Purchase of commissions in the British army
The purchase of officer commissions in the British Army was a common practice through most of its history. Essentially, the commission purchase price was a cash bond for good behaviour, forfeited to the Army's cashiers (accountants) in the event of cowardice, desertion or gross misbehaviour.
Commissions could only be purchased in cavalry and infantry regiments (and therefore up to the rank of Colonel only). Commissions in the Royal Engineers and the Royal Artillery were awarded to those who graduated from a course at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and subsequent promotion was by seniority. Such officers (and those of the Army of the British East India Company), were often looked down upon as being "not quite gentlemen" by officers who had purchased their commissions. Nor did the Royal Navy ever practise the sale of commissions, with advancement in officer ranks being solely by merit and/or seniority (at least in theory).
There were several key reasons behind the sale of commissions:
- It preserved the social exclusivity of the officer class.
- It served as a form of collateral against abuse of authority or gross negligence or incompetence. Disgraced officers could be cashiered by the crown (that is, stripped of their commission without reimbursement).
- It ensured that the officer class was largely populated by persons having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, thereby reducing the possibility of Army units taking part in a revolution or coup.
- It ensured that officers had private means and were unlikely to engage in looting or pillaging, or to cheat the soldiers under their command by engaging in profiteering using army supplies.
- It provided honourably retired officers with an immediate source of capital.
The official values of commissions varied by regiment, usually in line with the differing levels of social prestige of different regiments.
In 1837 for example:
|Rank||Life Guards||Cavalry||Foot Guards||Infantry||Half pay difference|
*One pound in 1837 would be equivalent to £49.94 or US$74.50 in 2005 
A farm labourer in 1800 would have earned around 30 to 40 pounds a year.
These prices were not incremental. To purchase a promotion, an officer only had to pay the difference in price between his existing rank and the desired rank.
In theory, a commission could be sold only for its official value, and was to be offered first to the next most senior officer in the same regiment. In practice, there was also an unofficial "over-regulation price" or "regimental value", which might double the official cost. Desirable commissions in fashionable regiments were often sold to the highest bidder after an unseemly auction. A self-interested senior officer might well regard his commission as his pension fund, and would encourage the inflation of its value. It was not unknown for officers who incurred or inherited debts, to sell their commission to raise funds.
Social exclusiveness was preserved not only by money, but regimental colonels were permitted to, and often did, refuse to allow the purchase of a commission in their regiment by anyone who had the necessary money but was not from a social background to their liking. This was especially the case in the Household and Guards regiments, which were dominated by aristocrats. Elsewhere however, it was not unknown for Colonels to lend deserving senior non-commissioned officers or warrant officers the funds necessary to purchase commissions.
Not all first commissions or promotions were paid for. If an officer was killed in action or was appointed to the Staff (usually through being promoted to Major General), this created a series of "non-purchase vacancies" within his regiment. (These could also arise when new regiments or battalions were created, or when the establishments of existing units were expanded.) However, all vacancies arising from officers dying of disease, retiring (whether on full or half pay) or resigning their commissions were "purchase vacancies". A period, usually of several years, had to elapse before an officer who succeeded to a non-purchase vacancy could sell his commission e.g. if a Captain were promoted to Major to fill a non-purchase vacancy but decided to leave the Army immediately afterwards, he would receive only the value of his Captain's commission.
There were various regulations which required minimum lengths of service in a given rank, and restricted officers from selling or exchanging their commissions to avoid active service. Exceptions and exemptions from these were at the discretion of the Commander in Chief. In 1806, there was a major scandal when it was discovered that Mary Anne Clarke, the mistress of the Duke of York, who was Commander in Chief at the time, was engaged in selling commissions for her personal profit.
The worst potential effects of the system were mitigated during intensive conflicts such as the Napoleonic Wars by heavy casualties among senior ranks, which resulted in many non-purchase vacancies, and also discouraged wealthy dilettantes who were not keen on active service, thereby ensuring that many commissions were exchanged for their face value only. There was also the possibility of promotion to brevet army ranks for deserving officers. An officer might be a subaltern or Captain in his regiment, but might hold a higher local rank if attached to other units or allied armies, or might be given a higher Army rank by the Commander-in-Chief or the Monarch in recognition of meritorious service or a notable feat of bravery. Officers bearing dispatches giving news of a victory (such as Waterloo), often received such promotion, and might be specially selected by a General in the field for this purpose.
The malpractices associated with the purchase of commissions reached their height in the long peace between the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War, when Lord Cardigan paid £40,000 for the Colonelcy of the stylish 11th Hussars. It became obvious in the Crimea that the system of purchase often led to incompetent leadership, such as that which resulted in the Charge of the Light Brigade. An inquiry (the Commission on Purchase) was established in 1855, and commented unfavourably on the institution. The practice of purchase of commissions was finally abolished as part of the Cardwell reforms which made many changes to the structure and procedures of the Army.
For much of the period over which commissions were purchased, it was no more unfair as a system than the processes of royal or political patronage which applied in most other European (and American) armies. The rigid system of promotion by seniority, as applied in the army of the British East India Company, had its own drawbacks which became evident when intense conflicts such as the First Anglo-Sikh War or Indian Rebellion of 1857 broke out after long periods of peace, and many senior officers proved too elderly or infirm to command effectively in the field.
- Armatys, John; Cordery, Robert George (2005). "The Purchase of Officers' Commissions in the British Army". Colonial Wargames. Retrieved 8 July 2013.
- Goldsmith, Jeremy (May 2007), "A gentleman and an officer - Army commissions", Family Tree Magazine 23 (7): 10–13
- Holmes, p.161
- Holmes, pp.166-167
- Holmes, p.82
- The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade, Cecil Woodham-Smith, Penguin, 1953, Reprint edition (July 1, 1991) ISBN 0-14-001278-8
- Queen Victoria's Little Wars, Byron Farwell, Wordsworth Military Library, 1973, ISBN 1-84022-216-6
- Redcoat, Richard Holmes, Harper Collins, Hammersmith, 2001, ISBN 0-00-653152-0
- Bruce, Anthony P. C.: The Purchase System in the British Army, 1660–1871. – London : Royal Historical Society, 1980