In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, a colonel was typically in charge of a regiment in an army. Modern usage varies greatly, and in some cases, the term is used as an honorific title that may have no direct relationship to military service. The rank of colonel is typically above the rank of lieutenant colonel. The rank above colonel is typically called brigadier, brigade general or brigadier general. In some smaller military forces, such as those of Monaco or the Vatican, colonel is the highest rank.
History and origins
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“Colonel” came into the English language from the mid-16th-century French word "coronel", meaning commander of a regiment, or column, of soldiers. By the mid-17th century, the spelling and French pronunciation had changed to "colonel". The English spelling also changed, and the pronunciation was shortened to two syllables. By the early 19th century, the current pronunciation and spelling became standard in English. Colonel is linked to the word column (from Latin: columna; Italian: colonna; French: colonne) in a similar way that brigadier is linked to brigade, although in English this relationship is not immediately obvious. By the end of the late medieval period, a group of "companies" was referred to as a "column" of an army.
The first use of "colonel" as a rank in a national army was in the French National Legions (Légions nationales) created by King Francis I by his decree of 1534. Building on the military reforms of Louis XII's decree of 1509, he modernized the organization of the French royal army. Each colonel commanded a legion with a theoretical strength of six thousand men.
With the shift from primarily mercenary to primarily national armies in the course of the 17th century, a colonel (normally a member of the aristocracy) became a holder (German Inhaber) or proprietor of a military contract with a sovereign. The colonel purchased the regimental contract—the right to hold the regiment—from the previous holder of that right or directly from the sovereign when a new regiment was formed or an incumbent was killed.
The Spanish equivalent rank of coronel was used by the Spanish tercios in the 16th and 17th centuries. Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba, nicknamed "the Great Captain", divided his armies in coronelías or colonelcies, each led by a coronel (colonel). However, the Spanish word probably derives from a different origin, in that it appears to designate an officer of the crown (corona, thus the rank coronel), rather than an officer of the column (columna, which would give the word columnal). This makes the Spanish word coronel probably cognate with the English word coroner.
As the office of colonel became an established practice, the colonel became the senior captain in a group of companies that were all sworn to observe his personal authority—to be ruled or regimented by him. This regiment, or governance, was to some extent embodied in a contract and set of written rules, also referred to as the colonel's regiment or standing regulation(s). By extension, the group of companies subject to a colonel's regiment (in the foregoing sense) came to be referred to as his regiment (in the modern sense) as well.
In French usage of this period, the senior colonel in the army or, in a field force, the senior military contractor, was the colonel general and, in the absence of the sovereign or his designate, the colonel general might serve as the commander of a force. The position, however, was primarily contractual and it became progressively more of a functionless sinecure. (The head of a single regiment or demi-brigade would be called a 'mestre de camp' or, after the Revolution, a 'chef de brigade'.)
By the late 19th century, colonel was a professional military rank though still held typically by an officer in command of a regiment or equivalent unit. Along with other ranks, it has become progressively more a matter of ranked duties, qualifications and experience and of corresponding titles and pay scale than of functional office in a particular organization.
As European military influence expanded throughout the world, the rank of colonel became adopted by nearly every nation (albeit under a variety of names).
With the rise of communism, some of the large communist militaries saw fit to expand the colonel rank into several grades, resulting in the unique senior colonel rank, which was found and is still used in such nations as China and North Korea.
In many modern armies, the regiment has more importance as a ceremonial unit or a focus of members' loyalty than as an actual battle formation. Troops tend to be deployed in battalions (commanded by a lieutenant colonel) as a more convenient size of military unit and, as such, colonels have tended to have a higher profile in specialist and command roles than as actual commanders of regiments. However, in Commonwealth armies, the position of the colonel as the figurehead of a regiment is maintained in the honorary role of "colonel-in-chief", usually held by a member of the royal family, the nobility, or a retired senior military officer. The colonel-in-chief wears a colonel's uniform and encourages the members of the regiment, but takes no active part in the actual command structure or in any operational duties.
Colonel of the Regiment
The title Colonel of the Regiment (to distinguish it from the military rank of colonel) continues to be used in the modern British Army. The ceremonial position is often conferred on retired general officers, brigadiers or colonels who have a close link to a particular regiment. Non-military personnel, usually for positions within the Army Reserve may also be appointed to the ceremonial position. When attending functions as "Colonel of the Regiment", the titleholder wears the regimental uniform with rank insignia of (full) colonel, regardless of their official rank. A member of the Royal Family is known as a Royal Colonel. A Colonel of the Regiment is expected to work closely with a regiment and its Regimental Association.
Colonel by country
- Colonel (Canada)
- Colonel (Eastern Europe)
- Colonel (Germanic languages)
- Colonel (India)
- Colonel (Pakistan)
- Colonel (Sri Lanka)
- Colonel (United Kingdom)
- Colonel (United States)
Insignia of army colonels
Insignia of air force colonels
Colonel as highest-ranking officer
Some military forces have a colonel as their highest-ranking officer, with no 'general' ranks, and no superior authority (except, perhaps, the head of state as a titular commander-in-chief) other than the respective national government. Examples include the following (arranged alphabetically by country name):
- Antigua and Barbuda (170 personnel)
- Costa Rica (about 8,000 personnel)
- Iceland (100 personnel, employed only for peacekeeping duties)
- Libya (commands all the Armed Forces – Muammar Gaddafi until 2011)
- Monaco (two branches, with a total of about 250 personnel)
- Suriname (1,800 personnel) (up to 19 June 2020)
- Vatican City (110 personnel – the Swiss Guard)
|Rank insignia for a colonel in several nations which have no higher military rank|
|Colonel CCP||Colonel CSP|
Other uses of colonel ranks
The term colonel is also used as a title for auctioneers in the United States; there are a variety of theories or folk etymologies to explain the use of the term. One of these is the claim that during the American Civil War goods seized by armies were sold at auction by the colonel of the division.
Kentucky colonel is the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Commissions for Kentucky colonels are given by the Governor and the Secretary of State to individuals in recognition of noteworthy accomplishments and outstanding service to a community, state or the nation. The sitting governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky bestows the honor of a colonel's Commission, by issuance of letters patent. Perhaps the best known Kentucky colonel is Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.
The rank of colonel is also used by some police forces and paramilitary organizations.
- Los tercios españoles. La batalla de Pavía at militar.org.ua (in Spanish, unspecified authorship)
- See this list of colonel-in-chief appointments held by The Prince of Wales. Archived 2012-10-17 at the Wayback Machine
- A webpage by a Scottish regiment concerning their colonel-in-chief. Archived 2007-12-19 at the Wayback Machine
- "Minister Benschop bevorderd tot Generaal-Majoor". Suriname.nu (in Dutch). Archived from the original on June 24, 2020. Retrieved 14 July 2020.
- Leab, Daniel J.; Leab, Katharine Kyes (29 December 1981). The auction companion. Harper & Row. ISBN 9780060125561 – via Google Books.
- Doyle, Robert A.; Baska, Steve (November 2002), "History of Auctions: From ancient Rome to todays high-tech auctions", Auctioneer, archived from the original on May 17, 2008, retrieved 2008-06-22
- Keegan, John; & Wheatcroft, Andrew (1996). Who's Who in Military History: From 1453 to the Present Day. London: Routledge.