Buying Commissions In The British Army...

the practice of rising in rank through buying commissions has been in the European armies throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries... the sale of commissions was a common practice in most European armies where wealthy and noble officers purchased their rank. Only the Imperial Russian Army and the Prussian Army never used such a system.

In the British army...by offering commissions to those willing to pay, the monarch was able to maintain a standing army without recourse to the public purse...

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 grave 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 honorably retired officers with an immediate source of capital.

This system meant...that usually...only the very rich could aspire to key positions of command within a regiment...regardless of their actual battlefield experience. Having a successful military career and being an effective commander were therefore not always synonymous. Having the best man on the field was not always the case as it was rare for an NCO to rise too high in rank...there were exceptions to the rule.

Many of the purchases of ranks were carried out by agents based in London who acted as middlemen between the Crown (who sold the commissions) and the officers who bought them. Unlike the lower officer ranks, Generals could not purchase their positions. They were appointed personally by the Crown. This probably started out as a means by which the monarch could ensure the loyalty of the most senior commanders in his army.

Towards the middle of the nineteenth century, there was growing criticism of the buying and selling of commissions. Although the system had enabled highly successful commanders like the Duke of Wellington to emerge, he cast a long shadow across the nineteenth century. Defenders of the system (of which the Duke was one) pointed out that the British army had been hugely successful as an institution. However, Wellington’s success disguised the face that many considerably less successful commanders owed their position entirely to personal wealth rather than talent for war. The poor handling of the Crimean War exposed many of these failings in the British army.

In 1856, a Royal Commission was appointed to investigate the ‘System of Purchase and Sale of Commissions in the Army’. Unfortunately few of the recommendations of the Commission were taken up and the debate over the merits of the system continued during the 1860s. House of Lords opposition to the banning of the practice resulted in a Royal Warrant 1871, heralding the Cardwell reforms and a new era of army officer.

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.
Until 1870, the usual way for an officer of the cavalry or infantry to obtain his commission was by purchase. A new candidate had to produce evidence of having had "the education of a gentleman", to obtain the approval of his regimental colonel, and to produce a substantial sum which was both proof of his standing in society and a
bond for good behavior.



Rank............................. Life Guards.....Cavalry.....Foot Guards.....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


These prices were not incremental, so to purchase a promotion an officer only had to pay the difference in price between his existing rank and the new one.

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 unfavorably 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.