies of the United States,” and the present office and title of Lieutenant-General shall thereafter be abolished.”

In 1854, Prussia established the rank of Generaloberst (OF-9), meaning supreme general (although usually translated as Colonel-General), so that an officer could be promoted further than General without becoming a Generalfeldmarschall (this rank was usually bestowed only for extraordinary achievements during wartime service). Later, another special grade known as Generaloberst im Range eines Generalfeldmarschalls (supreme general in the rank of a field marshal) was first used in Bavaria to denote supreme generals who were given the authority of field marshals without the actual rank.

On 25 July 1866, the US Congress authorised the revival of the office of the General of the Armies of the United States, a four-star rank, although this time it was termed “general of the army of the United States” (US Congress, 1866b, p.223).

During the 1880s, the French rank of General was reorganised to Général de Division Membre du Conseil Supérieur de la Guerre (divisional general – member of the superior council of war, a body of the Ministry of War which had the functions of a general staff), wearing five stars.

In 1917, the US Congress authorised the President “to designate six officers of the Navy for the command of fleets or subdivisions thereof…” (US Congress, 1917, p.89), with a maximum three in the rank of Admiral and the others in the rank of Vice Admiral to be promoted from the officers in the grades of Rear Admiral and Captain on the active list.

In 1919, General John Joseph ‘Black Jack’ Pershing (1860 to 1948) was awarded the office of General of the Armies (US Congress, 1919, p.283), being only the only person to have served in the rank. George Washington was the second (further details in Part Seven). This special honour allowed Pershing to be on “active duty” for the rest of his life and continue to be available for assignments. Pershing is most well-known as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front during World War I, 1917 to 1918. Despite his rank and precedence, established by the Act, “…he remained a four-star general.” (Dooley, 2013) (Further details in Part Seven).

On 01 April 1922, Sir Hugh Trenchard became the first Air Chief Marshal within the RAF. With Sir Hugh’s promotion to Marshal of the RAF on 01 January 1927, no officer held the rank of Air Chief Marshal until Sir John Salmond was promoted on 01 January 1929; it has been used continuously since. The rank is utilised by a number of commonwealth countries and is sometimes used when translating equivalent foreign ranks into English.

The experience of the First World War transformed the structure of the French Army. The superior council of war was abolished and an appointment of Général de Division Commandant une Armée (divisional general commanding an army) was created. This appointment became the position and style (rang et appellation) of Général D’armée in 1936.

On 07 May 1940, the Russian army introduced the rank of генерал-полковник or general-polkovnik (Colonel-General) as a replacement for previous rank of командарм второго ранга or kommandarm vtorovo ranga (army commander of the second rank). Approximately 200 officers were promoted to this rank during World War II, which was equivalent to a General up to 1943 and a Lieutenant General after 1943 (Pettibone, 2009, p.905).

In 1950, the Czechoslovak army introduced the rank of Generálplukovník (Colonel-General) but it was abolished after the dissolution of the state in 1993.

From 1955 to 1965, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had a rank of Da Jiang (大将; Grand General), roughly corresponding with the Soviet rank of Colonel-General. The rank model was abolished in 1965 but restored in 1988, when the PLA introduced the rank of Yi Ji Shang Jiang (一级上将; First Class Senior General); however, no one held the rank and it was abolished in 1994.

Within Switzerland, the highest continuing rank is Korpskommandant (Lieutenant General). The rank of General is typically only awarded in times of war, and the post-holder must be elected by the Federal Assembly.

5.2     Country-Specific Examples

Table 10 provides examples of country-specific titles for the rank and grade of General (OF-9).

Table 10: Country-specific titles for General
Rank/Grade Title Countries Using Title
General UK, US and most commonwealth countries
Général D’armée (Army General) France [Note 1]
Daejang North Korea [Note 2] and South Korea [Note 3]
Arteshbod Iran


  1. Officially, général d’armée is not a rank (grade in French), but a position and style (rang et appellation) bestowed on some généraux de division (divisional general, which is the highest substantive rank) in charge of important commands, such as chief of staff of the army (chef d’état-major de l’armée de terre) or chiefs of general staff (chef d’état major des armées).
  2. Daejang (or Taejang) is effectively the highest professional military rank and is senior to North Korea’s three other general/admiral ranks:
    1. Sangjang (Colonel General/Admiral);
    2. Jungjang (Lieutenant General/Vice Admiral); and
    3. Sojang (Major General/Rear Admiral).
  3. Daejang (or Taejang) is effectively the highest professional military rank and is senior to South Korea’s three other general/admiral ranks:
    1. Jungjang (Lieutenant General/Vice Admiral);
    2. Sojang (Major General/Rear Admiral (Upper Half)); and
    3. Chunjang (Brigadier General/Rear Admiral (Lower Half)).

5.3     Service Equivalents

Within NATO, an army General is typically equivalent to:

  • Naval services:
    • Admiral in the Royal Navy, Royal Canadian Navy and US Navy.
    • Amiral in the French Navy.
    • Generaladmiral (Admiral-General) in the German Navy.abod
    • Daryābod in the Iranian Navy.
  • Air Forces:
    • Air Chief Marshal in the RAF. The rank originated with the RAF, but was preceded by the rank of General from 01 April 1918 to 31 July 1919. The predecessor of the RAF was a branch of the British Army.
    • Général D’armée Aérienne (Air Army General) in the French air force.
  • Marines:
    • General in the Royal Marines and US Marine Corps.

All of the above, regardless of their actual title, are typically considered equal in rank and status.

5.4     Level of Formation Commanded

Typically, an OF-9 level officer will command:

  • In the army and marines:
    • An army or field army consisting of two (2) or more corps, or approximately 100,000 or more personnel.
    • Two or more field armies may constitute an army group.
  • In the navy:
    • A fleet of several task forces.
  • In the air force:
    • o An air force consisting of two (2) or more wings organised to perform an operational mission such as bombardment, fighter interception, reconnaissance, or airlift.

OF-9 level officers may also be appointed as professional heads of a branch of military service, as a principal staff officer to the chief of defence staff (or equivalent) or senior directors on service-specific or joint staffs.

An army is a large organised force, armed and trained for war, especially on land. The term may be applied to a large unit organised for independent action, or it may be applied to a nation’s or rulers complete military organisation for land warfare, for example the British Army.

In some smaller militaries, such as Latvia, Lithuania and Singapore, a Lieutenant General (or service equivalent) may be the highest rank within the service. However, if the post-holder is also the Chief of Defence Force (or equivalent), they may hold the higher rank of General (or service equivalent).

Due to downsizing in many Western armies, the brigade is once again becoming the operational formation of choice with the division and corps becoming largely administrative in nature. A field army may be commanded by an officer in the rank range of Lieutenant General (OF-8) up to a General (OF-9), and be assisted by a Chief of Staff in the rank of Major General (OF-7) or Lieutenant General.

Although the exact structure of a field army will vary between countries, a contemporary field army will have between two and five corps, a HQ unit, armoured cavalry (typically for reconnaissance), engineers, direct field support artillery and air defence, and a support unit (consisting of administration, medical, logistics etc.).

Field armies are usually named or numbered to distinguish them from the army as an organisation in the sense of an entire national land military force. In English, the typical style for naming field armies is word numbers, e.g. First Army; whereas corps are usually distinguished by Roman numerals, e.g. I Corps, and subordinate formations with ordinal numbers, e.g. 1st Division. A field army may be given a geographical name in addition to or as an alternative to a numerical name, e.g. the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR).

Typically an army, as a formation, is only operationally used in wartime, largely being an administrative formation where they are extant.

Within the battlefield environment, the corps is the highest level of the forces that is concerned with actual combat and operational deployment. Higher levels of command are concerned with administration rather than operations, although this is subject to the specific nation’s doctrine. Divisions, together with additional supporting combat service (CS) and combat service support (CSS) personnel, are formed into corps and field armies for the conduct of military campaigns. Field armies are typically organised as either infantry or armoured armies, and specialised armies, such as airborne troops, do not normally exist at this level.

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