Not currently logged on - Login/Register

The Office of the Secretary at War

Thursday, 31 October 1799

Secretary at War


The Secretary at War   (not to be confused with the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies – a Cabinet post)   was a political position in the  British Government with some responsibility over the administration and organization of the Armed Forces, but none at all  over military policy.

 The Secretary at War ran the War Office with chosen  assistants . It was only very rarely a cabinet level position, and it was considered of subordinate rank to the Secretaries of State (see above)

The role of the War Office at this period has always seemed baffling to historians and this also seems to have been the case at the time. They received many letters from otherwise knowledgeable officials which were patiently re-addressed and sent to the government departments to which they should have been sent,

This ill-defined situation had probably been allowed to develop deliberately.

Following the American Revolution Parliament had become far more inquisitive about the Army. At the same time a chain of agencies involved with military establishment multiplied.  These ambiguities led to much inefficiency in business, but as far as Parliament was concerned (given Britain’s troubled history in the 17th Century) any inefficiencies within the executive dealing with the military was to be encouraged!

Standing armies were associated with despotism and following the experiences under the Stuarts were disliked for generations.

As a result no Ministry existed with the task of developing the Army as a force,and  the Minister  who supervised the Army was to have little or nothing to do with it’s actual use in wartime.

The title “Secretary at War” is false in that he had nothing to do with war policy in a wider sense. A better title would have been “Secretary to the Army”.

During the period in which we are concerned it became clear that the work fell into two areas, one military,one civil. Originally a clerk to the Commander-in-Chief, or to the King (as Commander in Chief)  he continued to be paid as a staff-officer, and to be appointed by a military commission. A commission which wisely made no attempt at any form of job description! He was however almost invariably a civilian, a fact which helped somewhat in allaying the fears of unwelcome military influence.

Although the role constantly changed throughout the period depending upon the personalities occupying the position and influences from Parliament, the aspect of military secretary to the Monarch remained unchanged. This caused some disquiet  with feelings that the Royal influence had been increased by the existence of a standing army, this, together with the indefinable and camouflaged nature of the office sometimes led to overheated speculation  about the improper extent of the Secretary’s influence.

In the absence of a Ministry of War, little or no policy direction of the Army took place in peace time. The King, The Secretaries of State, the Commanders-in-Chief, The Master-General of the Ordnance, the Treasury, and the Paymaster-General all had parts to play in maintaining the Army, and many of these lines of communication crossed in the War Office.

 In times of war, the situation changed but not in favour of the powers of Secretary at War.

 The decisions regarding the army in wartime were made at meetings in Cabinet to which the Secretary at war was often excluded. Following such meetings, the Secretaries of State would set in practice the expeditions, troop movements, etc.  This was where the Secretary at War would come forward to issue the detailed instructions  to put their plans into action.

More powerful men might plan the strokes of strategy, but they turned to the Secretary at War to make sure that they could actually do it.

The military part of the role meant having a detailed knowledge of supplying military demands.

The civil and political part required him to know how to account for every item of expenditure to the Treasury, and to present Parliament with good estimates.

He alone had the statistical and technical knowledge to advise on the potential of any possible lines of  policy . Before a Secretary of State decided what he would do, he had first to find out from the Secretary at War what he could do!

However, the Secretaries at War were quick to point out on several occasions that as they were not members of the Cabinet  but merely ministerial officers, then they could not be held responsible for the conduct of the war – it was very difficult to fix any failures upon them!

One of the principal duties of the Secretary at War was the ratification of Commissions.

Commissions were by payment and seniority, and each Regiment had a Regimental Agent who was responsible for the buying and selling of Commissions within that Regiment. On the purchase of a Commission the Agent would contact the Secretary at War whose responsibility it was to draw up and have ratified His Majesty’s Commission for the Officer concerned.

 If a case should unfortunately arise which appeared to his Majesty's Government to call for the dismissal of an officer, it was the province of the Secretary at War to take his Majesty's pleasure on the subject.


Secretaries at War  in the period  1768-1828:


·  William Wildman Shute Barrington, 2nd Viscount Barrington 1765-1778

·  Charles Jenkinson 1778-1782

·  Thomas Townshend 1782

·  Sir George Yonge 1783-1794

·  William Windham 1794-1801

·  Charles Philip Yorke 1801-1803

·  Charles Bragge 1803-1804

·  William Dundas 1804-1806

·  Richard Fitzpatrick 1806-1807

·  Sir James Murray-Pulteney 1807-1809

·  Lord Granville Leveson-Gower 1809

·  Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston 1809-1828