Did An Officer’s Wife Receive a Pension if Her Husband Died in the Napoleonic Wars?

Scots Greys at Waterloo carrying Canteens without regimental markings. ~ http://www.militaryheritage.com/canteen.htm

 Did an officer’s wives receive  any kind of pension or a refund for her husband’s purchased rank if the man was killed in battle?

 First, permit me to explain, regiments were formed “whole cloth” in some regions, or whole battalions of a regiment. While regiments *generally* had districts and counties where they would recruit. A Sargent and a small group of enlisted men would ‘beat the drum’ and collect recruits, usually ‘enlisted’ men, but that could include officers. Customarily, men who wanted to become officers would apply to the colonel of the regiment, who often was not with their regiment on the Continent, but rather in England, or he might apply to the regimental agent. This process could be conducted in person; yet more often, it was executed by letter with recommendations from friends and relatives. A person could apply directly to the Horse Guards too, but then they would not have a choice as to which regiment they would be assigned.

Only about one-third of all commissions were purchased during the wars. More were purchased between 1792-1800 than later. Also more were purchased in Guard units and cavalry. One reason pensions were created and raised for officers and their wives [though badly handled at times] was because there was no commission to hand the wife. Commissions were the property of the officer. He purchased it. It was his to dispose of when he so chose.

In 1798, far more commissions were bought, meaning more money was raised. An ensign or lieutenant would receive 300 – 400 pounds, depending on whether the position was in a guards unit or the cavalry.  Extended leave was the man’s choice.  However, if it continued for several months, the army, meaning the man’s colonel,  would go after him to serve or sell out. Colonels made money from their regiment and despised having an idler on the payroll.  I read where one officer, after seven months on leave, without his commanding officer receiving any statement of when he would return was asked to return to the army, sell out, or the colonel would sell his commission for him. The man was receiving his pay during that time and taking advantage of the system. This action was the social equivalent of a dishonorable discharge.

The method of filling the necessary posts for an army was part of the Old World proprietary practices where the regiment was a business owned and run by a colonel. He sold commissions in his regiment. This was slowly phased out during the Napoleonic wars to where the Army was not just ‘Okaying’ a colonel’s choice, but granting commissions themselves as the Ordinance Department did for the Engineers and Artillery. 

So, when an officer died, his commission would be presented to the widow WHEN and IF  it was bought by another, which could be immediately, or not for a long, long time, particularly when a regiment was involved in a campaign and willing and monied candidates were not readily at hand. Depending on the colonel, he might have the regimental agent pay the purchase cost out to the widow immediately, or he may wait or ‘forget’ to pay it, just as we see such things happening in the business world today.  The officers of the mess would often auction off an officer’s belongings to raise money for the widow because she would have to pay for any transportation costs to send the body home. 

When the officer hadn’t bought a commission, had what was known as a ‘free commission’, he did not ‘sell out’, he ‘cried out’ and the widow would not receive any pension until she presented the colonel’s signed affidavit to a bank, which would then ‘charge’ the government, which was very bad at paying pensions during different points in the war. Unfortunately, the pensions were not regularly paid. Pensions for wives were about 40% of what an officer’s pay had been when he was alive. Later, in 1814, the pension was raised to equal half-pay.

One must recall the scandal caused by the Duke of York and his mistress selling commissions during the early years of the war. 

“Mary Anne Thompson was the daughter of a humble tradesman. Attractive and intelligent, she was married before the age of 18, to a man named Clarke, who worked as a stonemason However, shortly after the marriage, her husband went bankrupt, and Mary Anne Clarke left him. By 1803 Clarke had been established long enough in the world of  courtesans to receive the attention of Frederick, Duke of York, then the Commander in Chief of the army.

“Taking her as his mistress, he set her up in a fashionable residence. However, he failed to supply the funds necessary to support their lavish lifestyle. In 1809, a national scandal arose when Clarke testified before the House of Commons that she had sold army commissions with the Duke of York’s knowledge. The scandal was the subject of much humour and mockery, especially by caricaturists. Frederick was forced to resign from his position, though he was later reinstated.

“The modern Circe or a sequel to the petticoat”, caricature of Mary Anne Clarke by Isaac Cruikshank, 15 March 1809. Her lover Frederick, Duke of York resigned from his post at the head of the British Army ten days after the caricature’s publication. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Anne_Clarke#/media/File:Mary_Anne_Clarke2.jpg

“After the Duke of York resigned his post as Commander in Chief of the Army, and before he was later reinstated, he cut all ties to Clarke, paying her a considerable sum to prevent her from publishing letters he had written to her during their relationship. When the scandal forced Clarke to leave London, she took a tenancy of Loughton Lodge, Loughton, Essex. Clarke was prosecuted for libel in 1813 and imprisoned for nine months.” [Mary Anne Clarke]

We must consider the time period in which this is happening, as well as society’s class norms. These transferred directly into the army. Gentlemen were officers, officers were Gentlemen,  non-commissioned officers were the middle class, educated to some extent, and the enlisted men, the lower classes.

These colonels could have as much responsibility for their regiment as they wished, but they often handed off all administrative duties to the regimental agent and the Lieutenant Colonel of the regiment, who was essentially the officer in the field, though certainly there were the commanding colonel who campaigned with their regiment. There were reports and paperwork that had to go to the Horse Guards or the Secretary of the Army, but the only time the colonel of the regiment HAD to appear was if he was summoned. Like most of those who were or aspired to be gentlemen, ‘serving a function’ was too much like being in TRADE for a number of the colonels. They had people, adjutants, aides, commissary officers, and other staff to deal with that sort of thing. 

What is often overlooked is the real changes in the military from 1792 to 1815. The old system was in flux. The army took control of commissioning officers around 1811 and a pension system was set up for retiring officers who had been given a commission and could ‘cry out’, but had nothing to sell as a commission. Widow’s pensions were also given serious attention during this time as they would not receive the commission costs if their husband died.

Other Resources: 

The Evolution of French Napoleonic Army Organization

History: Napoleonic Wars Army Structure

Napoleonic Era British Infantry

Napoleonic Wars

Napoleonic Wars by Rob Hartman

About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to Did An Officer’s Wife Receive a Pension if Her Husband Died in the Napoleonic Wars?

  1. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Regina, love this post, especially since I was trying to find info on this subject for a character in one of my stories who died. I think I’ll send you an email with a couple of questions. As always, thanks for sharing such interesting research. Jen

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