British Foreign Policy 1815-65

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The organisation of the British Army

Source: Christopher Hibbert's The Destruction of Lord Raglan, (Longmans, 1961), pp. 7-8, with the author's kind permission. Copyright, of course, remains with Dr. Hibbert. This document has been copied from its primary location on The Victorian Web.


No fewer than seven more or less independent authorities shared in the organisation of the Army, and helped in reducing it, as Prince Albert aptly said, to a mere 'aggregate of battalions'. The complication, the muddle, the duplication, the mutual jealousies, the labyrinthine processes of supply and control, were astounding.

The Commander-in-Chief at the Horse Guards was a sort of Chief of the Imperial General Staff. But although he was in command of all troops in Britain, he did not command those overseas. His power was derived from the Crown and not from Parliament.

The Master-General of the Ordnance was in charge of equipment, fortifications and barracks. That much was certain. He exercised also an indeterminate power over the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, particularly in respect of pay and discipline.

A Board of General Officers took charge of clothing.

The Commissariat, which was a civilian authority and a department of the Treasury, took charge of supplies and supposedly of transport, but in fact it had little effective means of moving its supplies, Wellington's baggage-train established in the Peninsular War having long since been disbanded on the grounds of economy.

The Medical Department was largely independent of any of the other departments, except that of the Secretary-at-War which financed it and the Purveyors Department which, as a kind of subsidiary of the Commissariat, supplied it with some but not all of its requirements.

The Secretary-at-War, who looked after the pay and finance of the Army - except the Artillery and Engineers - and its arrangements with civilian contractors, was not responsible for the size and cost of the Army, which came within the province of the Secretary of State for the Colonies.

It was impossible even then for most people to comprehend this jungle.

Further entanglements arose through the tendency of many commanding officers to consider their regiments as their own personal property and to ignore or evade the instructions and rules which came from Whitehall. This attitude was, of course, entirely understandable. The Army List printed a scale of regulation 'Prices of Commissions', which showed, for instance, that a lieutenant-colonelcy in a regiment of the line was worth £4,500, in a cavalry regiment £6,175, in the Household Cavalry £7,250 and in the Foot Guards £9,000. Every officer knew, however, that Commissions were usually sold for prices considerably in excess of these; and there was talk of regiments changing hands for as much as £40,000 and even on one occasion £57, 000. Having paid so much to command a regiment, an officer did not feel inclined to stand too much interference in his running of it. He was, in any case, allowed by Queen's Regulations a remarkably free hand.

Many commanding officers, indeed, openly resented suggestions that their regiments should join in the large-scale manoeuvres which were held with disastrous infrequency. They knew how to move their regiments about in drill formation, how to set them up for a parade. And if they weren't quite sure, their adjutants were bound to know; and if it came to a war, well, their 'men had guts and they'd never lost one yet'.

Soon after Lord Raglan took over at the Board of Ordnance, a training camp was established at Chobham for 8,000 men. The manoeuvres which took place on the Common were embarrassing to watch. The men were splendidly clothed, but they were led by officers who had no conception of military tactics. Units frequently got lost, were found by distracted staff officers advancing with smart determination and affected grimness on men of their own side, were taken off the field altogether by commanding officers who thought the 'whole damned thing' was 'a waste of time'. 'This Army,' remarked an officer in the Royal Artillery with angry exasperation, 'is a shambles'.

A few months later, with hope and confidence and the cheers of an admiring people, it was sent to war.


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