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An element (also known as a SubUnit) is the basic building block for units, and usually represent a single regiment, artillery battery or leader (NB: This leader element is included alone in its leader unit; usually what is called a 'leader' is this single-element unit).
Units consist of 1 to 7 elements (1 to 4 in WIA or BoA).
in AACW and NCP: Divisions, being composed units, can contain up to 18 elements.
in RoP: Brigade units can merge up to 4 elements
Normally, during gameplay, you won't be dealing with elements directly. Instead, you'll be dealing with them through the units they are part of.
Each element has a range of attributes that determine how it performs in combat and other situations.