Army

Rare Army Ranks And Roles: How Many Of These Do You Know?

A number of centuries-old traditions remain within the British Army's titles and hierarchies to this day.

While the British Army is looking ahead to the future, with modernisation plans revealed in March's Integrated Review and Defence Command Paper, traces of the service's history remain in the present day.

A number of centuries-old traditions remain within the Army's titles and hierarchies.

Here are some of the service's most unique ranks and roles - how many of them did you know?

Serjeant

In some regiments such as the Rifles, the rank of serjeant is spelt with a 'J', whereas the majority of the British Army spells 'sergeant', with a 'G'.

Serjeant with a 'J' is an Old English spelling of the word, while the spelling of the word with a 'G' is of French origin.

Both come from the Latin 'serviens' – 'to serve' or 'servant', and in Medieval English the word was spelled in a variety of ways, with an 'I', 'G' and 'J', but predominately with a 'J'.   During the 17th century, with French influence over military doctrine across Europe, the 'G' spelling was formally adopted for the rank.

However, with major wars against France happening in the 18th century, and for reasons of patriotism and anti-French feeling, spelling serjeant with a 'J' once again became popular.

In the Rifles, the rank of Serjeant is spelt with a 'J', rather than a 'G'.

Serjeant with a 'J' remained the widely used spelling of the word in the British Army up until 1914 and the outbreak of the First World War.

With Britain and France now allies, the 'G' spelling became common again, the 'J' variant remaining the official one into the 1930s, when it was finally changed.     The use of the 'J' spelling was preserved in the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, Durham Light Infantry, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry and Rifle Brigade.

After some mergings, this tradition was carried on by The Light Infantry and elements of the Royal Green Jackets and, today, is carried on by The Rifles.

Household Cavalry ranks including Corporal of Horse

The rank names and insignia of non-commissioned officers in the Household Cavalry are unique in the British Army.

They mirror the standard rank structure of the British Army, but with some differences:

  • Trooper: equivalent of 'Private'
  • Lance Corporal: the same as in the standard Army rank structure, signified with two chevrons and a crown, which is unique to the regiment across the service
  • Lance Corporal of Horse: this is often shortened to 'Corporal'
  • Corporal of Horse: equivalent to 'Sergeant'
  • Staff Corporal Major: referred to as 'sir', which stands the rank aside from the general 'Staff Sergeant' rank it represents elsewhere in the Army
  • Squadron Corporal Major: the Warrant Officer Class 2 rank
  • Regimental Corporal Major: the Warrant Officer Class 1 rank
Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment on the Mall in 2017 (Picture: MOD).
Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment carrying out ceremonial duties (Picture: MOD).

All ranks in the Household Cavalry from Lance Corporal up to Regimental Corporal Major share the same mess, which is unique within the Army, with the rest of the service dividing theirs between senior and junior ranks.

Within the wider regiment, there are also unique roles, such as Farrier Major, Master Sadler, Master Tailor and Riding Master - these personnel would still be referred to by their rank in the first instance, or 'Sir' in the case of Staff Corporal Major.

Uniquely, non-commissioned officers and warrant officers of the Household Cavalry do not wear rank insignia on their full dress uniforms, instead, their rank is indicated by a system of aiguillettes (ornamental braided cord).

Second Lieutenants in The Blues and Royals, a regiment in the Household Cavalry, are known as 'Cornets'.

Formerly, Sergeant was exclusively an infantry rank, with no cavalry regiments having Sergeants.

Only the Household Cavalry now maintains this tradition, possibly because the rank of Sergeant derives from the Latin for 'servant', with members of the Household Cavalry, once drawn exclusively from the gentry and aristocracy, deciding against the title.

Pioneer Sergeant

Generally, it is military protocol to be clean-shaven when in British Army uniform, unless the permission of the commanding officer is obtained.

Watch: A Pioneer Sergeant explains their role.

While not strictly ranks, some of the only Army roles allowed a beard on parade include Pioneer Sergeants, Drum Majors, Pipe Majors, Bugle Majors and Goat Majors.

Pioneer Sergeants have existed since the 1700s, when a tradition began that every British infantry company had one 'pioneer' who would march in front of the regiment.

He would wear a 'stout' apron, which protected his uniform while he was performing his duties, and would carry an axe to clear the path for anyone following behind.

It was also the Pioneer Sergeant's duty to kill horses that had been wounded in battle.

Pioneers in those times would also carry a sawback sword, pickaxe, billhooks, shovels, and axes. They were traditionally the largest, strongest and most imposing members of the company.

The Pioneer Sergeant also acted as the blacksmith for the unit. As a result, he was allowed a beard to protect his face from the heat of the forge. 

Nowadays, the Pioneer Sergeant is usually responsible for carpentry, joinery and similar types of work.

They will usually hold the rank of Sergeant, and still wear their ceremonial aprons and carry their traditional axes, which act in place of a bayonet.