Over on my own blog, Every Woman Dreams, I regularly receive questions from followers (lots of history people there). I, most assuredly, do not consider myself an expert, but I do a great deal of research in order to write my books. Below are a series of questions on half-pay officers in the British army and navy. As many of us here wonder about how Colonel Fitzwilliam, Colonel Brandon, General Tilney, Captain Wentworth, etc., pay the bills, here is a bit of information you may find interesting.

Question from a follower: I’ve often wondered about the term “half-pay officer.” Does an officer who sells out still receive half pay or only officers who retire without selling their commissions (if there is such a thing). My question concerns a major who sold out after Waterloo. Does he still receive half-pay?

First, let us clarify what “Half Pay Officers” mean.

Definition: Half-Pay (h.p.) was used from the 18th to early 20th centuries in reference to the British Army or the Royal Navy to refer to the pay or allowance an officer received when in retirement or not in actual service.

The half-pay option developed during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, which was about the same time as the concept of purchasing commissions and promotions by officers found its footing. The officers who were not required at that time could go on half-pay voluntarily or be required to do so until they were summoned to return to their regiments. For example, all listed half-pay officers were required to return to service during the 1715 Jacobite Rising. Many well-to-do officers used this loophole after the Napoleonic Wars, especially if their regiments were ordered to other wars and uprisings, such as those in India. They simply purchased new appointments to regiments assigned to home service in Britain. The Secretary of War was responsible for approving or rejecting transfers to and from the half-pay list.

This are the wars which finished out the 1800s:

Half-Pay officers were similar to what we now think of a reserve officers. My husband spent thirty years in the U.S. Army, but most were with the Army Reserves. In Britain during the 19th century, officers who were retired or otherwise not required for active service received half of the salary of their fully-commissioned counterparts.

“The half-pay list could also serve as a means of ridding the service of ineffective or incompetent officers who had too much political influence to be dismissed entirely. Such officers would be placed on half-pay and never recalled to active service. In periods of extended conflict, the half-pay lists became a significant expense for militaries when it was coupled with the selling of half pay-commissions, which was common in the British Army.” [Half-pay]

Further Explanation: Wondrium Daily explains the term in this manner: “Because of the cost of entering this career, commissioned army officers were largely drawn from the upper classes. A commission might be purchased for, say, 2000 pounds, to take up a position that paid 200 pounds a year. Thus, it might pay off after 10 years of service, depending on tours of action and active duty.

“Officers could request permission to be on half-pay. Unless some crisis necessitated a regiment’s call to active duty, individual requests were routinely approved, especially with the right connections, as favors. Some officers used this route, the leave of absence, to avoid going abroad with their regiments.

When, in [the PBS series] Sanditon, Lady Denham refers with such disdain to half-pay officers coming to their resort town, that’s what she’s talking about. These were often officers on hiatus, or even on vacation, at reduced pay. Her complaint is both that they have lesser social status and less money to spend.

Follow-Up Question: So if an officer bought his commission and sold it upon retiring, he was paying for his own retirement? i.e., he just paid for his pension up front? Then, if he died, what happened to that money? A pretty good deal for the Army. It sounds like the military didn’t actually pay any pension, they just gave you back what you paid them for the honor of fighting and possibly dying.

Yes, it was an excellent deal. As officers, up until 1790, were overwhelmingly gentry [thus ‘gentlemen’] the expectation most officers did not require the money so survive or to support his family, and upper class families were doing their civil duty by buying a commission and then supporting them while serving. As Colonels ran their regiments as a business, this was also important. After all, one was purchasing a commission in a regiment, not the army. The idea that officers didn’t need the money while being the upper crust of society, they:

  1. Were expected to supply their uniforms and all equipment.
  2. They were paid a quarterly salary that simply did not cover the expenses of being an officer in the army at any rank.
  3. There was no need for pensions or much in the way of compensation for those serving their country. The officer was a part of a rich family.

This slowly changed during the wars, because the war cover some 20 years and so many officers were required, the middle class, and in some cases [about 5%] enlisted men were commissioned without buying a commission.

Did someone who paid for their commission receive an additional pension as well? It doesn’t sound like it from your response. So the paid commission officer paid for his own retirement and the free commission officer didn’t?

No, there was no pension for a purchased commission, for the reasons given above. The upper class did not require the money. The families were expected to support their sons monetarily while in the army.  I just read “A Light Infantryman with Wellington”, the letters of Captain George Ulrich Barlow. Throughout his service, Barlow was receiving money from his family, not just father, but uncles and cousins too.

If I am understanding correctly, I see the incentive as the “free commission” route is the best deal? One does not have to pay for one’s pension (outside of the bribe fee), and there is an improved social status which is otherwise impossible to attain in Regency England? i.e., it was very difficult to improve one’s social status in this era. Even making money was frowned upon (the merchant class). But the new status only went so far? (shunned later by one’s equal in military rank if not in birth). So how far did the “officer” status really go socially?

Exactly. How far did the status go ‘socially?’  During the war, pretty far, particularly if one could move up the ranks. Everyone was equal in the regimental Mess. After the war? Not as much, which created some resentment among the middle class officers who were now seen again as less that socially acceptable among the gentry. Obviously, retiring as a colonel was much better than as a captain. Read “The Reminiscences and Recollections of Captain Gronow, being anecdotes of the camp, court, clubs and society 1810-1860”  He gives great descriptions of the social relationships and social movement of war and post-war officers. [copies are available at many book outlets, as well as on Google]

Just as an aside, I had understood that officers never fraternized with soldiers, that it was an unwritten code. Is this true?

True,  a rule no more unwritten than gentlemen did not ‘fraternize’ with the lower classes. Same social structure Officers=upper class  NCOs=Middle Class  Enlisted=Lower classes.  Officers communicated with NCOs [Who actually did all the professional work], but rarely with the enlisted men.  

I’m very interested in this topic. I have thought a lot about “honor” lately, what that used to mean, and if anyone cares about honor anymore. i.e., if honor is so removed from our culture (people question why one would do anything if it does not serve him/her, one is almost thought to be “stupid”, and getting away with something is revered as clever instead of dishonorable) that it is difficult to write about honor as a subject readers can relate to and understand. When we watch a film and someone fights a duel of honor, the modern viewer wonders why anyone would risk his life for his perceived ‘honor’, mentally labeling the character as foolish and naive. I can understand that perspective, but having character, knowing the difference between right and wrong, and putting someone else before oneself does not seem to be revered and is even ridiculed. If honor is defined as one’s reputation and one’s character, how is honor defined if none of that matters? i.e., if the only thing that matters is what one can get for oneself? Sometimes we really are in living history, our culture is changing, and it feels like the ground is boiling underneath our feet. I’m not meaning to go on a diatribe, but I’m trying to come to terms with what honor used to mean, what it means today, and how to write a novel from the perspective of a different culture and make it sympathetic to the modern reader.

The self-serving and self-sacrificing parts of Regency Honor is not that hard to understand.

1. Only the Gentry and Upper Class were seen as possessing or concerned with ‘Honor,’ as they understood it.

2. Honor was the reputation of you AND your family. So often duels were fought to ‘preserve one’s honor,’ which was one’s social reputation. Honor was part of an upper class family’s duty to the Crown, to serve and support the government and the running of society.

3. Winning ‘glory’ was in part garnering more honor for the and his family. All this goes way back to the Sun King and earlier where the main responsibility or goal of a prince was to win glory and honor for the family . . . either through war or extravagant spending . . . or both.

4. Saving face, personal pride, winning social acceptance or more acceptance today is not all that different from the Regency period honor. It was just seen as being achieved differently at times.

The wars and the infusion of middle class officers widened and generalized the ideals of honor and what it meant to be a gentleman, actions slowly superseded the notions of family honor and rank. One can see this conflict in “Pride and Prejudice”.  Darcy feels to be a ‘gentleman’ means to make and enforce social distinctions, where Elizabeth sees it more as an issue of proper behavior. In the end, she still has to argue with Darcy’s aunt about whether as a gentleman’s daughter she is equal to Darcy in social status, while Lady Catherine de Bourgh operating on the older distinctions says, yes, but who are your family, aunts and uncles? During the Regency there were deep social changes going on and Jane Austin really illustrates them. In each of her books she contrasts class and rank against  behavior and ethics. Being a Gentleman went from being a specific social rank to being primarily a code of behavior. 

“This is not to be borne. Miss Bennet, I insist on being satisfied. Has he, has my nephew, made you an offer of marriage?

“Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible.”

“It ought to be so; it must be so, while he retains the use of his reason. But your arts and allurements may, in a moment of infatuation, have made him forget what he owes to himself and to all his family. You may have drawn him in.”

“If I have, I shall be the last person to confess it.”

“Miss Bennet, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this. I am almost the nearest relation he has in the world, and am entitled to know all his dearest concerns.”

“But you are not entitled to know mine; nor will such behaviour as this, ever induce me to be explicit.”

“Let me be rightly understood. This match, to which you have the presumption to aspire, can never take place. No, never. Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter. Now what have you to say?”

“Only this; that if he is so, you can have no reason to suppose he will make an offer to me.”

Lady Catherine hesitated for a moment, and then replied:

“The engagement between them is of a peculiar kind. From their infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favourite wish of his mother, as well as of hers. While in their cradles, we planned the union: and now, at the moment when the wishes of both sisters would be accomplished in their marriage, to be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family! Do you pay no regard to the wishes of his friends? To his tacit engagement with Miss de Bourgh? Are you lost to every feeling of propriety and delicacy? Have you not heard me say that from his earliest hours he was destined for his cousin?”

“Yes, and I had heard it before. But what is that to me? If there is no other objection to my marrying your nephew, I shall certainly not be kept from it by knowing that his mother and aunt wished him to marry Miss de Bourgh. You both did as much as you could in planning the marriage. Its completion depended on others. If Mr. Darcy is neither by honour nor inclination confined to his cousin, why is not he to make another choice? And if I am that choice, why may not I accept him?”

“Because honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest, forbid it. Yes, Miss Bennet, interest; for do not expect to be noticed by his family or friends, if you willfully act against the inclinations of all. You will be censured, slighted, and despised, by everyone connected with him. Your alliance will be a disgrace; your name will never even be mentioned by any of us.”

“These are heavy misfortunes,” replied Elizabeth. “But the wife of Mr. Darcy must have such extraordinary sources of happiness necessarily attached to her situation, that she could, upon the whole, have no cause to repine.”

“Obstinate, headstrong girl! I am ashamed of you! Is this your gratitude for my attentions to you last spring? Is nothing due to me on that score? Let us sit down. You are to understand, Miss Bennet, that I came here with the determined resolution of carrying my purpose; nor will I be dissuaded from it. I have not been used to submit to any person’s whims. I have not been in the habit of brooking disappointment.”

That will make your ladyship’s situation at present more pitiable; but it will have no effect on me.”

“I will not be interrupted. Hear me in silence. My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended, on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the father’s, from respectable, honourable, and ancient—though untitled—families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up.”

“In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”

“True. You are a gentleman’s daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition.”

“Whatever my connections may be,” said Elizabeth, “if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you.”

Other Sources:

First, I must give credit where it is due. Many of my responses come from extensive notes I have from Bill Haggart. He is my go-to guy for questions on the military.

Reading the Regency

Half-Pay and Prize Money

Advancement in the British Army

How Could an Officer Retire from Army Service in Regency England

Enlisting in the British Army During the Regency

4 responses to “Questions, We Get Questions”

  1. Linda A. Avatar
    Linda A.

    To me, Regency Honor is like The Code of the West, where they lived by unwritten rules that centered on integrity, hard work, self-reliance, loyalty, and respect. Where a man’s handshake was his bond. And where someone could die if called a liar or cheat.

    1. Regina Jeffers Avatar

      Yours is an excellent way of explaining The Code of West and applying it to the Regency era.

  2. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Interesting post.! Lots of facts about the Recency Era.

  3. Linny B Avatar
    Linny B

    Thank you, Regina for another interesting article.

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