The most senior rank in the land forces of some countries' militaries, a notch above full general. The rank has usually only been activated in wartime; in peace, operations are rarely if ever conducted on a scale that requires someone to boss around several full generals.
The title originated in the Middle Ages, to describe someone who was in charge of a king's horses. Over time, it grew to refer to the man in charge of a king's horsemen, as well. The rank began to be used in the hierarchies of European armies around the Renaissance, in the 16th century, and by the time of the Thirty Years' War began in about 1618, almost every army in Europe had at least one. England was a holdout, appointing its first field marshal in 1736.
The last war featuring extensive use of field marshals was World War II, in which massive strategic strikes by multiple million-man armies required very high-level co-ordination. As a broad rule, a major general could command a division of 10,000 or so men, a lieutenant general could command a corps of several divisions, and a full general could command an army of several corps. A field marshal, in turn, commanded several armies.
In the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin fancied himself a military man and held the titles of Marshal of the Soviet Union and Generalissimo, putting him in direct military control of his field marshals. He tended to toss the rank around a bit, though, appointing both Lavrenty Beria and Nikolai Bulganin, two non-military men, to the rank only so they could order the military around for political purposes. By 1968, the Soviets had 20 living field marshals. The last person appointed to the rank was Soviet Defence Minister Dmitry Yazov, in 1990; he turned around and joined the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev a few months later.
Technically, Yazov and three other living Soviet field marshals lost the rank when the Soviet Union dissolved; Russia now has one field marshal, Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev.
The American army does not use the rank of field marshal, which led to an awkward situation when General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed supreme Allied commander in World War II and put in charge of, among others, Britain's Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Rather than appoint him a field marshal (either because of the title's royal allusion or, some have it, because senior U.S. general George C. Marshall refused to become Field Marshal Marshall), President Franklin Roosevelt, through Congress, made Eisenhower a five-star "General of the Army."
Just as few countries use the "field marshal" rank today, no American has been a five-star general since General of the Army Omar Bradley, who was given the title as an honour in 1950, died in 1981.
Britain has no current field marshals. Traditionally the monarch has formally held the rank, but Queen Elizabeth II never claimed it and Prince Charles has said he doesn't want it.
Some notable field marshals:
- Bernard Law Montgomery, who made his name fighting Erwin Rommel in Africa
- Douglas Haig, British commander in World War I
- Horatio Kitchener, British commander in the Sudan at the turn of the 20th century
- Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, British victor over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo
- Erwin Rommel, the German tank commander famous for fighting Montgomery in Africa
- Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the German military in World War II
- Paul von Hindenburg, German commander in World War I and later German president
- Friedrich Paulus, German commander at Stalingrad (promoted just before his surrender there, as a message from Hitler that he ought to kill himself instead)
- Erich von Manstein, arguably Germany's greatest strategist in World War II
- Alfred von Schlieffen, German strategist at the turn of the 20th century who devised the Schlieffen Plan for conquering France and Russia
- Georgi Zhukov, Soviet commander in World War II and one of two conquerors of Berlin
- Ivan Konev, the other Soviet conquerer of Berlin
- Dmitry Yazov, Soviet defence minister and coup plotter
"Field marshal" is also a label for the "ENTJ" personality type in the Myers-Briggs typology.