Catalogue description Records created or inherited by the War Office, Armed Forces, Judge Advocate General, and related bodies

Details of WO
Reference: WO
Title: Records created or inherited by the War Office, Armed Forces, Judge Advocate General, and related bodies

Records created or inherited by the War Office, Armed Forces, Judge Advocate General, and related bodies relating to the administration of the armed forces.

Comprises records of:

  • General War Office records
  • Chief of the (Imperial) General Staff and its directorates
  • Commander-in-Chief, Military Secretary and Army Council
  • Army Medical services
  • Other administrative departments of the War Office
  • Finance departments
  • Central Department of the Permanent Secretary of State
  • Land Branch
  • Board of General Officers
  • Royal Chelsea and Kilmainham Hospitals
  • Constable of the Tower of London
  • Research establishments
  • Armed forces records from commands, headquarters, regiments and corps
  • Auxiliary forces
  • Army in Ireland
  • Armed forces service records
  • Private office papers and private collections
  • Commissions, committees and councils, etc
  • Ordnance Office and its War Office successors
  • Judge Advocate General

WO 56, WO 125, WO 200, WO 249 and WO 289 are numbers not used.

WO 20 and WO 21 were transferred to other series before 1905.

Date: 1568-2007
Held by: The National Archives, Kew
Legal status: Public Record(s)
Language: English

Ministry of Defence, 1947-

Secretary-at-War, 1660-1855

War Department, 1855-1857

War Office, 1857-1964

Physical description: 417 series
Access conditions: Subject to 30 year closure unless otherwise stated
Immediate source of acquisition:

from 1964 Ministry of Defence

from 1855 War Office

Publication note:

See Michael Roper, The Records of the War Office and related departments 1660-1964 (Public Record Office Handbook, XXI, 1998).

Administrative / biographical background:

Control of the Army before 1855

Until 1855 a number of independent offices and individuals were responsible for various aspects of Army administration. The four most important were the Commander in Chief, the Ordnance Office, the Secretary-at-War and the Secretary of State for War. Others who performed specialist functions were the controller of army accounts, the Army Medical Board, the Commissariat Department, the Board of General Officers, the Judge Advocate General, the Commissary General of Muster, the Paymaster General and the Home Office (before 1782 the twin secretaries of state).


The War Office was originally the office of the Secretary-at-War. This position is first found in the shape of a secretary of the Army or secretary of the forces on both sides during the Civil War, and with the appointment of William Clarke, formerly secretary to the parliamentary forces, it became a permanent one. At first the post was little more than that of private secretary to the Commander in Chief, but under Clarke's successors, the Secretary-at-War rose in status almost to that of a secretary of state.

The Secretary-at-War advised the sovereign on military matters, ordered troop movements, countersigned a variety of military warrants, including those authorising establishments but not officers' commissions, and generally attended to the routine needs of the Army. He did not become a member of the Cabinet until 1794, and even thereafter was not invariably a member.

The appointment of a Secretary of State for War in 1794, and the revival of the officer Commander in Chief in 1793, reduced the importance of his office; it was combined with that of Secretary of State for War in 1855 and abolished in May 1863.

The office of the Secretary-at-War was called the 'War Office' as early as 1693. Increases in the work and numbers of staff arising from the French Wars brought about a departmentalisation of the office, beginning in 1796 with the creation of a separate Foreign Department, from 1826 there were two main departments: a Department of Correspondence under the chief or first clerk, and a Department of Accounts under the chief examiner.

Secretary of State for War

From the seventeenth century the secretaries of state had signed military commissions, controlled the militia and acted as the channel of communication between the Cabinet and commanders in the field. After the re-allocation of duties of 1782 the Home Secretary became responsible for military affairs until 1794 when a Secretary of State for War was created. The department of the Secretary of State for War was at first known, at least semi-officially, as the 'War Department', until colonial affairs were added when it became the 'Colony Department'.

With the subsequent resumption of war it became the Colony and War Department and then on the restoration of peace in 1815 the Colonial Department. Within the department military affairs were conducted from at least 1810 by a separate branch known as the War Department; this ceased to exist after 1816 when the military business of the department declined rapidly.

In 1854 a separate Secretary of State for the Colonies was appointed and the former Secretary of State for War and the colonies became Secretary of State for War. From February 1855 the office was combined with that of Secretary-at-War until May 1863, when the latter office was abolished. In 1870 the Commander in Chief became a subordinate officer.

In 1904 the prerogative powers formerly exercised by the secretary of state and the Commander in Chief were vested in the Army Council, of which the secretary of state was president. The office of Secretary of State for War was abolished on April 1st 1964 on the creation of the unified Ministry of Defence.

The War Office 1855 to 1964

On 8 February 1855 the offices of the Secretary of State for War, created on 10 June 1854, and Secretary-at-War were merged. The secretary of state's department, known at first as the War Department but from 1857 as the War Office, soon absorbed the various other bodies formerly responsible for Army affairs. The Commander in Chief alone remained independent, though the secretary of state was answerable for him in Parliament, until he was subordinated to the secretary of state on 4 June 1870.

In 1870 the united War Office was divided into four departments. The Central Department; the Military Department; the Control Department; and the Financial Department. These and other senior officers of the War Office met regularly in a War Office Council. Reforms of 1887 and 1888 abolished the Control Department, most of its subdivisions going to the Military Department. The Financial Department was renamed the Civil Department.

In a further reorganisation of 21 November 1895 the Military Department was divided into five separate departments under the Commander in Chief, the adjutant general and quartermaster general, the inspector general of fortification and the inspector general of Ordnance.

On 6 February 1904 all the powers under the royal prerogative formerly exercised by the Commander in Chief and the secretary of state were vested in the Army Council and the office of the Commander in Chief was abolished, the new office of chief of the Imperial General Staff taking its place. At the same time the military departments were reduced to four.

A number of War Office functions were transferred to new ministries during the First World War; munitions supply to the Ministry of Munitions in June 1915; war pensions to the Ministry of Pensions; aircraft design to the Air Board and aircraft manufacture to the Ministry of Munitions in February 1917; recruitment to the Ministry of National Service in October 1917; and military aviation to the Air Ministry in January 1918. After the war, some of these functions returned: recruitment in January 1919, munitions supply during 1919 and 1920 and pensions in 1921.

Similarly, during the Second World War certain functions passed to other departments: supply, design and inspection of munitions to the Ministry of Supply; recruitment to the Ministry of Labour and National Service. Supreme control over military operations was exercised by the prime minister as Minister of Defence and by the War Cabinet though the Chiefs of Staff Committee and its subcommittees. The War Office resumed its supply functions after the war. On 1 April 1964 the War Office was absorbed into a unified Ministry of Defence.

Have you found an error with this catalogue description?

Help with your research