Updated date:

Abolishing the British Army Purchase System: The Changing Nature of War, Masculinity, and Privilege


John is a historian and researcher interested in the relation between war and society.


In 19th century Britain, Victorian society embarked on campaigns of social reform. The liberal government of Prime Minister William Gladstone attacked privilege and the perceived abuses of the ruling elite in its society. The British Army became the specific target of what was to be known as the Cardwell reforms. These reforms aimed not only to reform the army, but to abolish the purchase system which was the traditional and primary method for officers to gain their commissions and promotions in the army. The prohibitive costs of obtaining army commissions had long made army careers the domain of the elite and upper classes of British society.

Some historians have emphasized the abolition of the purchase system as the “keystone” of the army reforms because it symbolized for the Liberals, privilege and patronage at its worst.[1] Was the British Army purchase system in fact obsolete by the late 19th century? A simplified explanation used by some historians is that the army had faced disaster in the Crimean War and the purchase system was abolished in favour of officer selection based on merit, the result being a better trained and better organized force for the defence of the British Empire.[2]

Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr.

Charge of the Light Brigade by Richard Caton Woodville, Jr.

David Allen offers an economic perspective on the purchase system, advocating it solved the staffing problem of the British Army through a system of compatible incentive contracts, the promise of financial reward, and its eventual decline and abolition attributed to the decline in European Wars in the 19th century.[3] The purchase system might also be viewed as elitist, as it seemingly disqualifies selection on the basis of merit which from a modern perspective could be viewed as self-evidently good, and thus making the purchase system an obvious target for reform.

This latter perception has clouded the historiographical discussion of Victorian reform and specifically the army reforms of the 19th century. All these interpretations fail to account for numerous factors that contributed to the abolition of the purchase system. Before the French Revolution, France had abolished a similar purchase system following the disastrous results of the Seven Years War.[4]

It had survived in Britain however where it had been discarded elsewhere in Europe. To properly answer this question, we must consider some additional factors:

  • Had the role of the army officer change significantly by the 19th century?
  • Had warfare itself changed? If it was a question of attacking privilege, how had the social elite in Britain changed?
  • Finally, was the change due to a wider agenda of political and social reform in the 19th century?

The role of C19th Army officers

The role of the army officer had not fundamentally changed by the time of the Cardwell reforms. Officers of the Ancien Régime were expected to exemplify traditionally martial virtues of bravery, courage, and honour. Officers of aristocratic military lineage were thought to inherently possess these virtues by birth which guaranteed military service, and according to Rafe Blaufarb, this was viewed as its own form of merit.[5] These virtues had long been the preserve of ruling elites across Europe, and Britain was no exception. As Linda Colley has described, military officers in this period, and indeed later in the 19th century, were expected to cut a dashing figure in their expensive uniforms, defend their honour through duelling, engage in sports such as fox hunting which were compatible with military skills, and lead soldiers in battle risking life and limb for the country.[6] With the French Revolution, the French aristocracy as a ruling class was removed and the aristocratic military officer faced mortal peril at the guillotine.

Colonels of the French Guards and British Guards politely discussing who should fire first at the battle of Fontenoy (1745)

Colonels of the French Guards and British Guards politely discussing who should fire first at the battle of Fontenoy (1745)

It is this period which historians, such as Geoffrey Wawro, consider as the beginning of a trend of European armies favouring merit and education for officer selection. Wawro characterizes the post-revolution and Napoleonic era as the starting point for the trend towards selection of military officers based on merit and selection and development through formal military academies.[7] Marxist historians who analysed the French Revolution in the 20th century, such as Eric Hobsbawn, cited Napoleon’s generals and field marshals such as Soult, Murat, and Ney who had lower class origins, as examples of this trend towards an aristocracy of merit.[8]

While this trend favouring merit and education for selection may be founded, the martial virtues of the aristocratic officer of the Ancien Régime were nevertheless desirable. Even during the revolution, as Blaufarb cites, the later revolutionary authorities had realized the damage that the elevation and popular election to the officer ranks of some of the sans culottes had done to the army. In 1792 they proposed that officers might be selected from the sons of “active citizens” who were connected to powerful military and political figures as a means to select officers for the revolutionary army; so ingrained was the concept of patronage and lineage.[9]

Christophe Charle highlights the fact French Army officers in the late 19th century, despite a drastic decline in officers of aristocratic origin, still engaged in duelling regardless of social origin as an expression of proper officer behaviour.[10] In the case of Britain, the 19th century British Army still attracted its officers from the apex of the Victorian social pyramid. Wellington, as Commander-in-Chief, sought officers who were landed gentlemen of substance as a safeguard against the political dangers he believed inherent in a professional officer corps.[11] We can conclude therefore that even with these new methods for officer selection, the role of the military officer did not fundamentally change. What had changed was the nature of war.

The Duke of Wellington, by Thomas Lawrence. Painted c. 1815–16, after the Battle of Waterloo.

The Duke of Wellington, by Thomas Lawrence. Painted c. 1815–16, after the Battle of Waterloo.

The evolution of warfare in Europe

To understand how the nature of war had changed, we must consider the events of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. David Bell has argued that this era produced a culture of war. As a product of nationalism, a new military culture was created that could be at once separated from civilian society and invoked to inspire a civilian population towards war.[12] This concept is important to our central question of the purchase system, and we must look the rise of the cults of nationalism and the military hero on the continent, and compare how they evolved differently in Britain. Social upheaval was a characteristic of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, and with it ideals of masculinity and martial virtue were redefined.

The traditional martial virtues of the ruling classes previously discussed were adopted by the new Republic into the cult of the nation.[13] Under Napoleon these virtues were restored to all French men and specifically to the Army.[14] As described by Michael Hughes, this democratisation of martial virtues linked masculinity and ideals of manhood to military service of the state.[15] French art at this time, such as that of Géricault, portrayed the French fighting man and the Grande Armée as a cohesive male body and the paragon of male virtue: the individual ceased to exist except as a single entity serving the state.[16] In contrast, Britain’s own cult of sacrifice to the nation, especially in battle, was always the preserve of the elite as reflected in their own artwork in examples such as Benjamin West’s The Death of Wolfe.[17]

The Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West, 1770

The Death of General Wolfe, by Benjamin West, 1770

Similar to the French, the Prussians who were fighting a war of liberation against Napoleon adopted national conscription similar to France’s levée en masse. The Prussian “cult of the national hero” idealized the sacrifice of the soldier for the state, and would be invoked again later in the 19th century.[18] Finally, they also adopted a merit based system for selecting and promoting military officers with emphasis on military education.[19] These are important external factors to our main question and in understanding how Britain was affected by this era. The historiography of the British reaction to the French Revolution and Napoleon’s threat of invasion has typically cited Britain using rallying calls of patriotism to resist invasion, recruiting men through incentives and patriotic calls for volunteers to fill the ranks of the regular army, navy, and the militia.[20]

Jennifer Mori in her analysis of British loyalty and patriotism in this period states that Britain now depended on the “submission of the individual” to the task of defeating Napoleon and promoted both active measures of patriotism and repressive measures to achieve both the participation and loyalty of the people.[21] Her use of terminology seems inaccurate, as it reflects instead the French model of active participation and universal conscription. For Britain, calling men from all social, religious, political, and working backgrounds from all its regions together in a national army was viewed, as Dudink and Hagermann have examined in their studies of masculinity and democratic revolutions, as a threat to its stability and incompatible to the British Army value system.[22]

Meeting of the Prussian army reformers in Königsberg in 1807, by Carl Röchling.

Meeting of the Prussian army reformers in Königsberg in 1807, by Carl Röchling.

Linda Colley’s extensive analysis of the invasion literature of the period, contrasted with the 1800 and 1803 census records which were used to determine prospective male participation in the army and militia, reveals that many Britons who were not land or business owners, especially those in the agrarian and non-littoral regions of the country, were not especially motivated to bear arms.[23] As discussed above, the nature of war had changed and it did leave its mark on British society. Independent from technological improvements, nations now had a mechanism in place to leverage mass mobilization. In this new era of total war, industrialization and technological developments in the 19th century could now also provide the material means to wage war.[24]

The intense period of warfare of the French Revolution and Napoleonic era served to emphasise the need and role of military officers in leading the increasingly larger armies in this new age of mass mobilization. We can conclude that this era of conflict and upheaval, which as an external factor was redefining war and ideals of military masculinity, had an impact on Britain. It would affect the ruling elite which, due to the purchase system, provided for the bulk of the British Army officer corps. How the ruling elite were affected had a direct bearing on the ultimate decision to later reform the army and abolish the purchase system. The ruling elite was facing an evolution which, as Colley suggests, had already begun to take place following a significant event in the British Empire: the War of Independence.[25]

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull, depicts the British surrendering to Benjamin Lincoln, flanked by French (left) and American troops. Oil on canvas, 1820.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull, depicts the British surrendering to Benjamin Lincoln, flanked by French (left) and American troops. Oil on canvas, 1820.

If the French, as Blaufarb suggests, suffered a grievous blow in the Seven Years War that caused a reassessment of their army, then for the British the moment which caused them to reassess the administration of their empire and society was the loss of the empire’s traditional heartland: the American colonies.[26] The American War of Independence ultimately served to demonstrate the resilience of the British elite. Colley argues that Britain’s was the first of European elites to experience both an imperial and revolutionary crisis which it would not only survive, but recover from. Britain learned significant lessons in how to manage its empire, but also maintained its hold at the top its society.[27]

From the 1780s onwards, Britain’s elite would set about reordering their society and reshape what it meant to be a patriot and what it meant to be British.[28] In doing so, it had to face some hard facts. The pinnacle of Britain’s ruling elite consisted of a very small landed peerage in proportion to its population, and it now had to administer an empire it had only just managed to unify. In this period of increased radicalism and attacks on privilege, the ruling elite now had to consider measures for its survival and continuity.

The answer lay in a compromise which satisfied some of the core beliefs of the aristocracy. The British elite did this by first integrating its Welsh, Scots, and Irish patricians in with their English equivalents. Next it provided the lower levels of its landed class with opportunities to obtain knighthoods and baronetcies. Finally, it rewarded the exceptional talents of aspiring newcomers.[29]

To the latter, Colley suggests that Lord Nelson, the son of a Norfolk parson, is an archetypical representative of this ascendant class who bought into the ideals of service to the country to further themselves.[30] This was the British answer to the democratic expansion of the patriotic and martial ideals of the French Revolution: service and sacrifice as a means to claiming a stake in political life.

In this period of prolonged warfare, the army, navy, and militias grew in size to defend the country, resulting in a proliferation of opportunities for military service for the aspiring elite.[31] This expanded ruling class could now provide for the administrative and military needs of the empire. The unintended consequence for the British elite was that it had introduced the possibility of upward mobility based in part on merit. The social elite had therefore changed, and this would also prove a factor in the reforms which would remove the purchase system.

The Siege of Sebastopol in the Crimean War - the performance of the British army during the war would usher in reforms in the end of the 19th century

The Siege of Sebastopol in the Crimean War - the performance of the British army during the war would usher in reforms in the end of the 19th century

The changing political and social scene

The liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone had never been a military officer and unlike some of his predecessors, did not fight duels.[32] The rise of Liberalism in British politics proved a direct threat to the concepts of patronage and privilege inherent in the hierarchical structure of the British Army and its purchase system. John Tosh cites a decline in the “bearing of arms” in the late 19th century by upper class male society as a factor in the realignment of martial values as an ideal expression of masculinity.[33] Even the rising popularity of fox hunting among the late Victorian bourgeoisie, seemed a poor substitute for the thrills of a cavalry charge; the martial values of the elite were gradually being displaced into the realm of idealized medieval fantasy.[34]

Duelling in Britain by the 1840s, cited by Charle as still in practice in France as key to the concept of honour in the military officer at this time, was in decline and faced increased legislation.[35] This assessment by Tosh of changing masculinities may be correct in regards to the upper classes, but there is evidence that the narrative of martial male virtue was shifting towards the middle and lower class youth. Edward Spiers cites the proliferation of literature and the various “Boys’” and “Lads’” Brigades being used to inspire the youth of Britain to promote ideals of service to the nation, patriotism, and other virtues of manliness.[36] If this did not promote an eventual rush of British males to the army colours, this example shows that ideals of martial masculinity were now not only accessible to all classes of British men, but perpetuating the heroic warrior ideal to the masses.[37]

If these values were being shifted to the wider British audience, we can conclude that these virtues, once part of the contract between the country and its ruling elite, were no longer the exclusive preserve of the ruling class. Liberalism’s image of masculinity and citizenry was that of an independent male responsible for his own opinions, and after the reforms of 1832 which widened male suffrage, it included men who could never previously have claimed the title of “gentleman”.[38]

Ultimately, what liberalism symbolized at this period of British politics under Gladstone was, as Tosh cites, a rejection of patronage in favour of merit.[39] The reforms also abolished flogging as punishment, reformed army pay, restructured the army regimental system, and significantly, assigned the Commander-In-Chief under the authority of the Secretary of War. The abolition of the purchase system, in view of the objective of Gladstone to “assail class interest in its favourite and most formidable stronghold”, shows that the measure was as much symbolic of the Liberals campaign to abolish privilege as to bring real reform to the army.[40]

The famous British army recruitment poster of 1914 featuring Lord Kitchener - by the 20th century, the reforms of the army and the demands for manpower had swept away many of the older conventions of recruiting and officer candidacy in Britain.

The famous British army recruitment poster of 1914 featuring Lord Kitchener - by the 20th century, the reforms of the army and the demands for manpower had swept away many of the older conventions of recruiting and officer candidacy in Britain.


This evaluation demonstrates that the abolition of the purchase system was not simply about ending privilege in favour of merit. The purchase system had become obsolete by this time, not because the role of the army officer had changed or that army officers were no longer needed. The nature of war itself had changed societies and had affected the elite classes of Europe. For Britain, the expansion of the ruling elite had allowed for the social mobility of a rising class who would also seek to change the construct of the ruling class of Britain. With the democratisation of its traditional values of service, the ruling class and the army had accommodated expansion and had begun to introduce merit alongside lineage. By the time of the sustained assaults of Liberalism on privilege in Britain, the purchase system of the army which had been so long the preserve of the British elite, was proving anachronistic by the late 19th century.

Sources and References for this article

  1. Byron Farwell, Queen Victoria’s Little Wars (London: Allen Lane Ltd., 1973), 188.
  2. For example, see Susie Steinbach, Understanding the Victorians: Politics, Culture and Society in Nineteenth-Century Britain. (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), 63. Steinbach’s reference to the Cardwell reforms in her overview of the social and cultural aspects of Victorian society is exemplary of the type of broad generalizations that have been made regarding these reforms.
  3. Douglas W. Allen, “Compatible Incentives and the Purchase of Military Commissions”, The Journal of Legal Studies, no. 1, 27, (January 1998): 45-47, 63. Douglas Allen provides a model of economic incentives to explain the attraction of the purchase system and its eventual decline.
  4. Rafe Blaufarb, The French Army 1750-1820: Careers, Talent, Merit (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 12.
  5. Ibid, 13-14.
  6. Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009 [first published 1992]), 174, 186-190.
  7. Geoffrey Wawro, Warfare and Society in Europe, 1792-1914 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2000), 31, 78-79.
  8. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution, 1798 – 1898 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996 [first published 1962]), 86.
  9. Blaufarb, The French Army, 93, 95, 144.
  10. Christopher Charle, A Social History of France in the 19th Century, trans. Miriam Kochan (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 1994 [first published 1991]), 64-65.
  11. Richard Holmes, Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket (London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2002 [first published 2001), 141.
  12. David A. Bell, The First Total War (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007), 10-13.
  13. Michael Hughes, “Making Frenchmen into Warriors: Martial Masculinity in Napoleonic France” in French Masculinities: History, Culture and Politics, ed. Christopher E. Forth et al. (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 54.
  14. Ibid, 55.
  15. Ibid, 52.
  16. Norman Bryson, “Géricault and ‘Masculinity’” in Visual Culture: Images and Interpretations, ed. Norman Bryson et al. (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994): 247.
  17. Colley, Britons, 181-185. Linda Colley cites several examples of portrayals in art of the British ruling elite depicted in contemporary art fulfilling a heroic narrative of service and sacrifice to the country.
  18. Karen Hagemann, “German Heroes: The Cult of the Death for the Fatherland in nineteenth-century Germany” in Masculinities in Politics and War: Gendering Modern History, ed. by Stefan Dudinket al. ( Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004): 117-118
  19. Wawro, Warfare, 7, 15.
  20. David Thomson, Europe Since Napoleon (London: Longman, Green and Co. Ltd., 1962 [first edition 1957]), 90. David Thomson offers this general explanation in his broad overview of post-Napoleonic Europe.
  21. Jennifer Mori, “Languages of Loyalism: Patriotism, Nationhood and the State in the 1790s”. English Historical Review, no. 475, 118 (February 2003): 55-56.
  22. Stefan Dudink and Karen Hagermann, “Masculinity in politics and war in the age of democratic revolutions, 1750-1850” in Masculinities in Politics and War: Gendering Modern History, ed. by Stefan Dudink et al (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2004), 14.
  23. Colley, Britons, 300-316.
  24. Roger Chickering, “A Tale of Two Tales: Grand Narratives of War in the Age of Revolution” in War in an Age of Revolution, 1775-1815, edited by Roger Chickering et al, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 3-4.
  25. Colley, Britons, 151.
  26. Blaufarb, The French Army, 12.
  27. Colley, Britons, 151.
  28. Ibid, 151.
  29. Ibid, 157-158, 194.
  30. Ibid, 185.
  31. Ibid, 188.
  32. R.W. Connell, “The Big Picture: Masculinities in Recent World History”, Theory and Society, 22 (1993): 609
  33. John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd., 2005), 65-66
  34. Ibid, 65.
  35. Ibid, 74.
  36. Edward Spiers, “War” in The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Culture, ed. Francis O’Gorman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 92-93.
  37. Ibid, 93-96.
  38. Tosh, Manliness, 96-97.
  39. Ibid, 96.
  40. Michael Partridge, Gladstone (London: Routledge, 2003), 115.

© 2019 John Bolt

Related Articles