Feldwebel is a German military rank which has existed since at least the 18th century with usage as a title dating to the Middle Ages. The word Feldwebel is usually translated as sergeant being rated OR-6 in the NATO rank comparison scale, equivalent to the British Army Sergeant and the US Army Staff Sergeant.
The rank of Feldwebel also exists in a number of higher grades, such as Hauptfeldwebel, Stabsfeldwebel and Oberstabsfeldwebel. These are rated OR-7 to OR –9, equivalent to the higher grades of Sergeant (US) and of Sergeants-Major (British).
The rank has also been borrowed by several other militaries, namely Swedish fältväbel, Russian фельдфебель (fel'dfebel'), Bulgarian фелдфебел (feldfebel), Finnish vääpeli and Estonian veebel.
The German word Feldwebel derives from the old German term 'waibel', a part of a loom to bring all strings on a line. The Landsknecht regiments first installed Feldwaibel to keep the men at line at the battlefield. In the Swiss Army, the rank is still today called Feldweibel.
19th century and German Kaiserreich
Feldwebel gained its widest usage under the German military beginning from the early 19th century. The highest ranking Non-Commissioned Officer until 1918, the Feldwebel acted as Company Sergeant Major. By contrast with some other countries, the position and duty of Regimental Sergeant Major never existed in Germany.
From 1887 the Offizierstellvertreter (Deputy Officer) ranked as a kind of Warrant Officer (more NCO than officer) between Feldwebel and the commissioned officers.
There were three further NCO ranks: Vizefeldwebel (Vice Feldwebel, senior NCO), Sergeant (junior NCO) and Unteroffizier (Lance Sergeant or Corporal, junior NCO). The Gefreiter was not an NCO as he had no powers of authority, and was a higher grade of private soldier.
Reichswehr and Wehrmacht
- Feldwebel (deputy platoon leader)
- Oberfeldwebel (platoon leader, possible appointment to Hauptfeldwebel)
- Stabsfeldwebel (special rank reserved for 25-year volunteers only.)
Feldwebel and above were Unteroffiziere mit Portepee (Senior NCOs); Unterfeldwebel and Unteroffiziere were Unteroffiziere ohne Portepee (Junior NCOs). In 1921, the rank of Sergeant was renamed Unterfeldwebel. Unterfeldwebels did duty as squad/section leaders.
The Stabsfeldwebel rank was reserved for those who had enlisted for 25 year terms of service in the pre-war German military and those who were enlisted for shorter terms were not eligible to hold this rank.
The appointment of Hauptfeldwebel (Company Sergeant Major/First Sergeant) could be held by Stabsfeldwebels or Oberfeldwebels only. NCOs of a lower rank (Feldwebel, Unterfeldwebel, Unteroffizier) holding this position were titled Hauptfeldwebeldiensttuer (i.e. acting Hauptfeldwebel).
Not all Heer NCO's in this grade were called Feldwebel, which was a rank in the infantry tradition. In the cavalry and artillery, for example, the equivalent rank was Wachtmeister, in the signals Funkmeister, in the ordnance branch Feuerwerker.
In the modern German Bundeswehr, Feldwebel is considered a Senior NCO, due in part to the large number of Corporal positions which exist as junior grades.
The modern Bundeswehr NCO ranks are as follows:
- Junior NCOs – Unteroffizier, Stabsunteroffizier (NATO-Rank Code OR 5a, 5c)
- Senior NCOs – Feldwebel, Oberfeldwebel (OR 6a, 6c), Hauptfeldwebel (OR 7)
- Senior NCOs receiving officers' pay – Stabsfeldwebel (OR 8), Oberstabsfeldwebel (OR 9)
(Fahnenjunker (OR 5b), Fähnrich (OR 6b) and Oberfähnrich (OR 7/OR 8) are ranks only held by officers candidates.)
In the Bundeswehr, Hauptfeldwebel is no longer an appointment, but a rank. Hauptfeldwebels and above may hold the equivalents of the appointment of Company Sergeant Major [US Army, "First Sergeant"] in the different branches of the army: Kompaniefeldwebel (infantry company), Batteriefeldwebel (artillery battery) or Staffelfeldwebel (air force wing).
Feldweibel is the lowest rank of "Higher Non-Commissioned Officers" in the Swiss Army. Until the "Reform XXI" agenda, there were two branches of Feldweibels: technical and company level.
The Feldweibel oversees unit-level military service and operations. In 2004, the rank of Hauptfeldweibel was introduced. Since then, only technical specialists have remained in the rank of Feldweibel.
On international missions, they are referred to as "Sergeant Major", NATO Code: OR-7.
The military rank of vääpeli was previously used by salaried NCOs. Responsibility was given for training and maintenance. It is being currently phased out, and conscript officers, salaried sergeants and commissioned officers have taken over the tasks.
The position of vääpeli in wartime formations still exists, but it can be given to soldier of any rank, typically sergeant or corporal. In peacetime, the term yksikköupseeri, literally "officer of the unit", is used, and this position is held by a salaried officer, typically senior lieutenant. The responsibility is for the provisioning, maintenance, human resources management and generally well-being of the unit (company).
In the Bulgarian army, фелдфебел (pronounced "feldfebel") existed from the late 19th century to the late 1940s, when the German-type military organization was phased out in favor of a new doctrine, identical to the Soviet one.
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