Room for some on top: The modern day Conductor RLC

By WO1 (Cdr) Mike Coyle, RLC(V)

Regimental Warrant Officer of Volunteers, HQ RLC TA 1999 – 2003

(Updated 5 Feb 03)


The letter from the Brigadier went something like, ‘I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected to the appointment of Conductor RLC… This as you are aware, is the senior appointment for soldiers not only in the RLC but in the Army.‘ It went on … ‘the appointment is limited to a small number of Warrant Officers Class One and carries certain privileges.’

The key words here are selected, appointment and privileges. For my own piece of mind I needed to establish how was the selection made, a little more about the appointment and, more to the point, what were those privileges mentioned? But first a little background.

The appointment of Conductor is an ancient one, some 600 years old. The authoritative writings began in around 1958 in the RAOC Gazette, when Lt Col WHJ Gillow MBE produced a much quoted article describing the development of the appointment. The bulk of that article has been developed further by McKenzie (1998) and can be found on the World Wide Web and is copied on this site). Further insights can be found in RASC Journal for Nov 1960, by Lt(QM) RK Cooley RASC.

The search for more information about the appointment, particularly about the ‘certain privileges’ led me a number of other documents and articles held at the RLC Museum at Deepcut. The question of recognition of this most senior of appointments has been the subject of great debate and clarification over the years. In particular, the question of physical recognition by badge of rank or dress appears to have taken an inordinate amount of time and effort. Current badges of rank and dress date only from 1918, almost 600 years after the appointment was introduced and confirmed (Lawson, 1940)

The historical, military function of Conductors was in provision of logistical support for the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers. During the 1700’s, with increasing dependence of the Army on Artillery on the Battlefield, the need to move guns, ammunition stores and consumables became paramount, at the same time with the movement of pontoons and field stores, the role also provided logistical main effort for the Engineers. It wasn’t until 1859 that the function of the Conductor became a military imperative. Prior to that, it had been a civilian commissariat activity under the control of the Master General of Stores, an appointment of the Board of Ordnance. Civilians they may have been, however they were awarded campaign medals, wore uniform and draw a salary from the Army. Interestingly, responsibilities included supervision of contracts. No change there then! In those early days, pay and allowances for soldiers and officers was supervised by the Conductor. There are many that wish the same were true now!

The Royal Warrant for Appointment didn’t arrive until 11 January 1879, when the first warrants went to the Commissariat & Transport and to Ordnance as Conductors of Supply and Conductors of Stores. At that time their position in relation to other ranks was clarified ‘their position in our army shall be inferior to that of all commissioned officers and superior to that of all non-commissioned officers. Conductors shall have full power to exercise command over any subordinates of the Departments of our Army, or non-commissioned officers or soldiers of our Army, who may be placed under there orders.’ In 1888, Badges and Rank (W.Officers) Army Part 2, Rank & Seniority of Warrant Officers (Army and R.Marines), Page 27A is clear in its definition of the Conductor appointment and its seniority state.

The appointment of Conductor of Supplies was abolished in 1892 and substituted with ‘SSM’. Since there are official records of Conductors in 1897, it is reasonable to assume that the Conductor of Stores remained and the pedigree of the current appointment stems from there. This view is reinforced by the decision, just 10 years earlier, on 6 April 1887 to require senior appointments, including Conductors to be qualified as a Clerk.

There now follows a number of serious debating points! According to Gillow (1958) and Cooley (1960), on the abolition of the appointment in 1892, Conductors, Master Gunners 1st Class and SSM’s 1st Class ‘rank with one another’. However, because there is some evidence that the appointment of Conductor (of Stores) continued throughout, it is reasonable to assume that the 1879 definition stands. In modern times there are sufficient vested interests in keeping this senior appointment in equivalence. If I was to ask the Academy Serjeant Major (yes, Serjeant Major) the Royal Artillery Sergeant Major or indeed the Garrison Sergeant Major, London District, who had seniority, a vocal debate would be sure to ensue. All the received wisdom and Queens Regulations 1975 Amdt 25(Ch 9.169) indicates there is no recent confirmation of the seniority of the Conductor appointment. We of course defer to history and precedence.

Maj NP Dawnay, in his authoritative text on ‘The Badges of Warrant and Non-commissioned Rank in the British Army, 1949, states ‘As early as 1779, there existed subordinate Officers styled ‘Conductors’ who were assistants to the Commissaries of Stores, but, in the British Army, the title seems to have fallen into disuse early in the 19 century….’     He goes on ‘At the beginning of 1879 the title was resuscitated, and a new rank superior to all Non-Commissioned Officers and inferior only to commissioned Officers, was created.     Members of this grade were styled Warrant Officers: those in the Commissariat and Transport Corps having the title of Conductor of Supplies; those in the Ordnance Store Corps, that of Conductor of Stores. During their first year of probation, these Warrant Officers were appointed Sub Conductors.’     Importantly, it concludes ‘The THREE classes of Warrant Officer which now exist are a direct descendent of the rank created in 1879.’ This leaves no doubt as to the probity of the appointment.

As early as 20 years ago in 1978, worries were beginning to emerge about the number of Conductors being appointed. Clearly, how can this be the most senior appointment if a large number are being appointed? A quote from the time suggested that the situation ‘Diminished the special nature of the appointment.’ and ‘the appointment had lost status and prestige that it should rightfully enjoy and the Senior Warrant Officer in the British Army.’ Briefing notes for the April 1981 Conductors Promotion Board clarifies the number of appointments to be made should not exceed ‘25% of one third of entitled Warrant Officers Class One less all RSM’s. The plan was to reduce the number of appointments by 75% in 1979, 50% in 1980, 20% in 1981 and 10% by 1982. In the year 2000 Conductor Appointment Board the number had been cut to 5% of entitled WO1’s (less all RSM’s).

By 1981, Maj Gen Brown, Log Exec (Army) was involved in a great deal of correspondence on another matter: How should this senior appointment be addressed? On 17 August 1981, he states: ‘I wish the following set of rules to be adopted:

  1. WO1 Conductors are to be referred to, in verbal address as ‘Conductor’.
  2. WO1 SSM are to be referred to as ‘Mr’. WO2’s should be addressed by appointment, E.g. CQMS, Sgt Major, etc. I would prefer the courtesy address of ‘Mr’ restricted to WO1’s other than Conductor.’

Gen Sir Michael Gow, C in C BAOR, endorsed this protocol in June 1981. In a letter to Gen Brown he refers to ‘the senior appointment in the entire Army’ and goes on to say ‘The holder of such an ancient title should be addressed as such.’ Incidentally, according to defence writing protocol, the written for of address: WO1(Cdr) Name. Not as is often seen WO1(CDR)

Returning to the issue of privilege, the General Order 94 of July 1879 which declared and confirmed the superiority of the Conductors appointment went on to state ‘When numbers are not sufficient to form a mess for themselves, they are at liberty to become Honorary Members of the Sgt’s Mess’. GO94 also introduces the rule, still extant, that Conductors should take place on all parades as officers but would never salute and that when required should ‘act in the place of a subaltern officer when required’ (QR’s, Ch 9.169). This clearly gives rise to the opportunity for Conductors to be invited to use the Officers Mess, although I can find no clear guidance or instruction for this.

The Modern Perspective

The Conductors appointment is not a foregone conclusion for all WO1’s. Now a days it is regarded as recognition of a set of particular qualities of a particular individual. Currently Conductors in the RLC are fulfilling challenging roles in all the trades across the Corps. In my case I am a Caterer, a Territorial Army Caterer, without Regular experience. My letter of appointment states clearly that my own ability, experience and conduct were recognised by my promotion to WO1. The appointment as a Conductor now shows to all members of the Army the special esteem in which I am held in the Corps and marks not only the long devoted service given but also the broader aspects of my work and involvement in service life. I share this not as an ego trip for myself but in a bid to understand what the ‘Ancient Appointment of Conductor’ is all about.

In history the role of Conductor was very specific and prescriptive. In the modern army of the 21st Century the emphasis is a little different. It has been made clear on a number of occasions in preparation for this article, that the appointment is in recognition of an individual’s contribution to the life and work of the Corps. It is not a promotion to a higher Rank. It is THE senior appointment for WO1’s. Conductors are reminded that essentially, our contemporary role is to provide an example to officers, NCO’s and OR’s, the ‘training’ of young officers and to represent the Corps in and at prestigious events, as well as carry out their specialist employment responsibilities and duties. Personally, I am immensely proud to be the senior TA soldier in the British Army. Proud to be an example proving that pure bred TA soldiers can aspire to the most senior appointment, not only as Regimental Warrant Officer of Volunteers, but as Conductor.

But what of the current holders of the Appointment of Conductor; at the moment there are 16 Conductors in the RLC and one in the RLC TA.

In a bid to discover what 21st Century Conductors do I have undertaken a survey attempting to establish the current state. In Part 2, the next article, we shall review the material from that survey and try to establish what it means to be a Conductor in the British Army of the 21 Century.

© Mike Coyle

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