Board of Ordnance

An Office of Ordnance had been in existence in England, from the late 14th century: based in the Tower of London, it was the service responsible for the construction and maintenance of the King’s fortifications as well as for his arsenal and cannon. Henry V appointed the first master of ordnance around 1420, giving him charge of a small permanent establishment. This was permitted to greatly increase in times of war when ordnance trains were raised for the duration of each campaign comprising tradesmen, smiths, masons and carpenters, all recruited directly under the command of the Office. 

In 1518 the Office was renamed The Board of Ordnance. It remained in existence until 1855 . It was distinct from the army and navy and closely controlled the terms of service, pay, recruitment and deployment of all its own personnel. It could be considered the only formulation or prototype of a regular-army: indeed many of the Board’s master-generals were promoted in times of war to commander-in-chief. 

Following the Restoration in 1683 the Board’s remit was further formalised and the salaries and personal responsibilities of its engineers were specified by Royal Warrant. In 1716 two separate corps were established under the Board’s umbrella: the Corps of Engineers and the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Surveying and mapping was allocated to the engineers. 

Engineers were the equivalent of warrant officers: they did not receive crown commissions. In the early eighteenth century, as within all the Services, there was an established distinction between the amateur leader and the professional functionary: officers with the King’s commission were drawn from the aristocracy; they were gentlemen by provenance and as such were not expected to have a trade or any pretence at professionalism; their talents lay in their well-born assumption of leadership, although in practice commissions also could be bought. Most crown officers knew little of technology, seamanship, engineering, surveying, gunnery, or field tactics and the deficit would have been immediate and catastrophic but for a separate class of officers appointed independently from each service. These were the warrant officers: men of seniority and skill; literate and numerate, they were frequently of rank equal to their crown-commissioned colleagues though they had no social standing. In the navy, the master, the boatswain and the purser were all senior warrant officers. In the Board of Ordinance the warrant officers, including the chief-engineer, were ‘officer engineers’ of varying rank.

Throughout the 18th century the Board assumed responsibility to service the increasing number of colonies and protectorates including the Americas. In 1757 full crown commissions were extended to engineers in line with a similar dispensation in the other services: the chief-engineer became a major-general whilst practitioner-engineers enjoyed the new rank of ensign. Companies and corps of soldier artificers were established from the 1770s to bring general tradesmen into the military ranks. NCOs were created. During the Napoleonic period a corps of sappers and miners was established. All the services in the Board distinguished themselves throughout the Peninsula campaigns and through Quatre Bras and Waterloo. 

Surgeons were warrant officers within the establishment of the Board’s Royal Regiment of Artillery and with warrants from the master-general of ordnance. However in 1804 Crown commissions were issued. The Ordnance Medical Department was created in 1814, initially within the Royal Artillery, but from 1820 it became a section within its own right. 

In 1825, for the first time, a royal warrant authorised the raising of a surveying and mapping company. The 13th (Survey) Company of 62 men was dispatched for duty in Ireland. This was a success. Three more similar companies followed, no doubt under direction of the Ordnance Survey service. 

During the Napoleonic Wars difficulties had arisen: the anomaly had became apparent of engineer personnel being responsible to two different chains of command. The 'Royal Staff Corps' had been established in 1799, the army’s own engineer unit which reported directly to the army chain of command. This may have augured the end of the Board of Ordnance. 

The end came during the Crimean War. This was the first conflict in which press and public opinion played an important role. Lord Raglan was the British commander-in-chief but was also master-general of the Board. He was deeply unpopular and was held responsible for disastrous breadowns in supply, hospital services and transport, particularly during the reversals of the Russion winter of 1854. His incompetence and intransigence in the field may have been more to blame than the Board of Ordnance. Enquiries followed and the Board of Ordnance was abolished; the service was incorporated into the War Office by an 1855 Act of Parliament and called the Department of the Master General of Ordinance. The Artillery and the Engineers then came under the direct command of the commander-in-chief of the army.

Dec. 2012                                               Last updated May 2015