THE CORPS OF ROYAL ENGINEERS
Skilled artisans have always had an important role with armies from Roman times. The construction of fortifications has required engineering specialists on many levels. The Roman engineers (Architecti) built offensive heavy weaponry such as caterpaults, battering rams and siege engines. They also built walls and roads, many of which survive to this day. The advent of cannon in the 14th century changed the dynamic of defensive fortification and engineers of the day learned how to deal with the new conditions.By the end of the 17th century, most countries had talented engineers and military architects in their armies. New styles of fortification appeared, such as the forts designed by Vauban. The armies of Louis IV had engineers on their staffs, as did the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Prince Eugene of Savoy.
Great Britain came late to the establishment of an engineering corps. When Charles II established the first permanent standing army, he provided for a staff of artillery and engineering officers on the Board of Ordnance. The engineering officers gained valuable knowledge from their visits to the fortresses foreign armies where they learned the skills of siege warfare in the Low Countries as well as far away campaigns in the Ottoman Empire.
The Royal Military Academy was created by the Board of Ordnance in 1720 to educate young men in the art of Artillery and Military Engineering. For more than 300 years more famous and competent soldiers would graduate from this institution more than any other.
Engineers were heavily involved in the War of Spanish Succession (1704-1714). In August of 1717 the first Engineers were elevated to military status in the Board of Ordnance. From that point, they were attached to all British expeditions, mostly against France in Europe, India and the Americas during the middle part of the eighteenth century. The first commissions were issued in 1757. It was the defence of Gibraltar (1779-83) that had a great impact on the Engineering branch of the Board of Ordnance. The use of civilians and ordinary infantrymen in creating the defensive works and providing labour was not sufficient. Lieutenant-Colonel Green, suggested a locally raised corps of labourers to be formed into an Artificer Company. Such a corps was enlisted and later became the Royal Military Artificers. In 1788 the Corps of Royal Engineers was created for the officers who were also assigned to command the companies of Artificers.
The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars provided major opportunities for Engineers.
They and the Artificers found themselves doing hard work in Canada, the West Indies, Egypt and India. It was a Royal Engineer and his men that erected the Citadel at Halifax. Detachments served in St. Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and St. Domingo where yellow fever killed more men than enemy action. In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte and his army invaded and occupied Egypt and prompted a British response. Among the officers of a mission sent to assist the Ottoman forces were three Engineers Officers, Captain Holloway, Captain Richard Fletcher and John Fox Burgoyne. All three would figure large in the ensuing world war. Captain Holloway contributed to the re-energization of the Ottoman forces of the Grand Vizier by leading them across the desert to defeat a French army and send them scurrying back to Cairo. Also, for the first time, the engineers and sappers of the Bengal, Madras and Bombay presidencies accompanied the Indian troops arriving to assist the British Army in Egypt. Upon their return to India they would serve in the Maratha Wars providing bridges and earthworks for Sir Arthur Wellesley in his successful campaigns ending in the battles of Seringapatam and Assaye.
By 1807, the campaign in the Peninsula had become a breeding ground for Engineering ingenuity. Sir John Moore’s retreat to Corunna saw a few Engineer officers engaged in the destruction of roads and bridges as they passed. They were hampered not only by the lack of gunpowder and equipment but by the scarcity of Artificers.
In 1809 Wellesley, now Viscount Wellington, was forced to retire to Portugal after the Battle of Talavera. As the French forces were preparing to invade Portugal, Wellington now decided to fortify the borderland. Thus was born the project known as The Lines of Torres Vedras. This three tier set of fortifications was largely led by a few Royal Engineers with a small group of Artificers directing over 9,000 Portuguese Labourers. The result was a series of over 150 redoubts, connected by earthen walls and manned by Portuguese militia.
Wellington’s most valuable engineer officers were Captains Fletcher and Burgoyne (The former badly wounded in the thigh at Badajoz) and they accompanied him on most of his campaigns in the Peninsula, including the sieges of Badajoz and San Sebastian. They organized crossings of the Douro and it’s tributaries using pontoons and were the only bridging-train employed between 1810-1813. The Corps of Artificers suffered severely digging saps and trenches truly predating the modern concept of a combat engineer. In 1812, recognizing the true efforts of their work, the Corps of Military Artificers were replaced by the Royal Corps of Sappers and Miners.
Lt Col. Dick Fletcher’s luck ran out at San Sebastian where he was shot through the heart while directing operations. He was 44 years old and his grave can be found on the outskirts of the town. John Burgoyne, now a Lieutenant-Colonel, became Wellington’s chief engineer. Having crossed the Bidassoa, Wellington and his army set their sights on Bayonne. The crossing of the Ardour River was another engineering feat as Burgoyne had to construct about 30 wooden pontoon vessels to allow the army to bridge the 300 yard river. The task was completed as Wellington needed with help from the Royal Navy. It was considered “A stupendous undertaking …. Among the prodigies of War” by the military historian William Napier.
John Burgoyne found himself in the United States in 1814 commanding two companies of Sappers and Miners. It was one of these companies that put the White House on fire. In 1815, Prior to the Battle of Waterloo, Companies of Sappers and Miners were deployed to shore up the defences of the Franco Belgian Frontier especially on the River Scheldt. Unfortunately, one of the companies got lost and found itself embroiled with retreating Belgians and Hanoverians from the battlefield and were swept into Brussels, having lost most of their equipment. Their commanding officer was even arrested! Before the battle, R.E. Officers had prepared a map of the country around Waterloo. It was given to Wellington, who found it useful and pencilling in marks. He ordered Sir William De Lancey to take the map and get the army to move onto the Waterloo position. Unfortunately, De Lancey was killed while on his mission, but the map was recovered and now lies in the Royal Engineers Museum, still stained with the gallant officer’s blood.
Army reductions following the Napoleonic Wars did not leave the RE untouched. The companies of Sappers and Miners were reduced to 12, consisting of 62 men each, distributed as follows; 3 at Woolwich, 3 at Chatham, 2 at Portsmouth, 2 at Gibraltar, 1 in Canada, 1 at Corfu and 1 at St. Helena. The latter formed the burial party for Napoleon.
In 1824 a new company was raised, the 13th which was formed for survey operations in Ireland (the continuation of the original Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain). In 1825, the 14th and 15th companies were formed to complement the project, including providing officers and men to initiate the ordnance survey of the Indian sub-continent. The officer in charge there was Colonel Everest, whose name was given to the world’s highest mountain.
More companies were raised in the eighteen twenties before a reduction back to 12 companies of 91 men in 1833. One company was in Corfu for many years doing work on fortifications. Another company was employed in Canada building the Rideau canal under the leadership of Colonel John By RE. When completed, the project linked Kingston and Montreal. Colonel By’s Headquarters was called Bytown which was renamed Ottawa in 1854. His statue stands there in Major’s Hill Park to this day.
In 1832, King William IV granted The Corps of Engineers the motto “QUO FAS ET GLORIA DUCUNT” with the Motto “UBIQUE” instead of battle honours. These were to be born on their badges and appointments. The Royal Artillery received these honours at the same time.
One individual at the heart of Royal Engineers at this period was Charles Pasley. At Chatham, he began a course of architecture at the establishment in 1825, which became the basis for the RE School of Construction producing a number competent officers who designed and built many of the barracks in Britain. One of these officers was Captain Fowke who designed many barracks that survived until after the Great War. He designed many public buildings in Britain and Ireland including the Dublin National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He also made preliminary drawings of the Royal Albert Hall but died before finishing them. Among other resourceful contrivances, he produced collapsible Canvas pontoons for bridging purposes.
Royal Engineers also presented designs for the Crystal Palace in the Great Exhibition of 1851.
Back at Chatham, Pasley and his school were involving themselves in submarine mining. Using experimental explosives, he was able to raise many wrecks in the Thames and around Portsmouth. Promoted to Major-General in 1841, Pasley was appointed Inspector-General of Railways. His tenure resulted in the creation of Railways, both civil and military in the British Empire.
Pasley retired in 1846 and he was succeeded by John Fox Burgoyne, who we have heard of during the Peninsula War. Burgoyne would become the first of five Field-Marshalls produced by the Royal Engineers in the 19th Century. He passionately advocated for the entire army to modernize itself, especially in the face of French invasion. The next major conflict that involved Britain was the Crimean War in 1854, ironically allied with France. Royal Engineers had already been assisting the beleaguered Ottoman Army against the Russians. Burgoyne, now Lieutenant-General and Inspector General of Fortifications was Raglan’s second in command. He chose the disembarkation point for the Army on the Crimean Peninsula. He advised the route that the Army would make to Sebastopol after the Battle of Alma, and he insisted on an early assault on the Malakoff before the Redan. His entreaties were ignored until the last part of the war when, indeed, the assault on the Malakoff proved the point. He became Field-Marshall in 1865 and was appointed Constable of the Tower of London, passing away in 1871. His statue stands in Waterloo Place, London.
In 1855, the moribund Board of Ordnance was abolished and The Royal Engineers and Royal Sappers and Miners were united as the Corps of Royal Engineers. This momentous decision was taken as a recognition of the powerful impact both corps had made during the War in Crimea.
In the following years, Royal Engineers would figure prominently in the many and varied campaigns in which the British Empire was involved. The first was the Indian Mutiny of 1857 where a woefully under equipped force of Engineers joined with their Bengal, Bombay and Madras Sappers. It was a Bengal Sapper company that blew up the Kashmir Gate at Delhi paving the way for its capture. Three Victoria Crosses were awarded for the action. The Madras Sappers were also involved in the 2nd China War (1860), where they helped to capture the Taku Forts.
Seven years later an expedition under Lord Napier, another RE Field-Marshall, to punish King Theodore of Abyssinia for kidnapping British citizens, was launched in some of the most difficult terrain a British Army would ever encounter. Railway companies of British and Indian Engineers built a railway from Zula on the Red Sea, laying 12 miles of track climbing 350 feet using eight iron girder bridges. They built the port and then laid over 100 miles of roadway to Magdala where Napier gained his victory.
As the Royal Artillery absorbed the Indian batteries, so did the Royal Engineers amalgamate with the Bengal, Bombay and Madras Sappers and Miners. The officers of the Indian Engineers continued to graduate from the RMA in Woolwich even though many young officers had gone through the military sciences at the H.E.I.C college at Addiscombe, Surrey. As part of the consolidation of the Indian Army with the home army, it was closed down in 1861.
The Royal Engineers continued to expand in numbers and technical capabilities. By 1865, there were more than 32 companies on the home establishment. They included Driver, Fortress, Field Equipment and bridging companies. The electric telegraph, invented by Samuel Morse in 1832, had already seen use in the Crimean and Abyssinian wars. By 1870 a Telegraph troop had been attached to the Field companies and were operational in every campaign in the British Empire until the end of the Great War. In 1871, Submarine Mining Companies were formed to protect harbours and ports safe during war or threat of war.
Royal Engineers continued to be heavily involved in all the campaigns of the last third of the 19th Century. The Ashanti War of 1873 saw engineers build 160 miles of roads and erected a number of bridges and fortifications. Lieutenant Bell R.E. was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry under fire. The Indian Engineers served courageously in the 2nd Afghan War and Lieutenant John Rouse Meriot Chard won his Victoria Cross for his heroism and leadership of the small force defending the mission at Rorkes Drift in the Zulu War of 1879.
The Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882 found the R.E. involved in repairing and laying track for the armoured trains used by the Royal Navy as mobile gun platforms. The Royal Engineer contribution to the campaign included the 24th and 26th Companies with A and I companies of the Madras Sappers and Miners. During the Sudan Campaign of 1885, RE companies supervised fortifications at Suakin supporting General Graham’s troops in that area. Indian Engineer Companies were very active in the North West Frontier campaigns as well as Burma.
The last quarter of the 19th century saw some of the most notable personalities from the Royal Engineers in history. We have mentioned Lord Napier of Magdala, but there was one man who captured the imagination of the whole Empire.
Charles George Gordon was a graduate of the Royal Military Academy. He had served in the Crimean War and afterwards proceeded to Tientsin where he was attached to the RE staff. After the capture of Peking in 1860 he met the Chinese Emperor who was waging war against a rebel army known as the Taiping. Gordon, who knew the country quite well, was invited to command the Emperor’s army which at the time was a motley collection of ne’er do wells led by some American and European soldiers. He was able to take things in hand and turn them into what came to be called “The Ever Victorious Army” with Gordon created a Mandarin and Ti Tu or Field Marshal, He was since known in England as “Chinese Gordon”, but his story didn’t end there.
After various mundane but important projects like improving the defences on the Thames, he accepted a position as Governor of Equatorial Sudan from the Khedive of Egypt. There he surveyed the Nile and built fortifications near Lake Victoria. He also began building a route from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. After a return to England, he was persuaded to return to the Sudan in 1884 to somehow thwart the Mahdi’s rebellion. The rest of the story is well enough known. His tragic death on the steps of the Residency in Khartoum made him a Martyr throughout the world.
The other great Sapper of the period was Sir Herbert (Later Lord) Kitchener.
The technical and innovative systems originating within the Royal Engineers expanded rapidly from 1870-1900. The first Submarine Mining companies were formed in 1870, The RE Telegraph Corps was established in 1871, A Balloon School was established at Chatham in 1888 with a regular Balloon Troop being raised in 1890 and the Steam propulsion section was increased to two.
The South African War brought on a major expansion of the Corps, especially for the railway companies who built the armoured trains that moved troops (including the one that led to Winston Churchill’s capture). They also created the field parks for the army as it moved and operated steam tractors that carried heavy equipment. The RE was often in the thick of the fighting earning two VCs.
By 1900, there were nearly 7,000 Royal Engineers of all ranks comprised of 56 Companies as follows:
25 Fortress and Barrack Construction Companies: 6 in the UK, 4 in Gibraltar, 1 in the West Indies, 2 in Halifax NS., 2 in Bermuda, 2 in Malta, 3 in Hong Kong, 2 in Singapore, 1 in Simonstown SA, 1 in Egypt and 1 in Victoria BC (The latter serving in the Boxer Rebellion).
15 Field Companies:
2 Submarine Mining Companies in the UK and 6 each in Hong Kong, Singapore, Mauritius, Ceylon and the West Indies.
3 Pontoon Troops, including a Bridging unit.
2 Railway Companies
1 Steam Transport Company
4 Survey Companies
2 Depot Companies
There was also a Balloon section and a Mounted Troop at Chatham