The British Armed Forces

The British Army

A Very Mixed Organization

A general accompanied by his staff, Montreal, circa 1865

Caption: A general accompanied by his staff, Montreal, circa 1865

Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the structure of the British army was relatively archaic. It did of course have a good reputation in Great Britain, but to a lesser degree than its navy did. There was curious overlapping of certain tasks and there were many peculiar practices.

Confusion was already felt at the top of the chain of command, because even in Parliament there was a Secretary for War and a Secretary at War. The latter was a Member of Parliament responsible for ensuring that the House voted the required budget. The actual Minister was the Secretary for War, who was also, beginning in 1801, responsible for managing the colonies. Army headquarters was in the King's Horse Guards building in London. It was there that the Secretary for War, the Commander-in-Chief, the Adjutant-General and the other staff officers worked. A variety of other organizations governed the army, such as the Board of General Officers, which consisted of half a dozen generals as well as the Adjutant-General. There was also a medical board, a pensions board, a financial audit board and various other organizations.

Immediately under this administrative level came the cavalry and infantry regiments. A cavalry regiment could have from three to five squadrons, with two companies in each squadron. An infantry regiment generally consisted of a single battalion of 10 companies, eight fusiliers and two Flank companies, which were elite companies. The grenadiers took the right flank on the line, the light infantry the left. The number of soldiers varied considerably, depending on the period and the regiment.

Some functions, though, did not fall under the authority of Army Headquarters. Thus the Treasury exercised some financial control over the army through its civil servants in uniform, who belonged to the Commissariat Department. The officers in the Commissariat Department accompanied the army on all its movements, assuming responsibility for rations, transportation and, particularly in Canada, barracks. The Commissariat was not, however, the only organization to procure supplies for the army: the personnel of the Quartermaster General and the Storekeeper General were also authorized to do so.

Additional Images

King's and Regimental Colours, 41st Regiment of Foot, 1802-1815