On the use of Captain as a title years into retirement

Something that slightly puzzles. I can understand someone using Captain RN as a title off into retirement. Significant job, real career progression etc, takes decades to get there.

Captain Army I understand less. It seems to me, and of course this could just be because I’m very blinkered here, that it’s something rather reserved for members of the landed gentry. No, not aristocracy. Capt Chumleyumly, Master of Hounds, sounds about right. But it does seem, in my limited experience, to be only those in that sort of position who keep using the rank.

So, why is this?

Stay in long enough and you’ll be a Major. So, Captain means you left early, or when you wanted to, or something. Or of course that you got fired but that’s difficult. Even today it tends to be not getting promoted which is the signal, not actual firing.

The only thing I can really think of is that as a non-graduate it takes 5 years to get to Capt. Thus retiring as a Capt. shows that you did at least 5 years, not some very short term commission (which, umm, do the three year ones even exist any more?). So, a little more than just Sandhurst and skiing with the Blues and Royals for 2.5 years.

Is that it? Military peeps around here? Or is there something else I’m missing? For as far as I can see it really does seem to be a particular section of sciety which does use Army Captain as a title off into decades of retirement. Why do they?

52 comments on “On the use of Captain as a title years into retirement

  1. dont know about UK, but for USA ranks line up differently across the services

    NAVY – Army
    Capt = Colonel
    Lt. Cmdr = Major
    Lieutenant = Captain

  2. Especially as a suitably academically – qualified person will be granted Captain’s rank after completing basic training nowadays. Most retired officers drop the rank from their public addresses nowadays, use of the honorific only leads to begging letters and anonymous hate mail with the possibility of more direct action by terrorist nutters.

  3. Yes, that’s absolutely the same. Which is why the question. Pretty much no RN goes on being called Lt. into retirement. Some Army do keep Capt. Why?

  4. I would suspect that a lot of those leaving at the end of a Short Service Commission (6 years) will be Capt.

  5. Possibly late entry types who feel they’ve made it? Though I’d have thought few and far between as most of them are only interested in the pension. Debretts will have the answer (I think technically it’s capt and above) but I think it’s a very useful way of identifying people best avoided. Our village has a bunch of ex mil types inc a recently retired Air Vice Marshall and a Col and neither of them use their ranks. In any case I expect the practice to decline precipitously after the first two or three are beheaded.

  6. The only Army ranks entitled to use their rank after retirement are Major and above. You had to have a crown on your shoulder, pips alone weren’t enough.

    “Captains” are bounders and should be shunned.

  7. Yes, that sounds about right. But that then just pushes the question back a bit., Why is it just that one section of society which continues to use the rank?

    This is obviously spurred by having seen “Capt. Mark Phillips” in the newspaper this morning. Which is really the point, It seems to be the hunting and horsey gentry which do it, no one else. Why do they?

  8. @John Miller

    Because I’m a saddo I’ve just checked Debretts.

    “Other regular officers who attained the substantive rank of captain and above may use, and be addressed by, their rank on retirement from the Army.”

    But they’re even bigger saddos if they do.

  9. Does Capt. Mark Phillips imply he’s still serving in some capacity? If he was retired it would be Capt. (Retd) …..

    Having said that I’ve never come across a Capt. (Retd), only major and above and the only ones I’ve come across insisting on their retired rank were in the MoD or defence industry, where I suppose there is an advantage to using it.

  10. The landed gentry’s rule used to be that war time commissions were kept, but peacetime ones weren’t. So in the 50s and 60s there were a lot of Captains around (Captain Ronnie Wallace being a famous example)
    I’m not sure any of the more recent actions qualify. But abe Matelots like to use captain because it shows they once were in charge of a tub.

  11. Kevin

    “Especially as a suitably academically – qualified person will be granted Captain’s rank after completing basic training nowadays.”

    I don’t think so.

  12. Ahhh, now that makes sense. There had to be some rule or other and the task was to find out what it was. Even if it’s only a social rule, worth understanding what the rule is.

  13. Perhaps a slight confusion here. A doctor, vet, chaplain, is indeed Captain near immediately. Someone with a degree after 2.5 years, without a degree, 5 years.

  14. Tim – yes, but that applies to very few of the captains in the Army! Most (grads) will have done their time as a 2Lt then Lt (and then posting as capt at a training establishment) before going back to battalion as a 2IC. It will be interesting to see how things change in the years ahead – I expect it to be a very long time before the Army is committed to another eg Afghan campaign, which created a certain requirement for junior officers that peacetime doesn’t.

  15. “The landed gentry’s rule used to be that war time commissions were kept, but peacetime ones weren’t. So in the 50s and 60s there were a lot of Captains around (Captain Ronnie Wallace being a famous example)
    I’m not sure any of the more recent actions qualify. But abe Matelots like to use captain because it shows they once were in charge of a tub.”

    That makes sense. Thinking back to my youth and early Army days there was a lot more usage around.

  16. ‘The only Army ranks entitled to use their rank after retirement are Major and above. You had to have a crown on your shoulder, pips alone weren’t enough.

    “Captains” are bounders and should be shunned.’

    That’s pretty much what I was told in my boyhood.

    What do you think of the American habit whereby an Attorney General expects to be addressed as ‘General’. I think it’s a hoot.

  17. “The landed gentry’s rule used to be that war time commissions were kept, but peacetime ones weren’t.”

    Doesn’t this pop up in Austen somewhere? Probably not the only place. The character was shown to be bounder as he’d not served in the field?

  18. Actually, would there have been a difference between units as well? That is, household, RA, may be RE, would tend to keep the rank title, the rest of the PBI, not so much?

  19. I seem to recall there’s a Roald Dahl line – perhaps in Danny the Champion of the World – criticising the use of Captain as a title after retirement.

  20. Would you have to be formally at war (I.e. a declaration) for it to be a “wartime commission” or would just dropping bombs on them and shooting them count?

  21. Anyway, didn’t someone write that there was a time when you could have walked into any random rural pub, asked “Has the Major been in?” and not received a funny look.

  22. Sorry, none of this is right. After retirement you can retain a staff rank as a title, full colonel and above, not otherwise. The exception is the Guards and possibly the RHA, when you can continue to be known by any commissioned rank.

  23. Ah, that would also explain it. If you continue to use Capt. then you must have been in a post regiment…..

    For what I’m trying to work out is why, from observation however incomplete that might be, we’ve really only got this one section of the population that does continue to use it.

  24. Rob-It was quoted by Richard Boston, in his admirable 1976 book, “Beer and Skittles”. Shame he was also a writer for the Grauniad. One of the many other great quotes in that book was that “This beer is like making love in a punt–fucking near water”.

  25. I served 14 years as an Army officer from 2000, then left as a major in 2014 to work in the City, and I’m now in the reserves. My understanding of ‘the rules’ was that only former regular army majors were entitled to use, e.g. ‘Maj (Retd) Smith’, but that you would have to be pretty desperate and lacking in any other achievements in life if you did so, as it smacks of pomposity and institutionalisation.

    That said, I just checked Debrett’s, and ‘the rules’ appear far more complex than I and my peers understood: https://www.debretts.com/expertise/forms-of-address/professions/the-armed-forces/

    Regardless of the ‘rules’ though, I think it still smacks of pomposity and institutionalisation, so I try to avoid any mention of my former career, and certainly rank. I try to be guided by the old warning about fighter pilots:

    “Q. How do you know if you’re sitting next to a fighter pilot in a bar?
    A. He’ll tell you.”

    Don’t be that person!

  26. I’m a retired USAF Captain. Not that I brag about it or put it on my business cards anything. But I did 16 years enlisted, got a commission and did 8 more years as an officer, then retired.

  27. Most non-military types, including me, are a bit hazy on the rankings and how they compare across the services. We’d know that the Captain on a ship is usually the most important personage on board and, without knowing any different, assume that a Captain in the army had a similar status..So while it might might not impress those in the know that much the general public would be a different matter.
    I also suspect that in fields where traditional, solid, trustworthiness is seen as a particular virtue than having a military rank tends to convey that (justified or not) even as a subliminal influence .

  28. Interested
    August 20, 2017 at 8:26 am
    Our village has a bunch of ex mil types inc a recently retired Air Vice Marshall and a Col and neither of them use their ranks.

    For my work, I met Air Vice Marshall Sir Thomas Stonor (Retd). We had lunch together (with others) as he was helping my company with some work with the RAF. Eventually, he asked for questions. I asked him what he would like us to call him.

    WIth a smile he said ‘Tom’, since that was his name.

    He was a lovely man. Once I was at a reception, surrounded by Group Captains & Wing Commanders, even an AC or two. Tom came straight up to me, said ‘Hi Jack, how are you’ and shook my hand. I got a lot more respect from the other officers once I had introduced my friend ‘Tom’ to them. They all knew who he was, and called him ‘Sir’ 🙂

    The word amongst my colleagues was that, at least in the RAF, the higher the rank, the nicer the person. I am not sure this is a hard and fast rule, as I met many sergeants and Squadron Leaders who were delightful to work with. But Sir Tom Stonor was a real gentleman.

  29. Using Captain post retirement, in the Army, whatever Debretts might say, is a perversion indulged by the cavalry.

    Using your retired rank, unless you are actively continuingly concerned with the forces, where it might have some benefit or even merit, is dubious in the extreme and probably a sign of deep-seated insecurity.

    It can also cause problems. I think I currently (main contract) outrank my military self by three rather significant (in the sense that they are all ‘your career can stop here’) grades.

  30. Jack

    As I say, we have an AVM (c.60 years old, I’m not talkiung a 90-year-old stickler) and until he died recently we also had a Group Captain who was a decade older. The GC still deferred, reflexively, to the AVM in social situations – it was almost imperceptible, no grovelling, unless you knew them as I did, and then you could see it. The AVM, who is very well connected and slightly pompous but entirely prickable by everyone else, kind of talked down to him, as well. Even weirder, the only reason he got to be an AVM was because the other guy (the senior) had advised him not to quit for a job in civilian life at some point – ‘you’re going places’, type of thing.

  31. Isn’t there an oddity that if the military buys in an outside specialist they get a nominal rank so they are allowed to give instructions to the grunts? A bit like conscripted doctors automatically becoming Captain.

    “Ah, Private, I need you to swap that drive”
    “You’re a civvie, I outrank you.”

  32. jgh
    August 20, 2017 at 3:37 pm
    Isn’t there an oddity that if the military buys in an outside specialist they get a nominal rank so they are allowed to give instructions to the grunts? A bit like conscripted doctors automatically becoming Captain.

    A friend of mine was a sergeant in the RAF. When he retired, he joined the Civil Service (MoD) and was posted back to his old RAF station. With his CS grade, he was now entitled to use the Officers’ Mess.

    He assured me that the Sergeants’ Mess at this station, as at most others, was far superior.

  33. Attachment to a title that confers little distinction is a characteristic of the mediocre.

  34. I captained my cricket club’s Sunday side for two years so of course I still insist on using the title ‘Captain’ in all my correspondence.

  35. I believe it’s also the custom for retired (possibly only from active service) naval officers to “enhance” their rank. I am acquainted with a very fine old man who is always referred to as “The Commander” but family gossip assures me he was only ever a Lieutenant-Commander.

    Further, a good rule (although a bit OT) is that anyone who boasts about having been in Special Services – especially SAS or SBS – almost certainly wasn’t. Those who were, ain’t saying.

  36. TMB

    Like honorary ones..:)

    PM

    Don’t the RAF do the same (on retirement?), or is that no longer the case?

  37. Major and above you’re allowed to use your rank post-retirement but few do – Captains are allowed to use it if, and only if, they work in the equestrian world. No idea why. One of those weird little things.

  38. @jgh – if civilians work on a military site with military personnel they get given an equivalent rank; I was talking a while back with someone whose partner was a senior enough civil servant to get one-star rank (the equivalent of Air Commodore, Commodore or Brigadier). It allows command and decision structures to be clear, and one gets treated as if one is an officer of that rank.

  39. @Interested, August 20, 2017 at 9:24 am

    …It will be interesting to see how things change in the years ahead – I expect it to be a very long time before the Army is committed to another eg Afghan campaign…

    Unless NI kicks off again we will. It’s how we keep our military trained and with a cadre of battle hardened chaps to pass on their knowledge & experience.

  40. Pcar – in theory and in the past. We’ve got about a company and a halfs worth of actual infantry Toms these days, two ships and half a dozen aircraft, so let’s hope it’s Belgium, or Luxembourg.

  41. “Isn’t there an oddity that if the military buys in an outside specialist they get a nominal rank so they are allowed to give instructions to the grunts? A bit like ”

    I met Mrs BiND in Germany where she was teaching in service schools. She had officer status which meant use of the officer’s mess, officer grade quarters and being able to buy stuff on HP from the NAAFI without needing her commanding officer’s approval. I think it would have been hard to recruit teachers if they had been given PBI grades.

    She was really pissed of when we got married and I started a course in Blandford. She wasn’t even allowed to get a library ticket without my approval. When our son was born at TPMH Cyprus her bed wa “W/O WO ……” which really wound her up.

    As for civil servants getting equivalent ranks, that’s more about status and recruitment. I nominally worked for a civil servants in one job, although me real boss was a friend who’d just been comissioned. His job was to provide continuity but in theory he outranked my boss because of time served. There is no way he could give military orders and if I thought he was wrong and dangerous i would tell him to fuck off.

  42. My grandfather served during the war and was 2Lt KOYLI throughout, but was brevetted to eventually Major KAR. He never used any rank in civilian life, because he refused to use his lieutenancy, but his service in the rifles was never properly recognised because he was commanding black soldiers. Cost him an MC, as I discovered after he died, because (then) Captain Bradley had been the only white man on that patrol, and evidence from back soldiers wasn’t good enough.

    Other officers would be brevetted during wartime and then promoted on discharge, but not officers in black regiments.

    Anyway, you can imagine his snarl at anyone using Captain in civilian life. “Cad and a bounder” was the least of it.

  43. Army Captains using rank after leaving the service: if you meet someone doing that, count the spoons after they leave. Captain (Army) is in NATO terms an OF2, or equivalent to my own lofty rank of Lieutenant (RNR). In some units you’re trusted to work independently while leading and managing others (in my case, because the mob I work with are excellent, it’s mostly reminding them to go get fed before their cookhouse closes): in other places, OF2s aren’t allowed to use scissors, glue or crayons unsupervised.

    You make OF2 unless you get caught molesting your CO’s favourite pet; it’s seniority, time served and a report of “no obvious reason not to promote”. Promotion to the next level is livelier: in the Regulars it’s still an element of “stick around, don’t screw up and you’ll make OF3” but in some parts of the Navy Reserve, there’s an overhang of the old’n’bold on the books and so it can be quite hard to be selected for one of the few Lt Cdr slots. (This bothers some people: others like me prefer being more hands-on with the work and like being lieutenants, it costs me about £300 a day to do RNR work and if I got promoted I’d only be down £270 a day but I’d have to do much more administrivia, report-writing and other nausea)

    Civil servants and attached contractors get “equivalent rank” but it’s a polite fiction: notionally, when I was sea-riding in the Gulf I outranked the Captain of the ships I was on (they were Commanders, my ‘equivalent rank’ was Captain RN) but even though I also held officer rank as RNR, my lack of the relevant skills and drills meant that in the event of an incident aboard, my job was to either stay out of the way, or to lift and shift as commanded, and even a regular Able Seaman could direct the civil servant/reservist officer because they were properly trained in damage control drills and I wasn’t.

    And as Jack Hughes points out, ‘officer status’ is not always a bonus: on one sea trial, HMS Diamond was rather overborne with “officer status” civilians, me included, but I was invited to dine in the Senior Rates’ mess instead to ease the overcrowding in the wardroom: others might have felt slighted, but the stewards knew I’d be grateful because the SR’s food was better…

  44. “What do you think of the American habit whereby an Attorney General expects to be addressed as ‘General’. I think it’s a hoot.”
    I’ve never heard of this. No Attorney General of the USA did this. No state attorney general that I ever heard of did this. Perhaps some ignorant journalist did this as an abbreviation.

  45. This is all very well but what if you just want to be a cad , a rotter, a spiv – which title would be most profitable.

  46. ZT, I think you’re wrong on that. Maybe a use of Goolag would resolve the matter? If either of us could be bothered.

  47. Here’s a start.

    ‘Attorneys confirm that attorneys general and solicitors general are addressed and referred to as General (Surname) in courtroom settings. He says in federal and state supreme and appellate court proceedings you will see references in court documents to attorney generals as General (Surname). This makes sense
    A law librarian at the Library of Congress did some research on this at my request and confirms in oral arguments, court documents record the Attorney General and Solicitor General as “Gen. (full name), Esq.” ‘

    http://www.formsofaddress.info/attorney_general.html

  48. “Attorneys confirm that attorneys general and solicitors general are addressed and referred to as General (Surname) in courtroom settings.”
    I learn something new every day. Another way in which the courtroom deviates from real life.

  49. Was there perhaps also a tendency for the county horsey types to keep some TA or Reserves commission, and so keep the rank current, back in the day when that was possible with minimal actual activity?

    They’ve now I think got a minimum annual commitment to stay in the TA, whereas twenty years ago wasn’t the minimum only required to get the bounty, and you could effectively stay in unpaid while doing pretty much fuck all? That might be part of the reason why there’s a lot less of it about.

  50. “A teacher called Captain Lancaster took the nine-and ten-year-olds and this year that included me. Captain Lancaster, known sometimes as Lankers, was a horrid man. He had fiery carrot-coloured hair and a little clipped carrotty moustache and a fiery temper. Carrotty-coloured hairs were also sprouting out of his nostrils and his earholes He had been a captain in the army during the war against Hitler and that was why he still called himself Captain Lancaster instead of just plain Mister. My father said it was an idiotic thing to do. There were millions of people still alive, he said, who had fought in that war, but most of them wanted to forget the whole beastly thing, especially those crummy military titles. Captain Lancaster was a violent man, and we were all terrified of him. He used to sit at his desk stroking his carrotty moustache and watching us with pale watery-blue eyes, searching for trouble. And as he sat there, he would make queer snuffling grunts through his nose, like some dog sniffing round a rabbit hole.”

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