Enlisting in the British Army During the Regency Era

Being an officer in the British Army was considered a “suitable” occupation for sons of peers and wealthy families of the gentry. Generally, the head of the family (father, uncle, brother, etc. would purchase commissions for his relation. We often hear of second sons in Regency romances being the one to join the Army. Such is Colonel Fitzwilliam’s position in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

After 1795, the minimum age requirement to join the Army was 16. Before that time, it was common for family to buy their son commissions at young ages. Thomas John Cochrane of Navy fame found at fifteen that his father had purchased a petty officer’s commission for him when he was twelve. He was always destined to go to sea, and was entered into the navy at the age of seven. Cochrane began his naval career in 1796 when enlisted at the age of seven and was promoted to lieutenant at the age of 16. His rise quickly in the ranks was considered by many to be blatant patronage because of his father’s influence. Cochrane first commanded HMS Forte.

Later, his uncle purchased an ensign’s commission in the Army for him when he was thirteen. He earned pay from both positions, gaining seniority while never actually serving. This was 1790 though. Such practices were eventually eliminated in both the Navy and, afterwards, in 1795, the Army. One must also recall that during the Regency, an Army officer was considered to be higher in Society’s rank than a naval officer. 

A man had to be between 16 and 21 years of age to purchase a commission. He had to demonstrate the ability to read and write with a degree of proficiency and have the connections to pay for the position he desired. Again, think of how long Colonel Fitzwilliam must have been serving England. When Elizabeth Bennet meets Darcy, he is 28 years of age, and the colonel was several years Darcy’s senior, which means he had likely been in the Army for, at least, ten years—perhaps longer. A candidate for an officer’s commission also had to present a recommendation from an existing officer, of, at a minimum, the rank of major, warranting the man’s education, character, and physical stability to assume leadership positions in the British Army.

One could only purchase a commission with a cavalry or infantry regiment. Other commissions were presented by organizations such as the Royal Engineers or the Royal Artillery, meaning one had to attend the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich to be presented a commission beyond infantry or cavalry. Promotions from the Royal Military Academy were based on experience and length of service.

The purchasing of commissions was a custom from the early days of war in England when men of rank formed armies to fight along or against the King. By the early 19th Century, people had come to believe paying for a commission guaranteed a certain “quality” of officers. No one considered the fact that those not of the peerage or the gentry had the ability to be an equally capable officer.

If a man died in battle, the purchase price of the commission was not refundable. If a man died in an heroic manner, his widow MIGHT be gifted a sum equal to the value of his commission, but this was not a guaranteed practice.

Commissions were expensive – at approximately £450 – and usually only the wealthy could afford them, with landed families purchasing commissions for their sons. It can be assumed that serving with the Army did command a certain respect, and those men that became the holder of an office “could lay claim to the title of [being a] gentleman.” Therefore, self-interest, respect and status were enticing prospects for many who were to join the army. Despite what the Regency romances say, in reality, only a small proportion of officers were from the nobility; in 1809, only 140 officers were peers or peers’ sons. A large proportion of officers came from the Militia, and a small number were gentlemen volunteers, who trained and fought as private soldiers but messed (ate) with the officers and remained as such until vacancies (without purchase) for commissions became available.

The Duke of York oversaw a reform of the sale of commissions, making it necessary for officers to serve two full years before either promotion or purchase to captain and six years before becoming a major, improving the quality of the officers through the experience gained.

If a man enlisted before 1809, his service to his country was considered “a life sentence.” He could be pensioned off when his battalion disbanded or he was wounded or placed in the invalid corp and remain in the army.  But those were the only alternatives and the enlisted man did not make the choice. After 1809, this was changed. The government finally realized that a life enlistment could discourage volunteers.  So enlistment could be for seven or twenty years. With the twenty year enlistment one received a pension when one “retired.”  

“Crying out” is what an officer who did not pay for his commission would do. If he bought his commission, he would “sell out.'”  In either case, giving up his commission means the man is no longer in the army; he becomes a civilian again. And yes, he would have to be an officer to do that.  If he has spent 14 years in the military as an officer, the odds are that he would be a captain or better by then, even at 26. 

There were very few opportunities for an enlisted man to “better” himself, other than to gain a higher rank. Only a few men from the ranks became an officer. From listings in the Gazette, it appears about 5% of officers came from the ranks. They could be identified in the Gazette because they were termed as being “a gentleman of private means,” but officer records also identified their past occupations, such as laborer or dock worker.

 There was little chance of an enlisted man to better himself by choosing the military as his occupation. Achieving an officer’s rank, such as ensign or lieutenant was usually done with exemplary service, sergeant’s rank AND some act of heroism that was noticed by those who could do something about it. Conduct medals were reserved for officers. The other way an “ordinary man” might better himself was through war booty/prize money.  Soldiers would be given a portion of the value of war materials or valuables, just as sailors could gain prize money.  The soldiers that ”captured” Louis XVIII’s war chest and carriage after Vittoria did well for themselves.  

Anyway, becoming an officer was a better way of ‘bettering himself’ if he was a gentleman at all. He could volunteer [at his own expense] and go with a regiment overseas in the hopes of filling a vacancy there, which was easier for the commander than waiting months for a possible replacement from home. 

The cheapest entry grade was that of ENSIGN in a marching Regiment of Foot. That would cost a man £400. If he wanted a like position in the Foot Guards, he would need to shell out £900. A CORNET was the Cavalry equivalent of an ensign. It would cost £1,102 to purchase a Cornetcy in the Dragoon Guards and £1600 in the Horse Guards. Men could only purchase ranks up to the position of COLONEL. However, to purchase a promotion, one had to wait for the position to become available due to death, severe injury or pensioned out. A man had to have served for three years, for example, to become a CAPTAIN.

A man could go on half-pay, but he was still officially in the Army and could be called up again, not that such would necessarily be required. Pensions were for officers who did not buy their commissions [meaning about two-thirds of the officers throughout the wars] and that is when they left the army, not half-pay. An officer who bought his commission, only got the price of his rank when he ‘cried out’, which could run from £400 for a Lieutenant to a thousand or more for a full colonel, depending on whether he was cavalry or infantry, guard or regulars.  

An officer in the Army received an “honorarium,” rather than pay. This was done because a “gentleman” was NEVER employed. “The daily pay of a British soldier differed with respect to his position within the army. A sergeant could expect to be paid between 1s 6d (7.5 pence) and 2s 6d (12.5 pence) depending on whether he served with a foot regiment or the dragoons respectively. A trumpeter could be paid up to 2s 8d (14 pence), while a drummer may have been paid 3s (15 pence) if he served with the cavalry. A normal private soldier may have been paid 8d if serving with a Regiment of Foot, but received almost 2s 6d if enlisted with the cavalry. In comparison, a labourer in the mid-18th century would have earned a daily wage of 2s (10 pence).

“A soldier would have to pay for food and forage beyond the supplied rations  – and for any other extras such as beer – out of his wage. A loaf of bread usually cost around 5d (2 pence), while a dragoon soldier, earning 1s 6d daily, would have paid 6d for a ration of forage consisting of 18 lb (8 kg) of hay and one peck (16 dry pints) of oats. From 1800 onwards, soldiers received a daily beer money allowance in addition to their regular wages. The practice was started on the orders of The Duke of York.

“Considering the prices of camp necessaries during this period, many items cost a few shillings: a haversack could be purchased for 3s 6d (17.5 pence) while leather powder bags could be found for 7s (35 pence). Dragoons may have purchased a nose bag for the sum of 2s (10 pence) and a drum case would be worth 10s (50 pence). The larger items such as tents would obviously cost more; it cost approximately £4 10s for a complete round tent and £2 12s for a bell tent for arms. Normally, the tents would be provided by the Board of Ordnance, but other necessities may have been purchased by the colonel of the regiment who would later be reimbursed.” (British Soldiers in the eighteenth century)

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Resources:

Bois, Mark (November 2008). “Leadership and experience: British Officers at Waterloo”. Napoleon Series.

British Soldiers in the Eighteenth Century

Gentlemen’s Occupations: Army and Navy

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to Enlisting in the British Army During the Regency Era

  1. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    As always your research is fascinating and something which I looked into but didn’t find as much definitive information as you have given here. Thanks for sharing the wealth!

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