Created By: Dalillama on December 26, 2013 Last Edited By: Dalillama on June 5, 2014
Troped

Gentlemen Rankers

Someone who is qualified to be an officer but serves in the ranks

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Page Type:
Trope
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha' mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!
Rudyard Kipling, Gentlemen Rankers,

Most armies have particular requirements to be an officer that enlisted men do not have. This is usually aristocratic birth, a college education, or specific training, but there are other possibilities. When someone with these qualities joins, both society and the military expect them to serve as commissioned officers. Sometimes, though, such a person will join as a private soldier and fight in the ranks. The reason for this varies, but will often be some flavor of Dark and Troubled Past, penance for some past crime (self-imposed or otherwise), or simply the result of a fondness for the drink or another vice which brought you low. The gentleman ranker is neither fish nor fowl. He will generally not fit in well with the enlisted troops, due to his refined tastes and aristocratic mannerisms, but officers will be uncomfortable with him, because he is out of place. They are half embarrassed for him and half afraid that whatever brought him to such a state might stain them. Further, he hasn't got the mannerisms of a trooper, and will respond to orders in a subtly different fashion, and they can never escape the idea that he's judging their performance. In order to be this trope, a character must fulfill the following criteria:
  1. Coming from a background (school, social status, et c) where it is expected for him or her to be an officer
  2. Of low rank (E1-E4/5 in US terminology; Private-Sergeant in older terminology, or the naval equivalents.)
  3. Serving or having served there for an extended period (more than a year)
Compare Officer and a Gentleman. Contrast Up Through the Ranks.

Examples

Film
  • The Gentleman Ranker, a 1912 movie about a knight's disowned son who joins the Crusades as a cavalry trooper.
  • The Incredible Hulk: General Ross asks Corporal Emil Blonsky why he never became an officer despite being well into his 30s and overqualified. Blonsky replies that he's "a fighter" by nature. Which, as we clearly see later, basically translates into Ax-Crazy Blood Knight.
  • The eponymous private from Kelly's Heroes used to be a lieutenant, but was scapegoated and broken down to private after half his platoon was wiped out due to incorrect orders from his superiors.
  • The Long Voyage Home (1940), about a merchant marine ship during World War II, features Ian Hunter as Smitty, The Alcoholic with a Dark and Troubled Past. It turns out that Smitty used to be an officer in the Royal Navy before he was kicked out due to his drinking.
  • In Carry On, Sergeant both Terrence Longdon and Kenneth Williams' characters were examples of these, albeit in different ways.
    • Longdon's character coming from a traditional upper class background with the stereotypical easy air of command, to the point he was initially mistaken for an officer candidate when he arrived to start his national service.
    • William's character was a snotty university graduate who spent most of his time sneering at common soldiers and had failed to dodge his national service so ending up in the ranks.
  • Jim, the hero of The Big Parade, is clearly upper-class. His family lives in a mansion and owns a factory. Yet he gets swept up in the patriotic fervor of a parade and enlists to fight World War I as a soldier in the ranks.
Literature
  • Rudyard Kipling's poem "Gentlemen-rankers" provides the page quote. The poem is a lament written from the perspective of a gentleman ranker in India, detailing his feelings of detachment and despair.
  • The protagonist of Gentleman Ranker, a 1942 novel by John Jennings, is an aristocratic London tearaway who ends up as a soldier on the American frontier.
  • Private Dolokhov from War and Peace is a former Hussar officer now serving in the ranks. Officers who once served under him now refuse to speak to him.
  • In the Dragaera novel Dragon, Baronet Taltos serves as a private in Morrolan's army. Most of the other troopers are this trope as well, as Dragonlords ignore social rank in military context.
  • In the Horse Clans novel A Man Called Milo Morai, Sergeant Jethro Stiles identifies himself and Milo as these. Stiles considers himself to be doing penance for an unspecified moral failing which happened in his past.
  • The protagonists of Beau Geste are from an aristocratic family, but join the French Foreign Legion as common troopers.
  • Corporal Dusty Miller in The Guns of Navarone. In civilian life, he is a university chemistry professor and is more than qualified to be an officer, but he chooses to remain an NCO because he doesn't want to have to face the command decisions that officers have to make.
  • In S.A. Swann's Apotheosis series, Nickolai Rajastan is a scion of the royal house of his homeworld, and was an officer in the elite Temple Guard until a poorly chosen dalliance led to his exile. He washed up on Bakunin, where he was reduced to a common mercenary.
  • In Robin Hobb 's Soldier Son Trilogy Nevare ends up enlisting in the ranks after his expulsion from the Cavalla Academy. Aggravating his situation, his best friend from the Academy (who does have a commission) is assigned to the same regiment, as is the officer his former fiancee married.
  • Lucky Jack Aubrey, of the Aubrey-Maturin series, spent some time "before the mast" early in his career. He was disrated by his captain because he'd violated orders, smuggling a whore aboard ship and hiding her in the cable tier. He also got flogged. He spent some time as a common sailor before earning his way back into the captain's good graces and being rated midshipman again.
  • Robbie from Atonement is an interesting variation: his upbringing qualifies him for an officer rank, but he is forced to be a private because of his criminal record (he was imprisoned for a rape he did not commit).
Live-Action TV
  • As revealed in one episode of Hogan's Heroes, before the war Sgt. Schultz was the owner of Germany's largest and most successful toy manufacturing company. The company got taken over by the German military to make munitions. Col. Klink asks him for a bookkeeping job when everyone thinks the war might be ending.
  • Jonathan Quayle Higgins III from Magnum, P.I. is the Baron of Perth, but joined the British Army as a common soldier after being sent down from Eton. He made Sergeant Major before his retirement.
  • M*A*S*H. Nurses usually start at 2nd Lieutenant, but male nurse Barney Hutchinson was forced to start at Private. He has to pull enlisted man duty (KP, patrolling, etc.) in addition to his nursing assignments. Three weeks before he is discharged Col. Potter gives him an honorary field promotion to Lieutenant for the remainder of his tour. ("Your Retention Please")
  • Played with in Red Dwarf as Rimmer sees himself as being one of these, being held down by commanding officers who don't recognise his inherent officer qualities. Trouble is they recognise them, or rather lack thereof, all too well.
  • Dad's Army: Sergeant Wilson behaved very much like the cool, calm, collected, and softly spoken officer (in contrast to the order barking martinet that was Captain Mainwaring) in his WW2 Home Guard duties, however this was eventually explained as him actually having been an officer in the First World War.
Manga
  • In Bleach, Rukia Kuchiki is described as powerful enough to be a lieutenant (the third-highest officer rank in the military), but is basically an unranked foot soldier. We later find out that this is because her big brother, trying to protect her, used his influence to keep her from being promoted. Near the end of the series, however, she's finally promoted to lieutenant.

Theatre
  • The Gentleman Ranker, a 1919 play by Leon Gordon, follows a 'Private Smith' who is recognized as having previously been Lieutenant Graylen, who was cashiered after forging his father's signature on a bank draft.
Community Feedback Replies: 40
  • December 26, 2013
    Dalillama
    There's one in Stoney Compton's Russian Amerika too, but I can't remember his name.
  • December 26, 2013
    randomsurfer
    MASH: Nurses usually start at 2nd Lieutenant, but a male nurse draftee was forced to start at Private. He has to pull enlisted man duty (KP, patrolling, etc.) in addition to his nursing assignments. Three weeks before he is discharged Col. Potter gives him an honorary field promotion to Lieutenant for the remainder of his tour.
  • December 27, 2013
    Arivne
    Namespaced and italicized work titles, put a poem's title in quotes, de-Pot Holed two series names as per How To Write An Example - State the source, and deleted the redundant Beau Geste example in the Film section.

    The first three examples in Film are Zero Context Examples and need more information about how they fit the trope.
  • December 27, 2013
    robinjohnson
    • Lieutenant the Honourable George Colthurst St Barleigh, an Old Etonian Upper Class Twit serving in the Trenches in Blackadder Goes Forth. In the final episode, the General even offers him a safe seat in his mansion instead of going over the top, but George chooses to fight.
  • December 27, 2013
    foxley
    Corporal Dusty Miller in The Guns Of Navarone. In civilian life, he is a university chemistry professor and is more than qualified to be an officer, but he chooses to remain an NCO because he doesn't want to have to face the command decisions that officers have to make.
  • December 27, 2013
    Dalillama
    ^^ Lieutenant St. Barleigh is a commissioned officer, and thus not an example. ^^^ Thanks, I added context to the Literature examples there. Sorry about that.

  • December 27, 2013
    KingZeal
    Film:

    The Incredible Hulk: General Ross asks Corporal Emil Blonsky why he never became an officer despite being well into his 30s and overqualified. Blonsky replies that he's "a fighter" by nature. Which, as we clearly see later, basically translates into Ax Crazy Blood Knight.

    Manga:

    In Bleach, Rukia Kuchiki is described as powerful enough to be a lieutenant (the third-highest officer rank in the military), but is basically an unranked foot soldier. We later find out that this is because her big brother, trying to protect her, used his influence to keep her from being promoted. Near the end of the series, however, she's finally promoted to lieutenant.
  • December 27, 2013
    dalek955
    • The eponymous private from Kellys Heroes used to be a lieutenant, but was scapegoated and broken down to private after half his platoon was wiped out due to incorrect orders from his superiors.
    • By the current point in Honor Harrington, Sir Horace Harkness is easily qualified to be at least a commander and possibly a junior-grade captain (and gets put in the appropriate slots), but his actual rank is only chief warrant officer.
  • December 27, 2013
    kjnoren
    ^ Note that a CWO is pretty high up in the pecking order, and Harkness has been in the navy for several decades too.

    I think the trope should be limited to be relatively sharply limited, to people with such a background that they were expected to serve as officers, but serving as simple troopers. In Swedish parlance, they'd be part of manskapet, in current US they'd be no higher than E-4 or E-5.
  • December 27, 2013
    Dalillama
    ^^ Harkness doesn't really qualify, since he's from the ranks originally, and he does come from a culture where aristocratic background is more-or-less expected of officers, who usually enter as such. He technically meets the definition now, but I don't know that it's quite right.
  • December 27, 2013
    dalek955
    ^Actually, the RMN is has plenty of commoner officers. It's more that officer rank is more-or-less expected of aristocrats. Harkness is pretty high up the ranks, but I think he meets the definition since he could be much higher on the ladder and doesn't bother to be.

    Related to Almighty Janitor.
  • December 27, 2013
    Dalillama
    ^ Fair point. The Almighty Janitor thing is limited to Harkness, though, it's not something that applies generally for this trope.
  • December 27, 2013
    kjnoren
    I think the problem here is in the definition. Qualified isn't the word that should be used here; noble birth isn't a qualification in the modern sense of the term.

    I think this trope should be limited to a person fulfilling the following criteria:

    1. Coming from a background (school, social status, et c) where it is expected for him or her to be an officer
    2. Of low rank (E1-E4/5 in US terminology)
    3. Serving or having served there for an extended period (more than a year)

    The last is to exclude those armies where everyone served for a limited term as a simple trooper only to learn the ropes. Eg, it was quite common for Swedish nobles during the 18th century to start as a basic trooper in the cavalry, but they were expected to be promoted to the officer ranks within a year or two.
  • December 27, 2013
    Dalillama
    ^ I added the criteria, and removed Harkness, since on the balance he doesn't meet them. He may be a special case of Prior Enlisted, which has a separate YKTTW.
  • December 28, 2013
    Exxolon
    Do we have a trope for people who refuse to be promoted from the ranks to an officer? Matt Braddock the fictional WW 2 bomber pilot from Boys Own type publications was one - he remained at the rank of Sergeant despite attempts to promote him and being a literal Living Legend within the RAF.
  • December 28, 2013
    Dalillama
    ^ Maybe we should have one, but I don't think it's the same as this one. There's a bunch of examples of what you're talking about, though. Braddock and Harkness have been suggested so far, and there's a couple other examples tickling at my brain; I think someone in the Belisarius Series (Valentinian, maybe?), and the chief noncom from Legion of Videssos too. Doesn't Valiar Marcus from the Codex Alera refuse a commission too? Also Gunnery Sergeant Kerr from Confederation Of Valor, Sam Vimes in Night Watch, and Warrant Officer Thurl from Schlock Mercenary. I can probably come up with a couple others if I think about it for a while. It's kind of a combination of Almighty Janitor and Up Through The Ranks, being someone who would be a Mustang, someone jumped from the ranks to a commission, but refuses, and gets away with the refusal by being an Almighty Janitor.
  • January 23, 2014
    randomsurfer
    As revealed in one episode of Hogans Heroes, before the war Sgt. Schultz was the owner of Germany's largest and most sucessful toy manufacturing company. The company got taken over by the German military to make munitions. Col. Klink asks him for a bookkeeping job when everyone thinks the war might be ending.
  • January 23, 2014
    jatay3
    Valentinian in Belisarius Series worked his way up from the ranks but never was a gentleman. I can't remember any gentleman-rankers there.
  • January 23, 2014
    jatay3
    Higgins in Magnum PI.
  • January 23, 2014
    StarSword
    @Dalillama: Prior Enlisted got launched as Up Through The Ranks.
  • January 23, 2014
    Dalillama
    ^^^ I know, I was proposing him as an example of someone like Harkness, who would be Up Through The Ranks but refuses; someone suggested Harkness for this trope earlier. It' s been a while since I read those, and I couldn't remember if he took a commission or not. ^ I saw the launch, I just lost track of having mentioned it here to change the link.
  • January 23, 2014
    StarSword
    For the record, Sir Horace Harkness never took a commission. The last rank he held was chief warrant officer, which is as high as you can go and still be a noncom.
  • January 23, 2014
    Dalillama
    ^Yes, that's why he doesn't count as Up Through The Ranks, but he's not a Gentleman Ranker either, because he's of common birth and attitude despite getting a knighthood later on. Exxolon wondered if there was a trope for that type of character, which I don't think there is. Gunnery Sergeant Kerr from Confederation Of Valor, Sam Vimes in Night Watch, and Warrant Officer Thurl from Schlock Mercenary are in the same position, where they would be Up Through The Ranks but they refuse the commission. I can't think of a snappy name for that trope, though.
  • January 24, 2014
    StarSword
    Fixed formatting and namespaces.
  • January 24, 2014
    Dalillama
    Are we supposed to namespace things that haven't got pages? I'll keep that in mind.
  • January 24, 2014
    StarSword
    ^It's not exactly a policy but the mods have spoken in favor of it since it theoretically encourages people to write pages for them.
  • January 24, 2014
    Dalillama
    ^ I'll try to put one together for The Gentleman Ranker at some point, then. I got my hands on a copy through interlibrary loan, it doesn't look like it ever went more than one edition.
  • June 3, 2014
    robinjohnson
    I think the title should be Gentleman Rankers, not Gentlemen - if it were women, it'd be "Lady Rankers", not "Ladies Rankers".

    EDIT: never mind, Gentlemen Rankers is the name of the Kipling poem so that's more usable.
  • June 4, 2014
    surgoshan
    • Lucky Jack Aubrey spent some time "before the mast" early in his career. He was disrated by his captain because he'd violated orders, smuggling a whore aboard ship and hiding her in the cable tier. He also got flogged. He spent some time as a common sailor before earning his way back into the captain's good graces and being rated midshipman again.
  • June 5, 2014
    Antigone3
    I believe there were several units on both sides of the American Civil War that were made up of gentlemen rankers, I'll see if I can get some solid citations.
  • June 5, 2014
    gallium
    Regarding The Gentleman Ranker, that link says it's a play from 1919. Does the play from 1919 have any connection to the film from 1912? If so I will index The Gentleman Ranker to the Early Films page. If not then we probably shouldn't make a wiki link.
  • June 5, 2014
    Dalillama
    ^^^ One Gentleman Ranker, 2+ Gentlemen Rankers.
  • June 5, 2014
    gallium
    Film

  • June 5, 2014
    CrypticMirror
    • In Carry On Sergeant both Terrence Longdon and Kenneth Williams' characters were examples of these, albeit in different ways.
      • Longdon's character coming from a traditional upper class background with the stereotypical easy air of command, to the point he was initially mistaken for an officer candidate when he arrived to start his national service.
      • William's character was a snotty university graduate who spent most of his time sneering at common soldiers and had failed to dodge his national service so ending up in the ranks.

    • Dads Army: Sergeant Wilson behaved very much like the cool, calm, collected, and softly spoken officer (in contrast to the order barking martinet that was Captain Mainwaring) in his WW 2 Home Guard duties, however this was eventually explained as him actually having been an officer in the First World War.

    • Played with in Red Dwarf as Rimmer sees himself as being one of these, being held down by commanding officers who don't recognise his inherent officer qualities. Trouble is they recognise them, or rather lack thereof, all too well.
  • June 5, 2014
    Dalillama
    ^^ There is no connection between the play and the movie; there seems to be some dispute about whether it's correct to make wikilinks for works that don't have pages yet. I've also been told that we should, so as to encourage people to create the said works pages, although in this case I doubt that anyone will. It was hard enough for me to get my hands on a copy of the play so I could write the page for that one.
  • June 5, 2014
    gallium
    ^Well, if the play and film are unrelated, I would say that no, you should not make a wiki link. This is a movie from 1912 that isn't even available on You Tube, how can anyone make a work page about it? (I've made several work pages on Early Films but pretty much all of them were stuff I found on You Tube). As it is you have a link that goes to an unrelated work.
  • June 5, 2014
    gallium
    I am reasonably certain that Fall of Giants, the first book in The Century Trilogy by Ken Follett, features as a character a British officer in World War I that got cashiered and sent to the ranks. I'll have to look it up this weekend.
  • June 5, 2014
    Dalillama
    ^ When I initially created the links, neither of them went anywhere. It took me months to get a copy of the play, and as I said I still haven't been able to find a copy of the movie or enough other materials to do a writeup (I also haven't got time lately). I've taken out the movie link, though.
  • June 5, 2014
    needsanewhobby
    Robbie from Atonement is an interesting variation: his upbringing qualifies him for an officer rank, but he is forced to be a private because of his criminal record (he was imprisoned for a rape he did not commit).
  • June 5, 2014
    gallium
    Film

    • Jim, the hero of The Big Parade, is clearly upper-class. His family lives in a mansion and owns a factory. Yet he gets swept up in the patriotic fervor of a parade and enlists to fight World War I as a soldier in the ranks.
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=ts60zewu4tew2zdd5q8yfu5b&trope=GentlemenRankers