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

By Professor Richard Holmes
Buying a commission

Image of soldiers at Peninsular War, 1812
British troops storm Badojoz during the Peninsular War, 1812 ©
From the birth of the regular army, in 1661, to 1871, two thirds of officers’ commissions were obtained by purchase. The aspiring officer paid the government an agreed sum, often adding a non-regulation premium to the holder of the post he sought to occupy.

The system was initially open to abuse, with children gaining commissions, and inexperienced officers buying their way over the heads of seasoned campaigners. But a series of reforms, many associated with the Duke of York, commander-in-chief 1798-1809 and 1811-27, laid down 16 as the youngest age for commissioning, and established the minimum times that an officer had to spend in each rank.

'Interest – the support of an influential politician or senior officer – was also important ...'

Officers who lacked money could make their way by seniority, for vacancies that arose when an officer was killed were filled by the promotion of the next senior, often creating vacancies further down the regimental list.

Interest - the support of an influential politician or senior officer - was also important, especially for young men who sought to make their way as gentleman volunteers, serving as private soldiers but messing with the officers and hoping to gain a free commission. Captain Thomas Brotherton, who served with the 16th Light Dragoons in the Peninsular War, recalled that these volunteers:

‘... always recklessly exposed themselves in order to make themselves conspicuous, as their object was to get commissions given to them without purchase. The largest proportion of these volunteers were killed, but those who escaped were well rewarded for their adventurous spirit.’

During major wars there were far more vacancies than young men wishing to buy commissions, and most officers commissioned during the Napoleonic Wars gained their rank without purchase.

Over the past 20 years a growing volume of research has testified to the importance of this group of officers. Some of them enjoyed remarkable careers. Robert Cureton was commissioned into the militia in 1806, but ran into financial difficulties and faked his own suicide. He enlisted into the Regular army under an assumed name, was commissioned from the ranks, and rose to the rank of brigadier general before he was killed by the Sikhs in 1849.

The purchase system had several advantages, enabling competent young officers to gain higher rank more quickly than would be the case today, and helping ensure the army’s loyalty because its officers were men with ‘a stake in the country’.

And even those officers who did not attend formal training at Sandhurst were prepared by their regiments, being obliged to train with the recruits until they were thoroughly proficient in individual drill and understood how to drill a company.

Published: 2005-02-28

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