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The Abolition of Purchase in the British Army

The purchase system, writes Robert Woodall, was regarded by its opponents as the main obstacle to the creation of professional officer corps.

In 1793, Major-General Sir James Craig, Adjutant-General of the British expeditionary force which, under the command of the Duke of York, was despatched to the continent to aid the Dutch against the revolutionary armies of France, complained about the low professional quality of its regimental officers.

‘There is’, he wrote to a colleague in London, ‘not a young man in the army who cares a farthing whether his commanding officer, his brigadier or the commander-in-chief himself approves his conduct or not. His promotion depends not on their smiles or frowns - his friends give him a thousand pounds with which he goes to the auction room in Charles Street and in a fortnight becomes a captain.

Out of the fifteen regiments of cavalry and twenty-six of infantry which we have here, twenty-one are literally commanded by boys or idiots... . We do not know how to post a picquet or instruct a sentinel in his duty, and as to moving, God forbid that we should attempt it within three miles of an enemy.’

In thus condemning the effects of a system under which, except in the engineers and the artillery, where it was necessary to give proof of efficiency, officers obtained their commissions and subsequent promotions by purchase, Sir James was not alone.

But he and those who thought like him were a minority in the service and, equally important, in Parliament. The majority view, as expounded some forty years later by the Duke of Wellington, himself a lieutenant-colonel by purchase at twenty-four, was that it brought into the army,

‘men of fortune and character, men who have some connection with the interests and fortunes of the country. ... It is this circumstance which exempts the British army from the character of being a mercenary army... . Three fourths of the whole number receive but little for their service besides the honour of serving the King.’

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