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The 19th Century British Army Officer Corps

Updated on April 9, 2012

The British Army Officer in the Nineteenth Century

The British Army officer in the nineteenth century was a man of his time. The social aspects of wealthy society, such as fashion, participation in social activities, and gentlemanly behavior, were duplicated in the army officer corps. Officers were connected to each other within the group, and to the ruling class by ties of family, lifestyle, education, and politics.
An analysis of British society in the nineteenth century should include an inquiry into the role of the Army officer. The purchase system, the Army regiment as a social group, and the military-civilian relationship had a significant impact on the social character and historical development of the country.
The purchase system, by which military commissions were bought and sold like commodities, had its origins in the medieval feudal system. In this system, a landlord was expected to raise a number of men for military service to the Crown, and the landowner was paid a fixed sum for the costs of equipping his men.
The system had been subject to criticism beginning in the eighteenth century, and was suspended during the cicil war of the late seventeenth century. This and later military losses which highlighted the inadequacy of some of the officer corps led to its abolishment in 1871, in favor of a system based on merit.
The method of purchase for a fixed sum of a first commission, promotion, and selling-out of the Army had originally represented an investment to the officer. As the salaries paid had not increased since 1797, it became necessary for the officer to have another source of income to augment the significant cost of maintaining the lifestyle of the gentleman-officer. This fact resulted in what were known as over-regulation payments for promotion, sums which far exceeded the nominal value of the commission. An extreme example of this is the 40000 paid in 1832 by Lord Brudenell, (of the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade), for the Lieutenant-Colonelcy of the very fashionable 15th Hussars, over the regulation price of 6175.
A major point that supporters of the purchase system had advanced was that it had the effect of political subordination of the officer corps to the Government. The officer corps was almost exclusively drawn from the wealthy landowning aristocracy and gentry, the class that would have the most to lose in the event of a coup de'etat. The center of political power in nineteenth century Britain lay in the landowning class, a remnant of the feudal system of the landlord-tenant relationship, and also the emerging merchant and industrialist middle-class.
Civil leaders and military officers were recruited from a very narrow social group, partly to ensure that the Army and civilian institutions expressed common interests, maintaining the link between the two and the status quo. The lifestyle and attitudes of the landed class and the Army officer were identical; military service was seen as another way to fulfill a sense of obligation to public service, just as was the Church or Parliament. Often these were the respectable occupations entered into by the younger sons of wealthy families. The fact that the military officer and the politician were of the same social group, along with the stability of the British Government relative to those of the other European counties during this time can explain the absence of revolutionary activities in which the powerful officer corps might be tempted to join.
The relationship between the officer corps and the landed class also acted as a socializing agent for the young men of the wealthy. For many young aristocrats that did not intend to make it a permanent career, the Army regiment was effectively a gentlemen's club, in which they gained for themselves a gentlemanly air and the necessary contacts for success in later life.
The Army regiment had the function of a self-contained social group, based on the ideas of aristocratic paternalism and philanthropy, and each regiment had its own style of uniform and custom. The paternalistic and deferential relationship between master and servant, landlord and tenant corresponded directly to the regimental world. The separation in military rank corresponded directly with the real differences of the circumstances of birth. An officer explains the benefits of this distinction " we have derived great advantage this winter from the fact that our army is officered by gentlemen; of a class superior to the common soldier. He has borne his hardships without complaining, seeing his officer subject to the same, though by birth and conditions so much less accustomed to a hard life." (2).
The regiment was truly seen as the property of its commanding officer, and responsibility for discipline and the welfare of the regiment rested solely with him. A benevolent regimental colonel might incur significant expense for the welfare of his men, or a parsimonious leader might allow them to live in poverty.
The wife of the senior officer looked after the welfare of the wives and children of the junior officers and enlisted men. The regimental family imitated the aristocratic family with its dependent families and servants, and the officer's wife looked after the female members of the regiment just as her husband looked after his men: " The senior officer flings his mantle of rank over his better half" (1). The issue of marriage appears to be inconsistent regarding its benefit to the regiment. A soldier could not marry without the permission of the Colonel, which was granted only to a small number, and these were provided for "on the strength" of the regiment. Doing so without permission resulted in flogging of the soldier and the refusal of any support or legal obligation for these women. Wives of enlisted men were employed as nurses, seamstresses, teaching, and in domestic capacities within the regiment. There was no official regulation regarding the marriage of officers. However, there existed an informal rule that "Subalterns must not marry, Captains may marry, Majors should marry, Colonels must marry", (1). A junior officer was expected to devote his energies to the regiment "A bachelor officer's regiment is his home, and all his interests centre in it. He lives close to his men...the bachelor, having no household cares, is able to devote his whole time and attention to his men. " (1). While the senior officer was expected to "settle down": "The bachelor is not always the ideal officer, whose soul is centered in his corps or regiment...he is often a somewhat pleasure-loving individual who is very fond of running up to town, and going to balls and race-meetings. " (1).
The philanthropic concerns of the regiment were seen in the establishment of charitable organizations for the welfare of soldiers' widows and orphans, soldiers' wives left behind when the regiment went abroad, and regimental hospitals and schools. The sense of paternal responsibility is seen in the example of Captain Wedderburn with the Royal Fusiliers: "When not on guard or piquet, and when captain of the day, he had to make incessant inspections of the barrack rooms, to see that the iron beds were turned up in the morning, and the ventilators open; also before and after, and at every meal, to ascertain that the messes were in order, wholesome, and sufficient. Then came visits to the patients in hospital, the prisoners in the cell and the guardroom, the children in school, for the numbers of each and all were to be inserted in his daily report. Then there were the courts-martial and inquiry; committees of all kinds, mess and band; the foreign outfit for his company to be provided; the settlement of women who were to sail, and those who were to be left behind (to starve perhaps)-a mournful fate determined by ballot. " (1).
The question of competency became an important point of debate later in the nineteenth century. A major criticism of purchase was that less competent officers could buy their way to high posts in a short time without gaining the necessary experience that long service would ensure. The military establishment placed a classical education and gentlemanly character over specialized military training as necessary attributes for its officers. The few non-purchasing officers who gained promotion through personal merit could be purchased over by a less-qualified but wealthier officer, professional knowledge and diligence was less important than money. The consequences are illustrated in an observation by Lord Clyde: " I have known many very estimable men having higher qualities as officers than usual, men of real promise and merit, and well-educated, but who could not purchase. When such men were purchased over, their ardour cooled, and they frequently left the service and when they continued it was from necessity, and not from any love of the profession. " (2). The criticism culminated during the Crimean War, with intense media scrutiny following the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade. This subsided with waning public attention, but declining state funds and the issue of the legality of over-regulation payments finally prompted the abolition of purchase by Royal Warrant in 1871.
The common social mores of this period were characterized by the Evangelical ideal of a patriarchal home and family life. This prompted state involvement in family relations, workhouses and orphanages were established for those that did not fit into this concept of family life. The Army officer and enlisted man were viewed with suspicion because of their lifestyle. The transience, sexual promiscuity, and vices such as gambling and dueling that were endemic in the military were sources of much friction in the military-civilian relationship.
The transient nature of Army life for the officer's wife was at odds with the prevailing Victorian view of the Lady as household benefactress, separated from her husband's work and concerned with the care of the home. " Other women may take to their hearts standard lamps and dainty pieces of old furniture and china, may revel in the wall-papers and lay out gardens; the soldiers' wife must content herself with little in the way of 'things' so dear to the feminine mind...She must look forward to a kaleidoscopic change of 'homes', furnished houses, furnished lodgings, gaunt quarters in barracks, in dull casemented forts, and faraway bungalows, varied by interludes of 'under canvas' and troopship cabins." (1). The loss of a real home was recompensed in her part in the big happy family of the regiment. Her reward came from looking after the well-being of her husband's men, just as a domestic lady would take interest in the welfare of her husband's servants and tenants.
The officer corps remained largely an apolitical force during this time, not because of a lack of interest in political manners in general, but a lack of interest in politics affecting military interest. The Army officer was frequently a dilettante, in the tradition of the amature officer, and had little career commitment to the military. The stepping-stone nature of the officer corps for many members is shown in the many instances of an officer alternating between military and civilian appointments, satisfying an ambitious officer's wish for state service and personal gain. The expanding British Empire had a need for experienced administrators, and officers frequently filled posts at all levels, including Governorships. The attainment of political office represented an avenue to power for members of the officer corps, especially the newly wealthy. The twin appointments of political office and Army officer afforded great opportunities for individual and family advancement. The military career in itself rarely led to much financial reward, but a career in government was a great financial incentive.
The landed gentry, seat of power in nineteenth century Britain, used the position of the Army officer to maintain its interests. Entrance into this exclusive club offered the young members of the aristocracy and wealthy landowners an avenue to status. The purchase system furthered the interests of this group, maintained the status quo, and upheld the tradition of officer-gentleman.
The Army regiment operated after the feudal system of the landlord-tenant, lord-servant relationship, with its aspects of paternalism and philanthropy, reflecting the values and attitudes of British society as a whole. Repeal of the purchase system marked the beginning of the end of the aristocratic officer corps, and the move toward a more professional and competent Army.


1) Trustram, Myna, Women of the Regiment, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1984
2) Bruce, Anthony, The Purchase System in the British Army, 1660-1871, London, Royal Historical Society
3) Harries-Jenkins,Gwyn, The Army in Victorian Society, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul
4) Chandler, David, The Oxford History of the British Army, Oxford, Oxford University Press



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