Of late, I have been reading of a phenomenon going on, specifically during the Napoleonic Wars, that I am certain many of my readers are unaware. Officers often “fronted” the cost of the men serving under them and returned home completely broke, with only the glory of the victory over Napoleon with which to pay their bills.
As we often read that many of the officers in these campaigns were second sons or minor sons, and they would require a wife with a sizable dowry to survive, this issue is even more problematic.
First, I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject. My knowledge is just bits and pieces I have pulled together from a variety of sources; yet, the way I understand it, the British government ignored pleas from these men to be reimbursed, for the practice was one carried over from the previous century. In the 1700s, the officers were all of the aristocratic class. Serving one’s country was viewed to be one’s “patriotic duty” to support one’s family members in the field, meaning the aristocratic family paid all the officer’s debts. This idea was carried forward into the Napoleonic era. Naturally, doing so saved the government money. One of the issues was funds required to maintain a regiment were under the auspices of the regimental agent who acted as the officer’s/regiment’s banker.
One must understand that an officer obtained money in the field from several sources. First, he received pay and stipends for mounts, batmen, or prize money. Unfortunately, these funds were not seen on a regular basis. Therefore, the officer would continue to put out money for each without knowing when or IF he would be repaid. Pay should have been received quarterly. However, we know that several regiments were away being paid for the first time in over a year, when the French surprised those still in camp at what is known as the Combat at Côa. On July 24, 1810, Brigadier General Robert Craufurd’s Light Division with 4,200 infantry, 800 cavalry, and six guns, was surprised by the sight of 20,000 troops under Marshal Michel Ney. Rather than retreat and cross the river as ordered by Wellington, Craufurd chose to engage the French, narrowly avoiding disaster.
Officers could receive needed funds from their family members, but this was a slow and laborious process. The money was usually in the form of a bank draft or promissory note sent to the regimental agent before the officer saw a penny of the money sent.
An officer could also borrow money from a fellow officer.
In addition, officers could borrow funds against future quarterly payments from the British government. These “loans” came from the regimental agent. The most that could be extended was equal to the payment of one quarter.
Many officers took to “selling” the spoils of war. For example, the officer might take the horse of a fallen fellow officer and sell it as if it belonged to a French officer.
On rare occasion, an officer might borrow from a regular “loan shark,” but as their “life expectancy” could not be guaranteed, then those loans were hard to come by.
After the war, many officers returned home without money and did not receive their back pay for months or even years afterwards.
You might be interested in these books to learn more of the situation. The book blurb comes from Amazon.
A Light Infantryman with Wellington
This series of letters was written by a light infantry officer on campaign, as a lieutenant with the 52nd Foot in Spain and a captain with the 69th Foot in Belgium and France. George Ulrich Barlow saw action at Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz, Vitoria, San Sebastian, Nivelle, Nive and Orthez. He transferred to the 69th Foot as a captain and served with them in Belgium at the battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo and then remained with the Army of Occupation in France until 1818. His involvement in the fighting and his honest views of some of the famous characters he met during his service are enlightening, including his first audience with Wellington at Freineda in Portugal. There are also interesting asides in his correspondence including his father’s difficulties over his governorship of Madras and his brother’s involvement in a major mutiny at the Royal Military College.
Journals of Robert Rogers of the Rangers
My orders were to raise this company as quick as possible, to enlist none but such as were used to travelling and hunting, and in whose courage and fidelity I could confide: they were, moreover, to be subject to military discipline and the articles of war.
From 1755 to 1760, Major Robert Rogers fought in the French and Indian War for the British. He and his troops were given a mandate “to use my best endeavours to distress the French and their allies, by sacking, burning; and destroying their houses, barns, barracks, canoes, bateaux, &c., and by killing their cattle of every kind; and at all times to endeavour to waylay, attack, and destroy their convoys of provisions by land and water, in any part of the country where I could find them.”
This is Rogers’ fascinating year by year account of that time.
Covering the battles on snowshoes and numerous raids against the French camps it provides an insight into the ruthless guerrilla warfare of Rogers’ Rangers.
Rogers’ strategy throughout the war was innovative and he explains in detail the techniques that he and his Rangers used and how he trained his men. Included in his journal is his now famous military twenty-eight point guide, the “Rules of Ranging”, which still form the basis of the “Standing Orders” taught to U.S. Army Rangers today.
As well as material drawn from Rogers’ journals, the inclusion of letters provide further details on the Rangers’ role in the wider war.
The Journals of Robert Rogers of the Rangers are a unique history of eighteenth century warfare that was developed during the French and Indian War.
After this conflict Rogers was involved in combating Pontiac’s Rebellion and then became a royal governor. Suspected of having British sympathies he was never given command of in the Continental Army and even assisted in the capture of Nathan Hale. After struggling with money problems and alcoholism he died in debt and obscurity in London in 1795. His journals were published in England in 1765.
The Scum of the Earth: What Happened to the Real British Heroes of Waterloo?
Debunking popular myths, this is a cold, hard look at the infamous battle itself and its aftermath—just in time for the 200th anniversary of the battleThis book follows the men Wellington called just that from victory at Waterloo to a Regency Britain at war with itself, and explodes some of the myths on the way; such as that the defeat of Napoleon ended the threat of revolution spreading from France. Did the victorious soldiers return to a land fit for heroes? They did not. There was the first of the Corn Laws in the same year as the battle, there was famine, and chronic unemployment. In 1819, the Peterloo massacre saw 15 killed and at least 500 injured when cavalry sabred a crowd demanding parliamentary reform. Peace in Europe perhaps for 50 years—but at home, repression and revolution in the air. And at the same time, the sheer exuberance of the Regency period, with new buildings, new art, even 17 new colonies more or less accidentally acquired. By 1848 the whole of Europe was once more set for complete upheaval. The 200th anniversary of the battle is on June 18, 2015.
Wasn’t there something about Rothschild getting gold smuggled to Wellington to pay the troops? Or was that just a novel I read?
These sites might shed some light on the subject: