Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha' mercy on such as we,
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 fit this trope, a character must fulfill the following criteria:
- Coming from a background (school, social status, etc.) where it is expected for him or her to become an officer.
- Of low rank (E1-E4/5 in US terminology; Private-Sergeant in older terminology, or the naval equivalents).
- Serving or having served there for an extended period (more than a year).
Compare Officer and a Gentleman
. Contrast Up Through the Ranks
- 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 came 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.
- Williams' 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.
- Rudyard Kipling's poem "Gentlemen-Rankers" is arguably the trope namer, and almost certainly the source of the term's widespread recognition. It 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 fiancée 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).
- Maladict from Monstrous Regiment is an example. Sergeant Jackrum and Corporal Strappi both express surprise that someone wearing such fancy clothes and carrying a sword, and a vampire (and thus assumed to be an aristocrat by default), should sign up with them instead of becoming an officer. No answer is forthcoming, then or ever, although given the chaotic nature of the war at that time and Maladict's secret, becoming an officer may simply have been infeasible.
- All of The Three Musketeers are more gentlemen than rankers by the nature of their unit. However, Athos, who is really the Count de la Fère, is nonetheless serving well below his station as an actual aristocrat.
- 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 World War II Home Guard duties, however this was eventually explained as him actually having been an officer in the First World War.
- 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.
- Happened sometimes during The French Revolution, as officers could be cashiered simply for the 'offence' of being born as aristocrats and some of them re-enlisted in the ranks. Notable examples include Armand de Caulaincourt and his brother Auguste, and Emmanuel de Grouchy.