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History of the Royal Artillery

Early Artillery

Gunners to Woolwich

Formation of the Royal Artillery

‘A uniquely enlightened establishment’

Expansion of the Royal Regiment of Artillery

First and Second World Wars

Great Gunners

The Mottos, Cap Badge and Colours

 

Early Artillery

 

The use of artillery pre-dates Roman times when slings, catapults and ballistas were used to project missiles. Later, longbows propelled arrows both as direct fire, where you can see your target, and indirect fire, where the target is distant.

The English first used guns in battle in the early fourteenth century. Records indicate that Edward III may have used artillery against the Scots in 1327. The first fully recorded use of English artillery was at the Battle of Crécy in 1346.

In peacetime, English rulers stored their guns in castles for safe keeping. In the 1370s, the royal household appointed a courtier to administer weapons, arsenals and castles. The earliest known Master of Ordnance was Nicholas Merbury, appointed about 1415-1420 by Henry V of England.

By 1486, Henry VII of England had a growing arsenal of guns. The first professional corps of artillerymen was formed to manage this arsenal. Twelve Gunners, under one Master Gunner, were recruited. These Gunners were based in the Tower of London. They were skilled in gun manufacture so they were best placed to use of guns.

In wartime, extra men were recruited to transport and operate the guns. These men were trained and formed into a ‘Trayne’ of Artillery. This Trayne disbanded when the war ended and was not a permanent force.

 

Gunners to Woolwich

 

The Royal Dockyard first brought Gunners to Woolwich. A Royal Dockyard always had an Ordnance Store and Gun Wharf. This was manned by men appointed by the Board of Ordnance, and some of these were Gunners.

Charles II of England ordered Prince Rupert to build a strong fortress on the south bank of the river Thames. The fortress was intended to deter 17th century Dutch raids up the river Thames. It was heavily armed with 60 guns and manned by Gunners from the Board of Ordnance. The fortress stood where The Royal Arsenal is today.

 

Formation of the Royal Artillery

 

Although guns were first used by the English in the early fourteenth century, it was almost four hundred years before a permanent force of artillery was formed. On 26 May 1716 the first two permanent companies of Royal Artillery were formed by Royal Warrant in the reign of George I. The two companies numbered 100 men each. Tower Place, in what later became Royal Arsenal, was their headquarters.

Before 1716 artillery pieces had been brought to the front line by the ad hoc  artillery trains.  The men of the new artillery companies now performed this function. Their role expanded and they provided guns and heavy artillery for forts and garrisons throughout the country and abroad. In addition, the Artillerymen did on-site work at the Arsenal and at other Board of Ordnance facilities, preparing fuses, proving weapons and providing a guard. 

 

‘A uniquely enlightened establishment

 

WOOLWICH_ARSENAL_WOOLWICH_LONDON_SEP_2012_(8057691504)

A military academy was established at Woolwich in 1720 to provide training for Royal Artillery officers. It was granted its Royal Warrant in 1741. Initially it was a gathering of ‘gentlemen cadets’, learning ‘gunnery, fortification, mathematics and a little French‘. Woolwich, with its early artillery connections, was a place of scientific experiment and innovation. In the words of the Survey of London the academy became –

 

‘a uniquely enlightened establishment in which training comprehended writing, arithmetic, algebra, Latin, French, mathematics, fortification, together with the attack and defence of fortified places, gunnery, mining and laboratory-works […] along with the gentlemanly skills of dancing and fencing’. [1]

 

The Shrapnel shell is an example of academy’s innovations. This shell was used very effectively at the Battle of Waterloo. The building which housed the academy is now known as the Old Royal Military Academy. You can still see this building today at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.

 

Expansion of the Royal Regiment of Artillery

 

The Royal Artillery’s numbers rose to four companies in 1722 when it merged with two independent artillery companies based at Menorca and Gibraltar. The new unit was renamed the Royal Regiment of Artillery and was commanded by Colonel Albert Borgard. By 1757 the regiment had grown to 24 companies, divided into two battalions and including a Cadet Company.

The advent of the ‘galloper’ or ‘grasshopper’ gun meant that a gun could be be pulled by one horse between the shafts. Guns could now keep pace with fast-moving troops.  This innovation led to the formation of the Royal Horse Artillery in 1793.

In 1801, the Act of Union led to the formation of the United Kingdom. The Royal Irish Artillery was absorbed into the Royal Regiment of Artillery as a result. They became part of the 7th Battalion of The Royal Regiment of Artillery.

From its formation in 1716 the Royal Artillery was controlled by the Board of Ordnance and not the War Office. In 1855 the Board of Ordnance was abolished. The regiment now came under War Office control in line with the rest of the army.

A School of Gunnery was established in Shoeburyness, Essex in 1859. In 1862 the regiment expanded further when it absorbed the artillery of the disbanded British East India Company.

In 1899 the Royal Artillery was reorganised. The Royal Field Artillery and the Royal Horse Artillery became one branch. Coastal defence, siege, mountain and heavy artillery formed the Royal Garrison Artillery. Ammunition storage and supply was provided by a third branch.

 

First and Second World Wars

 

Colin Gill - Heavy Artillery - 1919 (Art.IWM ART 2274)

         

“The war of 1914-18 was an  artillery war: artillery was  the  battle-winner, artillery  was what  caused the  the  greatest loss of  life, the  most dreadful wounds,  and the deepest fear.” [2]

 

 

 

The First World War saw a huge increase in Royal Artillery numbers. It is estimated that 800,000 men served as Gunners. 48,499 of these Gunners gave their lives in the conflict. The ‘Great War’ was the ‘Gunner’s ‘ war.

The science and technology of artillery developed very rapidly  between 1914 and 1918. The development of ‘predicted fire’, the ‘creeping’ barrage and improved observation and communication techniques, combined with new generations of guns, shells and fuzes to make artillery the war-winner.

In 1914, at the outbreak of the war, Napoleon Bonaparte (a gunner by profession) would have recognised the way artillery was employed. By 1918, artillery had developed to a stage where it would be familiar to a 21st century Gunner.

QF18pdr WW1 - IWM Q-4066

During the First World War, the Royal Garrison Artillery manned the heaviest guns on the Western Front. The Royal Field Artillery provided medium artillery, like the Quick Firing (QF) 18 pounder (pictured right), and howitzers closer to the front line. By the time of the Armistice in 1918 there were over 3,160 18-pounders in service on the Western Front and they had fired almost 100,000,000 (100m) rounds.

After the 1914-18 War, the Royal Field Artillery and Royal Garrison Artillery were merged and became one regiment again – the Royal Artillery – in 1924. This was divided into brigades, which were renamed regiments in 1938.

 

7.2 inch Howitzer 51st Heavy Regiment IWM B9956

The Second World War saw another great expansion in the Royal Artillery. Over 1.2 million served as Gunners in World War Two. More people served in the Royal Artillery than in the entire Royal Navy.

Amongst those who served as Gunners were former Prime Minister Edward Heath and comedian Spike Milligan.

Since then the Royal Artillery has taken part in all of the British Army’s campaigns.

You can listen to first-hand accounts of some of these campaigns with Fighting Talk.

 

Great Gunners

 

Since its formation in May 1716 over 2.5 million men and women have served as Gunners. They include many people who later became famous in civilian life.

War poet Edward Thomas, boxer ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells, Prime Minister Edward Heath, comedian Spike Milligan, and actor Anthony Quayle, are all former Gunners.

To date, a total of 62 Victoria Crosses have been awarded to members of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Find out more about with our A-Z of Great Gunners and  First World War Gunner VCs >

You can also use our Family History section to discover the Gunner in your family tree.

 

The Mottos, Cap Badge and Colours

 

The motto UBIQUE, surmounting the gun, means ‘Everywhere’. The motto QUO FAS ET GLORIA DUCUNT, below the gun, or on the lower scroll, means ‘Where Right and Glory Lead’.

So run the two parts of the motto of The Royal Regiment of Artillery. They reflect a history of service, Royal_Artillery_Cap_Badge (1)at home, on the high seas, in the air and around the world.

The guns of the Royal Artillery are the Regiment’s Colours, in the same way that the Standards and Guidons of Infantry and Cavalry Regiments are Colours. Traditionally, Colours are the rallying point in battle.

The Colours represent pride in the Regiment, so the guns are protected and retained at all costs. If the situation demands that they are left behind they must be disabled or destroyed.

The gun depicted on the cap badge is based on a 9 pounder Rifled Muzzle Loader of about 1871.

The rammer used to ram the charge into the muzzle is also seen to the left of the carriage wheel. A gun of this type can be seen at Firepower Museum.

 

Saint Barbara

 

The patron saint of artillerymen is Saint Barbara. Her feast day in the Orthodox calendar is 4th December. Saint Barbara’s father was struck by lightning after he ordered her to be beheaded. In time, Saint Barbara was invoked to grant safety from lightning. She later became the Patron Saint of Gunners, who were at risk from fiery elements.

[1] Saint & Guillery, The Survey of London vol. 48: Woolwich, Yale, 2012.
[2] John Terraine, White Heat: The New Warfare, 1914-1918 (1982).

 

This page is under development 24.04.15 – MJL