General Staff

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

General Staff


the highest organ of military administration that directs the work of all central and local military bodies.

General staff services arose in the 16th and 17th centuries, when the post of quartermaster general was instituted in armies; the quartermaster general was in charge of the surveying of the terrain and the roads, the movement of troops, the organization of reconnaissance, and so on. Originally these posts were filled only in wartime, but they began to become permanent in the early 18th century. In France the quartermaster general’s staff was the main headquarters of the army in 1792. It acquired a special role in 1805-14 under Napoleon, when L. A. Berthier was chief of the general staff. In Prussia the terms “general staff” and “staff of the quartermaster general” became synonymous in 1785. The Prussian General Staff was a special corps of officers who were trained at the military academy for the nobility established in 1765 in Potsdam. In Austria-Hungary the term “general staff replaced the term “staff of the quartermaster general” only in the 1870’s. In Great Britain, unlike most other countries, the general staff was not a special corps of officers but was organizationally part of the Ministry of War.

In Russia general-staff ranks and quartermaster-general ranks began to exist in the early 18th century. Until the middle of the 18th century the term “general staff” was used collectively—that is, general-staff ranks included all officers and generals who served on staffs, whereas officers with quartermaster ranks served in the quartermaster division and performed general staff service. In 1701 the post of quartermaster general was instituted, and Prince A. F. Shakhovskoi was appointed to it; the table of organization of 1711 established the numerical size of the quartermaster division. In 1763 the quartermaster division was renamed the general staff, which was made subordinate to the vice-president of the Military Collegium. In 1796 the general staff was abolished and replaced by his majesty’s retinue for quartermaster affairs, which was subordinate directly to the tsar. In 1810, Adjutant General P. M. Volkonskii was appointed the chief of the quartermaster division. He put the functions of the general staff services in good order and expanded them and organized a central directorate of the retinue (chancellery for the administration of the quartermaster division), which later became a separate department. In 1815 the main headquarters was instituted and made subordinate to the tsar. The quartermaster division became part of the Main Headquarters under the name of Directorate of the Quartermaster General’s Office. In 1827 his majesty’s retinue for quartermaster affairs was renamed the General Staff. In 1832 the Military Academy for Training General Staff Officers was established. (Its predecessor was a school of file leaders, which existed from 1815 to 1826.) In 1832 the Main Headquarters was abolished and the administration of the general staff became part of the Ministry of War under the name of General Staff Department. Its functions were restricted to topographic surveys and military statistics. The founder of a real general staff that corresponded to the increasingly complex tasks of military administration was D. A. Miliutin, minister of war from 1861 to 1881. In 1863 the Main Directorate of the General Staff was established and became part of the Main Headquarters, which was restored in 1865. The general staff developed further under General N. N. Obru-chev, chief of the General Staff from 1881 to 1897. In 1905 the Main Directorate of the General Staff became a separate body, whose chief was subordinate to the emperor and to the minister of war beginning in 1908. In 1906 the Naval General Staff was established. On the eve of World War I (1914-18) the General Staff consisted of five sections (quartermaster general, supply, mobilization, military communications, and military topography) and two commissions (the commission on fortifications and the commission of the General Staff committee).

In the Western European countries the role of the general staff began increasing in the second half of the 19th century. The growth in the size of the armies, the development of new forms of warfare and means of transportation and communication, the need for preparing economically for a war, and the complexity of controlling operations in which mass armies are involved were all determining factors for giving to the general staff a decisive role in the planning and the conduct of wars. Its structure and missions and its interrelations with other bodies of military administration were determined in various countries by the political, economic, and military situation of the state. In Prussia the so-called Great General Staff, which became independent in 1806, came to occupy under H. von Moltke the Elder (1857-88) a prominent position in the military administration and began exerting a great influence on the development of Germany’s aggressive policies. (The general staff was formally titled the Prussian General Staff even after the formation of the German Reich in 1871, but in effect it fulfilled the functions of an all-German general staff.) Under A. von Schlieffen (1891-06), H. von Moltke the Younger (1906-14) and P. von Hindenburg (1916-19) it became the chief instrument of the economic and political expansion of German militarism. Being subordinate to the emperor, the general staff played a decisive role in the operational planning of the war and in the preparation of the German armed forces for it. It was abolished in 1919. The general staff of Austria-Hungary played the same role in this period. In France the general staff decided questions related to the training of troops and to the planning and support of operations. Questions concerning the conduct of the war and its material support were decided by the government. Under J. Joffre, who became chief of staff in 1911, the role of the French General Staff greatly increased, but it never had the influence in the state as the German General Staff had. In Great Britain in the early 20th century the Imperial General Staff of the Army, subordinate to the Ministry of War, as well as the Naval and Field staffs, was set up. The activity of all these staffs was coordinated by the chief of the Imperial General Staff, who was accountable to the War Council and then to the lesser war cabinet, composed of civilian ministers.

Before World War II (1939-45) the further scientific and technological progress, the appearance of new armed services and new combat arms, and the numerical growth of the regular armed forces greatly increased the complexity and the scale of the missions performed by the general staff. The German General Staff, which began to be restored in 1920, played a special role in the state. From 1932 it began implementing a secret program of expanding the Reichswehr. By 1938, Germany had formed a complex organizational system for its general staff, which was retained throughout World War II. This system included the staff of the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW), which was formally part of the system but was in fact an independent operational command staff; the general staffs of the ground forces and aviation; and the staff of the naval warfare command. Each of these bodies strove for the dominant position in the strategic command of the armed forces, which led to friction and contradictory strategic decisions. The major role in the leadership of the armed forces on the fronts was played by the General Staff of the Ground Forces (OKH), which included the directorates of operations, intelligence, organization, combat training, communications, military transportation, fortification, military science, supply, military administration, technical military supplies, motor vehicles, and engineer services, as well as the legal, quartermaster, medical, veterinary, officers training, cartographical and topographical departments and the departments of inspectors general of the combat arms. In May 1945, in accordance with a decision of the Potsdam Conference, the German General Staff was disbanded and its further activity prohibited.

In the USSR the All-Russian Main Headquarters (Vseroglavshtab) was set up after the October Revolution in May 1918; this staff united the functions of the general staff and of several other central directorates. On Sept. 6, 1918, the staff of the Revolutionary Military Council of the Republic became the operational leadership body; on November 8 the Field Staff of the Republic took over these functions (chiefs—N. I. Rattel’, V. F. Kostiaev, M. D. Bonch-Brue-vich, and P. P. Lebedev). In February 1921 the Vseroglav-shtab merged with the Field Staff of the Republic and was named the Staff of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (RKKA). The development of the Soviet General Staff is bound up with the name of M. V. Frunze, the chief of staff of the RKKA from April 1924 to January 1925, who strove to make it into a staff conforming to the military theory of the proletarian state. After Frunze the chiefs of staff of the RKKA were M. N. Tukhachevskii, from November 1925 to May 1928; B. M. Shaposhnikov, from May 1928 to April 1931; V. K. Triandafillov, from May to July 1931; and A. I. Egorov, from July 1931 to September 1935. On September 22, 1935, the Staff of the RKKA was renamed the General Staff of the RKKA. The chiefs of the General Staff were A. I. Egorov, from September 1935 to May 1937; B. M. Shaposhnikov, from May 1937 to August 1940; K. A. Meretskov, from August 1940 to January 1941; and G. K. Zhukov, from February to July 1941. In 1936 the Academy of the General Staff was created; until 1936 the functions of the Academy of the General Staff were fulfilled to a large extent by the M. V. Frunze Military Academy.

During the Great Patriotic War (1941-15) the General Staff was the chief body of the General Headquarters of the Supreme Command for strategic planning and leadership of the armed forces on the front. The chiefs of the general staff were B. M. Shaposhnikov, from August 1941 to May 1942; A. M. Vasilevskii, from June 1942 to February 1945; and A. I. An-tonov, from February 1945.

During World War II (1939-45) the function of the general staff in the USA and Great Britain was fulfilled by committees of the chiefs of staff. The British Chiefs of Staff Committee was composed of the chief of the Imperial General Staff (chairman), the chiefs of staff of the air force and the navy, the chief of staff of the Ministry of Defense, and the chief of staff of joint operations. In the USA the committee of the chiefs of staff had approximately the same structure. In the spring of 1942 the Joint Committee of the Chiefs of Staff of the American and British armed forces was created; it was located in Washington but was subordinate simultaneously to all the heads of the allied governments.

After World War II the scientific and technological progress and the appearance of new methods of warfare—missiles and nuclear weaponry—led to the further centralization of the administration of the armed forces.

In the USA and Great Britain by the beginning of the 1970’s collective principles had been retained in the functioning of general staffs. In the USA in the Chiefs of Staff Committee a working body, the Joint Staff, has been set up, which is becoming a general staff with full powers. In Great Britain the Chiefs of Staff Committee is part of the Ministry of Defense, has authority over the Defense Staff, and directs the activity of the staffs of the army, air force, and navy. In the Federal Republic of Germany the functions of the general staff are fulfilled by the Chief Directorate on Military Affairs. The main headquarters of the ground forces, air force, and navy are subordinate to it. The NATO Council has a military committee, which is in effect the general staff of the North Atlantic bloc.

The Soviet General Staff, being the highest organ of administration, provides for the coordination of the activity of the main headquarters of the armed services, of the staff of the rear, and of the main and central directorates of the Ministry of Defense. Since March 1946 it has been called the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the USSR. The chiefs of the General Staff in the postwar period have been A. I. Antonov, from February 1945 to March 1946; A. M. Vasilevskii, from March 1946 to November 1948; S. M. Shtemenko, from November 1948 to May 1952; V. D. Sokolovskii, from May 1952 to April 1960; M. V. Zakharov, from April 1960 to March 1963; S. S. Biriuzov, from April 1963 to October 1964; and V. M. Zakharov, from November 1964 to September 1971. V. G. Kulikov has been chief of the General Staff since September 1971. Since March 1953 the chief of the General Staff has been at the same time the first deputy minister of defense of the USSR. In the USSR and in the other socialist countries the General Staff is part of the Ministry of Defense and is subordinate to the minister of defense. The activity of the combined armed forces of the member-countries of the Warsaw Pact of 1955 is coordinated by the Staff of the Joint Armed Forces of these states.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.