A Field Marshal (Marshall) (German: Feldmarschall, Polish marszałek, Swedish: Fältmarskalk) is, in some nations, the highest military rank, one step above a full General; and of a comparable rank to the highest ranking General(s) in an army that does not use the term.
The title field marshal is only used by land forces. The air force equivalent (used in some countries) is Marshal of the Air Force, where Air Force is replaced by the name of the service in question, for example, Marshal of the Royal Air Force. As the highest rank, answerable only to the nation's ruler, appointments have often been made as much for political as for military purposes, and not infrequently as a way to publicly reward a successful general.
The rank of marshal goes back to the early Middle Ages, originally meaning the keeper of the King's horses. In the 1300s, a distinction began to be drawn between "court marshals" and "military marshals". In 1560, France established the title Marshal of France (Maréchal de France), and by the time of the Thirty Years War, most Continental armies had a field marshal or two. Great Britain was a relative latecomer; the Duke of Argyll became her first field marshal in 1736 (however, for an alternate meaning of the word in England, see note 1).
The field marshal's special symbol was a baton, famously mentioned by Napoleon: "Every French soldier carries a marshal's baton in his knapsack". The Maréchaux de France carried as their insignia of rank blue batons with gold fleurs-de-lis, engraved with the motto "Decus pacis, terror belli ("The symbol of peace, the terror of war"). Hermann Göring, holder of the singular rank "Marshal of the Empire" (Reichsmarschall) of Nazi Germany, also carried a baton.
With no medieval tradition to preserve, and a persistent aversion to anything that smacked of aristocracy, the United States never created the rank. However, this became a problem for the Allies in World War II, when Dwight Eisenhower, a "mere" General, was chosen to be the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, and was thus in a position to give orders to field marshals, who technically outranked him. The solution was to create the rank of General of the Army, wearing five stars, and equivalent to field marshal.²
In the Soviet Union, the rank of Marshal of the Soviet Union was actually the second-highest rank; Josef Stalin, who had appointed himself an "MSU", subsequently promoted himself to the rank of Generalissimo of the Soviet Union, a rank he and only he was ever appointed to hold.
At the beginning of the 21st century, with military forces shrinking worldwide, there remain few field marshals to be seen anywhere. Although traditionally the British monarch is a field marshal, Queen Elizabeth II does not hold that rank (although she has since 1964 been the Lord High Admiral), and the Prince of Wales has indicated an unwillingness to be the only five-star officer of the military; the Duke of Edinburgh is one of the few Field Marshals of the British Army remaining.
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3 See also