Army Commission

Up until the Reforms of 1871, officers in the British Army “purchased” their Commissions. That is, they paid a set price for the rank which they held. This was intended to attract the men of fortune and character who would know how to look after the nation’s interest. As “owners” they would supposedly be more responsible of their “property” (even though legally it was held by the Crown). As the Crown had not given them their position, it also made them appear less likely to be used against the “People.”

At the start of the French Revolutionary Wars, the British Army was weak in numbers, disorganized, and lax in discipline. Commissions had been sold to the most unsuitable of candidates, including infants and women, and officers often lacked even basic training. In 1796, the new Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of York, instituted a series of reforms, which marked a turn around which would lead to the victory at Waterloo. Better training, new manuals, and other reforms greatly improved the Army.

Officers in the Cavalry or Infantry had to purchase their first “Commission,” the lowest rank in their branch of the service. (Artillery and Engineer officers did not buy their commission, they received specialized training and all promotion was by seniority.) Candidates had to be “gentlemen,” able to read or write, be at least 16 years of age (although a few younger did slip through), and be vouched for by a superior officer. Usually, the candidate would have an “Agent” who specialized in such transactions handle the negotiations.

During the Napoleonic Wars, most advancements were made by promotions based on seniority within the regiment to fill vacancies; secondly promotions by merit. Third came promotion by purchase, by paying the difference between his and the next highest rank. (See Table below.) Above Colonel, advancement was by seniority only. There were many regulations stating that no other moneys, or other incentives could be offered. The Duke’s reform also insisted that an officer serve a minimum number of years at each step along the way. A Subaltern (Lieutenant and below) had to serve at least three years before becoming a Captain; at least seven years in service (two as Captain) to become a Major; and nine years in service for Lieut.-Colonel. However, lack of vacancies, or of the money to pay the difference, could mean that an officer, especially in the junior ranks, could spend several years without advancing.

When an officer retired or was killed, the disposition of the commission was also through the Crown. Only money actually paid for a commission could be recovered by the individual (not the unpaid advancement portion). The officer could not sell out to whom he chose, as it reverted to the Crown. This could only be done after 20 years of service, or the ill-health of the officer.

RANK Horse Guards Dragoons Foot Guards Infantry
Lieut.-Colonel £4950 4982/10/- £6700 £3500
Major £4050 £3882/10/- £6300 £2600
Captain £2950 £2782/10/- £3500 £1500
Lieutenant £1350 £ 997/10/- £1500 £ 550
Ensign £1050 £ 735 £ 400