A subaltern (IPA: /ˈsʌbəltərn/) is a primarily British military term for a junior officer.[1] Literally meaning "subordinate", subaltern is used to describe commissioned officers below the rank of captain and generally comprises the various grades of lieutenant.[2]

NaviesArmiesAir forces
Commissioned officers
Admiral of
the fleet
Field marshal or
General of the army
Marshal of
the air force
AdmiralGeneralAir chief marshal
Vice admiralLieutenant generalAir marshal
Rear admiralMajor generalAir vice-marshal
CommodoreBrigadier or
brigadier general
Air commodore
CaptainColonelGroup captain
CommanderLieutenant colonelWing commander
Major or
Squadron leader
LieutenantCaptainFlight lieutenant
junior grade
Lieutenant or
first lieutenant
Flying officer
Ensign or
Second lieutenantPilot officer
Officer cadetOfficer cadetFlight cadet
Enlisted grades
Warrant officer or
chief petty officer
Warrant officer or
sergeant major
Warrant officer
Petty officerSergeantFlight sergeant
Leading seamanCorporal or
SeamanPrivate or
gunner or
Aircraftman or

Ensign and Fähnrich stand for standard or standard-bearer and were, therefore, the ranks given to the junior officer who carried, or was responsible for, the flag in battle. The cornet carried the troop standard, known as a "cornet". These ranks have generally been replaced in army ranks by second lieutenant.[3] Ensigns were generally the lowest ranking commissioned officer, except where the rank of subaltern itself existed.[4]

United Kingdom

In the British Army, the senior subaltern rank was captain-lieutenant, obsolete since the 18th century. Before the Cardwell Reforms of the British Army in 1871, the ranks of cornet and ensign[2] were the junior subaltern ranks in the cavalry and infantry respectively, and were responsible for the flag.[5] A subaltern takes temporary command of proceedings during Trooping the Colour. Within the ranks of subaltern, in a battalion or regiment, a Senior Subaltern may be appointed, usually by rank and seniority, who is responsible for discipline within the junior officer ranks and is responsible to the adjutant for this duty, although the adjutant is ultimately responsible to the commanding officer for the discipline of all the junior officers within the unit.[6]

United States

The Continental Army carried over the rank structure from the British Army including the subaltern ranks of lieutenant, cornet, ensign and subaltern. Continental Army subalterns ranks were supposed to wear green colored cockades in their hats.[7] State Militias in the American Revolutionary War period had ensign and sometimes subaltern ranks, with the subaltern rank below the ensign rank where they coexisted.[4] In 1800, the United States Army's cornet, ensign and subaltern ranks were replaced by second lieutenant.[8] In 1862, the United States Navy began using the ensign rank, which began using a gold bar as insignia in 1922. Second lieutenants received the gold bar insignia in 1917. When the United States Air Force became a separate military branch from the Army, it kept the Army's commissioned officers ranks and insignia.[7]

Women's ranks

From 1941 to 1949, the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) of the British Army used the ranks of second subaltern and subaltern, which were equivalent to second lieutenant and lieutenant respectively. From 1949 to 1950, the ATS's successor organization, the Women's Royal Army Corps, also used the same ranks until it abandoned them in favour of regular British Army ranks.[9] Princess Elizabeth held the rank of second subaltern in the ATS during World War II.[10]

See also


  1. "Subaltern". Retrieved 2008-09-17.
  2. "Commissioned Officers". Ranks. Retrieved 31 January 2013.
  3. "Subaltern". Ranks. Southern Gunners. Retrieved 31 January 2013.
  4. Troy, Michael. "Rank of Ensign in Revolutionary Army". All Experts: U.S. History. Archived from the original on 29 June 2013. Retrieved 31 January 2013.
  5. Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Cornet" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  6. "The Senior Subaltern". The Regimental Rogue. Retrieved 15 June 2014.
  7. Powers, Rod. "Military Rank History". US Military. pp. 1–2. Retrieved 31 January 2013.
  8. "History of U.S. Army Officer Rank - Captains & Lieutenants". US military. Retrieved 31 January 2013.
  9. "Army Titles in the WRAC". The Times. 20 March 1950.
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