In the early modern period, European empires maintained their faraway colonies with great armies and navies. Many enlisted soldiers and sailors were barely trained; imperial officers were often literate, multilingual, or noble.

Let's say the year is 1800. Apart from any professional experience (and many had none), what kind of training or education did the military officers have?

  • I have a problem with 'apart from their professional experience'. Most officers were from the elite or at least moneyed class. That was their total professional experience...
    – Jos
    Dec 4, 2017 at 6:14
  • @Jos edited to reflect that. Dec 4, 2017 at 6:25
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    It might be better to narrow the scope of the question to a specific empire.
    – Semaphore
    Dec 4, 2017 at 6:35
  • I suspect that the answers will be different for the armies and navies involved, and as Semaphore has already noted, those answers will differ considerably between empires.
    – Steve Bird
    Dec 4, 2017 at 7:34

1 Answer 1


Alas, I fear your question is incredibly broad, as not only each nation trained their officers differently, but this varied between the navies and armies of each nation.

It's interesting that you pick 1800 as your year of reference - this period was right around the transition of many nations' movements to having a fully professional military.

1802 saw the creation of the Royal Military College in Britain; Saint-Cyr in France; and West Point in the US. Each of these establishments sought to induct young men and train them to be officers (although, selection criteria were different in each nation).

Britain also had created a college for staff officers in 1799, taking junior officers and imparting knowledge such as trigonometry, geometry, French language, and siege warfare.

As for navies - in Britain sons of the well-to-do would join the navy at the age of ten or even younger, as a servant to a ship's Captain. Eventually, they would learn the skills of being a naval officer by direct experience from the senior crew of the ship, and gain a commission.

In particular, Imperial France and Britain led the way to professional militaries through the Napoleonic Wars - a period where ability trumped good breeding (though not always trumping money). However, during Britain's relative peace, the officer class became full of paid commissions again - the practice wasn't stopped until after the Crimean War. Training of officers took a while to improve, but made huge leaps around the World Wars.

  • "... in Britain sons of the upper class would be commissioned as a midshipman ...". It was not just the upper class. Horatio Nelson was the child of a (presumably moderately prosperous, but certainly not upper class) Norfolk rector, and was was appointed a midshipman in 1771. He did rather well at it too. :) Dec 4, 2017 at 14:49
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    Technically, if a boy was entered onto the ship's books at age 10, he'd be listed as a Captain's servant or volunteer. He'd be able to become a midshipman when he reached his teens. To be really nitpicky, one wouldn't be "comissioned" as a midshipman since Lieutenant was the first commissioned rank.
    – Steve Bird
    Dec 4, 2017 at 15:09
  • @Pieter Geerkens: I initially thought that 1800 was a "random'" date,thrown out by the OP, but now that I realize that it is significant, I deleted my answer. This comment is also addressed to HorusKol.
    – Tom Au
    Dec 4, 2017 at 15:13

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