Sapper History

A brief history of The Corps of Royal Engineers to 1855


Military engineering in this country has a proud history stretching back to Norman conquest of 1066 when in 1078 Bishop Gundulf [pictured left] became William the Conqueror’s ‘King’s Engineer’ in the absence of Humphrey de Tilleul. Despite his position in the church as Bishop of Rochester, Gundulf was responsible for much of the development of Rochester Castle as well as the building of the White Tower at the Tower of London.


The King’s Engineer recruited levies of craftsmen to build and maintain castles for the protection of the realm. This post continued until the 1370s when the Office of Ordnance was established and at some time from 1415 to 1420 Nicholas Merbury, Henry V’s Chief Engineer was made the first Master of Ordnance [later renamed Master General of Ordnance]. All engineer and artillery officers were on the permanent establishment of the Office of Ordnance renamed the Board of Ordnance in1518. Ordnance Trains were recruited as and when wars demanded them and disbanded at their end.


In 1716 the Corps of Engineers and the Royal Artillery were placed on separate establishments under the Board’s control. There was then a Chief Engineer with 28 subordinate engineers in Great Britain, with an establishment of 3 in Minorca and 2 in Gibraltar. By 1748 Engineers were in addition stationed at: Annapolis, Newfoundland, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisburg, Rattan and Jamaica, as well as India. In 1755 the West Coast of Africa was added to the list – the spread of locations was an early indication of the Royal Engineers future battle honour of ‘Ubique’ (Everywhere).


In 1741 the training of both engineer and artillery officers was formalised with the opening of the Royal Military Academy ‘The Shop’ at Woolwich but it was not until 1757 that full military officer status was granted to engineers. 1787 saw a change of title to the Corps of Royal Engineers which remained, as it had been hitherto, an officer only corps.


The Company of Soldier-Artificers was established on Gibraltar in 1772 since sufficient specialised labour could not be recruited locally. These men were to play a vital role in constructing and maintaining the defences during the siege of 1779 to 1783. The success of the Company combined with the need to bolster Britain’s defences in the face of the French Revolution saw the establishment of the Corps of Royal Military Artificers in 1787 [pictured below in 1792 blue uniforms]. The Company of Soldier-Artificers was amalgamated with them in 1797. The Artificers were officered by the Royal Engineers.


The tentacles of the Royal Engineers and the Artificers quickly to spread across the world in support of the British army. These bodies together with the artillery remained under the management of the Board of Ordnance. The field army was firmly under the rigorous control of the Horse Guards under the C-in-C the Duke of York. The Commissariat was, incidentally, under the direct control of the Treasury. The division of control, not unsurprisingly, led to certain tensions. For example, in 1795 the Duke of Cambridge asked for several companies of military engineers to accompany the expedition to the Low Countries. This request was declined by the Master General of Ordnance as he did not have any to spare at the present. This resulted in the establishment by the C-in-C of the Royal Staff Corps in 1799. The Royal Staff Corps from the outset consisted of several Companies of officers and men each with a sufficient complement of NCOs.


Both the Royal Engineers and the Royal Staff Corps joined the British army in the Peninsular War from its inception. The Royal Engineers were mainly responsible for sieges and the destruction of bridges. The primary task of the Royal Staff Corps being to build and repair bridges, its other functions included map making, building temporary fortifications and running the army’s post office. There was inevitably some rivalry, blurring of responsibilities and also some joint operations.


The Artificers joined them at a later date but lacked the practical skills field engineering skills in explosives, field engineering, mining etc. In addition since there were so few of them much of the siege work was undertaken by drawing soldiers from the line to undertake the sapping and mining. Officers from the army were also trained in the basics of military engineering.


It became apparent early on that the whilst the Artificers were accomplished at constructing static defences their skills of field or combat engineering were inadequate. In one of his despatches to Lord Liverpool in 1812 Wellington wrote: “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”.


It is clear that there was also, prior to this, dissatisfaction amongst middle-ranking officers of the Royal Engineers with the adequacy of training, education and provision of supporting troops. In 1810 Lt Col John Fox Burgoyne, Major John T Jones and several other officers formed a ‘Society for Procuring Useful Military Information’ which reflected on amongst other things the need to have a proper corps of sappers and miners. Charles Pasley, who was not a member of this group, was also campaigning on this issue.


These various pressures resulted in the formation of the Royal Sappers & Miners in 1812 [the Royal prefix being given in 1813]. The Royal Engineer Establishment was founded at Chatham in 1812 and under the direction of Major Charles Pasley who had served briefly in the peninsula was responsible for training the new companies. The Establishment was also trained newly commissioned Royal Engineers from the Royal Military Academy, a practice which continues some 200 years on with what now the Troop Commanders Course. One company of the Royal Sappers & Miners from Chatham  arrived in 1813 just in time to participate in the siege of San Sebastian.


The Royal Staff Corps who were independent of the Royal Engineers were responsible for most of the improvised bridging work in the war in particular the building of the first suspension bridge at Alcántara which was the brainchild of Lt Col Sturgeon, Royal Staff Corps who was an imaginative and skilled engineer. He was later killed in action at Vic Begore, France in March 1814.


Lt Col Sir Richard Fletcher RE as Wellington’s Commanding Royal Engineer also a made signal contribution at the many sieges until killed in action at the siege of San Sebastian in August 1813.


Two key figures of the Royal Engineers to survive the war were Charles Pasley and John Fox Burgoyne. The former mentioned above rose to the rank of General and was knighted. The latter, also knighted, rose to the rank of Field Marshal. He took part at every battle and siege of the Peninsular war, Chairman of a Board of Public Works, Ireland (1831), Inspector General of Fortifications (1845) and served on General Staff at the Crimea.


The Royal Staff Corps was disbanded in 1830 and its functions were subsumed by the Royal Engineers. In a further reorganisation in 1855 the Royal Engineers and the Sappers & Miners were merged as the Corps of Royal Engineers. The Board of Ordnance was then disbanded as well.


Thus was created the present Corps of Royal Engineers who continue to work:


‘Everywhere: Where Right And Glory Lead’


‘Ubique: Quo Fas Et Gloria Ducunt’