Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha' mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!"
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 him 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).
- The Gentleman Ranker, a 1912 movie about a knight's disowned son who joins the Crusades as a cavalry trooper.
- 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 The Lost Patrol, Pearson is an enlisted cavalryman. He's from the upper crust and could have gotten a commission, but he tells the sergeant that he wanted to earn it, so he signed up for the ranks.
- 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.
- Elmer from Doughboys (Buster Keaton} is an Upper-Class Twit who wanders into what he thinks is an employment agency, because he's looking for a new chauffeur. He winds up accidentally enlisting into the Army, and is sent off to fight in World War I.
- A Sailor Made Man: Harold, who is filthy rich, enlists as a common sailor. Of course, it was basically a random choice to prove to his girlfriend's disapproving father that he could hold a job.
- Andersonville: Nathan Dreyfoos is from a wealthy and well-connected Jewish family, but he joins the Union army as a private soldier "because he feared the responsibility of command." His family is appalled.
- 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. (At the same time, it's eventually explained to him that he and the other troopers, while privates, are an elite unit by virtue of voluntarily enlisting and their upbringings providing at least some form of combat training; while the unit is in no way Mildly Military from the reader's viewpoint it qualifies in terms of the setting's.)
- 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. The author P.C. Wren also wrote a number of lesser known short stories about the French Foreign Legion that included a number of gentlemen rankers hiding from some disgrace, from "Jean Boule", a cashiered British Officer to "La Cigale" (The Cricket), an aristocrat who is literally insane.
- 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.
- In Billy Budd, John Claggart, who has the noncommissioned rating of master-at-arms, has physical features and mannerisms suggestive of an upper-class upbringing, which wild rumors circulate about. Only a faint accent hints at his Mysterious Past prior to his entering the navy at a mature age as a common sailor with no experience at sea.
- "The Darb" from R. M. Meluch's Tour of the Merrimack series. He eventually finds his place.
- A near-miss with Mr. Midshipman Easy. Jack Easy is indeed an officer, and from a relevant social strata. He is also, however, the sole heir to an immense fortune beyond the means even of most admirals, and his fellow sailors, enlisted and officers alike, are bewildered by his choice to go to see when he had so many better options. Jack eventually comes to agree, and resigns his commission to manage his estate.
- Adele Mundy, Mundy of Chatsworth, joins the RCN as a noncommissioned Warrant Officer. In practice, the crew always treat her as Lady Mundy, and accord her an authority far exceeding her rank, but outsiders are often surprised and confused.
- 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 surgical nurse Barney Hutchinson was forced to start at Private. He has to pull enlisted man duty (KP, patrolling, etc.), with carrying patients in and out of the OR the closest he got to medical work. 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.
- Blake's 7: Single-episode villain Jarvik joined the Federation as an officer, but quit and rejoined as an enlisted man because he hated computers and liked manual labour and fighting.
- "The Whiffenpoof Song" a common musical setting/parody of Kipling's "Gentlemen Rankers" (popularized by the Yale University Glee Club) was used as part of the opening theme for the short-lived Black Sheep Squadron series about Ace Pilot Pappy Boyington's famous US Marine Corps fighter squadron VMF 214, which is rather ironic since the squadron was supposed to be a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits on the show and was originally known as "Boyington's Bastards" in Real Life. Interestingly, the Real Life Black Sheep actually did take their moniker from the Whiffenpoof song (and thus indirectly from Kipling) after the US Navy's Propaganda Machine demanded a more sanitized moniker to publicize their exploits. So they turned to their favorite drinking songs and became "Boyington's Black Sheep" instead, though ironically enough there weren't any especially "Black" Sheep in VMF 214 other than Boyington himself.
- 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.
- In Schlock Mercenary, Para Ventura joined the Toughs as an ensign and made lieutenant before she was discovered to be a spy and left in disgrace. When she was later instrumental in the Toughs being reconstituted, she found a new position, as a corporal, which rank she retains.
- Through certain lenses the titular Seargent Schlock could also qualify. Side stories in the print editions reveal that he was already independently wealthy before joining the Toughs and in the course of the series managed to gain a majority of shares in the company for a time and even after that remained a significant shareholder for an extended period.
- It is never revealed on Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines what the ranks of the pilots are although the Gold Key Comics stories of it list Klunk as a corporal and Muttley as a private.
- Back when officer's commissions had to be bought, it wasn't uncommon for well-born aspirants with little money to join as Gentleman Rankers. They'd dine with the officers, but serve with the rank and file. When a vacancy appeared in the regiment, they'd then be commissioned without having to pay the fee. This was particularly common in the army of the East India Company, which was full of gentleman adventurers.
- The British Household Cavalry (currently made up of the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals) were traditionally the sovereign's bodyguard and, as such, exclusively recruited from the landed gentry and aristocracy even for the lowest enlisted ranks (no longer a practice). Apocryphal stories say that the units use variations of "corporal" rather than "sergeant" because the latter rank is supposedly derived from the Latin serviens, meaning "servant". No member of the British upper class would be caught dead being referred to as a servant in any way.
- 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. Such officers often earned back their ranks, making their demotions ultimately temporary. Grouchy, for instance, eventually became a Marshal of France.
- This was once the case of Korean admiral Yi Sun Shin in 1597, who had his rank stripped to common foot soldier, following an almost successful ploy by a Japanese double-agent who had gained the ear of the Joseon court and entrapped Yi with gross insubordination.note As a warrior of brutal integrity, Yi treated his new assignment with unusual pride, taking orders as if he really was just a lowly boot (though all his immediate superiors knew otherwise, and respected him accordingly). This demotion would only last a few months though, as he was quickly reinstated after his equally incompetent successor sailed the reputedly invincible Korean fleet into near annihilation in a single battle.
- Erwin Rommel's Swabian heritage and accent caused him problems during his career, as the German officer corps was entirely dominated by Prussian aristocrats.
- David Niven's roommate as a young subaltern fresh out of Sandhurst (The British Military Academy, for those who don't know) was court martialed and cashiered from the service for striking a superior officer. So you can imagine Major David Niven's surprise to when he re-upped for World War II to discover his old roommate serving as his company First Sergeant (of course, this was the Commandos, with all of the other mavericks.) Not only that Niven's batman was none other than Sir Peter Ustinov, who was already a famous name on London's West End before he joined up as a private solder at the start of the war. He was assigned as Niven's batman so the difference in rank (Niven was a Lt. Colonel at the time) wouldn't get in the way as the two collaborated on a propaganda film.
- Get a BA, BS, or higher degree, then enlist in the United States armed forces. Depending on where you are stationed and what your occupation in the service is, there is a decent chance for this trope.
- Ubiquitous in all militaries based on conscription.