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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

The Purchase System in the British Army, 1660 - 1871

Bruce, Anthony P. C. The Purchase System in the British Army, 1660 1871 London: Royal Historical Society, 1980. 203 pages. ISBN: 0901050571. 40. (Possibly out-of-print.)

Over the centuries many different ways of becoming a commissioned officer have evolved: merit, political patronage, rising through the ranks, exceptional valor, political patronage, schooling, and purchase. All of these ways still survive into the 21st Century, except for the purchase system. This system can trace its roots to the feudal times and was not unique to just the British Isles. France did not abolish the purchase of commissions until after the Seven Years War. However, only in Great Britain did it continue into the 19th Century.

The Purchase System in the British Army examines the system from its origins with William the Conqueror to its abolition in 1871. There are chapters on the origins and history of the system through the 18th Century, how it was done in the 19th Century, its impact on the British Army, the rise of the movement to reform it, why it was abolished in 1871, and the resistance to change to the new system in the late Victorian Army. This is not a military history per se. Instead, Mr. Bruce looks at the social reasons for why the system survived so long and the resistance these social forces were able to marshal.

The British officer corps was mostly drawn from the aristocracy and the landed classes of the time. The expense of purchasing a commission virtually ensured that the officer corps would continue to draw from this social strata, for few others could afford the pay such large sums to become an officer. Thus the reform movement had to fight not only an entrenched institution that saw nothing wrong with the system (since it had worked for the previous 800 years, why change now!), but also against the upper levels of society. Mr. Bruce does an excellent job chronicling the sixteen-year battle between the reformers and those individuals who did such a remarkable job resisting the forces of change! Particularly interesting is his final chapter on the impact of the reforms on the Army and how little the new system changed the British Army. It was only until the mass casualties of World War I that the reforms that had been instituted 45 years before, took hold.

The Purchase System in the British Army is full of information on how the system was supposed to work and how it actually did work. However, those readers who are looking for detailed information on how much was paid for commissions in different regiments during different periods will be sorely disappointed. Except for one appendix giving the prices for commissions in 1854, the reader will find little else. This book is recommended for those interested in the British Army in general. Although the purchase system was in use during the Napoleonic Wars, the book contains too little information on the period to be of value to those who specialize in the Napoleonic era.

Reviewed by Robert Burnham, FINS
Placed on the Napoleon Series: September, 2001