General Brevet Calendar of the British Army 1790-1819
By Steve Brown
noun. A commission promoting a military officer in rank without an increase in
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;
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;
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.
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.
* 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.
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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