First of all, just as it stands, the system prevailed because the system worked. To take the American War as an example, the fact is that most of the time the British army, with its purchased commissions and aristocratic officers, soundly defeated the American rebels time and time again, often in spite of being outnumbered and having a logistical line of support that had to stretch across an ocean it took months to cross. The fact of the matter is that the British system of purchasing commissions provided valuable income for retired officers (who would sell their commissions) at a time before any system of pensions for military service existed. One must also keep in mind that those who could afford to buy a commission in the army were those with the money to do so and, as such, they tended to be people who could also afford to be the best educated and, by either creating such wealth or successfully managing inherited wealth, also had leadership qualities that would prove quite valuable in their military career. A poor man could not purchase a commission, true, but a poor man would also be the least likely to be able to have the time and materials to study the areas which would make one qualified for a military command.
|Prussian officers and men|
That brings us to another point which is that it is not as though the aristocracy was an entirely exclusive club. Not all monarchies prohibited the idea of advancement based on merit but rather took such outstanding examples and granted them noble title, raising them to the aristocracy and thus making them eligible for leadership positions. In some cases, this was not even a requirement but simply a reward, a recognition of their considerable achievements. To return to Britain for a moment, remember that in the Royal Navy commissions were not purchased, unlike the army, and so advancement purely by merit was quite normal. The most celebrated sailor in British history, indeed many would argue the most famous naval commander in the world, was Lord Horatio Nelson, who was the common-born son of an Anglican priest who only rose to the aristocracy after proving his brilliance in victories over the enemy. In looking at the Napoleonic era and the egalitarianism cheered by so many of the French Revolution, we tend to forget that while, yes, the French did prevail for a time, it was the established monarchies of Europe that ultimately won the final victory. Napoleon had some very capable marshals who were common-born but none had a record of success to match, for example, the aristocratic Russian generalissimo Alexander Suvorov who, in over sixty major engagements, never lost a battle in his entire military career.
|Austrian officer leading a charge|
However, what if all of that is too far back to be applicable in the more modern day and age? Well, traditional monarchies have not long survived in the last century, but we can look at World War I to see some significant examples. In the Great War, one can easily find a great deal of Allied propaganda aimed against the aristocratic and royal-born commanders of the armies of the Central Powers, particularly the Germans. However, one should consider the source and then it is not so surprising that most of this criticism is extremely unfair and generally unfounded. For example, there was no more prominent target for ridicule among the German army and army group commanders on the western front than the German/Prussian Crown Prince Wilhelm. He was consistently portrayed as an incompetent dandy who owed his rank to his bloodline and who simply wasted the lives of his men. That is simply untrue.
|German royal commanders|
In the first place, for the sake of clarity, one should point out that it was on the eastern front where the Central Powers were ultimately successful so, all of this criticism aside, they did win the war in this sector which should count for something. In any event, the system in place was not so ridiculous as it is often portrayed. In Austria-Hungary, for example, Archduke Friedrich was the commander of the army but it was openly known to be a ceremonial position with no pretense that the Archduke was actually planning strategy, coordinating operations and so on. The Chief of Staff was the effective commander of the Austro-Hungarian armies and everyone recognized that fact. In Germany, this sort of dynamic of ‘team leadership’ also prevailed but was more of an actual partnership than most people realize.
|The Kaiser with Hindenburg and Ludendorff|
Finally, although this is an obviously debatable point, with the passing of the “Old World” with the last two global conflicts (the latter of which saw a great many mistakes being made by a common-born corporal ignoring the advice of aristocratic military professionals) it seems that as the cause of egalitarianism has grown that the age of truly great military commanders has also come to an end. Conflicts in this egalitarian age have largely been decided by how long an electorate is prepared to tolerate war or have been fought between grossly mismatched contestants in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Has there, then, truly been a great upsurge in the quality of military leadership with the age of egalitarianism and the end of aristocracy and traditional monarchy? These days, certainly in the more democratic countries, one would be hard-pressed to even say who exactly is the one in charge, much less whether he (or she or it the way things are going) are competent or not. Many modern conflicts have seemed rather fruitless compared to what was accomplished by even smaller-scale wars in the past.
|Maurits van Nassau|
What is truly alarming about this change in attitudes is that the drive for egalitarianism has not coincided with a devotion to advancement purely on the basis of merit but rather seems to have brought about a dangerous leveling of the military field simply to “virtue signal” how supposedly egalitarian we are. So, we have women in the military, then homosexuals in the military, then women in combat but, so far, none of these changes has been shown to produce a superior product over the old system, though by and large there has been no true test (which no one should be anxious for). It seems more like a race to the bottom than a drive toward excellence. As an illustration, consider the fact that private military organizations, which the United States at least increasingly relies upon, are dominated by traditional, “Alpha” males with nary a woman to be found. It reminds me rather of the late Roman Empire when barbarian mercenaries came to make up the bulk of the Roman military and where truly great military leaders such as Stilicho or Flavius Aetius, were not honored for their victories but were killed by a people who no longer valued talent but feared the successful wherever they found them.
|Prince Eugene of Savoy|
(image at the top of the article is the British commander Sir Arthur Wellesley being presented to the Spanish general Don Gregorio Garcia de la Cuesta during the Peninsular War)