British Army Paymasters: The History

Published on Friday November 5, 2021

At the outbreak of World War 2 in September 1939, the size of the British Armed Forces grew rapidly – with more than 1.5 million additional military personnel joining up for the fight against the Nazi forces of Germany.

The ranks swelled from just 384,000 regular service personnel in 1938, causing an administrative challenge for the Ministry of Defence. The Royal Army Pay Corps (RAPC) was called upon to handle the wages of all the serving officers and soldiers.

In addition, the Territorial Army soldiers and officers also received an annual sum and allowances as they stepped up to play a more significant role in the defence of the nation. The paymasters were responsible for ensuring serving military personnel and their families didn’t go short during these troubled times.

One Penny 1940

© HVDigital / Shutterstock.com

Extra soldiers

Some of the sudden increase in military personnel was due to the government’s Emergency Powers (Defence Act) introduced in August 1938, when war was on the horizon. This empowered the government to take certain measures to defend the nation.

Part of the Act’s remit was to call up military reservists and Air Raid Precautions volunteers for mobilisation. At the outbreak of war, half a million extra volunteers had signed up for the Territorial Army, the ARP and the RAF Volunteer Reserve.

However, the volunteers were not enough and the Military Training Act of April 1939 required all fit and able British men of 20 and 21 years old to undergo six months’ military training. When war broke out, the British Army had only 897,000 men and the government knew this still wasn’t enough.

The National Service (Armed Forces) Act introduced mandatory conscription for all able men aged between 18 and 41. The legislation required single men to go to war before married men. Younger men were required to register first, with those aged 20 to 23 having to join up by 21st October 1939.

By the end of the year, the army was almost at full-strength, although the registration by age group became a long and drawn-out process. The last group, containing 40-year-olds, didn’t have to register until June 1941. Most new recruits went into the British Army, with the remainder being split between the RAF and the Royal Navy.

Soldiers’ wages

During WW2, the soldiers were on a set rate of pay, handled by the paymasters. For an ordinary soldier, a private, the salary was around £108 per year. By modern standards, this wasn’t a great deal of money. Taking inflation into account, it would be slightly more than £7,000 today.

While £108 sounds a very small annual salary, consider that everything was much cheaper between 1939 and 1945: one shilling would buy 12 pints of beer in 1940; A WW2 Lance Corporal would earn around £109 per year, equating to £7,500 today; a corporal earned £127 per year, or £8,740 by today’s standards; a sergeant earned £143 per year, or £11,285 in today’s money.

Rates of pay could vary according to the length of service, qualifications and proficiency. Soldiers also received free accommodation and food. They also received benefits for their families such as medical care, clothing and an allowance.

History of paymasters

Paymasters had traditionally handled the army payroll for many years, serving the British Army since it was created as a professional military body in the 17th century. Originally, they operated individually for each different Army regiment and there wasn’t a centralised body.

The Secretary of State for War between 1868 and 1874, Edward Cardwell, decided to reorganise the paymaster system after the Crimea War. He brought all the regimental paymasters into a single corps: the Army Pay Department.

The new department was created by a Royal Warrant, officially signed by Queen Victoria on 22nd October 1877. It came into operation on 1st April 1878.

The Army Pay Corps was launched in 1882 to enable officers in the Army Pay Department to work alongside non-commissioned officers. During World War 1, this was how the unit operated.

In 1920, the Army Pay Corps and the Army Pay Department were granted the “Royal” prefix in recognition of their services during WW1. The two separate units merged into the Royal Army Pay Corps in the same year.

Different ranks of paymaster

Officers of the RAPC all qualified as paymasters. The Major General, the head of the corps, was known as the Inspector of Army Pay Offices and the Chief Paymaster at the War Office. At the outbreak of WW2, there were various different levels of officer in the corps.

There were 11 Chief Paymasters, ranked as Colonels, and 43 Staff Paymasters who were split into Lieutenant Colonels (First Class) and Majors (Second Class). There were 86 Paymasters with the rank of Captain and 49 Assistant Paymasters who were mainly Lieutenants. A few other officers were lower-level paymasters and cashiers, making a total of 239 officers in the corps. There were also 1,147 other ranking officials beneath the top-level officers and 580 civilians.

Normally, each division had one paymaster who often held the rank of Captain and one non-commissioned officer who had the role of cashier. The two personnel ran the Divisional Field Cash Office.

Empowered to issue cash, they also converted the British currency into the currency of the country in which the division was serving. For example, when a division moved to Belgium from France in September 1944, all of the French francs held by the division were exchanged for Belgian francs.

Paymasters were also responsible for paying members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), which was the women’s branch of the British Army.

How were the soldiers paid?

Soldiers were paid at “Pay Parades” within their own unit.

The paymaster would have on his person the pay-book, which he would pass to the pay sergeant, who would check the amount the soldier was entitled to from a list. The paymaster would enter the amount in the pay-book, stamp it and count out the money to the recipient, who would salute smartly and exit to the right.

The Divisional Field Cash Office would receive cash from the Army Post Office, the YMCA, the NAAFI, officers’ shops, the canteens and from individual units.

By 1945, when WW2 ended, the RAPC comprised more than 2,000 officers, 18,000 other ranks, 13,000 members of the Auxiliary Territorial Force and 6,500 civilians.

The RAPC was finally amalgamated with the clerks of the Women’s Royal Army Corps into the Adjutant General’s Corps in 1992.

We will remember them

On 11th November, at 11am; the DL Accounts team will be observing the 2-minute silence to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

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