For many years, British military officers purchased their promotions. A young man who wanted to join the military as an officer paid for the privilege of serving in the army. The system that existed in the United Kingdom before 1871 for obtaining a commission in the army, and for subsequent promotion, was the purchase of commissions. This practice applied only to the army. There were several reasons for such a system, none of which had to do with creating and maintaining a military force able to kick ass and take names.
To understand this system, we must first understand British society in the 17th through 19th centuries. It was very structured; everyone had their place. At the bottom, are those belonging to the cottage or labor class, and husbandmen. Yeomen were small farmers who had land and earned a comfortable income from it. Above the yeomen were landed gentry — and above them (or perhaps more-or-less equal) were the professional class (doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians). Above gentry came the aristocracy, which includes peers and royals (although a member of the gentry or professional class could also become peers.
The underclassman could enlist in the army without much of an effort; usually, a recruitment NCO would find an inebriated fellow, buy him a few drams of grog, off him a sovereign, and that was about all there was to join the army. The next morning our inebriated enlistee would awaken in a barracks somewhere. He would likely remain with that regiment for the next nine years.
Officers’ commissions were something else entirely.
In the British Isles, the right to inherit fell upon the oldest son (even if he was third born behind two older sisters). Second sons inherited nothing. Still, they were sons and their fathers did try to do something for them, such as send them to medical school (if they were so inclined), or study law, or serve in the military. To serve in the military, the father obtained an officer’s commission for his son(s) by purchasing them. Only wealthy people could afford the officer’s commission.
Earlier, I hinted at “several reasons” for the system that permitted men to purchase their commissions. These reasons included:
- The purchase price served as collateral against abuse of authority, negligence, or incompetence. The government could cashier a dopey officer — and if they did, the dope would forfeit the cost of his commission.
- Only the “best sort” of person could become an officer. Uncouth fellows need not apply.
- An officer whose wealth or connections allowed him to purchase a commission was less likely to pillage or loot … which doesn’t look nice to third-party observers.
- Honorably separated or retired officers could build on their military network to sustain a certain standard of living — the doors were opened for government ministry appointments and seats in the House of Commons.
An example of the cost of commissions in 1837 (and their modern-day equivalents) are: (a) Ensign or coronet, infantry commission, £450 (£44,000); cavalry commission £840 (£81,000). These prices would vary by regiment because some regiments were “more desirable” than others. Down the road, a lieutenant colonel who desired to retire would sell his commission and use those proceeds as his retirement income. A cavalry lieutenant colonel could expect to sell his commission (in 2022 British pounds sterling) for £579,000.
The interesting part of this story is that a captain did not have to demonstrate knowledge or competence in field command before being promoted to major. As a consequence, the British Army had more than its fair share of incompetent officers. Lucky was the young infantry captain who, because of his seniority as a captain within his regiment, and the fact that there were no field officers in the command, actually served as a regimental commander before advancing to field rank. But even this was no bar to incompetence. More than a few field and general officers demonstrated gross incompetence — which caused unnecessary death and injury to the men serving in the ranks. There was no better example of this condition than the Crimean War. The British government finally abolished the purchase of commissions in 1871 — after which British officer promotions became competency and merit-based.
One of these gentlemen aristocrats was John Burgoyne (1722 – 1792). He was a career military officer, dramatist, and member of parliament. During the Seven Year’s War, he served in the Portugal Campaign of 1762. He was a combat officer long before he served in North America. Of course, in those days, it was possible to be a combat officer, demonstrate incompetence, retain your commission and achieve a new assignment (and promotion) if the price was right. He may have been a better playwright than a general — an evaluation better left to a thespian.
Burgoyne’s father was an army captain (d. 1768); his grandfather (also named John) was Third Baronet of Sherbourne, Warwickshire. There may have been some shenanigans with respect to our subject because the testament of his godfather, Robert Benson (Lord Bingley) specified that if Benson’s daughters left no issue, then John Burgoyne would inherit his estate.
Burgoyne, like many of his military cohorts, was educated at the Westminster School. He was an athletic youngster and one who made several important life-long friends — people who would later aid Burgoyne in his life’s pursuits, James Smith-Stanley (1716 – 1771) (Lord Strange) being one of them. In 1737, John Burgoyne purchased his commission in the Horse Guards regiment (cavalry) where, since his duties were light, he was allowed to prance about in polite society and came away with the nickname, “Gentleman Johnny.” It was also during this time that John Burgoyne ran up a large number of debts from gambling and other foolishness. In 1741, he sold his commission to pay off his debts — because true gentlemen had better control over their debts.
With the outbreak of the War of Austrian Succession, Burgoyne applied for a commission as coronet in the 1st Royal Dragoons (a newly created and therefore “free” commission). He was promoted to lieutenant in 1747 and soon after managed to afford a captaincy. At the end of the war in 1748, Burgoyne was released from active service and went on half-pay.
Through his school chum, James Smith-Stanley, John Burgoyne came to know James’ sister, Charlotte Stanley, a daughter of Edward Stanley, Lord Derby — one of Britain’s leading politicians. Burgoyne asked Lord Derby for his daughter’s hand in marriage and Derby refused. Burgoyne, the playboy, may not have been what Lord Derby wanted for his daughter. So Lord Derby was not a happy person when Burgoyne and Charlotte eloped and married without his permission in the spring of 1751. Enraged, Derby disenfranchised Charlotte. Unable to support Charlotte according to her custom, Burgoyne again sold his commission for £2,700.
In the fall of 1751, Burgoyne and his bride traveled through France and Italy. In France, Burgoyne befriended Étienne François, Marquis de Stainville, Duc de Choiseul. Étienne (Stephen) was a military officer, diplomat, and statesman during the Seven Years’ War. François served as Foreign Minister, directing French policy during the war.
In late 1754, Burgoyne’s wife gave birth to a daughter — whom they named Charlotte Elizabeth (their only child). Burgoyne returned to Great Britain in 1755 and with James’ assistance, Lord Derby accepted his daughter and son-in-law into the family. Burgoyne benefitted from this attention to his professional life.
The Seven Years’ War
A month after the outbreak of hostilities, John Burgoyne purchased a commission in the 11th Dragoons. In 1758 he advanced to captain and lieutenant colonel in the Coldstream Guards — suggesting that he purchased both commissions (having by-passed major). In that year, he participated in several expeditions against the French coastal regions. During this time, Burgoyne was instrumental in the formation of the British Light Cavalry while serving under Colonel George Augustus Eliott, the former aide-de-camp to King George II, as Commander of the 1st Light Horse Brigade. Burgoyne was a unique military officer in the sense that he encouraged his subordinates to use their initiative and independent action.
In 1761, Burgoyne sat in the House of Commons (representing Midhurst), and in 1762, he participated in the Portugal Campaign as a brigadier general. Burgoyne distinguished himself by leading his cavalry in the capture of Valencia de Alcantara and of Vila Velha de Ródão.
In 1768, Burgoyne sat again in the parliament. As a politician, Burgoyne was outspoken concerning his criticism of Robert Clive (Lord Clive) whose military service (and wealth) originated from his investments in India. In 1772, Burgoyne demanded an investigation of the management and operation of the East India Company, alleging widespread corruption.
The War in America
In 1774, Parliament appointed Major General Burgoyne to command Boston a few weeks after the first shots of the war had been fired at Lexington and Concord. He commanded the garrison during the siege, while General William Howe and General Henry Clinton directed the action at Bunker and Breed’s hills. Burgoyne, always looking for opportunities to advance himself, Burgoyne grew frustrated with the confusing command relationship in the colonies and returned to England.
Major General Carleton received notice of the start of the rebellion in May 1775, soon followed by the news of the rebel capture of Fort Ticonderoga and Fort Crown Point — and the raid on Fort Saint-Jean. As he had previously sent two of his regular army regiments to Boston, his remaining force numbered only around 800 regulars in Quebec. His attempts to raise a provincial militia met with only limited success because few ethnic French or resident English were interested in joining. Area Indians were interested in joining the militia, but Carleton worried about the optics of Indians attacking whites on behalf of the Crown.
During the summer of 1775, General Carleton directed the preparation of provincial defenses around Fort Saint-Jean. In September, the American Continentals began an invasion of Canada and besieged the fort. When the fort fell in November, Carleton was forced to withdraw from Montreal to Quebec City.
In December 1775, the Continental siege of Quebec was broken off by the arrival of British reinforcements under the command of John Burgoyne, who assumed the role of Carleton’s deputy. Carleton subsequently launched a counter-offensive. Consequently, Carleton was promoted to General-in-Chief of North America in 1776. In April, Carleton directed the British blockade on the Richelieu River and directed the fight for Valcour Island on Lake Champlain against a naval force commanded by Benedict Arnold. The British, with a significantly superior fleet, won a decisive victory, destroying or capturing most of the rebel fleet — but the delay in the overall battle plan prevented Carleton from capturing Fort Ticonderoga that year. Consequently, John Burgoyne — the subordinate — was highly critical of Carleton, the superior. His reports to King George III were intended to convince him that the North American fiasco was all Carleton’s fault.
In the following year, King George gave command of the British forces charged with gaining control of Lake Champlain and the Hudson River Valley to John Burgoyne.
The Battle plan, largely of his own creation, was for Burgoyne and his force to cross Lake Champlain from Quebec — capture Ticonderoga, advance on Albany, and after combining forces with General William Howe, divide New England away from the middle and southern colonies. By isolating New England, Burgoyne believed that Great Britain would prevail over the revolutionaries.
From the beginning, Burgoyne had more self-confidence than he deserved. He believed that he was putting together an overwhelming powerhouse whose success would propel him into national prominence. Before departing from England, the arrogant ass wagered a friend £10 that he would return victorious within a year. Experienced voices urged caution and suggested that employing similar strategies to the previous year’s campaign was foolish.
The foundation of Burgoyne’s plan was his belief that an aggressive thrust from Quebec would be substantially aided by the movements of two other large British forces (under Howe and Clinton) who would support his advance. However, Lord George Germain (Secretary of State for North America) dispatched muddled instructions to Burgoyne, Howe, and Clinton.
As a result of Germain’s miscommunication, Burgoyne ended up conducting the campaign single-handedly. He wasn’t aware of that, of course, because he was still convinced that he was God’s gift to the British military command. His troop footprint in Quebec was 7,000 men. Burgoyne was also convinced that he could rely on large numbers of Native Americans and Loyalists to help him execute the battle plan. Burgoyne figured that even if the area of operations was not as pro-British as he hoped, it was largely an underpopulated area in any case. He did not believe that an enemy force would threaten his attack force.
Initially, Burgoyne’s campaign was successful. He gained possession of Fort Ticonderoga (which prompted his promotion to lieutenant general) and of Fort Edward, but moving onward, he broke off communications with Quebec. In his arrogance, he didn’t anticipate being hemmed in by Horatio Gates. His several attempts to break through the American’s lines were repulsed. A Continental bullet found Burgoyne’s aide, Sir Frances Clerke. Two days later, Burgoyne surrendered his entire army of 5,800 men — a turning point in the American Revolution. With Burgoyne’s defeat, the French were encouraged to enter the war on the side of the Americans.
Burgoyne would not agree to an unconditional surrender, but he would agree to a convention where his men would agree to surrender their arms, return to Europe, and pledge not to return to North America. The military agreed to the convention, but the Continental Congress repudiated it — imprisoning the remaining members of Burgoyne’s army in Massachusetts and Virginia. Dishonorably, the Americans mistreated their British prisoners — but in their minds, it was merely payback for the treatment of American prisoners of the British.
General Burgoyne’s End
The British people were not at all pleased with “Gentleman Johnny.” For many years, it was Burgoyne’s defeat. It wasn’t until many years later that historians began to look more closely at Germain. It was Lord Germain who failed to ensure everyone understood the chain of command.
Looking back in time is something that scholars and historians do seeking clarity. Nevertheless, the Burgoyne debate continues. Some argue that Burgoyne is a classic example of incompetent British leadership, an aristocrat without a clue, and a man who should never have been advanced beyond lieutenant. Others point to the fact that (according to some troops), his men loved their general. Still, others characterize Burgoyne as a clown in uniform.
Back in London, Burgoyne concentrated on his pay writing activities. He is credited with writing several plays, as follows:
- The Maid of the Oaks (1774)
- The Camp (1778)
- The Lord of the Manor (1780)
- The Heiress (1786)
- Richard Coeur de Lion
Previously to his embarrassing defeat by the American rabble, John Burgoyne had been a Tory supporter of the government of Lord North, but following his return from Saratoga, he began to associate with the so-called Rockingham Whigs, a splinter group. When the Rockingham group returned to power in 1782, Burgoyne was restored to his rank of lieutenant general, honored with the colonelcy of the King’s Own Royal Regiment, made Commander-in-Chief in Ireland, and appointed to the Privy Council. By 1783, however, Burgoyne had begun to withdraw from public life. “Gentleman Johnny” died unexpectedly at his home in Mayfair on 4 August 1792.
- Bruce, A. P. C. The Purchase System in the British Army, 1660-1871. Royal Historical Society, London, 1980.
- Farwell, B. Queen Victoria’s Little Wars. Wordsworth Military Library Press, 1973.
- Huddleston, F. J. Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne, Misadventures of an English General in the Revolution. Bobbs-Merrill, 1927.
- Watt, G. K. The British Campaign of 1777, Volume II: The Burgoyne Expedition, Burgoyne’s Native and Loyalist Auxiliaries. Global Heritage Press, 2013.
 The British Navy has always been a single, national organization. First organized by Alfred the Great, the naval force was responsible for defending the realm; the land forces, on the other hand, were provided by the shires. These units didn’t belong to the king; they belonged to the peer who organized them. Thus, the Navy was a Royal Force, and the army was not. Subsequently, the term “Royal” has been bestowed on certain regiments of the British Army (for distinguished service), which entitles them to wear blue facings on the collar and cuff, but the army is not by itself a royal organization.
 James Smith-Stanley was the eldest child of Edward Stanley, 11th Earl of Derby. Edward and James both styled themselves as Lord Strange, but neither deserved the title. James predeceased his father, so Edward’s grandson inherited the title Earl of Derby.
 When British military officers retired or were separated from active service, they entered a pay status referred to as half-pay. This was for men like Burgoyne, a retainer pay in inactive service or reserve status in the event of another conflict.
 The Coldstream Guards is the oldest continually serving regular regiment in the British military.