Sale of commissions

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 and the Prussian Army never used such a system. The British Army, 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 was 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 and continued until the 19th century when it was abolished in 1868 as part of the Cardwell Reforms.

Commissions could only be purchased in cavalry and infantry regiments (and therefore up to the rank of Colonel only). Commissions in the Royal Engineers and the Royal Artillery were awarded to those who graduated from a course at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, and subsequent promotion was by seniority only. Such officers (and those of the Army of the British East India Company), were often looked down upon as being "not quite gentlemen" 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. Not only were the poor necessarily excluded from the commissioned ranks, but regimental colonels were permitted, 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 Guards regiments, which were dominated by aristocrats. Elsewhere however, it was not unknown for Colonels to loan deserving senior non-commissioned officers or warrant officers the funds necessary to purchase commissions. [Holmes, pp.166-167]
* 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 honourably retired officers with an immediate source of capital.

It was not unknown for officers who incurred or inherited debts, to sell their commission to raise funds. 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. [Holmes, p.161] In practice, 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.

Even 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 the costs of ranks in regular infantry regiments were: Ensign £450, Lieutenant £700, Captain £1800, Major £3200, Lt Colonel £4540. In the same year the costs of ranks in the Life Guards were: Cornet £1260, Lieutenant £1785, Captain £3500, Major £5350, Lt Colonel £7250. 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. [Citation
title=A gentleman and an officer - Army commissions
newspaper=Family Tree Magazine
date=May 2007

The worst potential effects of the system were mitigated during intensive conflicts such as the Napoleonic Wars by heavy casualties among senior ranks (which ensured that the vacant commissions were exchanged for their face value only), and 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.

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 his commission. It was in the Crimea that it became most obvious 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 Cardwell reforms 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 East India Company, had its own drawbacks which became evident when intense conflicts such as the First Anglo-Sikh War or Indian Mutiny broke out after long periods of peace, and many senior officers proved too elderly or infirm to command effectively in the field.


The term "purchase of commission" in the Pakistan Army has a different meaning. An officer who wishes to leave active service before the expiration of his minimum term is required to pay a sum of money to the government (usually to cover the cost of his training) to obtain a release from duty or "purchase his commission".


* "The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade", Cecil Woodham-Smith, Penguin, 1953, Reprint edition (July 1, 1991) ISBN 0140012788
* "Queen Victoria's Little Wars", Byron Farwell, Wordsworth Military Library, 1973, ISBN 1840222166
* "Redcoat", Richard Holmes, Harper Collins, Hammersmith, 2001, ISBN 0-00-653152-0


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