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The War Office was a department of the British Government responsible for the administration of the British Army between the 17th century and 1964, when its functions were transferred to the Ministry of Defence.
The name "War Office" is also given to the former home of the department, the War Office building located at the junction of Horse Guards Avenue and Whitehall in central London. During August 2013 it was announced that the former War Office building would be sold on the open market.
The War Office developed from the Council of War, an ad hoc grouping of the King and his senior military commanders which managed the Kingdom of England's frequent wars and campaigns. It was equivalent to the Admiralty, responsible for the Royal Navy, and the (much later) Air Ministry, which oversaw the Royal Air Force. Its foundation has traditionally been ascribed to William Blathwayt, who on his appointment as Secretary at War during 1684 greatly expanded the remit of his office to cover general day-to-day administration of the Army.
The department had several London homes until it settled at Horse Guards in Whitehall during 1722, where it was to remain until 1858. The War Office was then relocated to Cumberland House, Pall Mall for the last half of the 19th century before finally being relocated to a purpose-built accommodation in what is now known as the Old War Office Building.
The management of the War Office was directed initially by the Secretary at War, whose role had originated during the reign of King Charles II of England as the secretary to the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army. The first War Office Secretary at War is usually said to have been William Blathwayt, though he had two predecessors in the job. It was, however, a fairly minor government job which dealt with the minutiae of administration rather than grand strategy. Issues of strategic policy during wartime were managed by the Northern and Southern Departments (the predecessors of today's Foreign Office and Home Office).
From 1704 to 1855, the job of Secretary was possessed by a minister of the second rank, although he was occasionally part of the Cabinet. Many of his responsibilities were transferred to the Secretary of State for War after the creation of that more senior post during 1794 (though the latter was also responsible for Britain's colonies from 1801 and renamed Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, an arrangement which only ceased with the establishment of the Colonial Office during 1854). The job of Secretary at War was merged with that of the Secretary of State for War during 1855 (and was abolished altogether during 1863).
During 1855 the Board of Ordnance was abolished as a result of its perceived poor performance during the Crimean War. This powerful independent body, dating from the 15th century, had been directed by the Master-General of the Ordnance, usually a very senior military officer who (unlike the Secretary at War) was often a member of the Cabinet. The disastrous campaigns of the Crimean War resulted in the consolidation of all administrative duties during 1855 as subordinate to the Secretary of State for War, a Cabinet job. He was not, however, solely responsible for the Army; the Commander-in-Chief had a virtually equal degree of responsibility. This was reduced in theory by the reforms introduced by Edward Cardwell during 1870, which subordinated the Commander-in-Chief to the Secretary for War. In practice, however, a huge amount of influence was retained by the exceedingly conservative Commander-in-Chief Field Marshal Prince George, 2nd Duke of Cambridge, who had the job between 1856 and 1895. His resistance to reform caused military efficiency to lag well behind that of Britain's rivals, a problem which became obvious during the Second Boer War.
The situation was only remedied during 1904 when the job of Commander-in-Chief was abolished and replaced with that of the Chief of the General Staff which was replaced by the job of Chief of the Imperial General Staff during 1908. An Army Council was created with a format similar to that of the Board of Admiralty, directed by the Secretary of State for War, and an Imperial General Staff was established to coordinate Army administration.
The management of the War Office was hampered by persistent disputes between the civilian and military parts of the organisation. The government of H. H. Asquith attempted to resolve this during the First World War by appointing Lord Kitchener as Secretary for War, making him the first and only soldier to have the job. However, this was thought unsatisfactory; during his tenure, the Imperial General Staff was virtually dismantled. Its role was replaced effectively by the Committee of Imperial Defence, established during 1902 to discuss wider defence issues.
The War Office decreased greatly in importance after the First World War, a fact illustrated by the drastic reductions of its staff numbers during the inter-war period. On 1 April 1920, it employed 7,434 civilian staff; this had decreased to 3,872 by 1 April 1930. Its responsibilities and funding were also reduced. During 1936, the government of Stanley Baldwin appointed a Minister for Co-ordination of Defence, who was not part of the War Office. When Winston Churchill became Prime Minister during 1940, he bypassed the War Office altogether and appointed himself Minister of Defence (though there was, curiously, no ministry of defence until 1947).
Clement Attlee continued this arrangement when he came to power during 1945 but appointed a separate Minister of Defence for the first time during 1947. During 1964, the present form of the Ministry of Defence was established, unifying the War Office, Admiralty, and Air Ministry.
The records of the War Office are kept by The National Archives with the code WO.
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Between 1906 and its abolition during 1964, the War Office was based in a large neo-Baroque building, completed during 1906, located on Horse Guards Avenue at its junction with Whitehall in central London. It contains about 1,000 rooms across seven floors, linked by 2½ miles of corridors. The construction of the War Office building required five years to complete at what was then a huge cost of more than £1.2 million.
The building is somewhat oddly shaped, forming a trapezium shape in order to maximise the usage of the irregularly shaped plot of land on which it was built. Its four distinctive domes were designed as a decorative means of disguising the building's shape.
After 1964 the building continued to be used by the Ministry of Defence by the name Old War Office. During August 2013 it was announced that the building would be sold on the open market with the goal of realising offers in excess of £100 million; it is likely to become a hotel.
On 13 December 2014 the Ministry of Defence confirmed that the War Office building would be sold to the Hinduja Group for an undisclosed amount. The building was sold on 1 March 2016 for more than £350 million, on a long 250-year lease, to the Hinduja Group and OHL Developments for conversion to a luxury hotel and residential apartments.