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Historically, the employment of the word ‘officer’ denoted a person, usually a member of the nobility or social elite, holding a military (army or naval) command as a representative of the state. This was a marked an entire change in the character of the military of civilised nations where, previously, a person had derived authority from their own powers or privileges; the dignity of military office now came at the grace and favour of the nation’s leader.

Originally signifying an official, one who performs an assigned duty (Latin: officium), an agent, and in the 1400s actually meaning the subordinate of such an official (even today, a constable (Appendix E) is so called), the word officer seems to have acquired a military significance late in the 1500s (at sea the relatively clear partition of actual duties amongst the authorities of a ship brought about the adoption of the term officer somewhat earlier). It was at this time that armies, though not yet ‘standing,’ came to be constituted almost exclusively of professional soldiers in the monarch’s pay. Mercenaries, and great numbers of mercenaries, had always existed, and their captains were not feudal magnates. But the bond between mercenaries and their captains was entirely personal, and the bond between the captain and the sovereign was of the nature of a contract. The non-mercenary portion of the older armies was feudal in character. It was the local lord/noble and not a royal officer who commanded it, and they commanded by virtue of their rights, not by a royal warrant or commission issued by the monarch.

European history in the late 1400s is the story of the victory of the crown over the feudatories. The instrument of the crown was its army, raised and commanded by its deputies. But these deputies were still largely soldiers of fortune and, in the higher ranks, feudal personages, who created the armies themselves by their personal influence with the would-be citizen soldier or the unemployed professional fighting soldier. Thus, the first system to replace the obsolete combination of feudalism and ‘free companies’ was what may be called the proprietary system.

In the propriety system, the colonel was the proprietor of his regiment and the captain the proprietor of his company. The monarch accepted them as his officers, and armed them with authority to raise men, but they themselves raised the men as a rule from experienced soldiers who were in search of employment, although some captains and colonels misused this power to line their own pockets. Officers were paid for each man on the roll, which led to officers showing imaginary soldiers on the unit’s accounts. A ‘muster’ was the production of a number of living men on parade corresponding to the number shown on the pay-roll. An inspection was an inspection not so much of the efficiency as of the numbers and the accounts of units.

The next step was taken when armies, instead of being raised for each campaign and from the qualified men who at each recruiting time offered themselves, became ‘standing armies’ fed by untrained recruits. During the late 1600s and 1700s, the crown supplied the recruits and the money for maintaining the forces, but the colonels and captains retained, in a more or less restricted degree, their proprietorship. Thus, the profits of military office without its earlier burdens were in time of peace considerable, and an officer’s commission had therefore a ‘surrender value.’

The practice of buying and selling commissions was a natural consequence, and this continued long after the system of proprietary regiments and companies had disappeared. In England ‘purchase’ endured until 1773, nearly a hundred years after it had ceased on the continent of Europe and more than fifty after the clothing, feeding and payment of the soldiers had been taken out of the colonels’ hands. The purchase system, it should be mentioned, did not affect artillery and engineer officers, either in England or in the rest of Europe. These officers, who were more semi-civil and less military officials, until about 1715, executed an office rather than a command – for example, superintended gun-making, built fortresses and so on. As late as 1780 the right of a general officer promoted from the Royal Artillery to command troops of other arms was challenged.

In its original form, therefore, the proprietary system was a most serious bar to efficiency. So long as war was chronic, and self-trained recruits were forthcoming, it had been a good working method of devolving responsibility. But when drill and the handling of arms became more complicated, and, above all, when the supply of trained men died away, the state took recruiting out of the colonels’ and captains’ hands, and, as the individual officer now had nothing to offer the crown but his own potential military capacity (part of which resided in his social status, but by no means all), the crown was able to make him, in the full sense of the word, an officer of itself.

This was most fully seen in the reorganisation of the French army by Louis XIV (1643 to 1715). The colonelcies and captaincies of horse and foot remained proprietary offices in the hands of the nobles but these offices were sinecures or almost sinecures (a position requiring little or no work but giving the holder status or financial benefit). The colonels, in peace at any rate, were not expected to do regimental duty. They were at liberty to make such profits as they could make under a stringent inspection system. But they were expected to be the influential figure-heads of their regiments and to pay large sums for the privilege of being proprietors. This classification of officers into two bodies, the poorer which did the whole of the work, and the richer upon which the holding of a commission conferred an honour that birth or wealth did not confer, marks two very notable advances in the history of army organisation, the professionalisation of the officer and the creation of the prestige attaching to the holder of a commission because he holds it and not for any extraneous reason.

The distinction between working and quasi-honorary officers was much older, of course, than Louis XIV’s reorganisation. Moreover it extended to the highest ranks. About 1600 the ‘general’ of a European army (except in the Italian republics) was always a king, prince or nobleman. The lieutenant-general, by custom the commander of the cavalry, was also, as a rule, a noble, in virtue of his command of the aristocratic arm. But the commander of the foot, the ‘sergeant-major-general’ or ‘major-general,’ was invariably a professional soldier. It was his duty to draw up the army (not merely the foot) for battle, and in other respects to act as chief of staff to the general. In the infantry regiment, the ‘sergeant-major’ or ‘major’ was second-in-command and adjutant combined. Often, if not always, he was promoted from amongst the lieutenants and not the (proprietary) captains. The lieutenants were the backbone of the army.

Seventy years later, on the organisation of the first great standing army by Louvois, the ‘proprietors,’ as mentioned above, were reduced to a minimum both in numbers and in military importance. The word ‘major’ in its various meanings had come, in the French service, to imply staff functions. Thus the sergeant-major of infantry became the ‘adjutant-major.’ The sergeant-major-general, as commander of the foot, had disappeared and given place to numerous lieutenant-generals and ‘brigadiers,’ but as chief of the staff he survived for two hundred years. As late as 1870 the chief of staff of a French army bore the title of ‘the major general.’

Moreover a new title had come into prominence, that of ‘marshal’ or ‘field marshal.’ This marks one of the most important points in the evolution of the military officer, his classification by rank and not by the actual command he holds. In the 1500s, an officer was a lieutenant of, not in, a particular regiment, and the higher officers were general, lieutenant-general and major-general of a particular army. When their army was disbanded they had no command and therefore possessed no rank – except of course when, as was usually the case, they were colonels of permanent regiments or governors of fortresses. Thus in the British army it was not until late in the 1700s that general officers received any pay as such.

The introduction of a distinctively military rank (the title was, of course, far older) of ‘marshal’ or ‘field marshal,’ which took place in France and the empire in the first years of the 1600s, meant the establishment of a list of general officers, and the list spread downwards through the various regimental ranks, in proportion as the close proprietary system broke up, until it became the general army list of an army of today. At first, field marshals were merely officers of high rank and experience, eligible for appointment to the offices of general, lieutenant general, so on, in a particular army. On an army being formed, the list of field marshals was drawn upon, and the necessary number appointed. Thus an army of Gustavus Adolphus’s time often included 6 or 8 field marshals as subordinate general officers. However, armies soon grew larger, more mobile and flexible, and more general officers were needed. Thus fresh grades of general arose.

The next rank below that of marshal, in France, was that of lieutenant-general, which had formerly implied the second-in-command of an army, and a little further back in history the king’s lieutenant-general or military viceroy (In England, until after Marlborough’s death, rank followed command and not vice versa. The first field marshals were the duke of Argyll and the earl of Cadogan. Marlborough’s title, or rather office, was that of captain-general.). Below the lieutenant-general was the marechal de camp, the heir of the sergeant-major-general. In the imperial service the ranks were field marshal and lieutenant field marshal (both of which survive to the present day) and major-general. A further grade of general officer, created by Louis XIV, was brigadier, and this completes the process of evolution, for the regimental system had already provided the lower titles.

The ranks of a modern army, in 1911, with slight variations in title, were as follows:

  • Field marshal: in Germany, Generalfeldmarschall; in Spain ‘captain-general’; in France (though the rank is in abeyance) ‘marshal.’ The marshals of France, however, were neither so few in number nor so restricted to the highest commands as are marshals elsewhere. In Germany a new rank, ‘colonel-general’ {Generaloberst), has come into existence – or rather has been revived – of late years. The 1500s ‘colonel-general’ was the commander of a whole section of the armed forces. In France there were several colonel-generals, each of whom controlled several regiments or indeed the whole of an ‘arm.’ Their functions were rather those of a war office than of a troop-leader. If they held high commands in a field army, it was by special appointment ad hoc. Colonels-general were also proprietors in France of one company in each regiment, whose services they accepted.
    General: in Germany and Russia, ‘general of infantry,’ ‘general of cavalry,’ ‘general of artillery.’ In Austria generals of artillery and infantry were known by the historic title of Feldzeugmeister (ordnance-master) up to 1909, but the grade of general of infantry was created in that year, the old title being now restricted to generals of artillery. In France the highest grade of general officer is the ‘general of division.’ In the United States army the grade of full ‘general’ has only been held by Washington, Grant, Sherman and Sheridan.
  • Lieutenant-general (except in France): in Austria the old title of lieutenant field marshal is retained. In the United States army the title ‘lieutenant-general,’ except within recent years, has been almost as rare as ‘general.’ Winfield Scott was a brevet lieutenant general. The substantive rank was revived for Grant when he was placed in command of the Union Army in 1864. It was abolished as an American rank in 1907.
  • Major-general (in France, general of brigade): this is the highest grade normally found in the United States Army, generals and lieutenant-generals being promoted for special service only (Note 3).
  • Brigadier-general, in the United States and (as a temporary rank only) in the British services.

The concept of a ‘High Command’ is relatively new and only really gained durability during World War I. During the 1600s, a nation’s high command can barely be considered as a collective entity in the way it became during WWI, consisting of princes, peers, marshals/field marshals/generals and other nobles of the realm. Each of these had their own political and social interests which (generally) transgressed any neat modern theory of civil-military cooperation or boundary.

Using the French example of Louis XIV one can gain a sense of the impermanence of the high command concept.

“…all generals were issued with the king’s commission only for a limited period, usually a campaign season, and power could only be exercised outside the army to which they were attached with further royal permission.” (Rowlands, 2002, p.269).

A theatre commander (known as général en chef, général de l’armée or lieutenant général pour le Roi), might have had their “…commission renewed several years in a row…” (Rowlands, 2002, p.270). However, command during the winter months might have been given to another subordinate general, also with a limited period commission (Rowlands, 2002).

Notwithstanding their time limited commissions, these theatre commanders (commanders-in-chief in more modern parlance) exercised considerable delegated authority – although they did not administer the armies alone. “…subordinate lieutenant-generals and maréchaux de camp [major generals] who made up the état-major général – or general staff…” aided the commander-in-chief and “After 1675 the most senior of the lieutenant-generals would assume command in the event of the général en chef being incapacitated or killed…” (Rowlands, 2002, p.270). The lieutenant generals could be utilised as separate corps commanders as required, and were typically paired with a maréchaux de camp during battles.

“To aid them in their military management, général en chef also relied on the heads of the infantry, cavalry, dragoons and artillery in each army. The infantry had no commandant answerable to a Colonel-General, so its immediate chief was the major-general of the army.” (Rowlands, 2002, p.271).

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