Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Victorian Nautical Organization and Rank

Ranks in the British navy for the most part of the 19th century followed those used on sailing ships. The titles are generally similar to those for 20th century ranks:


Vice Admiral, Rear Admiral




Warrant Officer

Petty Officer


Despite verbal similarity, the meanings of these terms were significantly different. The legal terms of service in the navy varied drastically from rank to rank.

HMS Valiant

The only men on a warship who were "in the navy" in a modern sense - individually sworn to serve the state in whatever duties it might assign - were the commissioned officers (lieutenant and above). Their oaths permitted their re-assignment from ship to ship, and such re-assignment the main way they advanced their careers. A commissioned officer started out as lieutenant serving under another man's command. Ships of the line had from one to six lieutenants. A newly commissioned lieutenant might be the only lieutenant on a small ship or the least senior on a large one; each had advantages and disadvantages for working one's way up to first lieutenant of a large ship. An experienced lieutenant might be appointed to command a very small ship, such as a sloop; this was prestigious, but did not actually increase his rank.

The legandary Admiral Horatio Nelson

The next step was "commander", an officer in charge of a larger ship that was not a ship of the line. Success in this role might bring promotion to post-captain, in command of a ship of the line. (Technically, only a post-captain was properly called a "captain"; other naval ships had commanders, and civilian ships had masters and mates). A captain might command a fleet under the title of "commodore", without actual promotion; if he was promoted, he became an admiral. The senior admiral of a fleet might be assisted by a vice admiral, in operational command of the line of battle, and a rear admiral, in command of the reserve.

Three warrant officers enjoying some scuttlebutt

Warrant officers were authorized to perform specific functions on board a specific ship; their commitment was to those duties and not to the navy as a whole. When a ship went out of service, many warrant officers remained attached to her and responsible for her maintenance.

Petty Officer in Antartica

Below them were the petty officers, who served at the captain's pleasure and could lose their ratings at his will. Somewhat surprisingly, the midshipmen - young men destined to become commissioned officers, counted as petty officers; a midshipman who offended his captain could be "reduced to the ranks", redefined as a common sailor.

Seaman Signalman from the HMS Victory

Below all these different sorts of officers were common seamen, who stood watches, and idlers, such as the sailmaker's and carpenter's crews, who were exempt from watches. This distinction cut across higher ranks also; the sailing master might stand watches on a small ship, but the surgeon would not. Still lower, were servants, mostly boys learning to be sailors, typically 10-15% of the crew.

Crewmen posing topside

When the navy went over from sail to steam, the engineers occupied an anomalous position. on the very first steamships, they might not even be "in the navy" - the firm that built the ship's engines would supply a civilian specialist. When engineers were accepted in to the navy, there was resistance to treating them as commissioned officers. Gradually, engineering came to be accepted as a fourth specialty for officers, along with navigation, gunnery, and torpedoes.

Illustration of an engineer of a steamship

In the same period, the navy adopted new procedures for recruiting, training, and assigning duties to sailors. Civilians were no longer liable to pressing, and sailors no longer moved between the navy and the merchant fleet. Under the old system, any loyalty a sailor felt was probably to his captain; under the new, sailors were expected to have a sense of obligation to the navy itself, just as the officers did.

Stoddard, W.H. (2000) - Gurps Steampunk, pgs. 59-60, SJG:Austin
[edited for removal of game specific content]

Now, my questions is, what rank structure would a airship/zepplin follow? Most modern day airforces tend to copy army ground force rankings, as they (as least in the United States), were an offshoot from them. But would an airship follow nautial rank and traditions? (It is an air ship...) Please feel free to comment! [Personally - I say it should follow the nautical ranks - then again, I am an ex-sailor! *smiles*]...

1 comment:

Dr. Rafael Fabre said...

Fine! I'll start! I say NAVY ranks are the only acceptable option for airships. The Army belongs on the ground, trudging through the mud and muck, using their strange (to me) forms of rank... for traditional means of addressing how issues work aboard any kind of ship, only a nautical method would provide an effective basis for orgainzation.
From having one person responsible (i.e. the Captain) for the operation of the ship, to the assoicated formalities (i.e. arriving in a port, gun salutes), I'd say its the only option. Anyone care to defend the landlubber?