The British Armed Forces

The British Army

The Board of Ordnance - a Separate Fiefdom

The Board of Ordnance, a powerful agency whose origins went back to the Middle Ages, was an autonomous ministry with a Secretary in Parliament directed by the Master of Ordnance, invariably an experienced general from the upper echelons of the aristocracy. The position was a very prestigious one, and with good reason: the Board of Ordnance supplied cannons, weapons of all kinds, powder and ammunition to the Royal Navy and the army. It was also responsible for building and maintaining fortifications and all other military construction wherever the British flag flew. It supplied equipment and furniture for forts and barracks, as well as all equipment needed by the army and the navy, and was responsible for maintaining it. All weapons and other items belonging to the Board of Ordnance were identified by a small arrow and the letters "B. O."

The Board of Ordnance had its own small army of artillerymen and engineers. The artillerymen belonged to the Royal Artillery. The engineers belonged to the Corps of Royal Engineers, which since the end of the eighteenth century have had the support of regular companies of artificers, engineers and sappers, consisting of non-commissioned officers and soldiers specialized in this type of work. Lastly, the Board of Ordnance included a number of non-combatant officers who managed the stores and barracks. These people were spread throughout the British Empire. In Canada the Board of Ordnance headquarters was located at Artillery Park in Quebec City.

In principle, all these men were under the command of the Commander-in-Chief in England, or of the commanding generals of the armies in the colonies. In fact, because the expected services were not always provided, a small parallel corps of engineers known as the Royal Staff Corps existed from 1799 to 1838, raised by the Duke of York, who was exasperated by the sluggishness of the Board of Ordnance. The Royal Navy established its own naval artillery corps in 1804.

This archaic organization with its bureaucratic fiefdoms survived until 1854, when the War Department became a separate entity independent of the Colonial Office. The Commissariat and the Board of Ordnance were thus incorporated into the new ministry and weapons and other items were identified from then on by the initials "W. D.," for War Department. Profound changes were introduced the following year. At the top of the chain of command was now a single secretary: the minister. The army itself was reorganized from top to bottom; specialized corps were established for medical care, transportation, logistics and armament, and the composition of the regiments was made more consistent.