In most of the novels I read the army is featured. This is usually the army of the 18th or 19th century, which were professional and broken down into corps, divisions, and regiments commanded by a specified ranked officer. This can be confusing for some people who does not whether a major out-ranks a captain and what sort of force they command, so I have made the following page for that reason.
I will be using the British ranks as my main example but also provided is the equivalent rank for the other military nations of the time. Note: Austria takes the place of the professional army of the Holy Roman Empire, disbanded in 1806. Absent are the various fractured Italian and German states (under Napoleon’s control as well), the Netherlands, Poland/Duchy of Warsaw, Norway, Denmark and the Ottoman Empire.
The highest rank possible and supersedes every other rank. The Field Marshal is usually the overall commander in the theatre of war and of all forces at his disposal. In the Napoleonic army the rank of Marshal (Maréchal) was decorative and still the equivalent of general, as Napoleon was actually the overall commander.
France: Napoleon, Maréchal, General de Armée
Prussia: General Feldmarshall
Russia: General-Field Marshal
United States: General of the Army
The general is the second highest rank possible and only answerable to field marshal. However, in Napoleonic times the rank of field marshal was hardly ever given (indeed, Wellington was only named field marshal in 1814 when the war was almost won) and almost all commanders held the rank of general. The general is the commander of his army, although there were often more than one army in action at any given time so there could be several generals. To rank them seniority – as in, who had been that rank longer – was used.
France: Maréchal, General de Armée
United States: General
The lieutenant general is junior to the general, but can still command an army. Wellington held this rank for three years while still being overall commander of the British forces in Portugal. Officially the lieutenant general commands a corps, but often the lieutenant general is the rank given to the first aides-de-camp to the general.
Austria: Feldmarschall Leutenant
France: General de Corps d’Armée
Prussia: General Leutenant
United States: Lieutenant General
Junior to the lieutenant general but the role is effectively the same. The major general is often the most senior man on the field of battle and is officially in charge of a division, but often fulfils the role of an aides-de-camp as well. Typically, to get promoted to major general the officer must have had considerable success, but this often was hampered if the officer lacked the sufficient funds or political connections. Wellington was passed over for major general several times because his family lacked the means to match it with many of his colleagues.
France: General de Division
Spain: General de Divisón
United States: Major General
The brigadier is a transitional rank. It is either the highest field rank or most junior general, nominally commanding a brigade. Brigadier is a rank a lot of officers skip and many armies did not have it or did not issue it. George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman also held this rank.
Austria: Not given
France: General de Brigade
Spain: General de Brigada
United States: Brigadier General
The colonel is the commander of a regiment, so each and every regiment has its own colonel. A regiment consists of ten companies – eight regular line companies, one light company and one grenadier company (in the absence of usable grenades they were usually a second light company used for main assaults). The colonel is in charge of making sure equipment is ordered and repairs are made, replacements arrive, and anything to do with day-to-day running of the regiment. A lot of the time the colonel would accompany his men into battle and distinction there would usually see them promoted to major general.
United States: Colonel
Second to the full colonel, a lieutenant colonel is a younger man promoted up to colonel. His role is usually to second the colonel in all matters running the regiment, essentially preparing him to become a full colonel if/when the colonel is promoted to general. When an officer of a general rank was still retained as the figurehead colonel of the regiment (Wellington remained in this role of the 33rd for the rest of his life), the lieutenant colonel functions in the role of a full colonel and is paid as such, despite technically only holding the role of brevet.
France: Lieutenant Colonel
United States: Lieutenant Colonel
The major is the last rank in the old British commission system that could be purchased. After some rules were put in place, it usually took a man at least five years to become a major. The major is the head of the battalion in the regiment and there were usually two, sometimes more, so a regiment could have three or four majors. When promoting to colonel the most senior major is promoted.
France: Chef de Bataillon
United States: Major
The captain is the leader of a company, so in a battalion at full strength there would be ten companies, each with its own captain. An officer had to spend at least two years as captain before he was eligible to sell his captaincy and buy a majority, but that typically went by seniority. An officer that enlisted just a day before you would be promoted major before you, in that old ridiculous purchase system.
Austria: Rittmeister, Hauptman
United States: Captain
The lieutenant (American readers should be pronouncing “leftenant”!) is the second most junior officer, typically a young man, who is nominally in command of a platoon of soldiers. In each company there are usually two lieutenants, sometimes three depending on its size and number of battalions, and the same seniority rule applies. When promoted to captain the lieutenant often switches regiments to take advantage of an opening and sometimes they become aides-de-camp to more senior officers.
United States: First Lieutenant
Ensigns are the youngest officers in the regiment. They are junior to the lieutenant and are only able to purchase their lieutenancy after either a year or two years as ensign. Many died before they were able to be promoted. An ensign may be placed in command of a squad (eight men) to gain experience. Their primary role is the carry the regimental colours into battle. This, of course, made them targets for the opposition so many young ensigns died as soon as they arrived.
France: Sous Lieutenant
Prussia: Not given
United States: Second Lieutenant
REGIMENTAL SERGEANT MAJOR
The regimental sergeant major is the warrant officer, or the most senior non-commissioned officer. They out-rank all other sergeants and there is only one per regiment making it a respected position. The sergeant major often works closely with the major and is a key confidant. Patrick Harper eventually became regimental sergeant major of the South Essex.
Spain: Sargento Primero
Sweden: Not given
United States: Warrant Officer
The sergeant is a non-commissioned officer in charge of keeping order in the rank and file. They are respected, capable soldiers that were required to be able to read and write, and worked closely with the captain. In battle it was the role of the sergeant to be placed on the flanks of the company line so to keep it tight and orderly. It was also the duty of the sergeant to keep an eye on discipline, so suffice to say the sergeant often held considerable power within a company.
United States: Sergeant
Corporals were below sergeants and did many of the same tasks. Men were often promoted and demoted from corporal. Their main duty in battle was to repeat orders from the captain or lieutenant, and they walked in line with the privates. In the Sharpe films the “Chosen Men” are all corporals.
United States: Corporal
The lowest rank in the army, given to every newly enlisted man. Privates did a range of tasks outside battle, including: forming pickets, scouting, digging latrines, falling trees, shifting supplies, and so forth. It is obvious to say that most of the deaths in battle were privates. While never having enforced conscription in Britain it was common for criminals to be enlisted by magistrates as an alternative to gaol, and many were illiterate. This is how Sharpe joins the army, too.
United States: Private