‘General Winter’: meaning and origin

The expression General Winter personifies the winter season as an army commander—especially in reference to winter as detrimental or destructive to a military campaign.
—Cf. also
Generals January and February.

The expression General Winter is particularly associated with Russian winter, which contributed to the failure, in 1812, of the invasion of Russia by the army of Napoléon Bonaparte (1769-1821), Emperor of the French—cf., below, quotation 5.

However, the first two occurrences of General Winter that I have found seem to indicate that this expression did not originally refer to Russian winter, but to the War of American Independence (1775-83).

The earliest occurrences of the expression General Winter that I have found are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From The Public Advertiser (London, England) of Tuesday 28th October 1777:

Campaign News.—The Ministry are somewhat alarmed at Intelligence lately arrived from North America.—It is this:
That General Winter, with an almost invincible Force, was in full March to the Assistance of Washington’s Army.
That Captain Frost, his first Aid-de-Camp, had already arrived at Congress! and had given their High Mightinesses Assurance that his Excellency the General would join Mr. Washington by the Middle of next Month, at farthest; and would have the Honour of cooling the Courage of Burgoyne, Howe, and Clinton.
It was also reported, when the Express came away, that Congress had received Advices from Rear Admiral Ice, acquainting them that he was on his Passage North about, and expected to be in Force in the Harbour of New York, and in the Delaware by the latter End of November at farthest; and requesting of Congress that He might have the Honour of securing and taking proper Care of Lord Viscount Howe and his Fleet, until the first Day of April next.

2-: From Punch’s Speech, by ‘J. A.’, published in The Public Advertiser (London, England) of Monday 24th November 1777:

I hope soon to be—enabled to tell ye
How Burgoyne and his Men got Food for the Belly;
How Gunpowder Arnold, as fierce as a Turk,
Cut out for poor Burgoyne such damnable Work:
From Newport, New York, or the Devil knows where,
We have Gazettes receiv’d,—composing each Care:
But the Season advancing, Storms louder than Stentor,
And the Rebels assisted by General Winter,
Will impede, I’m afraid, our Progress again,
And oblige us to fight them another Campaign.

3-: From The Daily Advertiser and Oracle (London, England) of Saturday 15th January 1803:

The ice on the several pieces of water in the neighbourhood of the metropolis was yesterday crowded with Skaiters; such unexampled firmness has the ice acquired in two days, owing to the prevalence of the North East wind.
A Russian Officer yesterday observed, that General Winter had at length arrived, but not the whole of his Staff.

4-: From The British Press (London, England) of Thursday 18th February 1808:

BRIGHTON, Feb. 15.
Last week produced us no arrivals of importance, that we have been advised of.
The austerity of General Winter, during the greater part of last week, operated here as a prohibition to all out-door amusements. The lounges and promenades were in a manner deserted; scarcely a belle or beau of fashion dared appear to grace them. But at the warm baths at Williams’s, the General’s severity had no influence; they had their usual attendances.

5-: From The Gleaner (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, USA) of Friday 23rd April 1813:

A few months ago Napoleon was marching North to conquer Russia, “in the full tide of successful experiment;” at his single word 500,000 veteran soldiers, accustomed to victory, displayed their invincible columns on the Vistula.
In September they were at Smolensk—in October the Imperial Eagles waved victorious from the ruins of Moscow. November and December came and with them disaster, defeat and ruin. Napoleon and his legions fled. Pursued by General Winter—General Storm—General Famine, aided by the brave and skilful Russian Generals, the finest army that the world ever saw was almost annihilated.

6-: From the Public Ledger, and Daily Advertiser (London, England) Friday 19th December 1828:

The statements in The St. Petersburgh State Gazette [differ] certainly most materially from the published accounts in the other Foreign Journals. These latter accounts agree in all particulars, and represent in most lamentable details, the privations and afflictions to which the Russian army were exposed in their retreat. Now, it will be observed that the calamities—undoubted calamities—to which the unfortunate Russians have been exposed, and from which they mostly have suffered lingering and inglorious deaths, are not for one moment touched upon, or even alluded to in the Russian “News.” The concealment of the disasters may have been advised, from a prudential and virtuous principle—the desire of not unnecessarily giving pain to the Christian World. The Russian Government knew full well, that some account was due of the progress of the invasion, and while it was honourable to the Russian arms, such account was given to the Public, glossed over most certainly; for who would not swell the account of successes, when the reporter tells his own tale. Again—on the reverse side of the picture—when the scene to be pourtrayed is a winter one, it is not necessary to group the disasters which in that inclement season generally follow, and the Russian Painter, therefore, with appropriate and delicate genius, has merely touched his canvass lightly, leaving to the imagination the consequences which must inevitably follow, not only the approach, but the actual combat, with old General Winter, and his auxiliaries of Snow, Ice, Frost, &c. &c. “which,” says the narrator, “were dreadful; meantime the cold increased to 8 deg. Reaumur, or 18 deg. of Fahrenheit, below freezing, a heavy snow covered all our batteries, and the clay huts of the soldiers, and large flakes of ice appeared on the Danube.” The St. Petersburgh painter having thus covered his canvass, leaves to the critical discernment of mankind, to whom the picture is shown, to fancy all the rest! It is true, that the battle with General Winter, to speak in plainer language, and less metaphorical, was severe—the onset undoubtedly dreadful—the result most lamentable. Some excuse may, therefore, be pleaded by the Russian Government, for concealing, under the approach and visitation of winter, those sad and melancholy inroads upon life which have attended the first campaign in Turkey.

A variant, General Hiver, after French le général hiver, occurred, for example, in The Globe and Traveller (London, England) of Saturday 10th November 1855:


Paris, Friday Evening.—People have now made up their minds not to receive any intelligence of any move of importance in the Crimea, until the “acris hiems” 1 shall have been replaced by the “gratâ vice veris.” 2 Therefore, the news of the troops making preparations for passing the winter as comfortably as possible, is, in the absence of more exciting advices, received with the utmost satisfaction. When General Hiver next makes his appearance, he will find the Allies as well prepared to resist his attacks as the Russians have found them ready to repel theirs.

1 & 2: This is from an ode by the Roman poet and satirist Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus – 65-8 BC):

Solvitur acris hiems grata vice veris et Favoni.
     translation by John Conington from The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace (London: George Bell and Sons, 1882):
The touch of Zephyr and of Spring has loosen’d Winter’s thrall.

An early occurrence of the French expression le général hiver is from Histoire philosophique de la Révolution de France (Paris: Chez Barba et Hubert, 1817), by Antoine Fantin-Desodoards (1738-1820)—the following is about the invasion of Russia by Napoléon Bonaparte:

Les journalistes anglais remplissaient leurs feuilles de commentaires prophétiques […] ; ils annonçaient l’époque précise où se manifesteraient les irréparables embarras auxquels il exposait son armée. Ils disaient : « Si Bonaparte triomphe, comme il le dit, de plusieurs généraux russes, il existe en Russie un général dont il lui est impossible de triompher : c’est le général hiver. »
English journalists were filling their leaves with prophetic comments […]; they were announcing the precise time of the year when would arise the irreparable difficulties to which he was exposing his army. They were saying: “If Bonaparte defeats, like he says, several Russian generals, there exists in Russia one general it is impossible for him to defeat: it is General Hiver.”

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