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Posted on Aug 7, 2008 in War College

ALPHABET SOUP! The British Army Staff System of World Wars I and II

By David T. Zabecki

The August/September 2008 issue of Armchair General contains the article, “The Commander’s Right Arm: Evolution of the Military Chief of Staff,” a history of the development of the military staff, particularly in Prussia/Germany, Britain and the United States, with emphasis on the modern commander’s “right arm” – the chief of staff. That article details the evolution of the modern staff from the era of Sweden’s Gustavus Adolphus to America’s current Joint Staff; but it is not always possible to include in a magazine article all of the details one would wish to include. This article supplements the information in the ACG August/September issue article with some clarifying information that readers should find useful.

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Students of World Wars I and II often encounter a bewildering array of job titles and abbreviations for British General Staff officers of the period. This “alphabet soup” of letters and numbers is often confusing to the uninitiated or casual reader, and can prevent a full understanding of what’s being read about British Army staff operations and functions during the world wars.

To help decipher the jargon and often incomprehensible job titles, therefore, here’s a quick reference guide to help sort out the confusion:

  • General Staff Officer 1 (GSO1), the head of G Branch
  • General Staff Officer 2 (GSO2), the head of a G Branch staff division,     intelligence, operations, etc.
  • General Staff Officer 3 (GSO3), an assistant division chief.
  • Brigade Major, the GSO1 of a brigade.
  • Brigadier, General Staff (BGS), the senior G Branch officer on corps staff
  • Major General, General Staff (MGGS), the senior G Branch officer on army staff.
  • Assistant Adjutant General or Assistant Quartermaster General (AAG or AQMG), lieutenant colonels, or in some cases colonels, heading divisions of the A or Q Branches
  • Deputy Assistant Adjutant General or Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General (DAAG or DAQMG), majors as assistant division heads in the A or Q Branches.
  • Staff Captain A or Q (SCA or SCQ), captains assigned to the A or Q Branches.

Armed with the above information, readers should be better able to “translate” the often confusing staff terminology frequently found in histories of British military operations of the two world wars — and help overcome the well-known “separated by a common language” problem of American and British interaction.

Maj. Gen. ret. David T. Zabecki, editor of Vietnam Magazine, has served as a S-3, a G-3, and a chief of staff in addition to one- and two-star commands supported by chiefs of staff. His two-volume study Chief of Staff: The Principal Staff Officer Behind History’s Greatest Commanders was published by the U. S. Naval Institute Press (usni.org, May 2008). 

3 Comments

  1. There were additional appointments and functions at different levels, so the list is somewhat incomplete – i.e. the Brigade Major at brigade level, etc.

  2. Oops – my mistake, I see BM is on the list. Don’t usually see him listed as “GSO I” though – always just Brigade Major.

  3. Actually, all of the terminology in reference to the “G” staff is wrong. Staff Officers in the “G” (Operations) sections were assigned grades based upon rank and qualification. GSO III were Captains, GSO II were Majors and GSO I were Lieutenant Colonels. The senior “G” officer at Brigade was the Brigade Major. He was a GSO II, but was reffered to by his appointment. So, a Bde Major would have a couple GSO IIIs (Captains) to support him. As well, there would be Staff Learners, generally Lieutenants, who were unqualified but assisted GSO IIIs.

    At division level, the senior “G” staff member was the GSO I, a Lieutenant Colonel. He had some GSO IIs and IIIs under him. This position was referred to as the GSO I, but from the Second World War and on American vernacular started to creep in to the British system and the GSO I started to be termed the Chief of Staff

    Also note that at the Brigade and Division levels, BMs and GSO Is had equally ranked counterparts covering off the A and Q duties. The BM or GSO I, however, was primer inter pares in this relationship and fulfilled much of the role of a Chief of Staff in the continental staff model.

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