Officers held their rank by virtue of a royal commission. The system of purchase and sale of commissions dated back to the reign of Charles II, and survived until 1871. Commissions could be purchased in the Guards and in the regiments of cavalry and infantry. Commissions in the Royal Engineers and Royal Artillery were granted to those men who had been selected to attend and successfully passed, a course of instruction at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. Many officers purchased their commissions (up to the rank of colonel), although free commissions could be awarded by the Commander in Chief. If an officer died in service he forfeited his commission to the Crown. Opportunities for promotion by non-purchase expanded in time of war.
Social connections and patronage were all-important in the application process: entry was usually restricted to those of wealthy means. It was rare for an individual to receive promotion from the ranks. The financial transactions were handled by Army Agents. There were set prices for commissions, which in theory were meant to give some protection for the less well-off; but the normal practice was to demand considerably more than the official price. One factor which influenced the size of additional payment was the desirability of particular stations.
Once an officer had purchased a commission, then, subject to a number of provisos, he had a claim (by the seniority rule) to purchase the next highest rank, but junior officers sometimes managed to by-pass this rule. Another feature of the system was that of exchanges. Officers of equal regimental rank were permitted to exchange between regiments (or battalions), subject to a number of conditions. Illegal payments for exchanges were a common occurrence. The system received widespread criticism during the mid-Victorian period. There were calls for a system of promotion based on selection and professional qualification. The purchase system was finally abolished in 1871 by the Army Purchase Commission.
2. Printed sources
Details of officers granted commissions before 1727, compiled from State Papers and other National Archives sources, can most easily be traced in Charles Dalton, English Army Lists and Commission Registers, 1661-1714 (6 vols, London, 1892-1904, reprinted by Francis Edwards, 1960) and George I's Army, 1714-1727 (2 vols, London, 1910-1912). Copies of Dalton's books are available at The National Archives. The broad outline of an officer's career should be fairly easy to discover from the official Army Lists. Manuscript lists of Army Officers were kept from 1702-1752 (WO 64); there is an index on open access at The National Archives. The first official Army List was published in 1740; since 1754 they have been published regularly. There are complete record sets, with manuscript amendments, of the annual lists (1754-1879) and the quarterly lists (1879-1900) in WO 65 and WO 66: incomplete sets of the Army Lists are on open access.
Hart's Army List is a particularly valuable source, as it brings together the dates that individuals received their commissions in convenient tables, with useful footnotes. An incomplete set covering 1840-1915 is available on open access: a full set, and Hart's own papers, are in WO 211. It should also be noted that all announcements of commissions were recorded in the London Gazette (available online and in ZJ 1).
3. Original sources
The issue of a commission, or warrant of appointment, is likely to be recorded in several places. There is a great deal of duplication in the records, and the entries sometimes give minimal information. In a number of instances, you may prefer to bypass the original documents listed overleaf, as much of the information they contain can be obtained from the printed sources mentioned above. However, it is possible to find some very interesting information on individuals in the Commander-in-Chief's Memoranda in WO 31, and there is also a useful sequence of indexed letter books in WO 4 (see below).
IND 1/8914 (index)
|1679-1782||Military Entry Books: Warrants for the issue of commissions (SP 44/201, SP 44/202, SP 44/203 have been transferred to CO 5.|
|HO 51||1758-1855||Military Entry Books: continues the SP 44 sequence.|
|WO 4/513||1704-1858||Indexed Letter Books: correspondence about the purchase and sale of commissions. A good source for details of fees paid. Later volumes can include addresses of officers - either where the regiment was stationed or their own private address.|
|WO 25/1||1660-1873||Commission Books, Series 1, Secretary at War and Secretary of State for War. Some list promotions and fees paid, and can show how vacancies were opened up by death in time of war. Later volumes tend to consist of streamlined lists with minimal information.|
|WO 25/89||1728-1818||Commission Books, Series 2, Secretary at War and Secretary of State for War.|
|WO 25/122||1708-1848||Notification Books of the Secretary at War. These can provide evidence of the way in which the exchange system worked.|
|WO 25/209||1754-1808||Succession Books, Series 1, Secretary at War. Arranged by Regiments.|
|WO 25/221||1773-1807||Succession Books, Series 2, Secretary at War. Arranged by date.|
|WO 31||1793-1870||Commander-in-Chief's Memoranda: applications to purchase and sell commissions. Arranged chronologically (usually in monthly bundles) by the date of appointment or promotion as announced in the London Gazette (which you can obtain from the Army Lists). The applications may shed considerable extra light on the personal circumstances of the individual concerned. The supporting documents often contain statements of service, certificates of baptism, and letters of recommendation.|
|WO 43||1780-1874||Small collection of original commissions.|
|WO 74/1||c.1871-1891||Original applications from officers of the British and Indian establishment, with certificates of service attached, related correspondence, and memoranda as to sums awarded. Papers and applications are indexed by regiment but not by name of applicant.|
|WO 74/177-183||Various||Registers of service of every officer holding a commission on 1st November 1871, with later additions.|
|WO 103||1809, 1871-1914||Original submissions and entry books of submissions to the Sovereign of recommendations for staff and senior appointments, rewards for meritorious service, and for commissions and appointments.|
4. Further reading
Edward M Spiers, The Army and Society 1815-1914, (Longman, 1980)
Anthony Bruce, The Purchase System in the British Army, 1660-1871 (Royal Historical Society, London, 1980)