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Prize money in the Army

The painting in the background depicts the seige of San Sebastian, Spain, in 1813

 

A version of this article was originally posted on  The Coffee Pot Book Club website.

In Regency times, prize money was paid to both army and navy personnel. The money came from goods captured in action, and was shared out between the men (it was only men!) according to their rank. The blog post here explains how prize money was calculated and allocated in the Royal Navy. This article looks at the Army in the Peninsular War.

What was prize money given for?

Royal Navy prize money had a more obvious source than that in the army – captured ships and their cargoes. Army prize money was based on the capture of enemy stores, guns, fortresses, etc. Army money was paid to all soldiers who had taken part in a particular campaign, or their families if they were killed.

Prize money appears to have been paid in 1816 for actions or campaigns between 1809 and 1815. The following 6 payments were announced in the London Gazette:

1 – Ciombria and the Douro

2 – The French retreat from Portugal, Fuentes d’Oñoro & Albuera

3 – Cuidad Rodrigo and Badajoz

4 – The 1812 campaign (Spain)

5 – The 1813 campaign (Spain)

6 – The 1814 campaign (Southern France).

Prize money was also paid after Waterloo.

Battle of Vitoria, 1813 – after this battle some British Light Dragoons captured the French Royal Baggage Train belonging to Napoleon’s brother, King Joseph of Spain. Some of the money from this would have gone into the prize ‘pot’, but a great deal was kept by the soldiers, illicitly—including a silver chamber pot which to this day is used for toasts by the King’s Royal Hussars.

Sharing the money

As in the Royal Navy, prize money was handed out by sharing the amount available between the qualifying men, according to rank. The proportions ranged from 2000 shares for a Field Marshal, 1200 for a General, down to 100 for a Lieutenant Colonel, 80 for a Major, 50 for a Captain and 16 for Ensigns and Cornets (the lowest commissioned ranks). Sergeants got 3 shares, Corporals 1.5 and everyone else just 1.

The amounts actually paid per man not only depended on rank, but on how much money was available and the total number of shares into which it had to be divided. This could vary widely. For example, for the Ciombria and Douro payment, Generals received £106, Captains £11 and Subalterns nearly £5. For the Southern France campaign in 1814, these amounts were £682, £50 and £20, and after the Waterloo campaign (the battle and the subsequent occupation of France) they were £1274, £90 and £34. My source also gives the amount the Commander-in-chief was paid after Waterloo – £61,000!

The average amount received in each campaign by a Colonel and Major was £100 (around three months’ pay for the Colonel, four months’ for the Major), £17 for a Captain, and £7 for a Lieutenant or Ensign. In the last three cases, this was equivalent to one month’s pay. A Private’s share was 1/16 of an Ensign’s share, so they would have received around 8 shillings and 9 pence – equivalent to 8 or 9 days’ pay.

The best way to get rich?

Best way to get rich – army or navy?

 

Obviously, the higher your rank the better, but unless you were Wellington with his huge payout after Waterloo, it seems to me that the best way to get rich from prize money was to be the captain of something like a frigate, with an aggressive attitude to the capture of enemy shipping.

The equivalent army rank to a naval Captain is Colonel, and as can be seen above, the average prize money per campaign (and so, roughly, per year) for a Colonel was the equivalent to three months’ pay. A campaign could include several battles or sieges, and a number of skirmishes.

The prize money for a naval Captain could vary much more widely. If his ship took part in many single-ship or small engagements, although the total money to be paid out would be smaller than in a large engagement, the number of people who were entitled to a share of the money was also much lower. A ship could take part in many actions per year, with the potential for prize money for each one, and its captain and crew might get lucky and capture a merchant ship with a valuable cargo.

So, if you wanted to get rich quickly, it would have been the navy for you!

References

The British Army against Napoleon – Facts, Lists and Trivia, 1805-1815, by Robert Burnham & Ron McGuigan

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