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"The Gentleman Soldier" Topic

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Gorgrat06 Sep 2021 7:55 a.m. PST

1. When did this concept come into being, and when did it die out?

Certainly it seems to have been around since the 16th century at least, and still around in some form by the Victorian / La Belle Epoch period, though as armies became more and more structured, it seems to have gradually lost its meaning.

2. What did it mean? This seems to have been a strange development in a lot of ways. The Roman Legionary, the medieval knight, the WWI Tommy all had definite places in the military structure dictate either by birth or contractual arrangement with the government, which either created resulted from, a specific place in society.

The gentleman soldier/ adventurer, however, was very fluid. One day he could be a plowman in Connaught or Normandy. The next, if he somehow found a now-dead gentleman's sword lying in the road, he could go off to join a company (or without the sword he could be Shanghaied into one), and the next day (provided he dodged a few bulletsabd didn't dessert), he was a gentleman, at least in the eyes of other penniless soldiers, townsfolk and possibly even those of slightly higher status who thought he might beat them in a duel

Or so it seems to me.

Gorgrat06 Sep 2021 8:04 a.m. PST

Note. I probably over-crossposted this. My apologies. But hey, we're all gentlemen wargamers. It's not like we ever whine about trivialities 😉

4DJones06 Sep 2021 8:11 a.m. PST

The nineteenth century British public (i.e. private) school system was geared to producing gentlemen as their end product. One might go on to join the Army and would then become an "Officer and a Gentleman" . Another, for various reasons, might end up as a "Gentleman Ranker" (see Kipling). If one went on to university, one would become a "Gentleman and a Scholar".

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP06 Sep 2021 9:23 a.m. PST

A ploughman with a sword might be a soldier, but possession of a sword does not make him a gentleman.

arthur181506 Sep 2021 11:02 a.m. PST

During the Napoleonic Wars some young men of respectable families who could not afford to purchase commissions were accepted into British infantry regiments by the commanding officers as 'volunteers', who fought in the ranks but had not legally enlisted, on the understanding that they would obtain a commission without purchase if they distinguished themselves and a suitable vacancy due to death in action occurred.

See 'A Gentleman Volunteer. The Letters of George Hennell from the Peninsular War, 1812 – 1813' edited by Michael Glover, William Heinemann, 1979.

Such men are to be distinguished from 'gentlemen rankers' – men of superior birth and education who enlisted as private soldiers to escape scandal, debt, the law and other misfortunes. 'Beau' Geste and his brothers in the famous story of the FFL by P.C. Wren were such.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP06 Sep 2021 11:26 a.m. PST

Agree with 79th PA.
This is largely an Anglosphere thing. On the Continent, down to at least the French Rev and in some places substantially later, officers were to be noblemen, though the point was frequently stretched for grubby and mechanical regiments like jaegers, engineers and artillery. And just as all officers should be noblemen, all noblemen should be officers. To have another profession--in fact to have a profession--was, largely, seen as degrading. (Read The Theory of the Leisure Class for exceptions. Those ploughmen in Connaught and Normandy are probably poor nobility working their own fields, which was allowed. In fact, in Brittany, petty noblemen worked their own fields wearing swords to make it clear they weren't peasants.)

Of course, having a commission made one--not exactly a nobleman, but something close. A little plunder, the right marriage and a faked family tree could get you across the line. See Steuben, who was not born von Steuben.

But in Britain, the nobility were quite limited, and the usual standard was that an officer be a gentleman--not as flexible a term in the 18th Century as it is today, but even then, there was some wiggle room without actual falsification of family trees.

And this led to the concept of a gentleman who was not an officer, and in military terms this goes three ways. There is the "gentleman ranker" of Kipling's poem who has the breeding of an officer, but serves in the ranks--largely because he can't afford to do otherwise--and there is the "Gentleman Volunteer" (1) who has the social status to be an officer, and may be carrying out the functions of an officer in some crisis--say the Indian Mutiny--but has no commission, or who (2) is serving in the ranks waiting for an opening as a commissioned officer but is dining in the officer's mess. This last type--the prospective officer--is pretty much gone. I was darn near a gentleman ranker myself, but the concept has pretty much faded away.

As for the gentleman volunteer in the sense of an officer class civilian picked up in a crisis, that may be with us yet. A near contemporary of mine told me he was serving as a civilian in an unsettled area, and the nearest unit had made arrangements to pick him up and add him to their strength as a gentleman volunteer if things went south. So the last time I know that anyone checked, the concept was still allowed for in US Army regulations. Has anyone looked lately?

Gorgrat06 Sep 2021 11:46 a.m. PST

This is a little more Anglo centric and Napoleonic than I had hoped.

D'artagnan, though not precisely historical, was certainly someone who fit the mold I describe, as did those who obtained field commissions or through the service of great men.

Also, the Napoleonic period was by no means the beginning of this.

Murvihill06 Sep 2021 12:05 p.m. PST

IIRC 10% of the French officer corps in the 18th century were not nobles, so it isn't a universal. Not pertinent to the discussion at hand but 'up from the ranks' was possible in other places besides the UK.

42flanker06 Sep 2021 12:55 p.m. PST

By the C18th, a gentleman in 'Anglocentric' terms, was someone did not have to work for a living. He was possessed of land and/or capital which enabled him to live off the labour of others.

In earlier centuries, the term 'gentle' (from the Latin 'gens' via the French) did not refer to having good manners but being someone of good family, known descent or acknowledged lineage, while not being enobled per se; hence the courtesy term of address 'Esquire' afforded to members of the 'gentry'

To be honest, I am not entirely sure what you are referring to in referring to the gentleman soldier. Rank hierarchies were rudimentary in the C16th. Rank titles now familiar as general categories, were restricted to specific jobs. To put it crudely: a Colonel commanded a regiment; the Captain a company. an Ensign carried the colour, etc. And then there were the rest. Plainly, if you didn't hold an office, you weren't an officer. As an individual, you defended your honour and pretensions to dignity with your sword.

To return to the 'Anglo-sphere' a moment, my forbear was the son of an exciseman, a government officer who also ran a nursery business with his father and other family members. Having been orphaned, aged 16 he unsuccessfully ran away to join the 15th King's Light Dragoons. Seven years later, under circumstances that are not clear he was sailing across the Atlantic as a Volunteer with a battalion of the 71st Highland regiment, commanded by the former CO of the 15th KLD, Col. Sir William Erskine. My forebear was a Volunteer but evidently not a gentleman.

Clearly, though, he was a likely lad. In America he was soon appointed battalion quartermaster in the 71st and a year later was commissioned Ensign and joined the Quartermaster General's department in which he served for the rest of the war, in Philadelphia, New York and Charleston, where ee was mentioned in dispatches after Hobkirk's Hill in 1781.

Promoted Lieutenant in 1778 and Captain on his return to England in 1783, he then took half pay, married his sweetheart and retired to a farm in Scotland, let to him at a token rent by his patron, as we must assume, Sir Wm Erskine. A hero of the war and a pillar of the local community, respected farmer, founder captain of the new golfing society he may have been but the gallant Captain was, however, still not 'gentry.'

My point being,the 'officer class' in the army was more permeable at an earlier date than sometimes is allowed for, but that had limited bearing on the more rigid class hierarchies outside in the civilian world which were not impermeable but mighttake generations to infiltrate.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP06 Sep 2021 1:17 p.m. PST

Gorgat, surely you noticed that the name IS d'Artagnan? That d' denotes noble birth. Nothing at all exceptionable about a nobleman serving in the ranks in the King's Musketeers, or about receiving a commission subsequently. If someone had commissioned a lackey, that would be different. Oh. and d'Artagnon is very much historical.

Murvihill, that 10% sounds about right without checking--artillery, engineers, light infantry and a smattering of old enlisteds made subaltern officers for heroism--or after twenty years' service or so. (Notice how the just barely noble "di" Buonaparte got commissioned in the artillery, while the noblesse de la epee d'Avout starts out in the cavalry, and the Royal Champagne at that.) The Spanish pattern was very similar.

But the real path to higher social status wasn't eventually making ensign in middle age, but making serious money, buying a country estate and living like a gentleman. My old pre-Revolutionary French History professor said the records were full of complaints of non-noble families trying to ease themselves across the line like that. Faked family trees were a frequent aid.

Gorgrat06 Sep 2021 1:37 p.m. PST


I think very pertinent to the discussion at hand. Thanks for that, and do you have a source?

42 Flanker

I think you touch on it when you refer to the 16th century rank hierarchy as rudimentary. Maybe that's a big part of the issue. Certainly sergeant, lieutenant, captain and general were used in the middle ages, though they meant, in most cases, something different than we think of today.

Timbo W06 Sep 2021 2:35 p.m. PST

To add some 17th century terms. There were reformados, who were officers who had no command, usually their troops had deserted or they failed to raise enough for a company. The reformados often formed a troop of horse attached to a particular general.

There were also 'elite' units like the French Mousquetiers du Roi made up of junior nobility etc who didn't yet have the money/fame/experience to gain a commission, but were a useful pool of officer material if needed. The King's Lifeguard and Essex's Lifeguard seem to have begun like this in the ECW.

In some regiments thre were 'Gentlemen at Arms' who Brigadier Young reckoned oversaw the armaments but it seems far more likely to me that they were predecessors of the Napoleonic Gentlemen Volunteers.

To add a little confusion, the term 'officer' included NCOs in the 17th century, so corporals, sergeants etc. But they were not commissioned, thus NCO. Often in strength returns you find x officers and y soldiers, but officers includes the NCOs.

Woollygooseuk06 Sep 2021 2:46 p.m. PST

I think d'Artagnon is actually a rather good example of the concept, but also of how different C17 concepts of status and wealth were. d'Artagnon is a Gascon nobleman, and by implication from a relatively impoverished family. As such he's regarded as rather provincial and is clearly touchy about it – hence the series of duels (or at least challenges) that introduce us to his future comrades. The story ends with d'Artagnon becoming a Musketeer which, though it isn't explicitly stated in the book IIRC, means his noble status is recognised. This is because the Musketeers were part of the King's Household and, in theory at least, all the officers and 'men' were noblemen. I also seem to remember that the Musketeers were used as a sort of informal training unit for the army's officer corps, but I could be wrong about that.

Personal logo ColCampbell Supporting Member of TMP06 Sep 2021 6:27 p.m. PST

And to bring all this into the American 20th Century, when I was commissioned in the US Army in the early 1970s, I was, by Act of Congress (the commissioning act), an officer and a gentleman. grin


Korvessa06 Sep 2021 7:27 p.m. PST

My brother, a Junior NCO in the early seventies, used to say he was a gentleman by choice not by act of Congress

42flanker06 Sep 2021 8:27 p.m. PST

And then there is the NCO's standard rebuke:
"Don't call me 'Sir.' I work for a living"

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP07 Sep 2021 3:39 a.m. PST

The Brits used to refer to wartime commissions as "temporary gentlemen."

Personal logo Der Alte Fritz Sponsoring Member of TMP07 Sep 2021 7:23 a.m. PST

A bullet or cannon ball makes no distinction between a gentleman or a non-gentleman. As Raphael Sabatini said, "the world is no place for a gentleman."

Murvihill07 Sep 2021 8:12 a.m. PST


I think very pertinent to the discussion at hand. Thanks for that, and do you have a source?"

Sorry, no. IIRC I read it in college in ~'85. I did a comparison of three armies in Europe in the 18th century.

dibble07 Sep 2021 11:54 a.m. PST

John Tyson07 Sep 2021 2:27 p.m. PST

There was a time in the U.S. Army when Gentleman soldier didn't only apply to the men.

Several years ago, I saw a U.S. Army invitation to a unit function for all the soldiers and their wives. As I recall, the invitation was from the 1930's.

The invitation began:
"The Officers and their ladies, the Non-commissioned officers and their wives, and the Enlisted men and their women, are invited to…"

Gorgrat07 Sep 2021 5:13 p.m. PST

Interesting way to phrase things. Enlisted me evidently just rut like swine with anything female.

Not surprising, considering the period.

79thPA Supporting Member of TMP08 Sep 2021 6:40 a.m. PST

John, I've seen that quote associated with Nelson's navy.

arthur181508 Sep 2021 8:39 a.m. PST

And with the British Army in the 19th century.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP08 Sep 2021 4:10 p.m. PST

As I recall the Indian Wars version was just "officers and their wives, enlisted men and their women"--no special status for the NCOs.

Gorgrat, there were times I saw the point, and I was an NCO. First time I PCS'd to Korea the Chaplain's Office had a briefing on the yobo system--including starting costs and monthly maintenance. "Tell my yobo no can do: got no room on the plane for you."

(And I will not discuss the wild boar which ran with the PT formation.)

Noble participles and continental armies. It's been a long time, but I think "The French Army in the Seven Years War" had the French numbers, and either Shanahan or Paret--that is, either "Prussian Military Reforms" or "Yorck and the Era of Prussian Military Reform" had the Prussian ones.

oldjarhead08 Sep 2021 4:29 p.m. PST

When, as a Sergeant in The Corps, I was informed by rather pompous 2nd Lt that he was "an office and a gentleman", replied that it had tken an act of congress to make him a gentleman, but I had been born that way. He was not amused.

robert piepenbrink Supporting Member of TMP09 Sep 2021 3:44 p.m. PST

I'll match that oldjarhead. Once in the 101st Airborne (AA) I was asked whether "old time" British cavalry officers had been so stupid they'd had to be awarded extra points on the exam for staff school. With a completely straight face, I asked "would that be anything like the promotion points awarded for jump school, Sir?"

30+ years now, but I still treasure that moment.

MikeTJ11 Sep 2021 6:47 a.m. PST

Somewhere, I have a book, written by someone at the Siege of Malta in 1565. He talks about the "Gentleman Adventurer's"
that came to help the Maltese/Knights of the Hospital.

Gorgrat11 Sep 2021 11:16 a.m. PST

Robert pieperpunk


Reminds me of all the old jokes.

"Only two things fall out of the sky. Bird crap and fools."😉

Personal logo John the OFM Supporting Member of TMP11 Sep 2021 10:26 p.m. PST

He drilled her up in a sentry box
Wrapped up in a soldier's cloak
YouTube link

Murvihill12 Sep 2021 7:51 a.m. PST

?Jumping out of a perfectly good aircraft is not a natural act."

Gorgrat12 Sep 2021 11:34 a.m. PST

I think this is one of the reasons I enjoy the French Foreign Legion so much. They are kind of the last echo of this.

Granted, they are drunks rascals of every stripe and hardened killers, but ther are always noble idiots like Beau, John and Digby to boot 😉

Puster Sponsoring Member of TMP01 Oct 2021 1:37 a.m. PST

Somewhere, I have a book, written by someone at the Siege of Malta in 1565.

Probably the version by Ernle Bradford. Quite a good read.

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP03 Oct 2021 10:37 a.m. PST

1. When did this concept come into being, and when did it die out?

Certainly it seems to have been around since the 16th century at least, and still around in some form by the Victorian / La Belle Epoch period, though as armies became more and more structured, it seems to have gradually lost its meaning.

2. What did it mean? This seems to have been a strange development in a lot of ways.

First of all, the label 'gentleman' began as a title of nobility:

The rank of gentleman became a distinct title with the statute of Additions in 1413 and remained so into the Regency/Napoleonic period. This title was given to a man of high rank or birth, with wealth and inherited land, though there were exceptions. At the time, along with the land, being a 'gentleman' was an inherited title.

In the beginning, chivalric behavior was simply something expected of anyone holding the rank of gentleman or above. William Harrison writing in the late 1500s, noted,

"Gentlemen be those whom their race and blood, or at the least their virtues, [accomplishments/achieving glory] do make noble and known."

Even this early, a growing middle class sought entry into the upper classes with their new wealth, not surprisingly, at this lowest rung of nobility. In 1614, John Selden, author of Titles of Honor voiced a growing concern with ‘created' gentlemen:

"…that no Charter can make a Gentleman, which is cited as out of the mouth of some great Princes that have said it." He adds that "they without question understood Gentleman for Generosus in the ancient sense, or as if it came from Genii/is in that sense, as Gentilis denotes one of a noble Family, or indeed for a Gentleman by birth." For "no creation could make a man of another blood more than he is."

The feudal creation of chivalric knighthood, of sensitive, ‘genteel' behavior on the part of warriors grew to be seen as evidence of ‘good breeding', a visible distinction setting the upper classes apart from the lower classes--i.e. Gentlemanly behavior.

From 1500 to the 1790s, British officers were drawn from the upper classes, all of whom were of the gentry, enjoying the social rank 'gentlemen' or higher.
Because of that, being an officer also meant being a 'gentleman.' The idea of being a gentleman by birth and social rank vs being a gentleman in behavior had become an issue, particularly for all those of the middle class who aspired to become gentlemen. One way to climb the social ladder was by becoming an officer. Winning a title or lands was possible. This tension between inherited titles and 'becoming' a gentleman, acting like a gentleman is one of the central themes of Pride and Prejudice. During Darcy's proposal, he outlines his rank and social status as being threatened by Elizabeth's lower social rank. Elizabeth rejects him because of his 'ungentlemanly' behavior.

However, those of the wealthy middle class were buying land and settling down as a 'gentleman' and buying commissions for their sons so they too could move in the ranks of gentleman officers. [Gentlemen and the rest of the nobility didn't work in trade, but lived off their lands] These newly noble gentlemen were looked down upon even as this path into the gentry remained open. The Napoleonic wars was a great help to these upwardly mobile middle class families.

Thus, during the Napoleonic wars, many enlisted soldiers dreamed of winning 'glory' and become 'gentlemen' as a social rank, even as the notion of gentleman was becoming more a set of chivalric behaviors than a inherited noble rank as the rank was claimed by so many from the middle class.

The idea of a soldier from the lower classes becoming an officer, AND thus a gentleman, was possible [about 5% of officers were from the ranks of the enlisted].

The song that John OFM linked is a sarcastic observation on that possible social mobility.

As the lines between the inherited social rank of gentleman and the middle classes buying their way into the

Personal logo McLaddie Supporting Member of TMP04 Oct 2021 10:09 a.m. PST

The last line was cut off for some reason. It should read:

As the lines between the inherited social rank of gentleman and the middle classes buying their way into the upper class blurred, the notion of gentleman morphed from a title for landed gentry to one of behaviors in the chivalric tradition.

Thus the 'Gentleman soldier' was someone who might win the position of gentleman by becoming an officer, but BE a gentleman by demonstrating the appropriate social behaviors. That is what is behind the sarcasm of such terms as 'Gentleman Adventurers', ex-officers and fortune-hunters seeking elevation to recognized gentleman-hood, usually in the British colonies.

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