This is a tough one, even for the experts. “It’s one of those titles that one hears from time to time but it’s exceptionally difficult to pin down,” says Ian Beckett, co-editor of The Oxford History of the British Army (OUP, 2003).
The best explanation is that it arose from the Second Boer War (1899–1902), when the title was bestowed as an honorary reward for distinguished service – and was more commonly rendered as King’s Corporal or Kitchener’s Sergeant. “It is also said only to have existed in 1901, and to have been an innovation by Kitchener, then commander in chief, which did not have official sanction,” adds Beckett.
In 1936 the issue was discussed in the pages of the Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research: “There was an official suggestion in 1901 to the effect that soldiers who had distinguished themselves in wartime, but were unsuited to be NCOs in peace-time, should be given some mark of distinction on the right arm, preferably an embroidered band, and carrying with it a step in rank while actually on active service, with additional pay, and a donation of £10 at the end of it.”
The idea of a donation was not adopted, but official records from Australian contingents show that some men were specially promoted to ‘Kitchener’s Sergeants’ at the end of the
Second Boer War.
Dan Cossins, freelance journalist