Sale of commissions
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
Imperial Russian Army
The Imperial Russian Army was the land armed force of the Russian Empire, active from around 1721 to the Russian Revolution of 1917. In the early 1850s, the Russian army consisted of around 938,731 regular soldiers and 245,850 irregulars . Until the time of military reform of Dmitry Milyutin in...

 and the Prussian Army
Prussian Army
The Royal Prussian Army was the army of the Kingdom of Prussia. It was vital to the development of Brandenburg-Prussia as a European power.The Prussian Army had its roots in the meager mercenary forces of Brandenburg during the Thirty Years' War...

 never used such a system. While initially shunned in the French Revolutionary Army
French Revolutionary Army
The French Revolutionary Army is the term used to refer to the military of France during the period between the fall of the ancien regime under Louis XVI in 1792 and the formation of the First French Empire under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804. These armies were characterised by their revolutionary...

, it was eventually revived in the Grande Armée of Napoleon I
Napoleon I
Napoleon Bonaparte was a French military and political leader during the latter stages of the French Revolution.As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1815...

 (mainly in the French allied and satellite states). The British Army
British Army
The British Army is the land warfare branch of Her Majesty's Armed Forces in the United Kingdom. It came into being with the unification of the Kingdom of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. The new British Army incorporated Regiments that had already existed in England...

, which used this practice through most of its history, was last to abolish it.


In the Austrian army, the sale of commissions was abolished in 1803. Nevertheless, it remained legal if two officers agreed to "exchange" their ranks. This system existed up to the middle of the 19th century.


The practice started in 1683 during the reign of Charles II
Charles II of England
Charles II was monarch of the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland.Charles II's father, King Charles I, was executed at Whitehall on 30 January 1649, at the climax of the English Civil War...

 and continued until 1871, being abolished on 1 November that year as part of the Cardwell Reforms
Cardwell Reforms
The Cardwell Reforms refer to a series of reforms of the British Army undertaken by Secretary of State for War Edward Cardwell between 1868 and 1874.-Background:...


Commissions could only be purchased in cavalry
Cavalry or horsemen were soldiers or warriors who fought mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the third oldest and the most mobile of the combat arms...

 and infantry
Infantrymen are soldiers who are specifically trained for the role of fighting on foot to engage the enemy face to face and have historically borne the brunt of the casualties of combat in wars. As the oldest branch of combat arms, they are the backbone of armies...

A regiment is a major tactical military unit, composed of variable numbers of batteries, squadrons or battalions, commanded by a colonel or lieutenant colonel...

s (and therefore up to the rank of Colonel only). Commissions in the Royal Engineers
Royal Engineers
The Corps of Royal Engineers, usually just called the Royal Engineers , and commonly known as the Sappers, is one of the corps of the British Army....

 and the Royal Artillery
Royal Artillery
The Royal Regiment of Artillery, commonly referred to as the Royal Artillery , is the artillery arm of the British Army. Despite its name, it comprises a number of regiments.-History:...

 were awarded to those who graduated from a course at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich
Woolwich is a district in south London, England, located in the London Borough of Greenwich. The area is identified in the London Plan as one of 35 major centres in Greater London.Woolwich formed part of Kent until 1889 when the County of London was created...

, and subsequent promotion was by seniority only. Such officers (and those of the Army of the British East India Company
British East India Company
The East India Company was an early English joint-stock company that was formed initially for pursuing trade with the East Indies, but that ended up trading mainly with the Indian subcontinent and China...

), were often looked down upon as being "not quite gentlemen
The term gentleman , in its original and strict signification, denoted a well-educated man of good family and distinction, analogous to the Latin generosus...

" by officers who had purchased their commissions.

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
    Looting —also referred to as sacking, plundering, despoiling, despoliation, and pillaging—is the indiscriminate taking of goods by force as part of a military or political victory, or during a catastrophe, such as during war, natural disaster, or rioting...

     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.

The official values of commissions varied by regiment, usually in line with the differing levels of social prestige of different regiments.

In 1837 for example:
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

*as of August 27, 2010 one pound in 1837 would be equivalent to $290 today based on conversion through contemporary gold value

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.

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.

Social exclusiveness was preserved not only by money, but regimental colonels were permitted to, and often did, refuse to allow the purchase of a commission in their regiment by anyone 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 aristocrats. 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 was appointed to the Staff (usually through being promoted to Major General
Major General
Major general or major-general is a military rank used in many countries. It is derived from the older rank of sergeant major general. A major general is a high-ranking officer, normally subordinate to the rank of lieutenant general and senior to the ranks of brigadier and brigadier 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 e.g. 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 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 of the Army. In 1806, there was a major scandal when it was discovered that Mary Ann Clark, the mistress of the Duke of York
Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany
The Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany was a member of the Hanoverian and British Royal Family, the second eldest child, and second son, of King George III...

, who was Commander in Chief at the time, 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
Napoleonic Wars
The Napoleonic Wars were a series of wars declared against Napoleon's French Empire by opposing coalitions that ran from 1803 to 1815. As a continuation of the wars sparked by the French Revolution of 1789, they revolutionised European armies and played out on an unprecedented scale, mainly due to...

 by heavy casualties among senior ranks, which resulted in many non-purchase vacancies, and also discouraged wealthy dilettante
An amateur is generally considered a person attached to a particular pursuit, study, or science, without pay and often without formal training....

s 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
Brevet (military)
In many of the world's military establishments, brevet referred to a warrant authorizing a commissioned officer to hold a higher rank temporarily, but usually without receiving the pay of that higher rank except when actually serving in that role. An officer so promoted may be referred to as being...

 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
Battle of Waterloo
The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday 18 June 1815 near Waterloo in present-day Belgium, then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands...

), often received such promotion, and might be specially selected by a General in the field for this purpose.

The malpractices associated with the purchase of commissions reached their height in the long peace between the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War
Crimean War
The Crimean War was a conflict fought between the Russian Empire and an alliance of the French Empire, the British Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Sardinia. The war was part of a long-running contest between the major European powers for influence over territories of the declining...

, when Lord Cardigan
James Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan
Lieutenant General James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan, KCB , was an officer in the British Army who commanded the Light Brigade during the Crimean War...

 paid £40,000 for the Colonelcy of the stylish 11th Hussars
11th Hussars
The 11th Hussars was a cavalry regiment of the British Army.-History:The regiment was founded in 1715 as Colonel Philip Honeywood's Regiment of Dragoons and was known by the name of its Colonel until 1751 when it became the 11th Regiment of Dragoons...

. 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
Charge of the Light Brigade
The Charge of the Light Brigade was a charge of British cavalry led by Lord Cardigan against Russian forces during the Battle of Balaclava on 25 October 1854 in the Crimean War. The charge was the result of a miscommunication in such a way that the brigade attempted a much more difficult objective...

. 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 Cardwell reforms
Cardwell Reforms
The Cardwell Reforms refer to a series of reforms of the British Army undertaken by Secretary of State for War Edward Cardwell between 1868 and 1874.-Background:...

 which made many changes to the structure and procedures of the Army.

For much of the period over which commissions were purchased, it was no more unfair as a system than the processes of royal or political patronage which applied in most other European (and American) armies. The rigid system of promotion by seniority, as applied in the army of the British East India Company, had its own drawbacks which became evident when intense conflicts such as the First Anglo-Sikh War
First Anglo-Sikh War
The First Anglo-Sikh War was fought between the Sikh Empire and the British East India Company between 1845 and 1846. It resulted in partial subjugation of the Sikh kingdom.-Background and causes of the war:...

 or Indian Rebellion of 1857
Indian Rebellion of 1857
The Indian Rebellion of 1857 began as a mutiny of sepoys of the British East India Company's army on 10 May 1857, in the town of Meerut, and soon escalated into other mutinies and civilian rebellions largely in the upper Gangetic plain and central India, with the major hostilities confined to...

 broke out after long periods of peace, and many senior officers proved too elderly or infirm to command effectively in the field.


  • The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade, Cecil Woodham-Smith
    Cecil Woodham-Smith
    Cecil Blanche Woodham-Smith was a British historian and biographer. She wrote four popular history books, each dealing with a different aspect of the Victorian era.-Early life:...

    , Penguin, 1953, Reprint edition (July 1, 1991) ISBN 0140012788
  • Queen Victoria's Little Wars, Byron Farwell
    Byron Farwell
    Byron Edgar Farwell was an American military historian and biographer.-Biography:Farwell graduated from Ohio State University and the University of Chicago...

    , Wordsworth Military Library, 1973, ISBN 1840222166
  • Redcoat, Richard Holmes, Harper Collins, Hammersmith, 2001, ISBN 0-00-653152-0

Further reading

  • Bruce, Anthony P. C.: The Purchase System in the British Army, 1660–1871. – London : Royal Historical Society, 1980

External links

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