Untangling British Army Ranks

Officers of the 22nd Regiment of Foot. (Paintings by Craig A. Schermer after originals)

After a few years of editing articles for this journal, it’s become apparent that the ranks of British officers sometimes confuse people. By “sometimes” I mean “often.” And not without reason. Although titles like colonel and captain are familiar to us all, the roles associated with these ranks, and the fact that an individual could have more than one rank, lead many a writer astray. So here’s a primer that should help sort things out.

The British army that served in American during the Revolution was composed primarily of infantry regiments. The full, or established, strength of infantry regiments varied during the course of the war, and actual strength was almost invariably different from the established strength, but a good rule of thumb is to think of a regiment as consisting of about 500 soldiers. There were exceptions, but this is a good overall guideline. Regiments were typically divided into ten companies of equal size. In most regiments, each company had three officers, and the regiment also had five staff officers; this sounds simple enough, but there were a number of nuances.

In general, each company was commanded by a captain. Three of the company commanders, however, also held higher ranks in the regiment: the colonel, the lieutenant-colonel, and the major. These three officers were collectively called field officers. So a regiment of ten companies had three field officers and seven captains, each commanding one company. On regimental muster rolls we sometimes see the field officers referred to as, for example, “Major and Captain,” but in common parlance only the senior of the two ranks was used. Companies were generally referred to by the name of the commanding officer, for example, “Captain Handfield’s company” or “Lt. Col. Campbell’s company”, but the field officers’ companies might be referred to only by the rank since there was only one of each field officer, for example, the major’s company.

The next company officer was the lieutenant. This was true in all companies but one. The colonel’s company had a specialized rank called captain-lieutenant. Although the colonel was the commander of the regiment, he usually also held other roles (more on that later), so he was seldom present with the regiment. This meant that the next officer of this company, normally a lieutenant, was almost invariably in sole charge of the company. To acknowledge this, his rank was called captain-lieutenant. For a long time this rank had the authority of a captain but the pay of a lieutenant, but in the early 1770s it had been declared equal to captain. It nonetheless retained the title of captain-lieutenant, and there was only one officer of this rank in a regiment. The colonel’s company was always referred to by the name of the colonel, rather than of the captain-lieutenant.

The third officer in most companies was an ensign, the lowest-ranking commissioned officer in the army. Eight of the regiment’s companies had ensigns, but a few regiments used a different name for this rank. The Royal Artillery used the term 2nd Lieutenant instead of Ensign. Three infantry regiments, the 7th, 21st and 23rd, had originally been created as fusilier regiments with the role of protecting the artillery. By the time of the American Revolution these regiments were functionally identical to other infantry regiments, but they retained the honorific of Fusiliers (spelled a variety of ways during the period) and maintained the tradition of calling their youngest officers 2nd lieutenants instead of ensigns. There was no difference in these ranks other than the name. Cavalry regiments used yet another name, cornet; same rank, different name.

Because fusilier regiments had the rank of 2nd lieutenant, the senior lieutenant in each of their companies was sometimes called a 1st lieutenant. But “1st lieutenant” and “lieutenant” were identical ranks, even though the terminology was slightly different. Most companies in an infantry regiment, therefore, contained a captain, a lieutenant and an ensign, whereas most companies in the 7th, 21st and 23rd regiments contained a captain, a 1st lieutenant and a 2nd lieutenant. Functionally they were the same even though the names of the ranks were different.

Two companies in each regiment were composed only of experienced men fit for especially active campaigning: the grenadier company and the light infantry company, collectively called flank companies. Called upon to be at the forefront in battle, these companies were no place for inexperienced officers. Instead of having ensigns, each of these companies had another lieutenant; in other words, a flank company had a captain and two lieutenants instead of a captain, a lieutenant and an ensign. The flank company lieutenants were not differentiated by “1st” and “2nd,” though; they were both simply lieutenants, even in a fusilier regiment.

To summarize, infantry regiments typically had thirty company officers, nominally distributed among their ten companies like this:

Colonel’s Company:
Colonel (seldom present), Captain-Lieutenant, Ensign

Lieutenant-Colonel’s Company:
Lieutenant-Colonel, Lieutenant, Ensign

Major’s Company:
Major, Lieutenant, Ensign

Grenadier Company:
Captain, two Lieutenants

Light Infantry Company:
Captain, two Lieutenants

Captains’ Companies (5):
Captain, Lieutenant, Ensign

A few regiments were structured differently, with four officers per company, but that was rare enough that we’ll leave it out of this discussion.

Besides the company officers, regiments had an adjutant, a quarter master, a surgeon, a surgeon’s mate, and a chaplain. The latter three were highly specialized and were normally filled by men explicitly trained in their disciplines (British regimental chaplains seldom accompanied their regiments on overseas service, but that’s another story). The offices of adjutant and quarter master, on the other hand, were usually held by the same type of men as company officers, but with some nuances.

Before the American Revolution began, the adjutancy was usually held by one of the regiment’s lieutenants – one man filling two roles in the regiment. Less often, this was also true of the quarter master. While the war was in progress, it became common practice to promote deserving sergeants to the adjutancy and quarter master roles.

That completes the suite of regimental officers, but only lays the groundwork for the confusing aspects of ranks and positions in the British army during the American Revolution. The army needed a host of officers to fill all sorts of wartime posts: brigadier generals, aides-de-camp, deputy judge advocates, adjutant generals, quartermaster generals, brigade majors, and so forth. Almost all of these posts were filled by regimental company officers, detached from their regiments, leaving fewer officers behind to manage each regiment’s affairs.

General officers provide the best example, because their case was typical of peace as well as war. Most regimental colonels were also general officers, and as such usually had little time for direct management of their regiments. Lt. Gen. Thomas Gage was appointed colonel of the 22nd Regiment of Foot in 1763, retained that rank throughout his service as commander in chief of British forces in America, and continued it thereafter; one man with more than one rank, general and colonel. William Howe was colonel of the 23rd Regiment of Foot in addition to being a major general, then a lieutenant general; John Burgoyne was colonel of the 16th Light Dragoons; Sir Henry Clinton was colonel of the 12th Regiment of Foot; Charles Cornwallis was colonel of the 33rd Regiment of Foot, and so on.

The rank of brigadier general, sometimes called just brigadier, was a temporary rank authorized only in wartime. For wartime operations, regiments were grouped into brigades, with each brigade consisting usually of two to four regiments. The brigade was commanded by a brigadier, who held the rank only in the theater of operations and only for the duration of the conflict. Most British brigadiers in America were regimental colonels or lieutenant colonels – mostly the latter, because colonels were usually also already more senior generals. A few examples in America were Brigadier General Francis Smith, who was lieutenant colonel of the 10th Regiment of Foot; Brigadier General James Agnew, who was the lieutenant colonel of the 44th Regiment of Foot; and Brigadier General Simon Fraser, lieutenant colonel of the 24th Regiment of Foot.

To handle administrative and other duties of a brigade, another staff officer was required, called the extra major of brigade. One of these men was appointed for each brigade, and the man who held the rank was usually a regimental company captain, not necessarily from a regiment in the brigade. The appointment was temporary, for the duration of the brigade’s existence, but the officer who held it was entitled to be addressed as major while he held the appointment. An example was the famous diarist Frederick Mackenzie, a captain in the 23rd Regiment of Foot; from 1776 through 1779 he served as extra major of brigade in a brigade consisting of the 22nd, 43rd, and 54th Regiments (for some periods it also included the 38th and 63rd Regiments) commanded by Brigadier General Francis Smith. Although Mackeznie’s regimental rank was captain, he was Major Mackenzie to the troops in his brigade.

This was the case with many British staff officers. When John Andre was caught and charged with spying, he was adjutant general to the British army in New York, but he was also a company captain in the 54th Regiment of Foot. So why was he called Major Andre? We’ll get to that …

Another temporary wartime formation was a battalion. This terminology is particularly confusing because the term battalion is used for several similar, but distinctly different, organizations. We noted above that British infantry regiments were composed of ten companies, including two flank companies. When the two flank companies were detached (more on that later), the remaining eight companies were referred to as the battalion (today we often call the individual companies battalion companies, but that phrase doesn’t appear often during the American Revolution). Sometimes the entire regiment, including the flank companies, was called a battalion. A few regiments were twice the size of other regiments; a noteworthy example was the 71st Regiment of Foot, Fraser’s Highlanders. Instead of having ten companies, the 71st had twenty, with two of every officer except the colonel. The 71st Regiment was divided into two battalions, called the 1st Battalion 71st Regiment and 2nd Battalion 71st Regiment. Decades after the American Revolution this structure became quite common, but in America only a very few regiments were organized in this manner.

For this discussion of British ranks, however, the interesting battalions were the flank battalions. During the war in America, the specialized grenadier and light infantry companies were detached from their regiments and formed together into grenadier battalions and light infantry battalions. Being composed of companies, these battalions operated very much like regiments. Battalions were raised and disbanded during the war as needed, and the composition of a given battalion might change, but the flank battalions usually contained eight to twelve companies. In places where there were only a few flank companies, such as Rhode Island in 1778, a single flank battalion might be formed consisting of both grenadier and light infantry companies (Rhode Island had only two companies each from the 38th and 54th Regiments, formed into one small battalion).

Flank battalions needed commanders, so a regimental lieutenant colonel or major was appointed to that role. This officer retained his current rank, but was detached from his regiment to command the flank battalion. A major or captain was appointed as second in command.

The upshot of all these brigade, battalion and staff appointments was that many British infantry regiments suffered from a shortage of officers. For the most part there were men appointed to each position in the regiment, but many of those men were detached on some other duty. Take, for example, the 22nd Regiment of Foot in late 1780. The eight companies that formed the battalion of the regiment (since the two flank companies were detached) should have included twenty-four officers (three per company). But due to staff assignments and other causes, only fifteen were actually present, not even two per company, to handle the regiment’s day-to-day activities.

There’s more. As in many professions, career advancement was important and sometimes competitive. There were only so many regimental officer positions available, and once a man reached the rank of captain, the path upwards became quite narrow; remember that regiment had seven captains but only one major, so there was a lot of competition for that next step in rank (officers often changed regiments, but in the entire army the proportion of captains to majors was roughly the same as within an individual regiment). To accommodate deserving officers in this competitive environment, the War Office sometimes bestowed a brevet rank, that is, a rank in the army even though there was no opening in a regiment. For this reason, an officer could have an army rank of major but a regimental rank of captain. Such an officer was addressed as Major, but performed the function of a company captain – he was a major in a regiment, but not the regiment’s major. There were also lieutenant-colonels and colonels in this situation, holding an army rank that was above their regimental rank. Remember Major Andre? He was a captain in the 54th Regiment, but a major in the army, and he served in the role of deputy adjutant general.

As if there weren’t already enough special cases, a large detachment of the Foot Guards served in America. The Foot Guards were household troops, administered differently than the rest of the army; each of the three regiments of Foot Guards was considerably larger than a regular army infantry regiment. For service in America, volunteers from each of the three Foot Guards regiments were formed into a brigade consisting of two battalions, each with five companies. Following a long-standing tradition, some officers in the Foot Guards held army ranks that were higher than their regimental ranks; Foot Guards captains were lieutenant-colonels in the army, and Foot Guards lieutenants were majors in the army. In the Brigade of Guards, then, companies were commanded by officers addressed as lieutenant-colonel, reflecting their army rank.

All of the information above applies to infantry regiments of the British regular army, unless otherwise specified. Cavalry regiments were similar in terms of officer ranks, except that they had cornets instead of ensigns, and most cavalry regiments were organized into six troops instead of ten companies (the term “troop” described a component of a cavalry regiment, while “troops” was the general term for a quantity of soldiers). The Royal Artillery, Engineers, and Marines used the same titles for ranks, but were organized differently than the infantry. Loyalist regiments generally included the same ranks as British regular regiments and the same caveats of staff positions, battalions and what have you. American regiments were organized in a variety of ways, depending upon the year and the state that raised them, so the number of companies and the number of officers in each company varied. The German, French and Spanish armies followed their own practices.

What does it all mean? It means that rank can be a confusing thing, and that an officer’s rank alone often didn’t describe his role. As if this weren’t confusing enough, there was no way to distinguish a British regimental officer’s rank by looking at his uniform. But that’s another story.

For further reading:

  • J. A. Houlding, Fit for Service: The Training of the British Army 1715-1795. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1981.
  • Edward R. Curtis, The British Army in the American Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1926.
  • Steven M. Baule and Stephen Gilbert, British Army Officers Who Served in the American Revolution. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 2004.

 

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22 Comments

  • Wow! Don, I feel like I just tired to digest an advanced calculus class. I cannot image the amount of research and effort needed to be able to make this explanation.
    I would ask you to consider a similar article on the NCO situation in the British forces during the Revolution. We know one of the American tactics was to disable the British officers in combat, and we know that the Company NCOs have always been a key component in the battle firmness of combat units. So, a better understanding of the numbers and duties of the NCOs would seem a very useful educational tool.
    While outside my area of research, I would also wonder how the dependent of British forces on NCOs, after officers became inactive, affected the outcome of various battles.

  • Thanks, Ken. Having studied a bunch of advance calculus, I can assure you that it’s much more deterministic than the British military system was.
    I actually left a few things out to keep it simple, like the Additional Companies created during the war so that regiments in America could continue recruiting, and half-pay officers.
    I didn’t include notes because there just are single, concise sources for most of this information. It’s assimilated from many years of working with primary sources – regimental muster rolls, strength returns, orderly books, writings by officers including their petitions for promotion, and a myriad of related material. It’s no surprise that it’s hard to puzzle things out, when the bits and pieces are scattered all over.
    As for the non-commissioned officers, the fundamentals are not difficult to explain; maybe I’ll take that on. Some aspects are covered in my book British Soldiers, American War (Westholme, 2012), and I’m working on the magnum opus about British soldiers in America that will go deeply into the career paths of soldiers and the many roles and situations of NCOs. But their actual role on the battlefield is not so easy to quantify, because very few people wrote down such details about their experiences in battle. We know what the training materials and orders said, but not so much about what happened in practice. With only a few explicit descriptions, we don’t know whether those descriptions are typical or unusual, an issue I always try to get around by amassing as much data as possible.
    But I’ll see what I can do….

  • Excellent exposition Don! Not to be demanding, or anything, but it would be great to see something similar for the German forces serving in North America. Is it true that the infantry regiments were organized administratively in companies but deployed for combat in platoons?

    • German (and Loyalist, American, French and Spanish) regiments are outside of my scope, Ron; I study only the British regulars. I hope others will prepare articles on the ranks and regimental structures of other nations and establishments.

  • It is also well to remember that when an officers brevet rank was higher than his regimental he would wear the insignia of the higher rank and be referred to by that title.

    • Being referred to by the highest rank is mentioned in the article. Insignia is a trickier issue, however, because within British regiments there was no insignia to designate specific officer ranks. All officers, regardless of rank, wore the same uniform. The flank (grenadier and light infantry) company officers had some differences from the other company officers, but those distinctions were specific to the company, not the rank.
      So if your company captain was a brevet major, you did indeed call him major, but you couldn’t discern his rank by looking at his uniform.
      General officers and staff officers are a different story, but I deliberately stayed away from uniforms in this article.

  • Excellent! This can be very confusing to the new historian- the part about uniform distinction always gives me a headache! Great stuff!

  • The world just became a bit brighter by the mental bulbs you lit up with that article, Don.

    I received my introduction to eighteenth-century rank configurations while doing very early research into Whitcomb’s Rangers. Benjamin Whitcomb shot brigadier-general Patrick Gordon who also happened to be lieutenant-colonel of the 29th Regiment. A couple weeks later Whitcomb captured an nco and ensign Alexander Saunders who also served as quarter-master of the 29th. I encountered mentions of both officers in both roles and it took me a bit to grasp the duality of that administrative structure.

  • By the way, Don–interesting that at least one if not both of the illustrations are of the 22d. Might there be a little favoritism there?

  • Nice summary! An additional complexity is introduced by the practice of augmenting regiments during wartime. John Williamson, The Elements of Military Arrangement: Comprehending the Manual Exercise and Discipline of the British Infantry (London, For the Author, 1781) Section 1, Pg. 6-7 presents a chart which shows the number of commissioned and non-commissioned officers at four levels of establishment: Peace Time Establishment (300 R&F); Medium Establishment (500 R&F); War Time Establishment (700 R&F) and Augmented War Time Establishment (1,000 R&F). The difference in officer staffing between these establishments, according to Williamson, is confined to the non-commissioned officers in the first three, adding one Sergeant and one drummer to each company for establishments above the peace time level. For the Augmented War Time Establishment, Williamson indicated that an another Lieutenant was to be added to each company, giving each Battalion company a Captain, two Lieutenants, one Ensign, 3 Sergeants and two Drummers.

  • Oh, Norm, be careful about confusing the issue! I deliberately stayed away from the non-commissioned officers and rank & file for this article. Williamson oversimplifies things a bit, and the terminology he uses was not common or codified; in fact, it seems like Williamson was trying to codify things that were not as rigorously defined as he makes it sound.

    The establishment of (most) British infantry regiments in the years immediately before the American Revolution was 360 R&F (or 380 if you consider nuances that I won’t get into here). After war broke out, regiments in American were “augmented” (the term the War Office used) to 560 R&F, plus an additional sergeant and drummer in each company – so the regiments were “augmented” to what Williamson calls the “medium” establishment (and recruiting organizations called Additional Companies were also added, but that’s another story). In 1778 the regiments were augmented again to 700 R&F, which Williamson calls “war time” establishment. Many of the new regiments that were raised during the war, a few of which were sent to America, were established with 1000 R&F and four officers per company, Williamson’s “augmented war time” establishment – but no regiment that already existed was augmented to that size.

    In short: regiments that existed in the early 1770s, and served in America, were augmented twice during the war, but never to the size that Williamson calls “augmented.” None of the War Office correspondence, orders or other documents associated with these changes in regimental establishment use the terminology that Williamson uses, and actual numbers only approximate those given by Williamson. So even though Williamson was there when it was happening, his numbers and terminology don’t accurately reflect common practice.

  • Thank you! Once again you have expanded and deepened my knowledge of the 18th century British army and how it functioned. As usual, the deeper one digs, the more challenging and complex things get.

  • I wish I had access to this type of article about six years ago. It would have saved me from all the mistakes I’ve had in my own assumptions and writings.

    Thank you for another amazing article Don!

  • A brilliant article, and remarkably helpful. As someone currently writing a piece of fiction set at the beginning of the Seven Years War, this has helped make sense of the odd web of titles to be found among historical figures of the era. Thank you so very much.

  • Mr Hagist, a huge ‘Huzza’ to you (however it’s pronounced) from England for that exposition. It’s a hard thing to make the complicated comprehensible (well, as comprehensible as it can ever be), and I particularly thank you for having the courage to keep it as complicated as it needed to be – over-simplification in the name of ‘accessibility’ is the curse of the internet, and in this case would have made it a much less valuable achievement.

    I am an art historian specializing in portraits who has often struggled to get to grips with officers’ ranks in the C18th (and C19th) British Army. I can honestly say that I’ve understood more from 20 minutes’ reading and re-reading of your essay than I’ve managed in the previous 20 years. Thank you, too, for your (repeated) warning that in this period regimental officers’ ranks cannot be discerned from uniform.

    (The website address I gave is where I do most of my – pro bono – research, but is not my own.)

    • I’m very glad to hear that this article has been helpful, Osmund. It took a while to recognize the importance of presenting the regimental structure first before getting into the many variations and nuances. I, too, have worked with others from time to time to try to identify the sitters in portraits – often unlabeled or mislabeled. The many militia regiments, independent companies and other organizations can bedevil the best efforts to identify even the regiment, never mind the individual or his rank.

  • Fascinating stuff Don.

    My Great Great Uncle joined the CEF at Camp Niagara in 1915 and was part of the 11th platoon. When shipped over to England he was assigned to the 24th Battalion Victoria Rifles of Canada.

    On a completely unrelated note, do you know how much officers in the British Army serving in New York were paid? I found that soldiers were paid about 8 shillings a day. I am intersted bcause of book I am reading.

    Thanks

    Lorna

    • My apologies for failing to see this question sooner, Lorna.
      The pay rates for British officers were fixed, and differed with each rank; you can find the regulated rates here, about half way down the page: http://www.americanrevolution.org/britisharmy7a.php
      Bear in mind that these are base pay rates; officers got additional pay for additional duties, for example, a regimental officer who served as, say, town major in an occupied town (sort of like a military mayor) got additional pay for this work.

  • Don, great article! What percentage of British officers in the Am Rev had purchased their commissions vice the percentage that were moved up from the ranks?

    what was the average cost of a cornet’s commission in a regular light horse/cavalry line unit?

    and were there three officers in each cavalry troop, like the infantry companies?

    Thanks for being so informative!

    • Glad you enjoyed the article, Al. To answer your questions in reverse order:
      Yes, there were three officers in each cavalry troop; the ranks were just like the infantry, except that the lowest-ranking officer was called a cornet rather than an ensign.
      The regulated price for a cornetcy in a regular cavalry regiment was 1,000 pounds sterling; actual price could vary depending upon the deal made between the buyer and seller, subject to approval by the commanding officer and the War Office.
      As to the first question, it’s not quite stated accurately. About two-thirds of officers obtained their commissions by purchase (which was subject to approval – it wasn’t like anyone who had the cash could buy a commission), while about one third obtained them by “preferment”, that is, without purchase. But “without purchase” did not mean “from the ranks.” It was quite rare for men from the ranks to obtain commissions; by my own preliminary calculations, only about one half of one percent of soldiers rose above the non-commissioned ranks to obtain commissions (based on my study primarily of infantry; there were only two regular cavalry regiments sent to America, so I don’t have enough data to say whether a higher proportion of cavalry men obtained commissions). No more than about five percent of officers came up through the ranks.

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