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Royal Artillery Regiment (RAR) - History

The Royal Artillery was originally formed in 1716 in Woolwich, in South-East London, which remained the Regimental home for almost 300 years. The Regiment subsequently moved to Larkhill, on the southern edge of Salisbury Plain in the 2000s, which was a perfect setting for training and preparing soldiers, officers and equipment.

It is an historical fact that the artillery commander always crops up in war, where artillery is, comparatively speaking, plentiful and well handled. Queen Elizabeth had her artillery commanders (these fortunate gentlemen had certain perquisites in the way of church bells after successful sieges); Marlborough had his artillery train commander; Napoleon's first command of importance was that of the whole of the Jacobinic artillery in 1783, while in the following year he was appointed "General in command of the artillery of the Army of Italy," which Masséna commanded. At Friedland, where artillery played so large a part, Senarmont commanded Napoleon's guns. Alexander Dickson was Wellington's gunner, but the part played by the artillery in the Peninsular War is singularly neglected by the historian Napier.

At the commencement of the wars on the Continent in 1793, the British artillery was in anything but an efficient condition. The guns were dispersed among the infantry, they were horsed in single train, the ammunition was packed in rough deal boxes, the ammunition waggons were cumbrous and ill-constructed, the drivers were mere carters on foot with long whips, and the whole equipment was scarcely able to break from a foot pace." Prior to the Peninsular war, however, the exertions of an able officer, Major Spearman, had done much to bring about an improved state of things.

Horse artillery had been introduced in 1793, and the driver corps established in 1794. The battalion or regimental guns were abolished in 1802, and field batteries or “brigades” of six guns were formed, horse artillery batteries being styled troops. Military drivers were introduced, the horses teamed in pairs, the drivers being mounted on the off-horses, while eight gunners were carried on the limbers and waggons. The equipment was lightened and simplified, the ammunition was properly packed, and a correct system of manoeuvres was introduced. The invention of shrapnel shell by Major Shrapnel in 1803, and the transformation of the rocket from a mere signal to a destructive engine by Sir W. Congreve in 1806, also added to artillery power.

Although the British artillery distinguished itself on many occasions during the Peninsular war” and at Waterloo, and French officers were loud in its praise, the field artillery still suffered from the great evil, want of mobility. Matters, however, had somewhat improved by the end of the war. After the peace it was again reduced and horse artillery troops and field brigades were placed on a skeleton establishment of two guns each. In 1822 the driver corps was abolished, and the men and horses distributed among the field battalions, men being enlisted as “gunners and drivers.” This system did not work well, owing to the difficulty of finding men who could combine such dissimilar duties.

Shortly before the Crimean war a further increase of several battalions took place; but notwithstanding these various augmentations, both field and garrison artillery were entirely insufficient during the siege. At this time the field artillery consisted of “position batteries” of three 18-pounders and one 8-inch howitzer, or of four 12-pounders and two 32-pounder howitzers; of “field batteries” of four 9-pounders and two 24-pounder howitzers; and of “horse artillery troops” of four 6-pounders and two 12-pounder howitzers. In 1858 drivers, specially enlisted and trained, were permanently attached to each field battery. In 1859 the Royal Regiment of Artillery, which had increased to fifteen battalions of field and garrison artillery and one brigade of horse artillery was reorganised and divided into horse, field, and garrison brigades.

The advantages of rifling had been long known, but it was not practically applied to ordnance until 1846. Rifled guns were first used by the British artillery at the siege of Sebastopol, but with no great effect, owing to defective construction. A few years later the introduction of the Armstrong breech-loading rifled gun (first used in the China campaign of 1860) caused a great alteration in the equipment of the British artillery. The 7-inch gun of 82 cwt. was introduced for garrison service and even for siege purposes; 40-pounders, on block trail travelling carriages, for batteries of position, while 20-pounders were intended for the same or heavy field batteries.

The Indian artillery, springing from the Royal Artillery in 1748, returned to it again in 1862, after a varied but glorious career. The company of Royal Artillery sent to the East Indies in 1748 formed the nucleus from which three companies of regular artillery, one for each presidency, were raised in 1749. Five more companies were sent out between that and 1756; and on the reorganisation of the Indian army by Clive in 1765, the greater part of the Royal Artillery then serving there volunteered for, and was incorporated with, the Indian army, thus forming the basis upon which were formed the three corps of Bengal, Madras, and Bombay artillery. Its early days were passed in difficulties and comparative obscurity; it was recruited largely from the navy or merchant service, and many of the terms still in use, such as “lascar” (native assistant-gunner), were drawn from that service. Its officers, as a rule, were utterly without technical training. By degrees, however, educated officers were obtained from the Royal Artillery, and both matériel.

By 1875 the whole of the British artillery formed one regiment, the “Royal Regiment of Artillery,” numbering 1414 officers and 33,688 men, and distributed in 216 batteries of horse, field, and garrison artillery. For purposes of administration a unit higher than the battery is adopted, called the brigade. Each brigade has its own staff of colonel-commandant, 4 lieutenant-colonels, adjutant, quarter-master, &c. The batteries of the brigades are, as far as possible, kept in the same part of the country where the headquarters are serving. There are 6 brigades of horse artillery, 12 of field artillery, 13 of garrison artillery, and the “coast brigade”.

The appellation “regiment,” for a force of 35,000 men and officers, is manifestly a misnomer, and the continuance of the present system is upheld principally on what may be termed “sentimental” grounds,-unwillingness to break old ties and uproot traditions, and fears that the esprit-de-corps of the service might suffer in the change. The separation of the field from the garrison artillery has often been advocated on the grounds of the essentially different nature of the two services, and the fact that the men and matériel were already separate, the officers alone being transferred from one branch to the other.

In the South African War the British employed a 3-inch breech-loading field gun firing a 15-pound projectile, a horse artillery gun of the same calibre firing a 12-pound projectile, a 5-inch siege rifle firing 50-pound lyddite shells, several types of howitzers, 2.5-inch mountain guns, and 4.7-inch naval guns. The last mentioned were handled by the naval battalion, and were hauled by horses or oxen, as the occasion required. The fuses of the field and horse artillery guns were graduated up to 3360 and 3960 yards, respectively. According to the comment of the German general staff in their History of the Boer War, the shooting and maneuvering of the British artillery were good, but it was not sufficiently trained in fire tactics and working with the infantry.

The Boer equipment consisted of 6-inch Creusot breech-loading siege rifles whose range was 8750 yards, 4.7-inch Krupp howitzers, 3-inch field guns, and 1.45 Vickers-Maxim machine guns (the pom-poms), but much of this armament was old and obsolete. Only in the first part of the war did the Boers employ their artillery by batteries, for after the battle of Talana Hill the guns were fought singly, and generally withdrawn before the crisis of the action.

British brigade divisions (battalions) which had not existed in time of peace, were handled with the dash and boldness that had marked the employment of the batteries against savage tribes, and this resulted in the loss of two batteries at Colenso. Prior to the Boer War, the different arms, infantry, artillery and cavalry, acted separately against the enemy. Artillery began the engagement between 3,000 and 1,500 yards. As the artillery learned at Colenso, the later range proved deadly to an entire battery of British artillery that the Boers wiped out early in the battle. The artillery rode out to within 2,500 yards of the suspected Boer entrenchments, which were actually 500 yards closer, and quickly came under intense rifle and pom-pom fire forcing the surviving crews to abandon the guns with heavy loss of life.

In 1899 the Royal Artillery was split into three arms - the Royal Field Artillery (RFA), the Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) and the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA). The Royal Regiment of Artillery at the time of the Great War comprised three elements:

  • The Royal Horse Artillery: armed with light, mobile, horse-drawn guns that in theory provided firepower in support of the cavalry and in practice supplemented the Royal Field Artillery.
  • The Royal Field Artillery: the most numerous arm of the artillery, the horse-drawn RFA was responsible for the medium calibre guns and howitzers deployed close to the front line and was reasonably mobile. It was organised into brigades.
  • The Royal Garrison Artillery: developed from fortress-based artillery located on British coasts. From 1914 when the army possessed very little heavy artillery it grew into a very large component of the British forces. It was armed with heavy, large calibre guns and howitzers that were positioned some way behind the front line and had immense destructive power.

The RFA and RHA both dressed as mounted soldiers, whereas the RGA dressed like foot soldiers. The First World War brought with it a massive expansion of the Royal Artillery. By 1917 there were 1,769 batteries in over 400 brigades totalling 548,000 men.

In 1920 the rank of Bombardier was instituted in the Royal Artillery. The three sections effectively functioned as separate corps. This arrangement lasted until 1924, when the three amalgamated once more to became one regiment. The Royal Horse Artillery, which has always had separate traditions, uniforms and insignia, still retains a separate identity within the regiment, however, and is considered, by its members at least, to be an élite unit.

By 1928 the British division was organized for war of movement or open warfare; it included only field guns and light howitzers. The artillery matériel which will be necessary to face the situation created by "the intervals of trench warfare" was grouped apart in elements of the corps or of the army. Actually the British division included, for twelve battalions, 54 18-pounder guns (83.8 mm.), and 18 4.5 inch howitzers (114.3 mm.) totalling 72 guns. But they planned besides, for each division, a minimum of: One or several battalions of 18-pounders; 24 6-inch howitzers; 8 60-pounder guns; 4 8-inch howitzers; 18 medium caliber trench mortars. Eventually more very heavy howitzers were planned.

Automobile transportation is the order of the day for all artillery, even light artillery. All 6-inch howitzer batteries are already equipped with tractors, and tests were going on also to motorize the 18-pounder guns and the 4.5-inch howitzers. They hoped thus, while realizing important economies in men and horses, to increase strategical and tactical mobility. It appeared that a system of flexible caterpillar treads will permit of obtaining speeds in excess of 30 kilometers over the road and of easily progressing over all terrain.

In 1924 the RFA and RGA were merged back into one regiment, the Royal Artillery. This was divided into brigades, which were renamed regiments in 1938. There were 960 of these regiments during the Second World War (1939-45), with over one million men. Its size fell to 250,000 men in 1945.

In 1938, the Royal Artillery Brigades were renamed Regiments. In the Second World War over a million men were serving in over 960 Gunner regiments. With the coming of peace the Gunners reduced to 250,000 men and 365 batteries in 106 regiments. At the beginning of 1939 the regular and TA strength of the Royal Artillery totalled about 105,000. In mid 1943 the RA reached its peak strength, some 700,000 strong (about 26% of total British Army strength and about the same size as the Royal Navy), including about 5% officers, in some 630 regiments, 65 training regiments and six officer cadet training units.

These included 130 regiments converted from TA infantry and yeomanry often retaining their previous regimental title as part of their artillery unit designation as well as badges and other accoutrements. However, the strength of the field branch (including anti-tank) in mid 1943 was about 232,000. The Regiment suffered some 31,000 killed during the course of the war. Of the 630 or so regiments about 240 were field artillery, excluding about 60 anti-tank.

At the end of the Second World War, the RA was larger than the Royal Navy. In 1947 the Riding Troop RHA was renamed The King's Troop RHA, and in 1951 the appointment of regiment’s Colonel-in-Chief became Captain General. Following the end of National Service and the Cold War, the Royal Artillery fell further to its lowest strength since the 1820s; 14 Regular and 7 Territorial Artillery Regiments.

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Page last modified: 19-01-2019 18:36:06 ZULU