History of the Warrant Officer Rank

Read about the rank of Warrant Officer that predates the Royal Navy.

 

Read about the rank of Warrant Officer that predates the Royal Navy.

Around the 11th Century ships for war were lent to or hired by the King as and when needed from merchants and owners.  In some cases ships would be fitted out for warlike purposes. At this point in naval history, fighting at sea consisted of ship carrying soldiers that would close to one another and seek battle. Therefore, ships needed men who were skilled in seamanship to take the ships to sea with their complement of soldiers.[1]

The officers that led the soldiers were commissioned by the King while the seamen were given the equivalent of a commission – known as a Warrant.  These would be issued from whoever the naval authorities of the day were. This process continued down through time as the Royal Navy developed. For example, by the 16th Century, Warrants were issued to a ship’s master, purser, gunner, boatswain, carpenter etc.[2] By the 17th century ship’s masters were very well paid when compared to other warrant officers.[3]

In the period of the Elizabethan Navy in the 16th Century, warrants were issued for masters of naval vessels enabling them to draw very fine cloth to make a coat out of and this was to be decorated with roses, crowns and other devices.[4]

The formality of issuing Warrants also developed and came within the control of the Royal Navy. At this time Warrants were issued to what were known as Standing Officers. The Admiralty would issue warrants to pursers, boatswains, carpenters, gunners, and cooks while the Navy Office issued Warrants to surgeon’s mates, second masters, gunsmiths, armourers, master-at-arms, sailmakers, and caulkers.[5] From 1731, gunners were given their warrant from the Board of Ordnance. Also in the 18th century sail-makers and rope-makers were given a warrant by the Navy Board.[6] In 1758, James Cook was promoted to the rank of WO Master, a rank he held for ten years until his promotion to Lieutenant in 1768.[7] A rough uniform for the WO was issued around 1787. [8]

When a set of regulations were issued in 1806 there were three classes of WO in the Royal Navy of fourteen ranks:

First Class: Masters, Second Masters, Surgeon, and Chaplain

Second Class: Gunner, Boatswain, Carpenter, Purser, and School-Master

Third: Master-at-Arms, Cook, Sail-maker, Rope-maker, and Caulker.

Note by this time the gunsmith and armourer had gone from the ranks of WO.[9] One thing about the rank of WO was that a man who held a warrant could be a permanent part of a ship’s company. The regulations stated that no WO could be removed from his ship without his consent.[10] However, the 1806 regulations also stated that Master-at-Arms and Cooks although having a warrant were to be considered petty officers.[11]

In 1808 those hold warrants as Masters were given the rank of Lieutenant although they were still retained as wardroom WO. In 1810 the uniform for WO was further refined. By 1825, the precedence of the WO was set at pursers, boatswains, gunners, carpenters. By 1837, engineers were raised from the rank of Petty Officer to WO. [12]

In 1849 the rank of Chief Petty Officer was introduced allowing men who were Petty Officers one more step of promotion to gain a Warrant. In 1852, pursers were commissioned and removed from the list of WO.[13] This was a time of crisis in manning the Victorian Navy. The Admiralty in part tried to address this through the creation of the rank of CPO and increased pay and conditions for all ranks. At the same time, the Admiralty was aware that over the years the rank of WO had been denigrated through bureaucratic activity on the part of the Navy. There followed a change in the pay and conditions for WO including access to a higher standard of accommodation ashore and in non-naval transport than had been the case.[14]  It was also in 1854 that WO were regularly appointed to warships in lieu of commissioned Sub-Lieutenants and Lieutenants. Six WO were amongst the first to be decorated with the VC in 1854 during the Crimean War.[15] In 1859, the Royal Commission into Manning of the Navy took evidence on the poor status of WO in the RN and made several recommendations about pay and conditions. Immediately WO were restored in rank after Second Masters and the RN would consider promotion to commissioned rank from WO.[16] In 1872 WO’s names were first published in the Navy List. This was followed by abolishing of different classes of WO. Interestingly, Army WO were considered to be beneath in rank to Naval WO.[17]

Traditionally, the Royal Navy had been split into two branches, that of military and civil. The military branch was the men who fought and commanded the warships of the fleet and comprised the Admiralty. The civil branch was those men who undertook roles such as teaching, looking after the sick, and tradesmen.  Hence Gunners and Boatswains WO were in the military branch, and Carpenter WO in the Civil although this shift only took place in 1878 at the same time gunners came into the military branch.[18] The next year, the rank of Lieutenant [N] was introduced ending the role of WO as the qualified master for navigation.

In 1888 The Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal was established to publicise the issues affecting WO and to drum up support for making improvements to pay and conditions. It was more a propaganda sheet than a journal for the improvement of WO and to attract the best Petty Officers. It was argued that WO that sat the same tests as Lieutenants should receive a commission. The effort did make some gains. Pay was raised, the rank of WO extended to other branches, and WO messes were established.[19] This was followed in 1891 by a change back to officer uniforms but carried their insignia as WO.[20] At this time WO was a lesser rank than Chief. For example in 1896 45 men were promoted to Chief and 45 Petty Officers promoted to WO.

As with officers, it seems the period 1860-1925 was one of continual change for the Warrant Officers of the Royal Navy. They were also very politically active, always lobbying senior commanders and MPs for improvements to their conditions of service. As a body, WO in this period felt overlooked and underappreciated. In smaller warships, they were still keeping the watch, acting as gunners and boatswains, tasks aboard ship that were beneath their skill level. They also saw pursers, surgeons, chaplains, and engineers pass directly through to commissions. Unfortunately a “parochial outlook and departmental petty jealousies did little to promote their standing.”[21] However this was as much due to the difficulties between the civil and executive branches of the RN, something that would only end when the two branches were eliminated. As an example, a surgeon who was fully qualified, was part of the civil branch and was sent to the gunroom to mess with the Midshipmen and not the wardroom.

One of the WO ‘friends’ was a Commander John Fisher who made a great impression on WO under his command aboard HMS Ocean in the 1880s. It would be as Admiral Fisher, Second Sea Lord in 1902 and responsible for personnel that he would make further changes and improve the lot of all ratings and officers. He clearly understood that it was the human element that won battles, not the ships themselves.[22] He was to write that ‘the lower deck richly deserves all we [the Admiralty] can do…our warrant and petty officers are competent for higher positions… and for the good of the Service their status must be raised.”[23] It had been the practice to promote WO with long service to Lieutenant as they came to end of their career. This was more a courtesy than good practice and again showed the ambivalence that the RN showed the position of WO in the fleet.

In 1910, Writers, Stewards, MAA, and Cooks were allowed to become WO.[24] Schemes to let PO to be promoted acting WO then undertake the courses as Sub-Lieutenants and get a commission as a Sub-Lieutenant. By the outbreak of the First World War, selected WO and PO went through as course of training then were given the position of Mate before being commissioned as a Sub-Lieutenant. 44 men were in this scheme as former PO and 200 WO were given the promotion to Chief Warrant Officer after fifteen years service.[25] During the war many WO gained a commission and mainly served in small craft. The uniform was changed in 1918 with a thin stripe of gold lace added to the sleeves and the buttons removed. Upon commission, the single stripe of Sub-Lieutenant would replace it.

The interwar period was a difficult one for WO. With the restrictions in pay and conditions in post-war Britain, WO went on half-pay in 1925.[26] The waiting period returned as the custom. Older WO had to wait ten years before their commission, while watching midshipmen they had taught becoming Lieutenant-Commanders. However, with the outbreak of the Second World War, many WO were promoted to Lieutenants to fill the need for junior officers to man the expanding fleet.[27]

[1] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, p. 1.

[2] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, p. 1.

[3] Michael Lewis, England’s Sea-Officers: The Story of the Naval Profession 2nd ed., London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948, p. 226.

[4] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, p. 4.

[5] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, p. 1.

[6] Michael Lewis, England’s Sea-Officers: The Story of the Naval Profession 2nd ed., London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948, p. 236.

[7] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, p. 8.

[8] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, p. 8.

[9] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, p. 9.

[10] Michael Lewis, England’s Sea-Officers: The Story of the Naval Profession 2nd ed., London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948, pp. 232-233.

[11] Michael Lewis, England’s Sea-Officers: The Story of the Naval Profession 2nd ed., London: George Allen & Unwin, 1948, pp. 234-235.

[12] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, pp. 10-12.

[13] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, p. 15.

[14] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, pp. 16-18.

[15] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, p. 16.

[16] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, pp. 16-17.

[17] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, p. 19.

[18] Wells, Captain John, The Royal Navy: A Illustrated Social History 1870-1982, Phoenix Mill: Allan Sutton Publishing, 1994, p. 3.

[19] Wells, Captain John, The Royal Navy: A Illustrated Social History 1870-1982, Phoenix Mill: Allan Sutton Publishing, 1994, p. 45.

[20] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, p. 22.

[21] Wells, Captain John, The Royal Navy: A Illustrated Social History 1870-1982, Phoenix Mill: Allan Sutton Publishing, 1994, p. 8.

[22] Wells, Captain John, The Royal Navy: A Illustrated Social History 1870-1982, Phoenix Mill: Allan Sutton Publishing, 1994, p. 58.

[23] Wells, Captain John, The Royal Navy: A Illustrated Social History 1870-1982, Phoenix Mill: Allan Sutton Publishing, 1994, p. 87.

[24] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, pp. 24-25.

[25] Wells, Captain John, The Royal Navy: A Illustrated Social History 1870-1982, Phoenix Mill: Allan Sutton Publishing, 1994, p. 87.

[26] Lieutenant G. Gibbs RN, Royal Naval Officers’ Manual 1928, Portsmouth: Naval Warrant Officers’ Journal, 1927, p. 26.

[27] Wells, Captain John, The Royal Navy: A Illustrated Social History 1870-1982, Phoenix Mill: Allan Sutton Publishing, 1994, pp.162-163.