Royal Engineers

Corps of Royal Engineers – From Woolwich to the World

Many readers will have heard of the link between the Corps of Royal Engineers and Woolwich.

Possibly not as many will know the history of the Corps and its early links with Woolwich.

On a Personal note, I have links to Woolwich and The Corps of Royal Engineers. As an 18-year-old in 1968 I ‘joined up’ and proudly became a Sapper.  Five years later after being injured in Norway, I spent nine months at the Woolwich Military Hospital.  No doubt many of the readers have memories of Military personnel – on crutches, legless! (In more ways than one), and suffering from various Orthopedic problems.  Despite my injuries, I remember my time at Woolwich with fondness.

The Corps of Royal Engineers can trace its history back to the Norman Conquest.  Monarchs from that time had a King’s Engineer. Humphrey de Tilleul was the first King’s Engineer recorded and he arrived with William the Conqueror I 1066. 

Since that time it has been at the forefront in every country were British soldiers have fought.

The Royal Military Academy at Woolwich is were Royal Engineer Officers would learn their trade.  Alongside them would be the Royal Artillery Officers.  The Royal Military College at Sandhurst was the other Officer training establishment.  It was often said that the ones not intelligent enough to get into Woolwich would end up at Sandhurst. You needed brains to get into Woolwich. Obviously some of my Officers slipped through the net!  Actually by my time things had changed.  

Wherever you go in the world, you will possibly see work done by Sappers.  Gibraltar and its caverns to the underground workings at Vimy Ridge.  Bailey Bridges used around the world still stand, many years after their ‘sell by date’. 

The Corps of Royal Engineers gained the ‘Royal’ warrant in 1787.  In over two hundred years it has changed considerably. 

At first it was two separate ‘beings’ The Officer side and the other ranks.  In 1717 it was constituted as a separate Officer Corps of Engineers of the Board of Ordnance, taking precedence after the Royal Artillery.  At this time the soldier element was actually civilian.

In 1772 the Soldier Artificer Company was formed at Gibraltar – The first permanent engineer soldiers in the Army.

In 1787 The Corps received its Royal warrant. The Corps of Military Artificers was also formed. Officers for this were supplied by the Corps of Royal Engineers.

In 1797 the Gibraltar Company was absorbed into the new Corps.

In 1812 the title was changed to Corps of Sappers and Miners.

In 1856 The Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners was absorbed into a single Corps of Royal Engineers. 

From this time until the end of World War 1 almost all-technical advances can be attributed to The Royal Engineers.  Also many of the modern functions carried out by other units, started as Royal Engineer unit.

Communications, Mining, Postal services, Transportation (Trains etc.), Signals and even The Royal Air Force.

In 1912 the Royal Flying Corps, Military Wing was formed and was a branch of The Royal Engineers until it became the Royal Air Force in 1918.  Many Sapper Officers were the first to join this branch.  Basically ‘If you are an Engineer, you must be able to fly a plane’!   In 1920 The Royal Corps of Signals was formed from the RE signal service.  The Royal Corps of Transport also started life as a RE unit.

The REs also shared responsibility for Bomb Disposal with the RAOC.

It has diving units, a Marine contingent and Paratroopers.  It is able to go anywhere and do anything.  Only today on the news, the Sappers where building a bridge in Basra. 

Several RE officers and men of the Royal Sappers and Miners were involved in the 1851 great Exhibition at Crystal palace – The CRE Woolwich (Commander Royal Engineers), Lt. Col Reid was appointed the Chairman of the Executive Committee.  By the time of the completion of the Crystal Palace, 13 officers and two companies of the Royal Sappers and Miners were working on the project. 

In World War 1 , The REs had numerous jobs – Balloon companies, Mining, track laying, searchlight units, bridging, railways, barrack building, trench maintenance and repair. The ‘Special Brigade RE’ deployed Gas. The first commander of the Tank Corps was a Sapper officer. Water supply and operating harbors also came under their wing.

Sappers won 20 Victoria Crosses in World War one.

World War 11 – From Demolition at Dunkirk to erecting Mulberry Harbors on D-Day and everything in between.  They were attached to Commandos and the Airborne Forces and one of the 3 Victoria Crosses won in WW2 came in the attack on St. Nazaire.  In the Canadian Dieppe raid, 67 % of the casualties were Engineers.  At El Alamein the Sappers had to clear gaps in the minefields in full view of the enemy.

D-Day saw the deployment of the ‘Funnies’ – AVRE – Assault Vehicles RE – Various devices attached to tanks to aid in the landings.  Sappers moved in to clear obstacles on the water line, even before the landings began.

Today the work continues – Survey teams continue to map the world.  Much of the world has been mapped by the Sappers.  Sappers work and fight alongside troops in Iraq, Kosovo, the Falklands and many other places.

As a Corps, the Royal Engineers are given no Battle Honours and so their motto ‘Ubique’, everywhere is used instead.  Along with  ‘HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE’

There have also been famous Sappers –

General Gordon of Khartoum and Lord Kitchener are two examples.

Every Sapper is a fully trained fighting soldier and then trained in a variety of trades and specialties. 

He comes in all shapes and sizes; they come from every spectrum of life.  

Lord Montgomery wrote: ‘ The Sappers need no tribute from me; their reward lies in the glory of their achievement.  The more science intervenes in warfare the more will be the need for engineers in field armies; in the late war there were never enough Sappers at any time. The Sappers rose to great heights in World War 11 and their contribution to victory was above all calculation’.   

It was also once written ‘What is a Sapper?’  ‘ He is a man of all work of the Army and the public – astronomer, geologist, surveyor, draughtsman, artist, architect, traveller, explorer, antiquary, mechanic, diver, soldier and sailor; ready to do anything or go anywhere; in short, he is a SAPPER.

I have also heard it said of us that ‘You have to be a little bit mad’ as well.  I could not possibly comment on that.