The purchase of officer commissions in the British Army was the practice of paying money to be made an officer in the cavalry and infantry regiments of the English and later British Army. By payment, a commission as an officer could be secured, avoiding the need to wait to be promoted for merit or seniority. This practice was the usual way to obtain a commission in the Army between the 17th and 19th centuries.
Formally, the purchase price of a commission was a cash bond for good behaviour, forfeited to the Army's cashiers (accountants) in the event of cowardice, desertion, or gross misbehaviour.
Great Britain and Ireland
Only commissions in cavalry and infantry regiments could be purchased and therefore only those up to the rank of colonel. Commissions in the Royal Engineers and the Royal Artillery were awarded to those who graduated from a course at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and subsequent promotion was by seniority. Such officers and those of the Presidency Armies of the British East India Company were often looked down upon as being "not quite gentlemen" by officers who had purchased their commissions. Also, the Royal Navy never practised the sale of commissions, with advancement in officer ranks being solely by merit or seniority, at least in theory (in practice, the requirement for new officers to purchase expensive uniforms and study materials restricted naval commissions to sons of the middle class or higher up).
Justifications for practice
There were several key rationalisations for the sale of commissions:
- 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 filled by persons having a vested interest in maintaining the social and political status quo; thereby reducing the possibility of the military taking part in a revolution or coup.
- It ensured that officers had some private means and were less likely 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 upon leaving the service.
- It preserved the social exclusivity of the officer class.
The official values of commissions varied by branch (see below). Over regulation (non-official) payments were usually in line with the differing levels of social prestige of different regiments.
For example, in 1837 the costs of commissions were:
|Rank||Infantry||Cavalry||Life Guards||Foot Guards||Half pay difference|
|Cornet/Ensign||£450 (£41k)||£840 (£77k)||£1,260 (£115k)||£1,200 (£110k)||£150 (£14k)|
|Lieutenant||£700 (£64k)||£1,190 (£109k)||£1,785 (£163k)||£2,050 (£188k)||£365 (£33k)|
|Captain||£1,800 (£165k)||£3,225 (£295k)||£3,500 (£320k)||£4,800 (£439k)||£511 (£47k)|
|Major||£3,200 (£293k)||£4,575 (£419k)||£5,350 (£490k)||£8,300 (£760k)||£949 (£87k)|
|Lieutenant Colonel||£4,500 (£412k)||£6,175 (£565k)||£7,250 (£664k)||£9,000 (£824k)||£1,314 (£120k)|
These prices were 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 auction. A self-interested senior officer might well regard his commission as his pension fund and would encourage the inflation of its value. An officer who incurred or inherited debts might sell his commission to raise funds.
Social exclusiveness was preserved not only by money, as regimental colonels were permitted to – and often did – refuse the purchase of a commission in their regiment by a man 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 the nobility. 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 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. For instance, 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 which 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 then Commander in Chief Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, 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.
Abolition of practice
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 £35,000 (equivalent to £3,280,000 in 2019) 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 1871 Cardwell reforms which made many changes to the structure and procedures of the Army.
During the eighteenth century the purchase of commissions was a common practice in many European armies, although not usually to the same extent as in Britain. It had been discontinued in the French infantry in 1758, although retained in the socially more exclusive cavalry until the Revolution. The Austrian government had attempted to place restrictions on the practice, although it continued informally. Only in the Prussian Army was it unknown. In Russia, Peter the Great mandated that all officers must start as privates, so the common route was to sign up a newborn or infant scion of a noble family as private; reporting for service at the age of 15, the boy would already be promoted on seniority to a junior lieutenant or equivalent rank. This practice became gradually obsolete in the 19th century and was formally abolished by the Russian military reforms of 1864.
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