The Purchase of Officers' Commissions in the British Army

Most people have heard of the purchase of commissions in the Victorian Army. Often their knowledge is limited to rumours of boys at Eton being on the Army List whilst still at school and tales of Lord Cardigan spending £28,000 to rise from Cornet to Lieutenant Colonel in six years. He was then rumoured to have spent between £35,000 and £40,000 for command of the 15th. Hussars, and later paid £48,000 for the colonelcy of the 11th. Hussars.

The purchase system, which did not apply to the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers or the Royal Marines, lasted some 200 years, and was said to have a number of advantages - there was "no nonsense about merit", no favouritism, and an officer who wished to leave the service was provided with a lump sum from the sale of his commission. The modern impression is that the system was corrupt, and only allowed the rich to become army officers.

In practice a proportion of first commissions and promotions were available without payment, most officers would have obtained at least one commission free, and it was possible for an able NCO to rise to the rank of General - Sergeant Luke O'Connor of the 23rd Foot (Royal Welch Fusiliers) won a VC and was commissioned for his gallant conduct at the Alma, was awarded his brevet Lieutenant-Colonelcy for Ashanti (1872-74), commanded the second battalion of the regiment from 1880 to 1885, and ended his career as a Major General. It must be said that it was unusual for an officer promoted from the ranks to rise beyond Ensign or Cornet, and many NCOs refused to accept a commission because they were unable to pay the expenses they would incur in an age when an officer required a private income to live in the expected style in the United Kingdom.

The prices of commissions were laid down in Regulations and are shown in the table below:

Rank Life Guards Cavalry
(1)
Foot Guards
(2)
Infantry Half Pay Difference
Cornet/Ensign £1,260 £840 £1,200 £450 £150
Lieutenant £1,785 £1,190 £2,050 £700 £365
Captain £3,500 £3,225 £4,800 £1,800 £511
Major £5,350 £4.575 £8,300 £3,200 £949
Lieutenant Colonel £7,250 £6,175 £9,000 £4,500 £1,314

(1) In 1860 the regulation price of cavalry commissions was reduced to the same price as in the infantry.
(2)
The purchase of the ranks of Major and Lieutenant Colonel in the Foot Guards was abolished in 1855. Guard Ensigns held the army rank Lieutenant, Guards Lieutenants held the army rank Captain, and Guards Captains held the army rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Every commission had a dual value - the official cost plus the "over-regulation price" or "regimental value" which would typically be in the range of one half to twice the regulation price. The value of a commission depended on:

  • The social acceptability and reputation of the regiment; and

  • The regiment's station (on returning from abroad the price would be high, as a number of officers were likely to retire due to ill health, commissions in a regiment ordered overseas would have a lower value, particularly if it was being sent to an unhealthy station, such as the West Indies).

In wartime over regulation payments tended to disappear because of the chance of promotion without purchase and the risk of being killed in action.

Becoming an Officer

Commissions were not awarded to anyone under the age of 16. Every officer was required to start at the lowest commissioned rank - Ensign in the infantry, Cornet in the cavalry. An individual who wished to be considered for a commission applied to the Commander-in-Chief through the Military Secretary. Those who wanted to join the Guards or Household Cavalry applied direct to the regiment concerned. The application had to be lodged by someone recommending the candidate “in whose respectability the Commander-in-Chief feels confidence”. If the outcome of investigations into the candidate's character were satisfactory and he passed the exam introduced in 1849 (and which could only be taken twice) his name was entered onto a register for a commission when one became available. The Commander-in-Chief indicated whether or not the commission is to be gained by purchase.

Sandhurst

Before 1858 entry to the Junior Department of the Royal Military College was at between the ages of 13 and 15 years for a three or four year course. From 1858 the minimum age on entry was 16, and the course lasted two years, reduced in 1865 to 18 months.

First Commissions

The highest priority for free commissions was given to candidates from the Sandhurst who obtained the required marks in their final examination. Candidates from Sandhurst who did not get a free commission had the highest priority for purchased commissions. Queen's Pages of Honour received free commissions in the Guards. Orphans of officers could be sent to Sandhurst as Queen's Cadets and received free commissions on qualifying. Ensigns and Cornets on half pay might be appointed to full pay first commissions (to reduce the cost of the half pay list).

From 1862 all free commissions went to Sandhurst cadets, NCOs and Pages of Honour.

Promotion and Retirement

Vacancies arose which could be acquired by purchase if an officer:

  • Left the service by selling his commission; or

  • Retired on half pay after 25 years service; or

  • Retired on full pay after 30 years service.

On promotion an officer sold his original commission, so the outlay for an infantry Lieutenant to rise to the rank of Captain was £1,100.

Non-purchase vacancies arose because of:

  • Death ("A bloody war or a sickly season"). After 1856 the value of the commission of an officer killed in battle or dying of his wounds within six months was paid to his family; or

  • An officer being promoted to the rank of major general; or

  • An increase in the size of the officer corps; or

  • The appointment of an officer to a staff post; or

  • An officer being promoted to the unattached list.

The main factor in deciding who would be promoted was seniority within the regiment. An officer could not purchase a rank over the heads of other officers who were willing to purchase, or be promoted free over the heads of officers with longer service. Seniority might be suspended because of the unsatisfactory state of the regiment's discipline, insubordination to the commanding officer, want of harmony among the officers, general misconduct, or when a vacancy arose from the removal of an officer, whether by sale or otherwise, in consequence of a Court Martial, or Court of Inquiry, or on account of conduct calling for the exercise of the Royal Prerogative.

Every officer had a claim, in order of seniority, to the next highest rank in his regiment subject to:

  • Having served for two years as a Subaltern (i.e. Cornet, Ensign or Lieutenant) before promotion to Captain.

  • Having held a commission for six years before becoming a field officer (i.e. Major or Lieutenant Colonel).

  • Passing examinations (introduced 1850) for promotion from Ensign to Lieutenant, and from Lieutenant to Captain (the latter requirement was not enforced until the Crimean War).

If no officer within the regiment was qualified or able to purchase the Commander-in-Chief would select an officer to fill the vacancy. However an officer from outside the regiment might exchange to purchase a commission, becoming the junior officer of that rank in the regiment.

When an officer was able to decide whether or not to leave the service he was normally able to negotiate an unofficial payment from officers who will benefit from his departure.

Exchanges

Officers of equal rank on full pay could exchange their commissions. The officers involved became the junior officers of their grade in their new regiments. Exchange was not permitted as a way of avoiding active service.

Half Pay

Officers may exchange to half pay and receive the difference in value of the commissions.

In exchanges between full and half pay officers the half pay officer is required to pay the difference in value between the two commissions on returning to full pay.

Half pay officers are permitted to retire by selling their commissions to full pay officers.

Selling Out

An officer could sell a commission he has purchased and retire at any time. However it was considered dishonourable to sell out avoid active service.

Commissions which had not been purchased could be sold after 12 years by an Ensign, 15 years by a Lieutenant and 20 years for higher ranks. A non-purchase officer who as served between three and twenty years could retire and receive £100 for each year of foreign service and £50 for each year of home service, this bonus was added to the purchase money of any commissions purchased until the regulation value of the commission being sold was realised.

The End

Following opposition in the House of Lords to a Bill designed to abolish purchase, all regulations relating to the sale of commissions were abolished by Royal Warrant from 1st November 1871.

References

These notes are based on The Purchase System in the British Army 1660-1871 by Anthony Bruce, Royal Historical Society 1980.

Additional details have been taken from:

  • A History of the British Cavalry 1816 - 1919 Volume II by the Marquess of Anglesey, Archon Books 1975

  • Highland Soldier, A Social Study of the Highland Regiments 1820 - 1920 by Diana M. Henderson, John Donald 1989.

© John Armatys & Robert George Cordery (2005)