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"Officers from the ranks?" Topic


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644 hits since 10 Nov 2017
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Comments or corrections?

gamer110 Nov 2017 7:31 a.m. PST

Okay, from my research I get the impression that one of many things that gave the French such a large advantage early in the period was that Napoleon believed in promoting from the ranks and that the army had many officers that started out as regular "grunts" and thus were very experienced and knowledgeable about their business on the battle field.
It is also my understanding that the other major powers still had a more class distinction system that only those of noble birth could make good officer, or general material and the most the commoner could hope for is sergeant. I know there were some very good units made up of strictly nobility, mainly Cavalry units but that is a little different than what I am asking. I also assume there were, as there usually is, always some exceptions but I am talking overall, in general.
So am I right, way off base? Did the other countries also promote from with in or was I wrong thinking the French did and their attitude was just like the other countries. I get the impression the British in particular felt that only a "Gentlemen" of the right blood line was suited to be an officer of any rank. Thanks.

Travis

Personal logo Artilleryman Supporting Member of TMP10 Nov 2017 9:01 a.m. PST

Ignoring the bug…..

The British certainly believed that officers should be 'gentlemen' and this was also the opinion in the ranks. This did not mean that they had to be aristocrats who only provided some 4% of the officer corps in the Peninsular. Many were the sons of bankers, traders and the clergy. Officers from the ranks were not unknown with deserving RSMs traditionally becoming quartermasters or even adjutants (as happened to an ancestor of mine in Spain in 1814). By 1815 over 20% of officers in Wellington's forces were from the ranks. (A great number of sergeants were commissioned into the Portuguese Army but that is a different issue.) With peacetime the numbers quickly fell again. 'Rankers' were not generally highly regarded and Wellington was of the opinion that though they could make the military leap they were disadvantaged socially and too many took to drink as a result.

rmaker10 Nov 2017 9:04 a.m. PST

For the British, anybody with the money to buy a commission was acceptable to Horse Guards (though not necessarily to the regimental mess). Plenty of British officers were not of the nobility, and could even be foreigners (there was an American among the cadre of the 95th, for instance).

And Napoleon didn't institute promotion from the ranks, the Republic did, out of necessity. And it didn't always turn out well.

In Russia, while the nobility had a near monopoly on commissions, the usual path was to serve a term in the ranks of a Guard regiment first.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP10 Nov 2017 9:35 a.m. PST

The French were, across the board, more willing to promote from the ranks--but whether a barely-literate Sergeant makes a better Lieutenant than an educated and trained young man is another issue--especially in the era of close-order drill as a key to battlefield success.

I suspect the main Napoleonic advantage in officers was the really ruthless sort under the Republic, with huge numbers of senior officers killed in action, guillotined or defected and successful and very young officers promoted to take their place. Read up on the Marshalate and some of the "also-rans" like Desaix. Bonaparte wasn't the only junior officer of 1789 to be a General by 1797. But that sort of thing does NOT happen under the Empire, where the corps commanders of 1815 were the division commanders of Austerlitz, ten years older.

Supercilius Maximus10 Nov 2017 10:35 a.m. PST

I think we need to bear in mind the major difference between the French and British armies. The former had conscription, and thus EVERYONE started off in the ranks (unless they had a wealthy/connected parent who could put them through one of the military schools). The British was an all-volunteer system in which you joined at whatever rank your educational and social circumstances dictated.

I think Napoleon instituted the rank of "porte-aigle" to allow rankers who could not fulfill the literacy requirement to become junior officers, as befitted their length of service. Wellington also instituted the rank of colour-sergeant to improve the prospects of deserving NCOs, and used the (Catholic) Portuguese army to provide promotion prospects for Irish officers, and commissions for deserving NCOs (other options for the latter included West India, Foreign, and Garrison regiments). Sergeants granted commissions were usually transferred to another regiment to avoid problems from fellow-rankers, rather than snobbery from officers.

The only strict requirements to become a British officer were (a) full literacy, (b) being at least 16 years of age (often ignored); and (c) being sponsored by a current serving officer of at least the rank of major. The most common entry under "father's occupation" for British officers during the Peninsula War was "gentleman" which could be used to gloss over awkward backgrounds that might involve "being in trade" (the CO of the Royal Horse Guards at Waterloo was the son of an eating house owner from Wapping). Provided there was a vacancy, any young man fulfilling the above could become an officer, although purchase was usually required in "fashionable" regiments; so not that different from requirements in French service, which included literacy and age limits. Young men without financial backing and/or patronage could join as a "volunteer" – messing with the officers but serving in the ranks and carrying a musket, and waiting for a death in battle (or other form of "departure") to create a vacancy.

attilathepun4710 Nov 2017 11:19 a.m. PST

Curiously enough, I once read that promotion from the ranks was fairly common in the Spanish Army, but that progress beyond the rank of captain was virtually impossible for those men. I think the source was probably "Uniforms of the Peninsular War" in the old Blandford series of uniform books. I think that apparent anomaly was probably in reality a reflection of the overweening pride of the Spanish aristocracy, who likely considered service as a "mere" lieutenant or captain beneath their dignity.

Lord Hill10 Nov 2017 1:39 p.m. PST

By 1815 over 20% of officers in Wellington's forces were from the ranks.

Source for that? I agree that quartermasters, paymasters and adjutants were often from the ranks, but I find it extremely difficult to believe 20% is accurate. Certainly for the officers AT Waterloo in 1815, the percentage is much, much lower.

14Bore10 Nov 2017 1:49 p.m. PST

A few Prussians seem to be of lowly birth but conniving a Von title could happen.
British could get promoted but higher than Capt was a real stretch from my readings.

dibble10 Nov 2017 2:02 p.m. PST

The mention of an American Officer in the 95th was James Gairdner who, though he had an American father and American relatives, he also had a British side too. There were other American and Canadian officers in the British army, for instance, one killed in action during the Peninsula war was in the 23rd Royal Welch Fusiliers, and I do believe that a Canadian born officer died at Waterloo. Those Canadians that fought, were mostly son's of American loyalists who settled in Canada rather than become American citizens.

The problem with being an officer at this time within the British army was that your pay would never cover your expenses and an external funding from family or private concerns, was needed to make life 'comfortable' though not a necessity.

The pecentage was iirc, was 6% rather than 20%.

Paul :)

forrester10 Nov 2017 2:24 p.m. PST

The impression I have is that certainly in line infantry regiments in the British Army the majority of officers were neither ex rank and file nor blue blooded aristocrats [though Wellington seemed to favour the latter in his inner circle], but more likely what we would now call "middle class".

There was also the option I recall of militia officers getting a free commission if they could get a prescribed number of militiamen to volunteer as regulars.

I suspect that the prohibitive expense of the officers mess was less of an issue on campaign in the Peninsula where everyone after a while looked like a tramp.

Post Waterloo the reductions, and disbanding of war-raised battalions would probably have elbowed out a lot of people who had got free commissions at a time of necessary expansion.

Ex rankers could also find themselves in very unfashionable units like the West India Regiment.["just be GRATEFUL"]

Whirlwind10 Nov 2017 5:53 p.m. PST

Curiously enough, I once read that promotion from the ranks was fairly common in the Spanish Army, but that progress beyond the rank of captain was virtually impossible for those men. I think the source was probably "Uniforms of the Peninsular War" in the old Blandford series of uniform books. I think that apparent anomaly was probably in reality a reflection of the overweening pride of the Spanish aristocracy, who likely considered service as a "mere" lieutenant or captain beneath their dignity.

Esdaile covers the topic in his book on the Spanish Army:

link

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP10 Nov 2017 9:02 p.m. PST

When a British enlisted man was promoted to officer status, like any newly commissioned officer, his name was listed in the Military Gazette. Invariably, he was listed as "a gentleman of private means', which really meant that he had no outside [family] income like the majority of British officers.

From the Gazette lists, only about 5% of officers were raised from the ranks in the British Army during the wars. While many second sons of peers bought commissions as did wealthy middle class families, particularly at the beginning of the wars, in the end, the majority [@60%]were 'free' commissions where the officer, almost always middle class, were given commissions. In most cases it was the colonel of the regiment who was appealed to and submitted the candidate's name to the Horse Guards.

When the French Revolution did away with the aristocracy, they chased off many of the officers. After electing officers didn't work, promotion by merit and seniority was the method established.

In the Prussian army, being an officer was the prerogative of the Junker class/aristocracy. After the 1806 catastrophe, more middle class men were allowed in at the lower ranks, particularly in the Reserve, Militia, Jager and Fusilier battalions. General officers were Junkers or foreigners elevated to nobility like Scharnhorst.

The Russians had middle class officers, simply because there weren't enough nobles to fill the regiments' need for officers, but becoming a colonel or general officer was almost always reserved for the aristocracy and again foreigners with titles. The few that were not nobles met with condescension.

The Austrians had pretty much the same system. Regiments were 'owned' by proprietor/colonels who were nobles, the units being sold and bought as businesses and often financially supported by the owners.

That is why regiments in the Prussian and Austrian armies carried the name of their 'owner'. The Russians continued that practice but changed to have the names reflect the unit's representative region.

Edwulf11 Nov 2017 3:45 a.m. PST

10% of British officers had risen from the ranks through out the period. Either through acts of heroism or merit.

That's from a Haithornethwaite book if I'm not mistaken.

Most though came from military families or the gentry. Aristocrats were very rare outside of guards and fashionable cavalry units.

Le Breton11 Nov 2017 5:35 a.m. PST

"The Russians had middle class officers, simply because there weren't enough nobles to fill the regiments' need for officers, but becoming a colonel or general officer was almost always reserved for the aristocracy"

Well yes, but there were almost no ethnically Russian middle class people other than academicians and hence very few such officers. However, for other ethnicities, such as Baltic "German", Finnish, Polish, Georgian, Cossacks and other "National" forces, emigrés, etc. – there was no problem if the war college determined the person was worthy of a commision.

Actual promotion from the Russian soldier social class (i.e., an ex- serf recruited, or the son or grandson, etc. of such a recruit) was very rare for active service as an officer, maybe only 200 or so long-service NCO's in the infantry and cavalry. But less rare in the "technical" services. Being commissoned *after* active service (for pension, for placement in a garrison or internal security unit, etc.) was more common. The son of such as promoted NCO was technically not noble, but was given the preferences of being an "officer's son".

If someone was adopted by a noble family, even if non-noble, they were considered noble and could be commissioned without any issue.

Being commisioned conferred Russian life nobility.

Three generations of long and flawless service as a junior officer conferred hereditary nobiity on the 3rd and subsequent generations. The Légion d'honneur had a similar provision : after three generations of legionaires, the 3rd and subsequesnt generations became hereditary "chevaliers".

Being promoted to
--- army Major of infantry of cavalry
--- army captain of engineers, artillery, quartermaster suite, topgraphical service, etc.
--- young guard captain of infantry/dragoons or rotmistr of cavalry
--- old guard staff-captain of infantry/dragoons or staff-rotmistr of cavalry
--- voiskovoy starshina of Cossack or National forces (conferred nobility in the ethnic group, not Russian nobility)
conferred social class rank No. 8 and hereditary nobility.
In the Navy, hereditary nobility adherred to those promoted 2nd-rank captains (social class No. 7).
This will explain why those were were not ethnic Russian nobles were at a disadvantage in gaining higher ranks. It was more than just a promotion, but an important change in social status.

Before getting a commission, one did have to serve a minimum of two years of real active service in one of the officer candidate NCO ranks (the names of these varied by service).

There were longer obligations for enlisted service before commissioning that were more nominal : important nobles could get their sons listed at a young age on the rolls of a stylish regiment, and for others education years (cadet corps, foregn schooling, page service, various "schools", etc.) counted.

Brechtel19811 Nov 2017 8:50 a.m. PST

I think we need to bear in mind the major difference between the French and British armies. The former had conscription, and thus EVERYONE started off in the ranks (unless they had a wealthy/connected parent who could put them through one of the military schools)…

I think Napoleon instituted the rank of "porte-aigle" to allow rankers who could not fulfill the literacy requirement to become junior officers, as befitted their length of service….

One way to find out the military origins of the French general officers is to consult the work of Georges Six on the generals of the Revolution and Empire.

Many of these were not conscripted, especially those in the army of the Ancien Regime who enlisted voluntarily as there was no conscription during that period. The conscription law came after the Revolution started. About half of the marshals, for example, began their careers as enlisted men, the others began either as cadets or junior officers, some before the Revolution, and others after the wars began in 1792.

Napoleon began his career as an officer, and he certainly wasn't privileged-he was lucky. Most of the engineer and artillery officers weren't privileged either, and during the Empire, the graduates of the French military schools, especially those begun and organized under Napoleon, didn't make a significant impact on the Grande Armee until after 1805.

In the Grande Armee there were three ways of becoming an officer: first, to be promoted from the ranks; second, graduating from one of the military schools or after qualifying for his epaulets as a velite in the Imperial Guard, and for meritorious service.

I would highly recommend taking a look at Chapter VIII 'They Also Served' In John Elting's Swords Around A Throne, and the memoirs of Elzear Blaze and JB Barres for more detailed information on officers' in the Grande Armee and their routes to officer rank.

Regarding the Porte-Aigles, the officer chosen for this deadly position was requited to posess the required valor in combat but was too stupid for further promotion. He was not illiterate, as one of the prerequisites for NCOs and officers in the Grande Armee was to be literate, that is, to be able to read and write. The second and third 'porte-aigles were required to be veterans and possess 'outstanding bravery' but were illiterate and barred from further promotion. They were to be ranked as sergeants and receive a sergeant-major's high pay.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP11 Nov 2017 9:31 a.m. PST

Well yes, but there were almost no ethnically Russian middle class people other than academicians and hence very few such officers.

Well, yes. The Russian 'middle class' were not the same as western European middle classes. In Russia, they were anyone who were not serfs, literate to some extent and/or had a family in leadership/'commissar' positions on the landed properties.

While Prussia, Russia and Austria simply required or conferred nobility on officers, in Britain, it was becoming an officer and 'gentleman.' Gentleman was a noble rank below Baron and Knighthood beginning after the Norman invasion and conferred by the king. One reason the British middle class wanted to become officers. It was actually a step up in class status.

Cerdic Supporting Member of TMP11 Nov 2017 10:09 a.m. PST

A British gentleman was not really what you would call a 'noble rank'. The nobility were things like dukes, earls, etc. People called 'Lord Something-Or-Other'.

Below the nobility you had the Gentry. These would usually be 'Sir Someone'. They were gentlemen.

Then you had the wealthy. They might be industrialists, businessmen, professionals such as doctors and lawyers, and so on. They might be regarded by some as gentlemen. Or they might aspire to be gentlemen.

Being thought of as a gentleman had a lot to do with not having to get your hands dirty…

attilathepun4711 Nov 2017 11:21 a.m. PST

The question of status as a gentleman or aristocrat actually varied a lot between nations. Britain had a "winner-take-all" system where the eldest surviving son normally inherited everything, both title and wealth. So younger sons of younger sons steadily lost social status and had to make their own way in the world, although a lot of family influence might be exerted to help them find positions. So younger sons of the aristocracy wound up as gentry, and younger sons of the gentry might well lose even that status unless both able and lucky.

On the Continent, however, the situation usually was that all offspring were considered members of the nobility in perpetuity, and the males, at least, entitled to a share of the estate. The result was that there were a lot of impoverished nobles who did not own enough land to support an aristocratic life style. Yet it was considered dishonorable for them to stoop to actually earning a living--except in military or naval service, the church, or high government officialdom. One consequence of this was that rank as a commissioned officer was pretty much reserved for the nobility, often as a matter of law, except for the grubby technical services (such riff-raff as artillery or engineer officers, you understand--not really "one of us").

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP11 Nov 2017 8:10 p.m. PST

The 'gentry' was the class of gentlemen apart from simply being wealthy. One had to own land which was the major source of their wealth. Many wealthy aspired to and bought their way into the gentry during the Regency. It was part of the hierarchy of heraldry, but you are right. A Gentleman was not nobility, but a conferred rank below knight and squire.

The notion of being a gentleman as an ethical man slowly became an idea during the Wars when so many non-wealthy, non-gentry men became 'officers and a gentleman', becoming socially seen [for the most part] as an equal to other gentlemen.

The argument that Elizabeth Bennett had with Darcy's aunt about her father being a gentleman and a social equal to Darcy, also a gentleman, though extremely wealthy, was an argument over social distinctions and rank, not whether Darcy and Mr. Bennett were ethical men.

The gentry was unique to England and the place where social upward mobility was accepted, unlike other European nations, who demanded noble rank.

Murvihill13 Nov 2017 8:45 a.m. PST

Before the revolution 10% of the French officer corps was promoted from the ranks. They were limited to the rank of captain so regiments often had one or two captains with grey hair amongst the younger ones. I remember this from a college term paper 30 years ago…

42flanker13 Nov 2017 1:04 p.m. PST

The 'gentle' in 'gentleman' is not to do with being polite or behaving decently but originally meant being of good birth ('gens' being the Roman term for noble lineage).

In the C13th a lesser order of chivalry came to be recognised, consisting of men who were of good family but did not seek formal knighthood, but were content with titles "hitherto associated with service to knighthood or apprenticeship thereto"- for instance that of 'esquire' in English. This was marked initially by the admission of esquires to the joust and the bearing of heraldic blazons. Lineage became more important than the technicalites of knighthood.

The association of knightly service with nobility diminished as soldiering became more professional, and 'gentility' came to be associated with the owning of land, to which the honorific of 'esquire' was transferred. Whence the term 'landed gentry' and the reference to the local landowner as 'squire.'

'Gentleman' and 'esquire' were not ranks as such, but were a mark of those who were part of 'polite society.' This world was permeable but only after three generations might one be accepted as 'belonging.' Sufficient money and knowing the codes of behaviour were key ingredients, although having the social standing to run up immense debts was also useful. Land, while still a source of income and status (and credit), became less important, and to be a gentleman of independent means was enough, e.g. Mr Bennet.

For the officer of humble origins, it was usually enough to live more or less within one's means, behave discreetly and earn respect by doing your job well. Being on campaign was a generally great leveller. One difficulty, however, was that many soldiers preferred to be commanded by 'gentlemen' and might resent taking orders from a former ranker, which is why it was usual for men to be commissioned into other regiments.

Mark Urban has much to say on this topic in 'Rifles,' his book about the 2nd Bn, 95th in the Peninsula.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP13 Nov 2017 3:31 p.m. PST

Gentleman' and 'esquire' were not ranks as such, but were a mark of those who were part of 'polite society.'

Actually, 'gentleman' was a rank or position conferred by the King in the 13th and on into the 16th century. It often included land grants.

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