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Several military insignia and decorations use an "oak leaf" motif:

I know that the use in insignia dates back to at least the US Civil War, and in decorations at least to their addition to Pour le Mérite in 1813, but I'm not sure if it goes beyond that.

Is there a common origin for these? Which came first? Why oak leaves in particular?

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    Oak leaves were a.o. used by the Romans to signify bravery: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civic_Crown
    – Jos
    Jul 19, 2023 at 7:01
  • @RodrigodeAzevedo The Iron Cross had oak leaves long before WWII, which it got about contemporaneous to Pour le Mérite. Neither was even close to being the first military insignia to have them (see Jos' comment).
    – DevSolar
    Jul 19, 2023 at 12:47
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    Oak was attributed to thunder / lightning deities in many cultures (Greek, Norse, Celtic, Baltic, and Slavic). The Hebrew mythology features oak trees several times. It is (one of) the hardest woods available in Europe, the wood you would craft spear shafts from, and from there to an overall symbol of strength and fortitude isn't that much of a stretch.
    – DevSolar
    Jul 19, 2023 at 12:54
  • I did a quick google search and there are multiple opinions, but nothing I can find that is authoriative.
    – MCW
    Jul 19, 2023 at 16:31
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    @hobbs From the time frame I referenced, this will be one of those questions that actually asks "what is the oldest recorded use", which IMNSHO should never be confused with "what is the origin", especially since half of the civilisations I mentioned have a written tradition and the other half haven't. This is mist-of-time type of stuff, and very likely parallel development as well, so I don't quite see how there could be "the" answer.
    – DevSolar
    Jul 20, 2023 at 7:15

1 Answer 1

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Oak leaves signify bravery for millennia

The earliest I could find was Roman: the Civic crown was a coronet of oak leaves, given for saving the life of a fellow citizen in battle. Julius Caesar won one during the siege of Mytilene. The Civic Crown ranked second highest, after the Grass Crown.

Oaks and their leaves were important for the Celts and later the Germanic tribes as well, culminating much later in military decorations with oak leaves. The earliest modern military decoration is the Légion d'honneur in 1802. Before that commanders were given noble ranks or knightly decorations, and lower ranks usually a monetary reward. (The grand cross has a laurel and an oak wreath behind the cross.)

The American tradition is merely a continuation of this ancient custom.

Your second question was about the silver/gold insignia difference in the US Army. Wikipedia has a comprehensive explanation on that. In a nutshell: the senior/oldest ranks were silver, and kept it. Junior/newer ranks got gold. Do mind that this is strictly about the US Army. Other armies have different traditions.

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  • Note that the silver / gold thing can be quite different in other militaries. German Major / Oberstleutnant / Oberst are silver, while Generals are gold.
    – DevSolar
    Jul 20, 2023 at 13:25
  • @DevSolar You're absolutely correct. The question was about US military, not German or any other military. I'm Dutch, and it works very different there. Not (entirely) German, British or US. With a bit of French thrown in, to make it spicy. Just about most armies have their own traditions.
    – Jos
    Jul 21, 2023 at 0:23
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    @Jos Where in the question is it stated that the question is about the US Armed Forces? Jul 21, 2023 at 4:40
  • I don't say your answer is wrong in that regard. I just prefer it when the whole is at least mentioned, because too many people run around believing that the part they know is all there is to it ("junior officers always wear gold!").
    – DevSolar
    Jul 21, 2023 at 6:37
  • @RodrigodeAzevedo "Majors and Lieutenant Commanders in the US Armed Forces" (first bullet). I find it difficult to see that as anything else but US Armed forces.
    – Jos
    Jul 21, 2023 at 8:35

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