Well, this thread may not be essential to make 1/6 military bashes. However, I guess that most onesixers who make military figures are also history enthusiasts. So, here I go :
I've noticed that many - and more than I thougt - guys abroad do bashes dealing with French troops, past or modern. So I thought it could be interesting for them to know more about the origin of the names of most of French names. I've previously put here a thread giving the names and insignas of the French Air Force, and here I'll list the names of some ranks that are common to the French Army and Air Force. Some branches of the Army, still called mounted branches - armes montées - have some names that are different for juniors NCOs and corporals, but I won't talk about them here as I've got no info about them. Also, I guess this thread could be interesting because many Anglo-saxon names (Sergeant, Captain, Corporal etc...) are similar, have the same origins, and seem to come from the French names too. Anyway, I won't list all rank names but most of tem, and I'll also indicate te English word each time.
Soldat (soldier) : this name comes from the Italian soldare, which means "the one who is given a pay" (solde is the French word for military pay). In te 17th century, it took the place of the French word soudare, which became pejorative, and which was used to call men in armed bands (at that time, many mercenaries were enlisted in the army).
Caporal (corporal) : In the 15th century, the caporal was a chef dizenier (chief of ten men). This name comes from the Italian capo which means "head". This italian word comes from the Latin caput, wich is the origin of capitaine (captain).
In nowadays' French military, the NCOs are called sous-officiers (literally : "low officers"). Before the Revolution (1789), they were called bas officiers (which is the exact tranlation of "low officers"). The bas officiers were used to second the officers regarding managing troops for most of every day tasks. Then, manners and French language evolved, and the term bas offciers became pejorative and was replaced by sous-officiers. Indeed the word sous can mean "low" and "under". It sounds less pejorative because it corresponds to the hierarchy : NCOs are under officers.
Sergent (sergeant) : It comes from te Latin serviens which means "to serve". This name litterally designates the one who serves. But in 12th and 13th centuries, as a knight auxiliary at combat, the sergent was in charge of keeping troops in ranks, which was essential to fight a battle and the name became Sergent at that time - phonetically, sergent sounds like serre gens, which in French literally means "tightens people", the one who forms the troops. This serre-gens used to hold a distinctive weapon which was an halberd.
Adjudant (adjutant) : In 1776, it was the highest rank of the bas officiers. The word adjudant comes from a Latin word (I don't remember it) which means "the one who gives orders". In war time, the adjudant was given a orse and in peace time he used to go on foot. Initially, he was posted out of companies, but at the head of battalions and regiments. The adjudant was initially a headquarters NCO, mainly in charge of service tasks in a regiment, of supply, and of the transmission and execution of unexpected orders. Before 1789, the adjudants could be promoted de sous-lieutenant (2nd lieutenant) after 10 years of service in peace time (5 years in war time), then lieutenant, and could rarely go over this rank.
In French, the word for officers is officiers. This word comes from te responsabilities and tasks (offices) given by the head of state to the military commanders (officers status act, May 19, 1834). With the conscription (mendatory military service), the role of officers became more complicated. In the past, the officer was an experienced instructor, trained for life in campaign and was in charge of the regiment's traditions.
Aspirant (cadet officer) : Today, the aspirant is a cadet officer and belongs to the officers corps. Initially, the aspirant was a non-commissioned officer who was about to become an officer. Indeed the word aspirant comes from the verb aspirer which means in French "to want something and do your best to do it" (I think the English translation could be "to aspire" but I'm not sure). It seems that te word aspirant appeared in te middle of the 18th century and was used to call call applicants to artillery academies. This word became official in 1910 to call the cadet officers after one year of studies and then it was removed in 1919. It was then used to call NCO's enlisted as auxiliaries (réservistes). Aspirants have now been in the officers corps since 1973.
Sous-lieutenant (2nd Lieutenant) : This rank has been in use since 1669. (see Lieutenant for the origin of the word).
Lieutenant (1st Lieutenant) : This term is formed from the French phrase tenant lieu wich means "in the place of". This means that initially, a lieutenant was a kind of deputy officer, second in command, the one who could replace his head officer. The word lieutenant wasn't used to call a rank first, but it was an administrative term. Lieutenant became a rank around 1540. Added to other rank names, it has been used throughout History in many ranks, and most of them are still in used : lieutenant-général (no more in use in te French military), lieutenant-colonel etc. In English, the word spelling is the same as in French, but in British English it can be pronounced "left tenant". According to what an English teacher (who is an English woman) it can be pronounced this way because it seems that the lieutenant in the past British Army was used to sitting on the left of his command officer. But this is not a 100% sure piece of information though.
Capitaine (captain) : Taken from low Latin capitaneous (which comes from Latin caput meaning "head"). The military meaning of this word appeared in the Middle Ages, and was used to call the one who was at the head, the one in command. This word was used in a larger range than today to call most of soldiers commanding troops at war. When Charles VII reorganized the Frenche militias, creating 15 ordnance compnies (compagnies d'ordonance), he gave the rank of capitaine to each company commanding officer. Then this rank was used in a larger range of commands. The capitaine is initially the one who commands a comppany, a suqadron or a battery, that is to say a hundred of men.
Commandant (major) : In French, commandant litterally means "commander". This is a generic term to call an officer commanding a troop or a department. Initially it was more a function call than a rank. The rank appeared in the infantry wit the creation of battalions.
Colonel : This word appeared in the 16th century and comes from the Italian colonnello, which means "column leader". From Henri II to Louis XVI, an infantry regiment commander was called either colonel or mestre de camp ("camp master" in old French), depending on the era. This title became a rank in 1803 for those wo command a regiment or a department with similar importance regarding responsabilities.
General officers : The French word for general is général. The title of général comes from an abbreviation used in the time of the French monarchy. In that time, the titles of capitaine-général and then colonel-général were used to call company commanding officers who used to give orders to other commanders in war time. Since Charles VII in France, it had been in use to give the title of lieutenant-général to the King representative. This title became a rank under Louis XIII. During the Revolution, it bacame général de division (division general) but it was renamed lieutenant-général again during the Restoration. It was renamed général de division after the fall of July Monarchy (Monarchie de Juillet)
Well, tis thread should be edited as soon as I get further more inforamtion. Sorry about my English, sometimes it is not that easy to translate specific words. I hope I didn't make many mistakes. I've got a little bit of info from my personnal knowledge and most of info comes from the French Army website :