Army Enlistment During the Regency Era

I recently received several questions from readers and other authors regarding a “favorite” book being passed around that appeared to have some odd facts in it. No, I will not tell you the name of the book because I do not believe in calling out a person on a public forum, but I will make the explanations to the best of my ability.

Question: Could a 15-year-old join the army.

Answer: If he did so, he would have had to pretend he was sixteen. I suppose it would have been possible, but, after 1795, the minimum age requirement was 16 for the army. Before that time, it was common for family to buy their sons commissions at young ages. John Cockrane of Navy fame found at fifteen his father had purchased a petty officer’s commission for him when he was twelve. His uncle had purchased an ensign’s commission in the army 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.

Question: What does “Crying Out” mean?

Answer: “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 he is no longer in the army, making him 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 he would be a captain or better by then

Question: What does a “Life Enlistment” mean?  

Answer: If the man enlisted before 1809, it was a life sentence. He could be pensioned off when his battalion disbanded, when he was wounded and, therefore, pensioned off, or if he was 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 a life enlistment could discourage volunteers. So enlistment could be for seven or twenty years. With the twenty year enlistment the man would receive a pension when he “retired.”  [I used this issue in my book “Captain Stanwick’s Bride.”]

Army Structure During the Napoleonic War ~

Question: Could an enlisted man move up the ranks and become an officer?

Answer: 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, Richard Sharpe not withstanding. [Note: Sharpe is a series of historical fiction stories by Bernard Cornwell centered on the character of British soldier Richard Sharpe. The stories formed the basis for an ITV television series featuring Sean Bean in the title role.] From the Gazette, it looks like about 5% of officers came from the ranks. They could be identified in the Gazette because they were termed ‘a gentleman of private means,’ but officer records also identified their past occupations, such as laborer or dock worker.

So if the character in the story is looking to better himself, he is really playing the lottery. Not much chance of that. Achieving an officer’s rank, such as ensign or lieutenant was usually done with exemplary service, a 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 a 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. [Remember Captain Wentworth in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” won naval prize money during wartime.]

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. 

Question: What does it mean to go on half-pay?

Answer: A man could go on half-pay, meaning he is theoretically “excused” from his duties, but he is still officially in the army and can be called up again, not that he would be necessarily. Pensions were for officers who did NOT buy their commissions [meaning about 65% of the officers throughout the wars] and such would occur when the man left the army and was not on half-pay. 

An officer who bought his commission, only received the price of his rank when he ‘cried out’, which could run from 400 pounds for a lieutenant to a thousand or more for a full colonel, depending on whether they were cavalry or infantry, guard or regulars. Artillery officers never bought a commission, but they had to go through Ordinance School to obtain a commission, so they always had a pension.

About Regina Jeffers

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

  1. Jennifer Redlarczyk says:

    Great information. I didn’t realize enlisting before 1809 meant for life. Did that include men who bought their commission? Just wondering about Colonel Fitzwilliam.

    • I suppose for Colonel Fitzwilliam, it would depend upon when the author thought he had taken his orders. Fitzwilliam is a few years older than Darcy. I always think of him as 30 and Darcy as 28. Most assuredly, Matlock could have purchased Fitzwilliam a commission as a colonel; yet, again, I like to think of him as earning some of his positions. Once the men got up in the higher ranks, they could only move up when another meant to “sell out” or for acts of bravery. The Napoleonic wars are often described as five conflicts, each termed after the coalition that fought Napoleon: the Third Coalition (1803–1806), the Fourth (1806–07), the Fifth (1809), the Sixth (1813–14), and the Seventh (1815) plus the Peninsular War (1807–1814) and the French invasion of Russia (1812). With all these details in mind, I imagine Fitzwilliam joined the army prior to 1809. Such is the reason I always write him as if he plans a career in the military even after Wellington’s victory at Waterloo. I suppose he could have come into service somewhere between the Fifth (1809) and the Sixth Coalition (1813), but his chances of promotion would be less then, but there may have been more men selling out. I know I went around in circles in answering your question; yet, Austen never gives up any indication as to the colonel’s history or his future.

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