A gentleman ranker is an enlisted soldier who may have been a former officer or a gentleman qualified through education and background to be a commissioned officer. It suggests that the signer was born to wealth and privilege but he disgraced himself and has enlisted as a common soldier (perhaps at the lowest rank, as a private or corporal) serving far from the society that now scorns him. Compare to remittance man, often the black sheep of a "good" family, paid a regular allowance to stay abroad, far from home, where he cannot embarrass the family.
The term also describes those soldiers who signed on specifically as 'gentleman volunteers' in the British army to serve as private soldiers with the understanding being that they would be given a commission (without purchase) at a later date. These men trained and fought as private soldiers but "messed" (dined, and perhaps socialized) with the officers and were thus afforded a social standing of somewhere in between the two.
The term appears in several of Rudyard Kipling's stories and as the title of a poem he wrote which appeared in Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses, first series, published in 1892. T. S. Eliot included it in his 1941 collection A Choice of Kipling's Verse.
In Kipling's poem "Gentlemen-Rankers", the speaker "sings":
If the home we never write to, and the oaths we never keep,
And all we know most distant and most dear,
Across the snoring barrack-room return to break our sleep,
Can you blame us if we soak ourselves in beer?
When the drunken comrade mutters and the great guard-lantern gutters
And the horror of our fall is written plain,
Every secret, self-revealing on the aching whitewashed ceiling,
Do you wonder that we drug ourselves from pain?
We have done with Hope and Honour, we are lost to Love and Truth,
We are dropping down the ladder rung by rung,
And the measure of our torment is the measure of our youth.
God help us, for we knew the worst too young!
Our shame is clean repentance for the crime that brought the sentence,
Our pride it is to know no spur of pride,
And the Curse of Reuben holds us till an alien turf enfolds us
And we die, and none can tell Them where we died.
We're poor little lambs who've lost our way,
Baa! Baa! Baa!
We're little black sheep who've gone astray,
Gentlemen-rankers out on the spree,
Damned from here to Eternity,
God ha' mercy on such as we,
Baa! Yah! Bah!— Stanzas 3-4
Commentary on the poem
"machinely crammed" may indicate the use of a Latin 'crammer' and the general method of learning by rote; a somewhat 'mechanical' process.
Ready tin means easy access to money.
Branded with the blasted worsted spur refers to the emblem of a spur, embroidered with worsted wool, that was sewn onto the uniforms of highly skilled riding masters of the British Army.
And the Curse of Reuben holds us, this refers to the Biblical story of Reuben, who, for sexual misconduct, was told by his dying father, "Reuben, thou art my first-born .... Unstable as water, thou shall never excel...." (Genesis 49:3-4).
Adaptations of and references to the poem
Kipling's poem, in translation, was set to music by Edvard Grieg in 1900 (EG 156, Gentlemen-Menige.) However, after he had completed it, he received a copy of the English original and was so dismayed by the omission of important passages that he did not publish it; it was published posthumously in 1991.
The poem was set to music and sung at Harvard and Yale Universities in the early 1900s. It became associated with one collegiate a cappella group in particular, The Whiffenpoofs of Yale. Their historian states that the song was known "as far back as 1902" and was popular by 1907–1909. The words were famously adapted by Meade Minnigerode and George Pomeroy to become "The Whiffenpoof Song".  In turn, it has been covered by many singers, including Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee.
James Jones's award-winning 1951 bestseller From Here to Eternity, about American soldiers in Hawaii on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II, takes its title from Kipling's poem. In Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers (1959), the poem is sung at marching cadence by Mobile Infantry officer cadets.
Billy Bragg borrows part of this poem in his song "Island Of No Return" on his 1984 album Brewing Up with Billy Bragg: "Me and the corporal out on the spree, Damned from here to Eternity". Peter Bellamy recorded it in 1990 for his privately issued cassette Soldiers Three. This recording was also included in 2012 on the CD reissue of Peter Bellamy Sings the Barrack-Room Ballads of Rudyard Kipling.
The song is spoken of in The Road to Kalamata, a memoir by soldier of fortune Mike Hoare, who led several mercenary companies during the bush wars in the Katanga and former Belgian Congo during the 1960s.
Eliza Carthy recorded the poem in full on her 2019 album “Restitute”. Her version is sung acapella and repeats the ‘chorus’ of Kipling’s poem several times which do not appear in the original text.
- "KITCHENER'S NEW ARMY.; Its Personnel, Spirit, and Training Described b..." The New York Times. 1915-01-31. Retrieved 2008-06-09.
- Kipling, Rudyard (1940). Rudyard Kipling's Verse (Definitive ed.). Garden City, NY: Doubleday. pp. 422-423. OCLC 225762741.
- Finn Benestad. Edvard Grieg: Letters to Colleagues and Friends. Peer Gynt Press. pp. 660–1. ISBN 978-0-9645238-2-1. Based on a recent recording by Monica Groop, it sounds as though the "Baa! Baa! Baa!" choruses were omitted.
- James M. Howard. "An Authentic Account of the Founding of the Whiffenpoofs" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2011-07-18. Retrieved 2008-07-30.
- Hoare, Mike (2008). The Road to Kalamata: A Congo Mercenary's Personal Memoir. Boulder, Col.: Paladin Press. p. 47. ISBN 9781581606416. OCLC 299048521.
- Gentleman Ranker, John Jennings, Reynal & Hitchcock (1942), OCLC 1373887.
- The Gentleman Ranker and Other Plays, Leon Gordon, Kessinger Publishing 2007, ISBN 0-548-40091-1.