Colonel is a senior military officer rank below the general officer ranks. However, in some small military forces, such as those of Monaco or the Vatican, colonel is the highest rank. It is also used in some police forces and paramilitary organizations.
Historically, in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth 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.
Equivalent naval ranks may be called captain or ship-of-the-line captain. In the Commonwealth air force rank system, the equivalent rank is group captain.
History and originsThe word "colonel" derives from the same root as the word "column" and means "of a column", and, by implication, "commander of a column". The word "colonel" is therefore linked to the word "column" 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.
Since the word is believed to derive from sixteenth-century Italian, it was presumably first used by Italian city states in that century. The first use of colonel as a rank in a national army was in the French "National Legions" 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 seventeenth century, a colonel became a holder 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. However, the Spanish word probably derives from a different origin, in that it appears to designate an officer of the crown, rather than an officer of the column. 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. By extension, the group of companies subject to a colonel's regiment came to be referred to as his regiment 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.
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.
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.
Colonel-in-chiefIn 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' 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.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 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 and equivalent ranks by country
Colonel in individual military forcesThe following articles deal with the rank of colonel as it is used in various national militaries.
North and South American equivalent ranks
European equivalent ranks
- Colonel or Kolonel
- Eversti or Överste
- Syntagmatarchis .
- Plukovník: Czech Republic and Slovakia
- Polkovnik, Polkovnyk or Palkounik: Belarus, Bulgaria, Russia, Slovenia, North Macedonia and Ukraine
- Pukovnik: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia
- Pulkvedis: Latvia
- Pulkininkas: Lithuania
- Pułkownik: Poland
- პოლკოვნიკი Georgia.
- The Arabic word for "colonel" is عميد which comes from the same triconsonantal root as عمود meaning "column". Both words come from the root ʿ-m-d, column in the sense of "pillar". This relationship is comparable to that "colonel" and "column" are cognates with Latin columna as common ancestor. In terms of equivalence, the Arabic colonel, ʿamīd, is conventionally considered to be equivalent to the Commonwealth rank of brigadier.
- It is the rank of عقيد, which is conventionally considered equivalent to the Commonwealth rank of colonel. The word ʿaqīd is linked to عقد, meaning a contract, covenant or pact. In its original literal meaning, ʿaqīd means a man who has entered into a contract, pact or covenant.
Asian equivalent ranks
- : Dagarwal
- : Colonel
- : Lok Vorakseni Ek
- : Shangxiao
- : Colonel
- : Kolonel
- : Sarhang
- : Aluf Mishne
- : Colonel
- : Colonel
- : Sangchwa
- : Lakan, Coronel
- : Daeryong
- : Colonel
- Nai Phan Chief of 1,000
- * Phan Ek First of 1,000: Colonel
- * Phan Tho Second of 1,000: Lieutenant colonel
- : Colonel
- : Thượng tá
Turkish and Ottoman ranks
The word for a regiment, alay, can also mean a procession, or be loosely translated as a column of men. Alay was in the Ottoman army rank miralay and the Ottoman gendarmerie rank alaybeyi. These Ottoman ranks were equivalent to European brigade commanders.
The modern Turkish Army uses the rank of albay as its colonel rank. This is a contraction of the older Turkish word alaybeyi.
African equivalent ranks
- Colonel and Coronel
Insignia of Army colonels
Insignia of Air Force colonels
Insignia of Naval infantry colonels
Colonel as highest-ranking officerSome military forces have a colonel as their highest-ranking officer, with no 'general' ranks, and no superior authority other than the respective national government. Examples include the following :
- Antigua and Barbuda
- Costa Rica
- Vatican City State
Other uses of colonel ranks
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 military police forces such as Military Police, the Carabineros de Chile and the French National Gendarmerie. The Police of Russia, being a paramilitary organization, also uses this rank.