By Jonathan Hopkins
One feature of the British army in the 19th century which seems almost incomprehensible to us today is its system of appointing officers. Commissions, and promotions, were purchased and thus involved the prospective candidate or his family in considerable expense.
The thinking behind this practice was twofold: any man with a financial interest in his career was not only more likely to take it seriously, but was also unlikely to risk losing his investment by rebelling against the Crown, who held his money. In times of great political change, where army-backed republicanism was a real fear, potential insolvency, if a commission were to be forfeit, was considered a significant deterrent.
What the purchase system meant in real terms was that officers tended to come from the moneyed middle classes and higher up the social scale. It was the norm for regiments to be officered by ‘gentlemen’ to the extent that the occasional ranker promoted to command through some singular act of bravery might find himself shunned by former comrades as too low-caste to be a real officer. Bigotry worked both ways, as it does today.
Most of the time all a young gentleman required to enlist, apart from the money, was a letter of recommendation, usually from a serving officer. This might be a family member, friend, acquaintance, even a ‘friend of a friend’, and knowing royalty, however minor, meant almost certain acceptance. Potential soldiering ability was hardly ever considered. Patronage, dear fellow, was all important.
Cost of Commissions (1)
Price varied depending on the status of the regiment, those with connections to the monarchy (Lifeguards, Royal Horse Guards and Foot Guards) being both costlier and more difficult to get into. For ease of comparison I have stuck to Line Infantry and Cavalry regiments, since these provided the vast majority of commissions on offer.
Lieutenant Colonel £4982 10s £3500 0s
Major £3882 10s £2600 0s
Captain £2782 10s £1500 0s
Lieutenant £997 10s £550 0s
Cornet (cavalry) £735 0s -
Ensign (foot) - £400 0s
Once a commission was approved by the regimental colonel it then had to be accepted by the King before details were published in the London Gazette (hence the term ‘gazetted’).
Any step up in rank would only require payment of the difference eg. Ensign to Lieutenant would cost the purchaser £150, since that officer’s lower rank would be sold on at its original cost. And from the figures it can be seen that the jump from Lieutenant to Captain was the most difficult in financial terms.
At one time it was common for the second sons of the wealthy (since these unfortunates were unlikely to inherit family estates) to have a commission purchased for them at birth, particularly in a ‘family’ regiment. And because promotion was sometimes by seniority alone, this meant in theory it would have been possible for a child with 16 years ‘seniority’ to become a Lieutenant Colonel without ever having seen a barracks. So in 1795 the Commander-in-Chief (Frederick, Duke of York at that time) introduced a set of rules governing how long an officer must have actual service in each rank before he could be promoted to the next step.
Again, wartime often meant such rules were flouted, when a junior officer might be given a field or ‘brevet’ promotion through necessity rather than because he could afford it or had the requisite years of service. However, unless such higher rank was subsequently approved in the usual way he would still be viewed as having his regimental (lower) rank once he returned home.
Unfortunately for a new officer, buying his first commission was not the end of it. He had also to provide his own uniform and weapons, neither of which was exactly cheap.
(i) Uniform and Equipment
For an infantry Ensign, a basic uniform would comprise a bicorn or shako, sword and sword knot, silk sash, gorget, sword belt, coat, waistcoat and breeches, which might be got for a total of £9 13s (2)
It was also expected, though in practice not essential, that he had a horse and associated saddlery. It is difficult to establish with any accuracy how much a mount might have set him back but for an infantry officer it’s probably nearer the price of a cavalry troop horse (£30-£40) than the ‘no more than £100’ which procurers of the 15th Light Dragoons were ordered to spend on horses 'suitable for officers' chargers'. Of course in the latter case the colonel would hope to sell such animals on to horseless officers at a profit!
Because to set oneself up as a cavalry officer was far more expensive. In 1806 a 15th Light Dragoons enquiry (3) concluded that the ‘expense attending the equipment of a subaltern officer’ (Cornet or Lieutenant) including two horses (though the army would provide forage for these plus one other on campaign), uniforms, arms (dress and fighting swords plus pistols) and appointments, to be no less than £485. By the time a servant and living allowance over and above board and lodging ‘to support himself in that situation as an officer and a gentleman’ his overall costs were ‘likely to be in the region of £1000, and he would need a further £500 per annum to maintain his lifestyle’.
Some cavalry subalterns were too poor to afford a horse. Cornet Arthur Mayer of the 7th Hussars (later killed at Waterloo), embarking for the Corunna campaign in October 1808, was forced to rely on his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Richard Hussey Vivian, to provide him a mount. (8)
(ii) Signing Fee
The new officer also had to pay a fee to the King for signing his commission papers.
Sovereign’s fee (3): Cornet - £6 0s 6d Ensign - £4 11s 10d
Even very senior officers were not exempt from this. Promotion from regimental commander, for example, to the command of a brigade attracted ‘Staff Commission.’ Sir Arthur Wellesley, when selected as Commander of the Forces for the expedition to Portugal in 1809, had to pay £29 19s 6d for the privilege!
Officers received more than the private soldier’s ‘shilling a day’. One reason the cavalry was more popular than the infantry was that a Cornet received 8s 0d a day compared to an Ensign’s 5s 3d. But this was not all it seemed - even in the 1800s deductions were taken before the officer saw a penny of his pay, based on:
(i) Poundage. This was a commission to the regimental agent, who would have dealt with the officer’s original purchase and continued to act on his behalf, in financial and contractual matters, throughout his career. It was only paid by captains and higher ranks and varied, but was usually 5% of pay
(ii) Income tax. Introduced in 1799 to pay for the war with Napoleon, this was levied at 10% for those making £150 per year or more and 5% for those making less.
(iii) Agency fee 5%.
(iv) Chelsea Hospital. Every soldier was deducted 1 day’s pay per year to finance this institution.
(v) Rations and accommodation
An Ensign’s pay and deductions (1)
Yearly pay £95 16s 3d
Regimental Agent £4 1s 9½d
Agency fee £2 5s 0d
Income tax £4 1s 9d
Chelsea Hospital £0 5s 3d
Rations etc @ 4s 3d per day £77 11s 3d
Total Deductions £88 5s 1d
Net Yearly pay £7 11s 2d
Net Daily pay £0 0s 5d
That’s right - fivepence! Out of this pittance he then had to find any out-of-pocket expenses, so it’s easy to see why new officers needed a private income or sponsor.
The problem with clothing and equipment is that it wears out, and more quickly on campaign, despite which officers received no extra allowance to pay for replacement. (They could, however, claim for anything lost ‘due to the actions of the enemy.’)
Captain Edward Charles Cocks (16th Light Dragoons) wrote to his brother Thomas on 22nd December 1810 requesting:
‘…Second, would you order me a new hussar saddle with accoutrements complete from Whippy…(horsey readers of a certain age will recognise that name!)…Third, would you order me a new helmet from Hawkes (and maybe that one too!)…Fourth, a new sabre and belt from Prosser…Fifth, four pairs of new hussar boots, not open, from Gilbert, three pairs of laced half boots with spurs to them all…"(5)
All this came out of his own pocket.
On campaign, clothing and equipment could sometimes be bought cheaply second-hand. The effects of officers killed in battle were often auctioned and the proceeds sent home to his family. Bullet holes could be patched and bloodstains washed out. After the battle of Talavera in July 1809 commissary August Schaumann says at the auction of the belongings of deceased Colonel Gordon he bought "…for a mere song, his extremely fine dark blue overalls with two rows of buttons. And I wore them a very long time." (6)
And Captain James Naylor (1st Kings Dragoon Guards) records that in May 1815 in Flanders he was able to buy a packhorse ‘for 15 Napoleons’ - roughly £9 - which would have cost him double in Britain.
But that might not be the end of it because colonels, even the Commander-in-Chief, regularly made changes to regulation regimental clothing and accoutrements which an officer was expected to comply with at his expense, from simple accessories such as feather plumes to expensively gold and silver-braided cavalry dolmans and pelisses (overjackets). For example, the uniform of the 20th Light Dragoons, not even one of the more fashionable regiments, had major alterations in 1796, 1802, 1808 and in 1811, when all Light Dragoon regiments suffered general (and much criticised) amendments to their uniforms at the instigation of the Prince Regent. (4)
It was, however, possible to be commissioned, and in particular promoted, without purchase. Royal Artillery and Engineer officers were promoted strictly by seniority, and in just one random example, from the London Gazette of 31 July 1804, Thomas Munro was commissioned as an Ensign, without purchase, in the 42nd Foot.
Historian Michael Glover studied the promotion of junior officers listed in the London Gazette between September 1810 and August 1811, and between March 1812 and February 1813 (1). He found that in regiments of foot only 12.3% and in cavalry regiments 42.7% were purchased. This again shows demand for cavalry appointments was higher than for the infantry, but also that perhaps the greater risks inherent in commanding regiments of foot in wartime reduced their attraction as investments. It seems more infantry colonels were content to fill vacancies created by promotion through recommendation, rather than struggling to find purchasers, even though this might create a problem for a promoted officer trying to sell his earlier rank.
Taking the whole of the Napoleonic Wars, Glover reckoned only 20% of promotions were purchased, the remainder being by seniority (70%) and patronage of the Commander-in-Chief (10%).
One problem with promotion other than by purchase was that the officer could not sell his higher rank, if promoted again, unless he had at least ten years service: even then he had to apply to the Commander-in-Chief for permission. Can’t have a fellow making money from a freebie, now can we?
Purchase of commissions declined gradually as older men retired but was eventually abolished only in 1881, mainly because to repay the cost of every serving officer’s investment in one fell swoop would have cost the government a LOT of money.
Perhaps they had this in mind when the notorious Earl Cardigan, of ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ fame, was allowed to purchase command of the 11th Hussars in 1835. Despite being relieved of his colonelcy of the 15th Hussars two years earlier, when he was court-martialled and ‘cashiered’ (ie. he lost his investment) for abusing a fellow officer, his family paid the War Office £40,000 to obtain his new position (7), more than £1.6 million in today’s money!!!
They must have been desperate to get him out of the house
Mendicant – one who relies for his subsistence on the generosity or charity of others
(1) Robert Burnham and Ron McGuigan - The British Army Against Napoleon (2010)
(2) Charles James - The Regimental Companion (1811)
(3) Gareth Glover - From Corunna to Waterloo (2007)
(4) C E Franklin - British Napoleonic Uniforms (2008)
(5) Julia Page - Intelligence Officer in the Peninsula (1986)
(6) August Schaumann - On the Road with Wellington (1924 translation)
(7) Trevor Royle - Crimea (1999)
(8) Hon. Claud Vivian - Richard Hussey Vivian - A Memoir (1897)
Jonathan Hopkins has a keen interest in the cavalry who fought for Wellington and Napoleon. He is the author of two novels, Walls of Jericho and Leopardkill (due out in 2013), both set in Spain during the Peninsular Wars.
His author site is www.cavalrytales.co.uk and he writes occasional articles on period horsemen at Cavalrytales Blog