In the early nineteenth century, officers of the army acquired their commissions by purchase, a system which lasted until 1871 when it was abolished by the Cardwell reforms. Attempts were made from time to time to regulate the system and prevent the worst abuses associated with it, but it was impossible to keep control over every promotion and it was often too easy for an officer with money to bypass the system. Senior officers used the system to improve their retirement funds and wealthy juniors used it to climb the ladder faster…
Paul had been in Dublin with five companies of the 110th when he had received his promotion to major and with it the news that he would take command of the first battalion under Sir Arthur Wellesley in Denmark. The promotion had come at a relatively young age and he had leapfrogged a number of older and longer serving captains in the regiment. The commander of the second battalion, Major Middleton was in his fifties and considering retirement but there were several men who could have claimed Paul’s promotion as their due.
Paul was trying hard not to feel defensive about his good fortune, but he was under no illusions that the main factor in his success had been financial. Under the traditional system, promotion was offered to the next man in line in the regiment. If none were able to come up with the purchase price, the commission could be sold to an officer from another regiment wanting to transfer for promotion. The Duke of York, who had made admirable attempts to reform some of the abuses of the system, had put in place length of service conditions for promotion to captain and major which were effective in peacetime although might be relaxed during campaigns when officers were in short supply. Paul had barely reached the required number of years when the promotion had been offered and in his battalion alone, at least four other captains had served longer; more if the second battalion were taken into account.
Money had made the difference. Paul’s mother had been the daughter of a viscount but his father was from a trade background and had made his fortune in shipping and finance many times over. When the elderly Colonel Dixon had decided to retire, his commission was sold to Major Johnstone who was in command of the first battalion. Paul, puzzled by Wellesley’s conviction that the majority was his if he was willing to pay for it, had quickly realised that the colonel was expecting his retirement to be funded by a premium on the sale of his colonelcy, a premium which Johnstone could only afford if he added the sum onto the sale of his own commission.
The premium was strictly against regulations but Paul was aware that they were an open secret in fashionable regiments, where commissions were sometimes sold for twice the regulation price set by the government. He was both irritated and amused at the approach by the regimental agent, with Dixon and Johnstone remaining at a discreet distance as if the negotiations might sully their hands. Commissions in the 110th did not generally command much of a premium; it was a relatively new regiment with no history and little reputation thus far, but Colonel Dixon was very well aware of both the personal fortune and the ambition of his most unlikely company officer and had taken the gamble.
Grimly aware that he was about to be fleeced, Paul had gone back to his mentor, Sir Arthur Wellesley who was in London on Parliamentary business and invited him to dine at the Van Daans’ London home. Paul’s father and brother were away in Leicestershire and they had dined privately and sat afterwards over a good port.
“Have you received your commission, Major?” Wellesley had said. They had talked, during dinner, of neutral matters; of the current situation in India and the proposed expedition to Denmark. They had also spoken of politics and the latest London scandals. Paul had been waiting to see if his chief would raise the subject.
“Not yet. I am trying to decide if it is worth the extremely over-inflated price I am being asked to pay for it.”
Wellesley gave one of his barking laughs. “Expensive, is it? Yes, I’d heard that Dixon is in need of funds.”
“Colonel Dixon,” Paul said, sipping the port, “is currently still my commanding officer so it would be unthinkable of me to call him an avaricious old goat. At least anywhere he can hear me.”
“What makes you think I won’t report that, Major?”
“You never report any of the other appalling things I say to you in private, sir, so I’m cautiously optimistic.”
“Are you going to pay it?”
Paul pulled a face. “Sir, it’s not the money. It just galls me that he’s making that kind of profit out of a system which shouldn’t allow it. There are at least six or seven other men in the regiment who are eligible for this promotion. We can discount Longford, Cookson and Graham – none of them could raise even the regulation price. Which is a good thing in Longford’s case because he’s an incompetent arsehole who shouldn’t hold the commission he does. But men like Gervase Clevedon and Kit Young and Jerry Flanagan…they’ve every right to be furious if I buy in over their heads. I really want this. But I have to serve with these men.”
Wellesley reached for the decanter. “It is your choice, Major. Would it help if I told you that even if you do not accept it, somebody else will.”
Paul raised his eyebrows. “Into the 110th? Have we suddenly become fashionable without my noticing it?”
“No,” Wellesley said with a laugh. “But sometimes it is more than that. Have you come across Captain Edmund Willoughby?”
Paul frowned, puzzled. “If I have, I don’t remember him. Which regiment?”
“He has served variously in the 4th, the 10th and the 24th. Moved each time for promotion and he has come up very fast indeed. Faster than you have.”
“Money. Connections. A considerable enthusiasm on the part of a very high ranking member of the peerage to see his natural son progress. He will use the 110th as his next stepping stone; the timing is very convenient for him. Would you like me to tell you how many weeks actual combat experience he has?”
Paul met the hooded eyes across the table. “Sir, are you applying emotional blackmail to get me to cough up the money for this piece of highway robbery we are calling a promotion? Is this gentleman likely to get my battalion killed in his first action with them?”
“I imagine it is very possible,” Wellesley said tranquilly. “Either that or you will be on trial for shooting him in the head to prevent it.”
(From An Unwilling Alliance by Lynn Bryant, due to be published in April 2018)