Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics

General Brevet Calendar of the British Army 1790-1819

By Steve Brown

Brevet: noun. A commission promoting a military officer in rank without an increase in pay.
Brevetted or breveted, brevetting or breveting, brevets: To promote by brevet.
Middle English, from Anglo-Norman, diminutive of bref, letter, from Latin brevis, short.

The regimental system was of such primacy in the British Army that it held an internalised rank system which operated independently of the Army’s promotion system. An officer could very likely hold a higher rank in the Army than he did in his regiment; brevet rank did not entitle the holder to additional pay in the regiment, nor additional regimental duties, unless acting in an ‘Army’ role – for example, a garrison commander.

Only captains, majors and lieutenant-colonels were eligible for brevet promotion. An officer could neither sell, exchange nor go on the half-pay of his brevet rank.

Seniority in the regiment determined promotion in the regiment, based upon regimental and not Army rank.

However the big advantage of brevet rank was that it placed an officer on the road to higher rank through progressive promotion in the army, which was determined by Army rather than regimental rank. Officers holding higher brevet rank could be promoted to the same substantive rank in another unit over the heads of senior officers of the same substantive rank who did not hold a brevet.

This however sometimes caused problems. Arthur Wellesley arrived at the rank of lieutenant-colonel by purchase on 30 September 1793, despite having spent only six-and-a-half years in the army, and only five months as a major. His rise was rapid but unremarkable in the British Army of the time; many other young and inexperienced officers reached such a rank either through purchase, or through the practice of ‘recruiting for rank’, receiving a commission by the raising of a number of enlistees, even entire regiments (as was the case with Thomas Graham). This caused resentment amongst long-serving but poorer officers.

One device which was used to ameliorate the feelings of this latter class was the general brevet. This was the communal up-lift of an entire class of officers to the next rank, with defined cut-off points at the upper and lower end, initiated by the Commander-in-Chief and signed off by the King. Sometimes this was based upon promotion of an entire group by year, but not always. Other rules included exclusion by stationary half-pay rank due to inactivity, or charges pending, as evidenced by this letter from the Duke of York to a vexed overlooked officer in 1803;

It is an invariable rule of the service, not to include in any brevet promotion, an officer (whatever may be his rank) against whom there exists charges, the merit of which has not been decided….

In a system with aged generals at the top end who sooner or later succumbed to imbecility or natural causes, the continual shuffling forward of the lower ranked field officers and junior generals ensured a turnover in officers that allowed recipients of the brevet to ‘keep up the spirit of the army.’ Henry Torrens made this comment in 1810 after calculating that an officer entering the army at the age of 16 could make Major-General by the age of 51, with the wry post-script that the youngest lieutenant-general in the last general brevet had been a mere 75 years young.

The Commander-in-Chief Lord Amherst made a well-intentioned but ultimately flawed decision to promulgate a massive promotion of majors and lieutenant-colonels by brevet in 1794, subsequently called ‘The Monstrous Brevet’; however word got out well in advance, and many officers purchased a step in rank in order to effectively get a double-step when the brevet was awarded. The Monstrous Brevet was finally published on 28 September 1794 but back-dated to 1 March 1794, so that many of the recipients found that they had purchased a step in rank towards seniority that in reality they could have received for free. The Duke of York later made corrections to prevent such things happening again.

The following career notes for Frederick Philipse Robinson shows explain the process;

Rank

Regiment

Army

Age

Captain

3 July 1794 (38th Foot)

 

30

25 August 1794 (8th Foot)

 

30

Major

1 September 1794 (127th Foot, disbanded 1795)

 

31

1 September 1795 (32nd Foot)

 

32

 

May 1796 (Inspecting Field Officer of Recruiting in Bedford)

32

29 July 1796 (134th Foot, later to half-pay)

 

32

1798-1814 (half-pay 91st Foot)

 

35-51

Lieutenant-Colonel

never held

1 January 1800

36

 

1806 (Inspecting Field Officer of Recruiting in London)

43

Colonel

 

25 July 1810

46

12 January 1814 (2nd Garrison Battalion, disbanded 5 December 1814)

 

50

1 December 1827 (59th Foot)

 

63

15 June 1840 (39th Foot)

 

77

Major-General

 

4 June 1813

49

Lieutenant-General

 

27 May 1825

61

General

 

22 November 1841

78

So when Robinson was breveted Colonel in 1810, he was in fact a still only major on half-pay in the 91st Foot; a regimental rank he still held when promoted to major-general in 1813 (although a short time later he assumed the Colonelcy of the 2nd Garrison Battalion). Therefore, when sent out to command a brigade in the Peninsula in 1813 aged nearly 50, he had technically never even exercised command of a battalion nor seen a shot fired in anger since serving under Sir Charles Grey in the West Indies in 1794, languishing on half-pay throughout his thirties and forties (admittedly his health was at times poor due to his earlier West Indies service, and he proved a very effective recruiting officer). To Robinson’s great credit, Wellington later hand-picked him to send to North America as a brigade commander in 1814.

Brevet Calendar

In the table below, dates of general brevets are shown in bold; those in italics are shown for reference only but fall outside the era in question so were not studied in any detail.

How to read the Calendar:

The Calendar shows the path by which an officer could progress from a majority to General (if he lived so long) by promotion in a general brevet, assuming that the officer did not acquire a step by purchase (only from major to lieutenant-colonel) or through royal patronage, to speed up the process.

Ranks shown are in the Army List and do not include ‘Local Rank’ which was awarded for service in a particular theatre only.

Major

LIieutenant-Colonel

Colonel

Major-General

Lieutenant-General

General

   

1761-1765

1766-1775

29 August 1777

12 October 1793

   

1769-1771

1777

19 February 1779

3 May 1796

   

1772-1774

20 November 1782

   

1775-1777

1779

28 September 1787

26 January 1797

   

1777-1778

1780-1781

12 October 1793

1 January 1798

   

1779

1782

3 May 1796

1 January 1801

   

1780

1787

26 January 1797

29 April 1802

   

1781

28 April 1790

   

1782

12 October 1793

1 January 1798

25 September 1803

   

1783-1789

20 December 1793

26 June 1799

25 April 1808

 

1779-1781

18 November 1790

3 October 1794

1 January 1801

25 October 1809

1 January 1812

 

1781-1782

12 October 1793

26 February 1795

29 April 1802

 

1783-1787

1 March 1794

3 May 1796

25 September 1802

4 June 1813

1779-1781

18 November 1790

26 February 1795

1 January 1798

1 January 1805

4 June 1814

 

1792-1793

21 August 1795

18 June 1798

30 October 1805

 

3 May 1796

1 January 1801

25 April 1808

12 August 1819

1780-1782

12 October 1793

29 April 1802

1783-1787

Jan/Feb 1794

26 January 1797

25 September 1803

25 October 1809

1788

25 July 1810

 

1789

1 March 1794

1 January 1798

1 January 1805

4 June 1811

 

1790

1794

1 January 1800

30 October 1805

1 January 1812

 

1791

25 April 1808

4 June 1813

 

1792

1 January 1801

1793

1 September 1795

29 April 1802

25 October 1809

4 June 1814

 
 

1795

25 September 1803

25 July 1810

 

1792-1794

3 May 1796

1 January 1805

12 August 1819

 
 

1797

30 October 1805

4 June 1811

 

1 March 1794

1 January 1798

25 April 1808

   

early 1794

1798

   

late 1794

1799

25 October 1809

1 January 1812

   

early 1795

1 January 1800

25 July 1810

4 June 1813

   

late 1795

1 January 1801

   

3 May 1796

29 April 1802

4 June 1811

4 June 1814

   

26 January 1797

   

1797

   

1 January 1798

25 September 1803

1 January 1812

   

1798

   

1799

1 January 1805

4 June 1813

12 August 1819

   

1 January 1800

1806-1807

4 June 1814

     

1800-1801

25 April 1808

     

29 April 1802

25 July 1810

12 August 1819

     

1802-1803

     

1804

4 June 1811

       

1 January 1805

1 January 1812

       

1805

       

1806-1807

4 June 1813

       

25 April 1808

4 June 1814

       

1808-1809

       
 

18 June 1815 *

       

18 June 1815 *

         

1810-1811

12 August 1819

       

* The general brevet of 18 June 1815 was only awarded to officers who had actually participated in the Waterloo campaign. All the majors present received the brevet of lieutenant-colonel, and all captains on the staff received the brevet of major.

Sources:

War Office. Army Lists 1770 to 1825. London: various years.

National Archives. WO25/748: Statement of Field Officers Services 1809.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2013

 

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