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18 September 2014
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The Soldier's Trade in a Changing World

By Professor Richard Holmes
Epaulette gentry

Image of Lancers Officer with horse and red coat
A Lancers Officer, 1809 ©
If private soldiers, for so much of the army’s history, were definitely not gentlemen, conversely it was confidently assumed that officers were. They were, moreover, gentlemen of sufficient means to buy their commissions.

Sometimes they did so because of a sense of adventure or patriotism, sometimes the purchase of a commission set the seal on a family’s social ascent, and sometimes a family with too many boys and too few opportunities bought a commission for a younger son to give him some sort of gainful employment.

In addition, of course, there was the sheer delight of shining in scarlet and gold. Young William Thornton Keep was bought a commission in the 77th Regiment in 1808 and told his mother of his arrival with his regiment, in garrison in Winchester.

'The first objects that struck my attention were the members of the Band in their fanciful apparel, and the officers and soldiers passing about and reciprocally saluting as they met, made me feel as if I already belonged to them. After tea I uncorded my boxes to prepare myself for their parade next morning. I took from the wrappers my scarlet coat and beautiful epaulette, and attached it to the shoulder in readiness ...
In the Service of the King, Ian Fletcher (Spellmount, 1997)

Published: 2005-02-28

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