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The article is organised as follows:


7.0     Introduction

A six-star officer, with an unofficial NATO code of OF-11, is a senior commander within the armed forces of a nation, and is typically given a national title.

With no typical term, it usually ranks above a Field Marshal or Marshal (OF-10) and, for most countries, is a largely ceremonial and/or honorific award. However, for some countries a six-star or equivalent officer occupies a quasi-political/military function/position.

7.1     History of the Rank and Formation

For most countries the highest possible rank for general officers in peacetime is the rank of General (OF-9), although for smaller militaries it may be Lieutenant General (OF-8) or even Major General (OF-7). Some countries with larger militaries have a higher rank in the form of Field Marshal/Marshal (OF-10), or General of the Army for the US, and for the vast majority this is the highest attainable rank in either peace or wartime service. However, a very small number of countries have created an even higher army rank or honorific appointment.

Da Yuan Shuai (大元帥) was a Chinese military rank, usually translated as Grand Marshal (or even Generalissimo). During the 1910s and 1920s there was a Chinese rank of Grand Marshal of the Army and Navy, held by Yuan Shikai (1913), Sun Yat-sen (1917) and Zhang Zuolin (1927) (Pomerantz-Zhang, 1992). However, the Chinese Nationalist Government replaced it with the rank of General Special Class (特級上將; sometimes translated as Generalissimo) and awarded it to Chiang Kai-Shek in 1935 (see below). After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the rank of Grand Marshal of the People’s Republic of China was proposed but never awarded. Other Asian equivalents included Dai-Gensui (Japanese), Taewŏnsu (Korean) and Dai Nguyên Soái (Vietnam).

The Japanese rank of Dai-Gensui (Grand Marshal or Great Marshal) was first mentioned around 1872 but abolished in 1873 without any appointments. In 1889, the Japanese Emperor was officially given the rank of Dai-Gensui, and installed as the Supreme Commander of all land and naval forces (Keene, 2005). It was held by three Japanese Emperors before being officially abolished in 1947.

The North Korean rank of Taewŏnsu (Grand Marshal) is the highest military rank and is an honorific title for the Supreme Leader.

As defined by the Oxford University Press (2017a), a Generalissimo is “The commander of a combined military force consisting of army, navy, and air force units. Origin. Early 17th century: Italian, ‘having greatest authority’, superlative of generale (see general).” Generalissimo is derived from the Latin ‘generalissimus’. It is invariably translated as supreme general, utmost general or great/greatest general. A Generalissimo may also be simultaneously a military and political leader, with two prime examples of Generalissimo including:

  • General Franco (1892 to 1975): Francisco Franco Bahamonde was a Spanish general who ruled over Spain as a military dictator for 36 years from 1939 until his death. His nicknames included El Caudillo and El Generalísimo.
  • General Chiang Kai-Shek (1887 to 1975): Chiang Kai-shek (also known as Jiang Jieshi) was a Chinese military and political leader who led the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) for five decades and was head of state of the Chinese Nationalist government between 1928 and 1949. Officially his rank was Tèjí Shàngjiàng (特級上將) or General Special Class (Taylor, 2009).

However, a Generalissimo may be a purely military commander who holds rank and precedence over all other officers, for example John Pershing and George Washington (discussed below). During the early 1900s, the Commander-in-Chief of the French armed forces was known by the title of Generalissime (McGroarty, 1919).

In some cases, a political leader may be referred to as Generalissimo if they assume a higher military rank/position than their military officers, for example North Korea.

For German general officers, Generalfeldmarshall (OF-10) was the highest military rank until the creation of the higher rank of Reichsmarshall (Marshal of the Reich/Empire) for Hermann Göring in July 1940, who was the only person to hold the rank (Haskew, 2011). Göring was promoted primarily to make him senior to other Generalfeldmarschall and confirm his position as Hitler’s designated successor. As Reichsmarshall, Göring carried an ornate baton as a symbol of his authority.

In the US general officer model, an OF-11 level officer is known as the General of the Armies of the United States, and only two people have been awarded the rank (discussed further in the next section). On 18 December 1944, US Army General Douglas MacArthur was promoted to the rank of General of the Army. In preparation for the invasion of Japan during WWII, there was some mention of promoting General of the Army Douglas MacArthur to the higher rank of General of the Armies, but this was never implemented. Speculative rank insignia for MacArthur’s promotion depicted six-stars.

On 27 June 1945, the rank of Generalissimus of the Soviet Union was created for Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union and the only person to hold the rank (Service, 2005), although he never officially approved it. Stalin reportedly declared that Marshal was the highest Soviet rank (Shtemenko, 2001).

Within the naval officer hierarchy, the equivalent officer is usually termed Admiralissimo, Lord High Admiral (see Part Three) or Admiral of the Navy.

On 24 March 1903, Admiral George Dewey (1837 to 1917) was promoted to the rank of Admiral of the Navy (to date from 02 March 1899, his date of promotion to Admiral), and the only person to hold this rank (US Navy, 2017). The rank could initially be considered a five-star rank prior to the creation of the five-star US Navy rank of Fleet Admiral.

Towards the end of WWII there was some discussion regarding promoting Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (1885 to 1966) to the rank of Admiral of the Navy (or similar rank) during preparations for the invasion of Japan, should the US Army take a similar measure by promoting General of the Army Douglas MacArthur to the rank of General of the Armies. After the Japanese surrender the proposal lapsed. It is typically considered that Admiral of the Navy is senior to Fleet Admiral, as declared by the Department of the Navy in 1944 (needs verification), but it was never explicitly referred to as a six-star rank.

As of August 2017 there has been no marine or air force equivalent rank.

7.2     General George Washington: First among Equals!

This section discusses the ranks held by George Washington from his appointment as Commander-in-Chief (CINC) of the Continental Army in 1775 to his latest posthumous appointment in 1976. There is agreement that Washington was CINC but there is much confusion and controversy regarding the ranks held by him, both during and after his lifetime. This section also discusses the evolution of the US Army’s highest ranks, from lieutenant general to the latest iteration of the General of the Armies of the United States.

The US Library of Congress (2017, p.96) holds a digital version of the document debated and agreed by the congress on 17 June 1775 stating we “appoint you to be General and Commander in chief, of the army of the United Colonies.” The congress then chose, by ballot, several officers to assist George Washington as CINC: Artemus Ward was chosen as “first major-general” and second in command to Washington, whilst Charles Lee was chosen “second major-general” and third in command (US Library of Congress, 2017, p.97). Philip Schuyler was chosen “third Major General” and Israel Putnam “was unanimously chosen 4th. Major General.” (US Library of Congress, 2017, p.99). Many commentators, for example Dooley (2013) and (Part of A&E Television Networks) (2017), state Washington was commissioned as a Major General, although the evidence suggests otherwise.

In 1782, Washington was listed as a lieutenant general on the rolls of the US Army and his rank was informally called ‘three-star general’.

In 1783, Washington resigned his commission and then went on to serve two terms as President from 1789 to 1797. Two paintings by Charles Peale Polk (1776 to 1822), 1790 and 1793 respectively, depict Washington wearing three silver stars (The Athenaeum, 2014).

On 28 May 1798, the US Congress authorised the then President, John Adams, to appoint a commander of the army “…commissioned as lieutenant-general…” (US Congress, 1798, p.558) in preparation for a war with France that never materialised. This commission was offered to and accepted by Washington, making him a three-star Lieutenant General (OF-8).

Dooley (2013) informs the reader that “Washington remained listed on the Army rolls as a lieutenant general through most of the 20th century. This meant that all four-star and five-star generals outranked him.” The US Congress (1799, p.752) on 03 March 1799 stated and approved (i.e. passed into law) “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.” Most commentators state that this commission was not bestowed on Washington, meaning that when he died on 14 December 1799 (Kohn, 1975; Grizzard, 2002) he was still listed as a lieutenant general on the army list. However, I cannot find any record that he resigned his commission nor was it discharged from him!

An Act of congress in May 1800 failed to mention the grades of general or lieutenant general and, regardless, the Act authorising the commission of General of the Armies of the United States was repealed on 16 March 1802. This meant that the rank of Major General (OF-7) became the highest permanent US military rank. A major general wore “On each shoulder, a gold epaulet with a brass crescent, a silver U.S. spread eagle in the crescent, with two silver five point stars on the epaulet strap (Perrenot, 2009, p.32).

Perrenot (2009, p.44) informs the reader that in 1832 “…the rank of Lieutenant General was reinstated, but not filled.” Perrenot (2009, p.47) further states that a lieutenant general between 1832 and 1851 wore “On the field, three silver five pointed stars, the middle star being slightly larger than the other two.”

The rank of lieutenant general remained unfilled until Winfield Scott received a brevet promotion to the rank in 1855. A brevet was a warrant giving a commissioned officer a higher rank title as a reward for gallantry or meritorious conduct, but without conferring the authority, precedence, or pay of real rank. The promotion would be noted in the officer’s title, e.g. brevet lieutenant general.

In 1864 the grade of “lieutenant general in the United States army” was revived and in 1866 the grade of “general of the army of the United States” was revived (US Congress, 1866b, p.223). Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant (1822 to 1885) was awarded this grade in July 1866 (Klos, 2017). War Department General Orders No. 75 (dated 05 September 1866) prescribed that the insignia for the newly authorised General of the Army grade would be four stars.

After becoming the US President in 1869, Grant nominated Lieutenant General William T. Sherman (1820 to 1891) to become General of the Army in March 1869 (Klos, 2017), and he was duly promoted. Sherman wore four stars until War Department General Orders No. 92 (dated 26 October 1872) changed the insignia to two silver stars with the coat of arms of the United States in gold between them (Perrenot, 2009; Klos, 2017).

The grade was recognised and continued in various acts until the Act of 15 July 1870 (Section 6) stated “…the offices of general and lieutenant general shall continue until a vacancy shall exist in the same, and no longer, and when such vacancy shall occur in either of said offices shall become inoperative, and shall, by virtue of this act, from thence forward be held to be repealed.” Section 7 of the Act stated that the number of “major-generals shall not exceed three” and Section 8 that the number of “brigadier-generals shall not exceed six.”

On Sherman’s retirement in February 1884, he was placed on the retired list as General of the Army (US Army Centre of Military History, 2016).

Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan (1831 to 1888) succeeded Sherman as the Commanding General of the US Army but, due to the Act of 1870, could not be promoted to the rank of General of the Army (US Army Centre of Military History, 2016).

An Act of 03 March 1885 authorised the appointment of a General of the Army on the retired list (US Army Centre of Military History, 2016), which was awarded to Grant shortly before his death on 23 July 1885.

However, the US Congress enacted legislation on 01 June 1888 that discontinued the grade of Lieutenant General and merged it with that of General of the Army. Sheridan was promoted to General of the Army, wearing the insignia of two silver stars and gold coat of arms, but the grade was discontinued when he died whilst on active duty on 05 August 1888 (US Army Centre of Military History, 2016). This was the insignia for a general from “1902 – 1917”, becoming four silver stars from “1917 – 1920” (Perrenot, 2009, p.92).

On Sherman’s death on 14 February 1891, due to the Act of 1870, the rank ceased to exist. However, subsequent officers were promoted to the rank of lieutenant general, for example John M. Schofield (Schofield, 1897) and Nelson A. Miles, albeit as temporary ranks. Once again, the rank of Major General (OF-7) became the highest permanent US Army rank. Perrenot (2009, p.82) informs the reader that the grade of lieutenant general was “reinstated in 1898”.

On 02 March 1899, the US Congress authorised the President to appoint “an Admiral of the Navy” (Fifty-Fifth Congress, Session III, Chapter 378, p.995). This promotion was for Admiral George Dewey (1858 to 1917) who, as Commodore of the Asiatic Squadron, had helped secure victory over the Spanish in the 1898 Spanish-American War. The office would cease to exist on his death in 1917.

In 1903, the post of Commanding General of the United States Army was abolished and replaced by the Chief of Staff model (the post came with a higher, temporary rank with post holders reverting to their permanent rank after their term ended). From 1903 to 1906, the post holder held the rank of lieutenant general and from 1906 to 1917, the rank of major general. From 1917 to present, the post holder has held the rank of general; apart from four occasions when post holder held a higher rank/grade. The Chief of Staff was elevated to the rank of general in 1917 in order to be equivalent in rank to their European allies, as was Pershing who was the senior field commander. Other lieutenant generals and generals were appointed during 1917 and 1918.

On 03 September 1919, the US Congress (1919, p.283) stated “That the office of General of the Armies of the United States is hereby revived…” It was awarded to General John Joseph ‘Black Jack’ Pershing (1860 to 1948) for his service during the First World War. He is most well-known as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front during World War I, 1917 to 1918. This special honour allowed Pershing to be on ‘active duty’ for the rest of his life and continue to be available for assignments. The provision of the Act stated that any “…existing law that would enable any other officer of the Army to take rank and precedence over said officer is hereby repealed.” This referred to a law from 1917 which stated the Chief of Staff of the Army – the professional head of the US Army in the rank of General (OF-9) – would be a general officer of the line with rank and precedence over all other officers of the army. Despite his rank and precedence, established by Law, Pershing “…remained a four-star general.” (Dooley, 2013; US Army Centre of Military History, 2016). Army Regulations (AR) 600-35, Personnel: The Prescribed Uniform (dated 12 October 1921) made no mention of insignia for Pershing’s new office but did state that generals wear four silver stars. Pershing was authorised to design his own grade insignia but initially kept the four silver stars of a general, as he did not want to see a five-star grade (Perrenot, 2009). However, as more officers were promoted to the grade of general the pressure on Pershing mounted “…and [he] finally compromised by changing his four stars from silver to gold.” (Perrenot, 2009, p.90).

Prior to Pershing, the Commanding General of the Army and its replacement, the Chief of Staff, was both the highest ranked officer and professional head. Pershing’s appointment set a precedent; the professional head of the US Army and the highest ranked officer could be two separate people (although Pershing did become Chief of Staff after his appointment). Unlike Pershing who kept his rank, all other WWI general officers reverted to their pre-war ranks in 1920, with the exception of the Chief of Staff who continued in the temporary rank of general.

On 05 August 1939, the rank of lieutenant general was revived, as a temporary rank, for the four generals commanding the four numbered field armies at the time. For a brief period the rank of general remained unique to the Chief of Staff. During WWII, most US generals held temporary or ‘theatre’ appointments in the US Army.

On 14 December 1944, Public Law 482 (US Congress, 1944, p.802-803) established the “grade of Fleet Admiral of the United States … [and] … the grade of General of the Army…” The number of officers could not exceed four in either of the two grades, and seniority was by date of appointment. The grades were equivalent to Admiral of the Fleet and Field Marshal, or OF-10 or five-star, in other militaries (Dooley, 2013). General of the Army (and its service equivalents) are awarded at the discretion of the US Congress, and are now typically considered as inactive or reserved for wartime only.

This temporary grade was provided for by Public Law 482, 78th Congress, approved 14 December 1944, and became permanent on 23 March 1946, under provisions of Public Law 79-333, 79th Congress. As a temporary rank officers were to revert to their permanent rank six months after the end of WWII (a date which was yet to be determined!). AR 600-35 was also amended, giving a General of the Army five-stars.

“Although General Pershing continued to wear only four [stars], he remained preeminent among all Army personnel, by virtue of Congressional action and Army Regulations governing rank and precedence, until his death on July 15, 1948.” (US Army Centre of Military History, 2016).

This WWII rank, styled General of the Army, did not give officers the same powers as the previous iterations and were five-star rather four-star ranks; meaning that although they had the same title as their 1860s counterparts, they were distinctly different ranks. Further, the Act of 1944 specifically stated (section seven) that it would not affect any of the provisions of the Act of 1919 or any other law relating the office of General of the Armies of the United States. Pershing retained his rank and precedence over all other officers. It could be suggested that, technically, Pershing posthumously became a six-star general at this point.

“Toward the end of the Second World War, Congress considered promoting Gen. MacArthur to general of the armies. At that time, the Army Institute of Heraldry designed an insignia for this rank that included six stars.” (Dooley, 2013).

General Douglas MacArthur (1880 to 1964) was promoted to General of the Army on 18 December 1944. On 21 January 1955, the US Senate considered Joint Resolution 26 “To authorize the appointment of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur as General of the Armies of the United States.” The resolution stated the promotion was in recognition of his services and the President was authorised to appoint MacArthur to the office which would be revived for this purpose. The resolution lapsed and, therefore, MacArthur was never promoted to the rank.

Fischer (2016) informs the reader that “In 1976 George Washington was promoted one step in rank from General to General of the Armies / Field Marshal equivalent.” Not technically accurate as the equivalent of a Field Marshal is General of the Army.

However, introduced to the US Congress on 19 June 1975, House Joint Resolution 519 was enacted on 11 October 1976 (Public Law 94-479), establishing the grade of General of the Armies of the United States having precedence over all other grades of the Army, past and present (US Congress, 1976). It authorised and requested the then President to appoint Washington posthumously to the grade effective 04 July 1976. The resolution specifically states “Whereas it is considered fitting and proper that no officer of the United States Army should outrank Lieutenant General George Washington on the Army list…” Some newspaper journalists were rudely opposed to the idea (Kilian, 1976, p.5).

Thus, Lieutenant General George Washington joined General of the Armies John Pershing as one of only two people to hold the office of General of the Armies of the United States, albeit posthumously. The creation of the five-star ranks in 1944, specific provisions in law, and speculative designs for rank insignia suggest that the office of General of the Armies of the United States is now a six-star rank, as least nominally.

The ranks of General and Lieutenant General continue to be appointments held by US general officers for the duration of the post: officers can be promoted to a higher rank (lieutenant generals only unless by congress); move to another post (at same rank); extended in post (at same rank); retire; or revert to a two-star (OF-7) rank. However, most promotions are temporary in name only, as most can expect to retain their rank regardless of assignment or retirement due to presidential prerogative. In contrast, the British model of promotions to general and lieutenant general are permanent and not linked to the post; although both models utilise age criteria to ensure flow in the talent pipeline. In the US model the number of general officers is regulated by law, across both grade and branch of military service.

7.3 Country-Specific Examples

Below is an example of country-specific titles for the rank and grade of general officers at the OF-11 level.

Table 12: Country-specific titles for OF-11 level officers
Rank/Grade Title Countries Using Title
Generalissimo China and Spain
General of the Armies US (since 1976)
Generalissimus Soviet Union
Da Yuan Shuai China
Dai-Gensui Japan
Taewonsu Korea
Dai Nguyên Soái Vietnam
Maréchal Général des Camps et Armées du Roi France [Note 1]


  1. Translated as the Marshal General of the King’s Camps and Armies, though usually shortened to Marshal General of France, was given to signify that the recipient had authority over all the French armies in the days when a Marshal usually governed only one army. This dignity was bestowed only on Marshals of France, usually when the dignity of Constable of France (Appendix E) was unavailable or, after 1626, suppressed. Only six people were appointed.

7.4     Service Equivalents

The NATO officer code classification does not officially recognise the OF-11 level of officer, however, an army OF-11 level officer is typically equivalent to:

  • Naval services:
    • Admiralissimo: A title held by a supreme commanding officer of a country’s navy, or of combined naval forces. “Origin Early 18th century; earliest use found in John Dart (d. 1730), antiquary. From admiral + -issimo.” (Oxford University Press, 2017b).
    • Admiral of the Navy in the US Navy.
    • Lord High Admiral in the Royal Navy.
  • Air Forces:
    • There is usually no equivalent in the air force.
  • Marines:
    • There is usually no equivalent in the marines.

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

7.5     Level of Formation Commanded

Typically an OF-11 level officer will command all of the military forces within a nation as a commander-in-chief in their own right or reporting directly to the nation’s political leader (who would be the commander-in-chief).

As such, the officer would not command a formation per se, having command over all formations.

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