The Purchase System in the British Army

Source: Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Reason Why: The Story of the Fatal Charge of the Light Brigade (Penguin Books, 1958), pp. 28-30

The purchase system, under which a man first bought his commission and then paid for each subsequent step in rank, and which enabled a rich man to buy the command of a regiment over the heads of more efficient officers, appears at first sight so childishly unjust, so evidently certain to lead to disaster, that it is almost impossible to believe that sensible people ever tolerated, much less supported it. Yet the purchase system expressed a principle which is one of the foundations of the British Constitution; famous victories were won by the British Army while it was officered by purchase, and it was upheld by so great a master of military administration as the Duke of Wellington.

No sentiment is more firmly rooted in the English national character than a hatred of militarism and military dictatorship. ‘An armed disciplined force is in its essence dangerous to liberty,’ wrote Burke, and Parliament in its dealings with the Army has always been concerned, above all else, to ensure that no British Army shall be in a position to endanger the liberties of the British people.

The vital period in the formation of Britain's policy towards her Army was the period of government by Cromwell's Major-Generals. The people of England were then subjected to a military dictatorship, they were ruled by Army officers who were professional soldiers, and, who, though admittedly the finest soldiers in the world, usually had no stake in the country, and often were military adventurers. Their government was harsh and arbitrary, and the nation came to detest the very name of the Army.

After the Restoration, nation and Parliament were equally determined that never again should the Army be in the hands of men likely to bring about a military revolution and impose a military dictatorship. With this object, purchase was introduced when a standing Army was formed in 1683. Men were to become officers only if they could pay down a substantial sum for their commission; that is, if they were men of property with a stake in the country, not military adventurers. As a secondary consideration the purchase price acted as a guarantee of good behaviour, a man dismissed the service forfeited what he had paid. From that date it was the settled policy both of Parliament and of the Crown to draw the officers of the British Army from the class which had everything to lose and nothing to gain from a military revolution. The formation of an Army on the lines of Continental models, officered by professional soldiers, dependent on their pay and looking to the service to make their fortunes, was deliberately avoided. ‘Parliament has never sought to attract to the command of the army men dependent on their pay, either to hold their place in Society as gentlemen, or to maintain the higher social status assumed by Military officers over the civil community,’ wrote Clode, the nineteenth-century authority on military administration. Men of no fortune were not wanted; if they chose to come in it was at their own risk. It was laid down that ‘the pay of an officer is an honorarium, not a merces’, and as late as 1869—purchase was substantially abolished in 1870—the pay of officers remained almost precisely what it had been in the reign of William III, though the pay of private soldiers and non-commissioned officers had been repeatedly increased.

As the eighteenth century passed into the nineteenth the people of England had reason to congratulate themselves. Gazing across the Channel they observed country after country groaning under military despotism. They observed the fate of France, bled white for Napoleon's wars, passing from revolution to revolution; Spain starving under military oppression; Austria, ruled by an army. where even to speak of liberty was a crime. They alone were free. Thanks to their military-system the country which had the finest troops in Europe, which had broken Napoleon's power in the Peninsula and crushed him at Waterloo, had not, and had never shown any signs of having, a revolutionary army.