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The Royal Engineers

The Royal Engineers claim descent from William the Conqueror's Military Engineers who were directed in 1066 by Humphrey de Tilleaul. He is depicted in the Bayeaux Tapestry supervising the construction of a fort, transported by sea from Normandy in pre-fabricated sections. The word 'Engineer' derives from the Old French word 'engigneor' meaning one who designs and constructs military engines or works. The medieval records often use the word 'ingeniator' to describe the engineers who were not only skilled builders but also served on the king's campaigns for siege engine duties.

The Normans used a 'shock and awe' strategy to subjugate the native peoples of Britain. 'Shock' in the ferocity of their troops and 'awe' in the pomp of their lieutenants and in the edifices erected by their engineers. The White Tower (1078), now part of the Tower of London, was designed by a King's Engineer, Gundulf, a monk who became Bishop of Rochester. By the reign of Richard I (1189-99) the King's Engineers were reputed to be among the finest castle builders in Christendom thanks to their innovative designs and craftsmanship. They introduced the system of barriers to form a coherent defence system.

In medieval times of war King’s Engineers were responsible for designing and organising the building of siege engines such as belfries (wooden movable siege towers), catapults (engines worked by a lever and rope to discharge darts, stones etc.) and trebuchets (engines for casting heavy missiles using a sling). They also directed the building of roads and river crossings. Edward I had a bridge of boats built to cross the Menai Straits between North Wales and Anglesey. Engineers also dug mines to undermine the foundations of the walls of besieged castles.

The import of gunpowder to Europe from China in the 14th century brought about a radical innovation in warfare, the cannon, and a re-appraisal of fortification design. In 1405, a new department called the Office of Ordnance, with its headquarters and main arsenal in the White Tower at the Tower of London, was established to administer the King's cannon, arsenals and castles, as well as a growing armament industry springing up in London. The Office of Ordnance employed engineers and artillery officers whose numbers were increased in time of war when ‘Ordnance Trains’ were raised. These Trains consisted local artisans, tradesmen and labourers who were capable of assisting the engineers and gunners in their tasks. The Trains were disbanded at the end of each war and their members resumed their peace-time occupations. The Office of Ordnance, renamed the Board of Ordnance, was abolished in 1855.  

The Royal Warrant of 1683 stated that the Principal Engineer was deemed to be well skilled in all parts of the mathematicks, more particularly in Stereometry, Altimetry, and Geodesia, to take Distances, Heights, Depths, Surveys of Land, Measure solid bodies and in all manner of foundations... to be prefect in Architecture, Civil and Military... to have always by him the descriptions or models of all manner of Engines useful in Fortifications or Sieges... to keep perfect draughts of every fortifications, forts and fortresses of our Kingdom ... to visit all fortifications in our Kingdoms and to make his report in writing of the condition he finds them in endeavour to provide for our service good and able Engineers, Conductors and Work -Bases... in time of action ... to take a careful view of the situation ... to see where the attack or attacks are most advantageously to be made...

In 1704 English and Dutch marines under the command of Prince Georg von Hesse-Darmstadt captured Gibraltar in the name of the Archduke Carlos of Austria, the Hapsburg claimant to the throne of Spain.  In 1713 the ruling Bourbon dynasty of Spain officially ceded Gibraltar to Great Britain.  This was confirmed by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1715. Gibraltar was to later play an important part in the development of the Corps.

In the aftermath of the Treaty of Utrecht (1714) that ended the War of Spanish Succession (1701-13), the Trains were again disbanded, but Britain found itself in the possession of Gibraltar, Minorca and Nova Scotia. All these territories required extra engineer staff to maintain their defences. At same time it became apparent that the functions of gunnery and engineering were not entirely compatible and that Artillery officers resented being subordinate to Engineers. It was proposed that two distinct Corps be created within the Ordnance: the Royal Regiment of Artillery, responsible for gunnery, and the Corps of Engineers, responsible for military engineering. In 1716 the proposal was implemented by Royal Warrant and the Corps of Engineers was formed and was staffed entirely by officers. A Royal Warrant, dated the 25 April 1787, bestowed the Corps with the 'Royal' title so it became the Corps of Royal Engineers.

On 10 July 1832 William IV granted the Royal Regiment of Artillery and the Corps of Royal Engineers permission to wear, on their appointments, the Royal Arms and Supporters, together with a cannon and the mottoes Ubique (Everywhere) above the cannon and Quo Fas et Gloria Ducunt (Where right and glory lead) below it. In 1868 the cannon was omitted from the Corps Badge. Since then the actual design of the Royal Arms has changed slightly with each reigning monarch.

The French Revolution during the 1790’s, highlighted the British vulnerability of the southern coast of England to attack. This led to the raising of a 'Corps of Royal Military Artificers'. Companies were stationed at:

Woolwich, Chatham, Gosport, Plymouth and the Channels Islands, and were not transferable.

Royal Military Artificers companies accompanied the British Army fighting the French on the Iberian peninsular:

  • Portugal - 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th Companies of 2nd Battalion.
  • Cadiz, Spain - 6th and 7th Companies of 1st Battalion.

However, although the members of these companies were expert at constructing static fortifications and other works they had little experience of field (combat) engineering. Their shortcomings became very apparent during the early stages of the Peninsular War wars with France and there were soon calls for improvements. 

Royal Engineers and Royal Military Artificers accompanied General Sir John Moore's 1808 campaign to Portugal and Spain.  Their first major challenge was to build a great defensive system north of Lisbon, which became known as the Lines of Torres Vedras (1809). Over a period of ten months 182 redoubts were constructed mounting more than 600 guns with a manning capacity of some 40,000. The structures stretched over 25 miles from the lower Tagus to the sea.

It was not until the Duke of Wellington's campaign in the Peninsula, however, that the Engineers came into their own. Major General Sir William Napier later wrote in his History of the War in the Peninsula:

The engineer officers were zealous; and notwithstanding some defects in the constitution and customs of their corps, tending rather to make regimental than practical scientific officers, many of them were well versed in the theory of their business: yet the ablest trembled at their destitution of all things necessary to real service.

Without a corps of sappers and miners, without a private soldier who knew how to carry on an operation under fire, they were compelled to attack fortresses defended by the most warlike, practised, and scientific troops of the age ... The sieges carried on by the British in Spain were a succession of butcheries, because the commonest materials and means necessary for their art were denied to the engineers.

In 1812 General Sir Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, requested of the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool that the British Army have a corps of sappers and miners along the lines of the French Army:

I would beg to suggest to your Lordship the expediency of adding to the Engineers' establishment a corps of sappers and miners. It is inconceivable with what disadvantage we undertake any thing like a siege for want of assistance of this description.

There is no French corps d'armee which has not a battalion of sappers and a company of miners. But we are obliged to depend for assistance of this description upon the regiments of the line. 

Wellington's despatch to Lord Liverpool (11 February 1812)

The Sieges of Badajoz 1811-1812: Three attempts were made to break the French defences at Badajoz before success was finally achieved on the third attempt in April 1812, where 24 Engineers and 115 Royal Military Artificers were employed on siege works. It was these actions and failures at the earlier sieges of Badajoz that prompted Wellington to request "a sufficient trained corps of sappers and miners" and for Napier to write:

It was strange and culpable that the British Government ... should have sent an engineer corps into the field so ill organised and equipped that all the officers' bravery and zeal could not render it efficient.

Sir Charles Oman in his history of the war entitled Wellington's Army held the view that the failure of the Badajoz sieges was due to the shortage of sappers and miners and those responsible for that shortcoming were the professional advisers to the administration, who should have drawn attention to the need of such a corps. 

On 23 April 1812 a Royal Warrant authorised the establishment of the 'Royal Engineer Establishment' in Chatham for "the Instruction of the Corps of Royal Military Artificers, or Sappers and Miners, and the junior officers of the Royal Engineers, in the duties of Sapping and Mining and other Military Field Works"

'The Royal Military Artificers, or Sappers and Miners’ were formed on 4 August 1812. Its title was changed in 1813 to the simpler one of 'Royal Sappers and Miners'. In the same year the colour of their dress was changed from blue to scarlet to render the wearers less conspicuous to the enemy when acting with working parties of the line. The new Corps was commanded by the Royal Engineers and trained as field sappers and miners to replace the system of reliance on infantry of the line for field engineering duties. By the end of the Peninsular War in 1814 there were five companies serving with Wellington's Army. In 1856, the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners was amalgamated with the Corps of Royal Engineers.  The rank of 'Private' in the newly formed Corps of Royal Engineers was changed to 'Sapper' and still exists today.  

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