Royal Artillery – An Introduction

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Gunpowder was invented in China during the late Tang dynasty (9th century). Knowledge of gunpowder spread – possibly because of the Mongol conquests of the 13th century or perhaps it came along the Silk Road. A written formula for it appeared in the 1267 Opus Majus written for Pope Clement IV by Roger Bacon in England. His recipe for “blackpowder” said: “of saltpetre take five parts, five of young willow (charcoal) and five of sulfur and so you will make thunder and lightning”. English cannon saw its first use in the Hundred Years War with France when Edward III used cannon at the Battle of Crécy (1346) against the army of French King, Philip VI.

Masters of Ordinance and the Office of Master General of the Ordinance had been created by Henry V in 1415. Early guns were ‘guns of position’, used in defence of castles, but not easily moved until the middle of the 15th century as wheels and carriages improved. King Henry VII (1509-1547) appointed a Master Gunner at the Tower of London and Master Gunners were appointees at castles where they were responsible for maintaining the armament and training the gunners (who were civilians).  The Office of Ordinance (later the Board of Ordinance) was created by Henry VIII in 1544. The Board of Ordinance and the Master General of the Ordinance came to organise trains of artillery, allot guns and master gunners, hire horses and drivers and appoint army officers to control them. In action, gunners were assisted by soldiers who could be made available. As gunnery became more technical the new ranks of firemaster, fireworker and bombardier were introduced. Trains of artillery became very large and the organisation of these trains became so complex it led to the failure of a train to arrive on time in 1715.

John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, had been re-appointed Master General of the Ordinance in 1714. Under his reforms, by Royal Warrant of George I, two regular companies of field artillery, each 100 men strong, were raised at Woolwich, South of the river Thames in East London on May 26th, 1716. Initially based at the Royal Arsenal barracks, after 50 years they were moved to their own new barracks on Woolwich Common in 1770. They were titled  the “Royal Regiment of Artillery” (RA) in 1720.  In 2007 the headquarters of The Royal Artillery finally moved to Larkhill on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire where the bulk of the Regiment had been based for some years. This garrison town started as a tented barracks with a firing range in 1899 and since the range was suited for artillery practice the base began to be used more and more by the Royal Artillery. After World War I the base became an artillery stronghold and in 1919 the Royal School of Artillery was established there.   Shortly before World War II the famous British Ordnance QF 25-pounder was developed by the school of artillery at Larkhill.

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