Leaving aside senior figures within the Royal Family, after WW2 promotion to Field Marshal and equivalent ranks in the Royal Navy and RAF came only to those who held the top four appointments of Chief of Naval Staff, Chief of the General Staff and Chief of Air Staff - one of whom was normally elevated to Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) (equivalent to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs in the USA). Up to 1997 the latter appointment was for a ‘serving’ 5 Star officer with those who were not so elevated being promoted to that rank 5 Star rank on retirement from active duty. I phrase it that way because British Field Marshals and their equivalents in other services do not retire. Instead, they retain full pay for life whilst being classified as ‘inactive.’
With an ever-shrinking army, navy and air force the writing had been on the wall for the end of the British 5 Star ranks for many years. Historically, of course, the ranks were created for Kings and not for lesser mortals which is why each appointment is always approved by the reigning monarch. At the time of writing nine British Field Marshals exist. Of these, three are royal appointees, four held the rank during their tenure as CDS and two former CDS were appointed to that rank 11 and 6 years after becoming inactive.
This book contains the biographies of all officers to have held the British rank of Field Marshal from the promotion of the 1st Earl of Orkney in 1736 to the last Chief of the Defence Staff to hold that rank up to 1997. Altogether there are 138 people have held the rank with surprisingly few honorary appointees.
Author Tony Heathcote was principal curator at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst and is, therefore, well qualified to undertake such a work. Commencing with a most thoughtful foreword from General, The Lord Guthrie - who was the first person to hold the office of CDS without being promoted to Field Marshal (although he now holds that rank), the book is expertly laid out with different sections all of which combine to underline the various factors which bind these 138 officers together as holders of a rank so rarely achieved in any army under any name.
The 138 biographies are placed together in alphabetical order with the information being straight-forward, no-nonsense, factual detail about the man’s date of birth, school and his various appointments and promotions. Personal details include marriage (to whom and when) and children (number and sex of each). It is the sort of factual detail required of any notable person.
In the early part of my own army career, I served with the Royal Artillery in Dortmund where, in 1970, we came under command of Lt. Colonel Richard Vincent (now Field Marshal, The Lord Vincent, GBE, KCB, DSO). I was, therefore, particularly interested in reading the appropriate entry which destroyed a couple of myths in addition to teaching other things. I mention this because I am not able to verify the accuracy of any of the entries except to say I am entirely satisfied that that particular officer is reported correctly.
Following the personal biographies, there are five fascinating tables which cover peripheral information such as; the Field Marshal Seniority list, the specific regiments and corps with which they served as officers, later served in ceremonial roles, the branches of the army which produced Field Marshals, their schools and establishments attended as military cadets.
Altogether, indispensable background information and another excellent work from this particular author.
NM British army major (retired)
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