In the 17th and 18th centuries, British officers' ranks were denoted by the amount of lace or other decoration on the dress, and although the crossed sword and baton device of general officers was already in use in 1800, the different grades of general were only distinguished by the grouping of the buttons on their coats until the Crimean War. Badges for field officers (using crowns and stars) were first introduced in 1810, and for captains and subaltern officers in 1855. The badges were then worn on the collar, but were moved to the shoulder cords in 1880 for all officers in full dress, when the system of crowns and stars was reorganised. Captains and below had one fewer star from 1880 until 1902 but otherwise, with one exception, the rank badges introduced in 1880 have remained unchanged to the present day. In addition to the shoulder badges, officers' ranks were also reflected in the amount and pattern of gold lace worn on the cuffs of the full-dress tunic.


General officers:

Field Marshal: Two crossed batons in a wreath, crown above
General: Crossed sword and baton, crown and star above
Lieutenant-General: Crossed sword and baton, crown above
Major-General: Crossed sword and baton, star above
Brigadier-General: Crossed sword and baton

Field officers:
Colonel: Crown above two stars
Lieutenant-Colonel: Crown above one star
Major: Crown

Company officers:
Captain: Three stars
Lieutenant: Two stars
Second Lieutenant: One star

The rank of brigadier-general (actually a temporary appointment conferred on colonels) was replaced in 1920 by that of colonel commandant, renamed brigadier in 1928, and his badge then became a crown over three stars.

The crown was the so-called King's or Imperial pattern, the arches not being dipped in the centre as is the case today with the Queen's pattern crown. The star or 'pip' is that of the Order of the Bath, except that certain regiments -notably the Guards - wore the stars of the Garter or other orders. All officers' badges on service dress were of gilding metal, except for Rifle regiments and the Royal Army Chaplain's Department which used bronze instead. The illustrations above show the insignia of Lieutenant-General, Colonel, Captain and Second Lieutenant.

When service dress was introduced in 1902, a complex system of markings with bars and loops in thin drab braid above the cuff - known irreverently as the asparagus bed - was used at first, but this was replaced in the same year by a combination of narrow rings of worsted braid around the cuff, with the full-dress style shoulder badges on a three-pointed cuff flap. To correspond with the equivalent naval ranks, colonels had four rings of braid, lieutenant-colonels and majors three, captains two and subalterns one. In the case of Scottish regiments, the rings were around the top of the gauntlet-style cuff and the badges on the cuff itself. General officers still wore their badges on the shoulder strap.

During the Great War, some officers took to wearing similar jackets to the men, with the rank badges on the shoulder, as the cuff badges made them too conspicuous to snipers. This practice was frowned on outside the trenches but was given official sanction in 1917 as an optional alternative, being made permanent in 1920, when the cuff badges were abolished.

Non-Commissioned Officers

The familiar chevrons worn by sergeants and corporals date back to 1802. As today, sergeants wore three chevrons, point downwards, on the upper arm, and corporals wore two, with sergeant-majors and quarter-master-sergeants then having four. A few years later, lance-corporals were allowed one chevron, and later in the century the lance-sergeant appeared, also wearing three chevrons. The Royal Artillery had the special rank of bombardier below the corporal, and both he and the acting bombardier wore one chevron. The Royal Engineers and Army Ordnance Corps also had an additional rank of second corporal, who wore one chevron. On full-dress tunics, badges in white or gold lace were worn only on the right arm, but on service dress jackets, badges in worsted embroidery were worn on both arms.

n45a2Three Captains and a Major: The Martin-Leake brothers, 1915. (A. Clayton).

In February 1918 the acting bombardier was renamed lance-bombardier, and the full bombardier gained a second chevron in 1920 when the rank of corporal in the RA was abolished. Second corporals also disappeared at that time.

The pre-war infantry rank of colour-sergeant had generally given way to the ranks of company sergeant-major and quartermaster-sergeant in 1914 when the four-company organisation was introduced. Both of these ranks, their squadron and battery equivalents, and staff-sergeants in other arms, wore three chevrons and a crown, although in 1915 company, battery, squadron and troop sergeant-majors became warrant officers class II (by Army Order 70) and thereafter wore a single large crown, without any chevrons, on each forearm.

Regimental quartermaster-sergeants wore four chevrons on the lower sleeve, point upwards, with a star above, but adopted the crown when they too became warrant officers class II in 1915. In their case, however, the crown was surrounded by a wreath. Regimental sergeant-majors, who before the Boer War had worn four chevrons with a crown, were given in 1902 the badge of a single large crown on the lower arm, but adopted a small version of the Royal arms in its place in 1915 when they were designated warrant officers class I.

There were also certain senior grades of warrant officer, peculiar to the specialist branches, which ranked above regimental sergeant-majors. These were the conductors of the Army Ordnance Corps and the first-class staff sergeant-majors of the Army Service Corps and the Army Pay Corps. They also wore a large crown, surrounded by a wreath, on the lower arm, although in 1918 this was replaced by the Royal Arms within a wreath. The RA also had its Master Gunners in three classes, but these were technical specialists and not normally seen in the field.

The grades of lance-sergeant and lance-corporal were not strictly ranks, but were appointments, held by selected corporals and privates, and usually carrying extra pay. The appointment was made by the man's commanding officer and could be taken away by him for disciplinary reasons, unlike full sergeants and corporals who could only be demoted by order of a court martial. It is only since 1961 that lance-corporal has been a separate rank in its own right, and the appointment of lance-sergeant was discontinued in 1946.

Readers of contemporary Great War material may have been puzzled by the spelling 'serjeant' which is sometimes seen. This was in fact the 'official' spelling, even during and after the Second World War (though not in the RAF), and appeared in such publications as King's Regulations and the Pay Warrant, which defined the various ranks. In common usage the modern spelling 'sergeant' was already more usual, as for instance in the volumes of the Official History which began to appear in the 1920s.
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