Social background of officers and other ranks in the British Army, 1750–1815

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Social background of officers and other ranks in the British Army, 1750–1815 discusses career paths and social stratification in the British Army from the mid-eighteenth century to the end of the Napoleonic wars. The British army of the period was mainly recruited through volunteer enlistment. Most recruits were young men from the lowest social classes who could not find a livelihood on the civilian labour market. The non-commissioned officers were promoted soldiers sharing the social background of the rank and file. Literacy was a basic requirement for promotion to non-commissioned rank; writing and basic mathematical skills were compulsory for ranks above corporal. About ten percent of the commissioned officers were former sergeants, but the majority came from higher social strata. Aristocracy and gentry were over-represented in the higher ranks, but most officers came from a background of landowners, or were the sons of clergymen, lawyers, doctors or successful merchants. The purchase system was the mechanism through which the officer corps was structured according to social class.

Organisational overview[edit]

The early modern British Army consisted of two distinct components that were kept separate in peacetime and at home. "The Army" in a limited sense, included infantry and cavalry, and was politically subordinate to the War Office, and under the military command of the Commander-in-Chief of the Forces at the Horse Guards. The "Ordnance Corps" on the other hand, included the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers, and was subordinate to the Board of Ordnance at the Tower with the Master-General of the Ordnance as its senior political and military commander. The two components differed not only by uniform colors, but also by organisation, military ranks, promotion system, training, supply services, medical services, transportation, procurement, and budget.[1] It was only in the field that a joint command was established.[2]

Until the Union of Ireland with Britain in 1801, "the Army" was divided into a British and an Irish establishment. The British Establishment was funded by British taxes and had a budget fixed by the British Parliament; the Irish Establishment was funded by Irish taxes, with a budget set by the British government. The Irish Establishment was subordinate to the Viceroy of Ireland and his military staff, not the War Officer or the Horse Guards. The viceroy also had his own ordnance master, and a separate Irish artillery, the Royal Irish Artillery, until 1801.[3] The Irish Establishment was not a separate Irish army, although the units on the Irish Establishment usually were stationed in Ireland; regiments were freely moved between the establishments, and the regiments of foot were numbered consecutively through both establishments.[4]

In the early nineteenth century, there were 13,140 officers in "the Army", 992 in the Royal Artillery, and 202 in the Royal Engineers. "The army" had 181,000 other ranks, while the Royal Artillery had 12,500.[5]

Rank and file[edit]

The cost of a British soldier's uniform was deducted from his pay.

The British Army was recruited through voluntary enlistment; the enlistment period was for life, or in actual fact 25 years, unless killed or wounded before that. Shorter enlistment periods could be offered during war to entice more recruits. There was a constant lack of men that wanted to enlist. Forced recruitment of vagrants was often resorted to in wartime. During the Napoleonic wars, the militia was mobilised, but it could not serve outside England, and the government tried to induce the militiamen to enlist in the regular army. From 1803, men were also drafted to an Army of Reserve, the real purpose of which was to form a recruitment basis for the regular army, but it was politically very unpopular and the system was abolished after three years. Foreigners, especially the King's foreign subjects, but also other Germans, as well as Swiss and Royalist French, were recruited to special foreign regiments.[6]

Since 1701, the recruitment of both Catholic and Protestant Irish was prohibited for the regiments on the Irish Establishment. Yet, this exclusion did not encompass the officer corps, and at the end of the eighteenth century, a third of the officers of the Irish regiments were Irish Protestants. The British Establishment was formally prohibited from recruiting Catholics, but the ban was abolished in practice in 1771, and in 1775 the Irish Establishment was allowed to recruit both Protestant and Catholic Irish.[7] Neither apprentices, or indentured servants nor coal miners were allowed to enlist. Seamen were reserved for the need of the Royal Navy.[8]

The hardship of military life, low pay, and the low social standing of the soldiery filled the ranks with men driven by impoverishment or drinking to enlist as a last resort. Contemporary social analysts placed the soldiery at the bottom of society, below common labourers, but above paupers and vagrants.[9] Most enlistees were young and almost always unmarried. Elder and married men had hope for some stability in life, but young rural day labourers had a very unsecure labour market. The best they could hope for was an employment as a farm hand for a full year, or for the summer season.[10] A social analysis of British troops in North America during the French and Indian War shows that Scots and Irish were overrepresented among the rank and file. About a third of the soldiers had been common labourers in civilian life, while almost a fifth had been handweavers, a tenth cobblers, and a twentieth tailors.[11]

Another analysis, this time of British soldiers stationed in North America during American Revolutionary War, founds that there was a consistent link between recruitment and regional economic conditions in Britain. Areas that were particularly vulnerable to cyclical fluctuations of the economy had a high proportion of recruits than areas with a stable economy. Most of the army recruits were permanently or temporarily outside the labour market because of the structural changes of the British economy that came with the industrial revolution. A fifth of the recruits had been textile workers, or had had some other connection with the textile industry. Among recruits with a background as craftsmen, the trades that were mainly affected negatively by industrialisation, such as shoemakers, dominated. Trades with marked seasonal fluctuations in employment, such as bricklayers and stone masons also provided the army with many recruits. Socially and economically stable working class occupations, such as miners, ironworks workers, or nailors supplied very few soldiers.[12]

Non-commissioned officers[edit]

British infantry in combat. To the left a colour sergeant with a spontoon.

Non-commissioned officers in the infantry were sergeants and corporals. In addition to the direct leadership of the rank and file entrusted them, the commissioned officers happily surrendered the routine administration of the companies and regiments to the sergeants.[13] Senior non-commissioned posts, such as colour sergeant, introduced in 1813, and sergeant major, were strictly speaking not ranks, but appointments. Appointment as sergeant major was the capstone of a successful career as non-commissioned officer, symbolised by an officer like uniform. Selection for this post was based on capability as a drill instructor, but to the same extent also of skills at writing and counting.[14]

No special pattern for promotion to non-commissioned officer has been found. Literacy was a basic requirement and surprisingly many were promoted to sergeants after just one year of service.[15] In the cavalry, the circumstances were somewhat different. Until 1810, when it was replaced by rank of troop sergeant major, each troop of horse had a troop quartermaster, a rank between commissioned and non-commissioned officer. During the eighteenth century, this rank began to be increasingly seen as suitable for promoted sergeants. Nevertheless, the rank was attractive enough for poor young gentlemen who could not afford to purchase a proper officer's commission. Warrants as troop quartermaster could sometimes be purchased, although George II did not like to commission troop quartermasters.[16]

The social ambitions of the non-commissioned corps were reflected in the fact that it was often senior non-commissioned officers who were the leaders in the Masonic lodges who took a prominent place in the social life of many regiments. Later in the nineteenth century, however, membership in military Masonic lodges was restricted to those who were Freemasons previous to enlistment.[17]


About ten percent of the officers had first served in the ranks before being commissioned. This was a substantially larger proportion than during the rest of the nineteenth century, when the officer corps obtained the character of a closed caste. The background of the rankers can be summarised into three different categories.

  1. Old and experienced sergeants, commissioned in order to get competent disciplinarians or administrators. Adjutants were often promoted from the ranks. At the end of the eighteenth century, quartermasters were exclusively recruited among the sergeants, with accompanying social stigma. Very skilled sergeants could also be commissioned, not rarely directly as lieutenants, skipping the rank of ensign. This category probably included the majority of the rankers. Most of them had many years of service behind them and it was very difficult for them to be promoted to higher ranks.
  2. Another category was other ranks receiving battlefield commissions for exceptional bravery.
  3. A third category was the volunteers; young gentlemen with the same background as the majority of the officer corps, but lacking the money or the connections necessary to purchase a commission. They enlisted as volunteers with the hope of being commissioned without purchase.[18]


Arthur Wellesley – later the Duke of Wellington – became a full colonel at the age of 27. He is a prime example of how the aristocracy gained precedence to the senior ranks.

The basic prerequisites for receiving a commission in "the Army" were very simple in theory. The prospective officer must have reached the age of 16 but not yet 21 years, be able to read and write, and show a letter of recommendation from an officer with the rank of major or above. Rankers were excepted from the age requirement.[19] In real life, a commission required being of "good family", having access to money or patronage. No formal military training was mandated. Sandhurst was founded in 1801, but passing out from it was not a precondition for a commission. Two thirds of the officers in the infantry and the cavalry had purchased their commissions. One third of the commissions were non-purchase, issued as a reward for long service and good conduct in the next rank below, through patronage, or when a ranker was commissioned.[20]

The purchase system was intimately linked to the political system, and the political leadership of the Whigs. It was seen as a guarantee that the officer corps would identify itself with social elite, and not act as an independent force in the interest of the King or itself.[21] The system had been reinstated after the Restoration and was maintained until 1871 when it was abolished by the Cardwell reforms. During the eighteenth century the Crown attempted to regulate the system, and by the middle of the century the purchase of colonels' commissions was abolished, and promotion to colonel and above put strictly in the hands of the Crown. Less successful were different endeavours to regulate the costs of commissions, or to introduce a regulated promotion system. A young man with access to money and with the right connections could still become a lieutenant colonel within a few months after his first commission. Only when George III's favourite son, the Duke of York, became commander in chief of the forces in 1795, a strict set of rules could be enforced. Two years as a subaltern was required before a captain's commission could be bought; the approval of the colonel of the regiment was also imperative. An officer had the right of promotion within his regiment according to seniority, and could not be bypassed unless he was unable to pay for the commission. If no one in the regiment could afford the commission, an officer from another regiment could buy it and be transferred to the regiment, something that favored men with money and contacts at the Horse Guards.[22] If an officer was killed in action or died in the service, the commission was forfeited, and someone could be promoted without purchase. Casualties during a war therefore gave better chances for advancement for skilled officers without means. Such promotions were strictly based on seniority. Hence it was difficult, but not impossible, to advance solely through seniority.[23]

Officers in the infantry and cavalry came from a fairly broad social spectrum, although socially dominated by the aristocracy and the gentry; albeit holding only about a quarter of all commissions in the eighteenth century, half of the colonels and generals belonged to these classes. Many sons of officers, including many Huguenots, also become officers; lacking the social status, economic security and connections enjoyed by the sons of the aristocracy and the gentry, their advancement was slower and needed the patronage of superiors from the social elite. Rankers rarely reached beyond subaltern ranks. The majority of the officers were competent professionals with long time in service, without private means, living on their pay.[24] The lifestyle required of an officer with the King's commission meant, however, that the living costs often exceeded the income, with permanent money problems and indebtedness as a result.[25]

Commissions in the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers required passing out from Woolwich. The time of study at the Academy was not precisely established, but after 18–24 months of study the officer cadet took his final exam, and if he passed, and there was a vacant post, he would be commissioned in the most junior rank. Officers with the best grades at Woolwich became engineers, the rest gunners. The "Ordnance corps" did not have a purchase system, and promotion was by strict seniority. Advancement was therefore very slow, and as there were no pensions, or commissions to sell, gunners and engineers remained in the service for a very long time, even as superannuated and unfit for combat. This in its turn affected the prospects of the junior officers negatively.[26]



  1. ^ Ward 1957, pp. 8-9.
  2. ^ Oman 1968, pp. 113, 157-158.
  3. ^ Guy 1985, pp. 9-10; Holm 2002, pp. 87, 128.
  4. ^ Guy 1985, pp. 10, 35.
  5. ^ Colquhoun 1814, p. 127.
  6. ^ Holm 2002, pp. 49-53, 135-139.
  7. ^ Guy 1996, pp. 217, 219, 229,
  8. ^ Reid 1996, p. 5.
  9. ^ Holm 2002, pp. 149-153.
  10. ^ Reid 1996, pp. 3-4.
  11. ^ Brumwell 2002, pp. 58, 78-79, 320.
  12. ^ Frey 1981, pp. 10-16.
  13. ^ Guy 1994, p. 100.
  14. ^ Holm 2002, pp. 121-122, 125.
  15. ^ Reid 1997, p. 16.
  16. ^ Guy 1985, pp. 14-15, 18 (note 76); Holmes 2002, pp. 127.
  17. ^ Clayton 2007, p. 56.
  18. ^ Guy 1985, p. 15; Reid 1996, pp. 18-19; Reid 1997, pp. 17-18; Brumwell 2002, pp. 91-93, 95; Holmes 2002, pp. 113, 167.
  19. ^ Reid 1997, p. 17.
  20. ^ Guy 1985, p. 89; Holm 2002, pp. 157, 165.
  21. ^ Bruce 1980, pp. 65-66.
  22. ^ Bruce 1980, sid. 13, 27-28, 35, 37-38, 42, 47.
  23. ^ Holm 2002, p. 163.
  24. ^ Houlding 1981, pp. 104-107, 111, 115.
  25. ^ Guy 1985, pp. 94-99.
  26. ^ Glover 1977, pp. 90-91; Holmes 2002, p. 128, 176; Clayton 2007, pp. 57-58.

Cited literature[edit]

  • Bruce, Anthony (1980). The Purchase System in the British Army, 1660–1871. London.
  • Brumwell, Stephen (2002). Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas 1755–1763. New York.
  • Clayton, Anthony (2007). The British Officer: Leading the Army from 1660 to the Present. Harlow.
  • Colquhoun, Patrick (1814). A Treatise on the Wealth. Power. and Resources of the British Empire. London.
  • Frey, Sylvia R. (1981). The British Soldier in America: A Social History of Military Life in the Revolutionary Period. Austin.
  • Glover, Michael (1977). Wellington's Army in the Peninsula 1808–1814. New York.
  • Guy, Alan J. (1985). Oeconomy and Discipline: Officership and Administration in the British Army 1714–1763. Manchester University Press.
  • Guy, Alan J. (1994). "The Army of the Georges 1714–1783". David G. Chandler & Ian Becket (eds.). The Oxford History of the British Army. Oxford University Press.
  • Guy, Alan J. (1996). "The Irish military establishment 1660–1776". A Military History of Ireland. Thomas Bartlett & Keith Jeffery (eds.). Cambridge University Press.
  • Holm, Richard (2002). Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket. Harper Perennial.
  • Houlding, J.A. (1981). Fit for Service: The Training of the British Army. 1715–1795. Oxford.
  • Oman, C.W.C. (1968). Wellington's Army 1809–1814. Francis Edwards.
  • Reid, Stuart (1996). British Redcoat 1740–93. London.
  • Reid, Stuart (1997). British Redcoat (2) 1793–1815 London.
  • Ward, S.P.G. (1957). Wellington's Headquarters: A Study of the Administrative Problems in the Peninsula. London: Oxford University Press.