The Sergeant-Major

By Major T.J. Edwards, late Somerset Light Infantry
Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, Vol. LXXIV, Feb to Nov 1929

The military title of Sergeant-Major is of great antiquity and has suffered in dignity at the hand of time.

In his "Military Antiquities," Grose is of opinion that in armies prior to the sixteenth century the Sergeant-Major was, from the nature of his duties, a general officer and was the forerunner of the Sergeant-Major-General. However that may be we are on firmer ground as regards 1518 for a Harleian MS entitled "The Order of a Campe or Army Royal, with the Dutie of every Officer belonging to the same." sets out the duties of this officer in clear terms indicating that they applied to an officer of superior rank and not to a regimental officer. For instance, he states that he had to "divide the weapons and set the order of the battaills accordinglie"; he had "to attend the High Marshall," go with him to "viewe the field" and then "make report unto the Lord Leyuetenent-General and make declaration what order he thinketh is most mete and convenient to set the battaille in"; he had also to "se that the King's standard be placed in the middest of the mayne battaille"; and finally "It is also the office of the said Sergeant-Major to serve with his owne person in the forefront of the battail, and to lead the battail."

The pay lists of this period also show that the Sergeant-Major was something in the nature of our modern Chief of Staff. In 1598 the pay of the Sergeant-Major and the Lieutenant-General of the Horse of the Earl of Essex's army in Ireland was 1 a day each.

By 1634 the title of Sergeant-Major had ceased to be applied to an, officer of high command and became attached to a regimental officer, for Barry, writing in that year, states: "The election of the Sardgent mayor moste comonlie is made by the Generall of such as the Coronelles or Materes de campe doe name or give in relation, his office is to be a generall minister of a whole Regimente of sundrie Companies; And a Superintendente of all the Sardgents of the same." Ward, writing in I639, ("Animadversions of Warre") gives further details concerning this officer; he states that he was the "third principall officer of the field and his place and office doth somewhat correspond with that of the Major-Generals, onely his duty is tending to officiate between the Colonel and the officers of the regiment." He was a kind of staff officer of the regiment, whose duties approximate those of a modern adjutant. At this period the Sergeant-Major was the drill specialist of the regiment, just as the Sergeant was the drill specialist of the Company, therefore he was the major or chief sergeant, hence Sergeant-Major.

During the XVIIth century (including the Commonwealth New Model) the Sergeant-Major was the third senior officer in a regiment and, in common with the Colonel and Lieutenant-Colonel, had a Company. At this period each Company carried a colour and the Sergeant-Major's was distinguished by having a blaze or "pile wavy" issuing from the dexter canton (i.e., near top of the staff) towards the centre of the Colour. This distinction still survives in the King's Colour of the 3rd Battalions of Foot Guards.

The title Sergeant-Major as applying to a commissioned officer appears to have been dropped about 1690, for though a major is referred to in "The Exercises of the Foot" of that year, no reference is made to a Sergeant~Major.

The earliest mention of Sergeant-Major as applying to an N.C.O. appears to be in an Order of the Brigade of Guards, dated 18th January, 1725 The Order, which is interesting from other points of View, reads: "The three Regiments of Foot Guards are to furnish a detachment … under Command of a Lieut.-Colonel, a Captain, an Ensign, an Adjutant and a Sergeant-Major, as Guards for the balls and operas at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, and to be aiding and assisting in the preservation of the peace, and preventing all manner of profaneness, rudeness, drunkenness, or indecencies, and not to permit any person whatever to enter the said theatre in habits worn by clergy."

What was expected of a Sergeant-Major in the XVIIIth century is disclosed by the following from Simes' "Military Course" (1777): "He should be man of real merit, a complete Sergeant and a good scholar, sensible and agreeable in conversation, in order to attract the eye of the N.C.O's.; he should be a person who has discovered an early genius for discipline; he must be ready with his pen." Grose, writing in 1800, says: "As the Adjutant is an assistant to the Major, so in like manner he is assisted by the Chief Sergeant, stiled Sergeant-Major." This gives a clue to his duties at that date.

Before 1802 the rank of N.C.O's. of the British Army was indicated some instances by the pattern of lace which decorated the clothing, shoulder knots and epaulets. In the case of the sergeant, his ancient badge of office was the halbard and although bayonets were introduced as early as 1662, Sergeants did not give up the halbard (or pike) until 1830. In July, 1802, however, rank chevrons were introduced under which Sergeant-Majors wore 4 bars on their right arms. In 1881 these bars were abolished and a crown substituted, which in 1918, gave place to the Royal Arms now worn.

In 1881, Sergeant-Majors were given warrant rank, following a practice which had been in existence for many years in the Indian Army.

In 1914, the double company system was introduced into the infantry and the Colour-Sergeants of the former single Companies became either Company-Sergeant-Major or Company-Quartermaster-Sergeant in the new double Companies. In February, 1915, the, new rank of Warrant Officer, Class 2, was introduced into which the Company-Sergeant-Majors (and all equivalent ranks) were elevated. The Regimental-Sergeant-Majors (and equivalent ranks) thereupon became Warrant Officers, Class 1, also a new rank.

In the Household Cavalry there is no such rank as Sergeant or Regimental-Sergeant-Major, the corresponding ranks being Corporal-of-Horse and Regimental-Corporal-Major.

Before the introduction of Company-Sergeant-Major into the infantry this rank had existed for some years in the Royal Engineers and Royal Army Service Corps, and there was also the Battery-Sergeant-Major in the Royal Artillery.