The Pioneer - the man who leads
the way. Pioneers those groups of far-sighted, tough, skilled
and undeterable worker-adventurers who go ahead to prepare
the way for others. For a new civilization, for an advancing
army. These are the accepted definitions of the Pioneers of
old. Within the British Army the Royal Pioneer Corps had a
similar tough spirit, far sighted outlook and widely embracing
idea of having a fighting soldier whose chief role was providing
labour is not a new one. One of the earliest references may
perhaps be found in the book of Nehemiah, chapter 4, verse
build on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those
that laded, everyone with one of his hands wrought in the
work, and with the other hand held a weapon.
Mention is made of Pioneers in the
pay and muster role of the British Garrison at Calais in the
year 1346. In 1600 Pioneer contingents under their own Officers
and NCOs were attached to the Artillery and later, a company
of Pioneers served with the 7th of Foot (Royal Fusiliers).
By 1739 the Guards had organised and maintained a detachment,
followed by the Black Watch and many other Infantry Regiments.
An old record of dress regulations for Pioneers laid down
cap shall be embroidered shovel in front' a
device which was incorporated on the cap badge in 1984.
About 1750 a proposal was put forward
for a Corps of Pioneers with their own Regimental organisation.
An interesting point about this proposition was in its reference
to dress, which stated that the service uniform was to be
to glaring to be seen at a distance nor one
that is soon soiled or dirtied when on work in the field.'
Nothing was done about the formation
of a separate Corps, except that during the siege of Gibraltar
1779-1783 an independent Corps, based on the previous plans,
actually served on the rock. From a series of Regimental records
kept with the War Office papers at the public record office
it has been established that a Corps of Military Labourers
was raised for labour duties in tropical colonies on 25 August
1817. It was made up from supernumerary rank and file of the
1st, 3rd and 6th West Indian Regiments. The Corps had no officers
of its own, but was administered by the local staff Officers
of the Quartermasters General department.The
Company established consisted of 5 Sergeants, 5 Corporals
and 100 Privates. The senior NCOs were usually white, the
remainder being coloured men. The initial duty stations of
the Corps were: Barbados five companies, Barbuda, Tobago,
St Lucia, Dominica, Granada, Demerera, Trinidad, St Vincent,
Antigua and St Kitts each having on Company. It is believed
that this Corps was disbanded on 1st October 1888.
During the Crimean War 1854-56 the
Army Works Corp came into being. Raised in the summer
of 1855 it initially consisted of 1000 men, most of them Navvies
and Artificers. They were commanded and supervised by an efficient
staff of Officers and Foremen, elected from the principal
public works organisations in the United Kingdom. The first
detachment of the Army Works Corps arrived in the Crimea on
11 August 1855 and the last in the middle of September of
that year. The object for forming the Corps was
carrying out of works of a civil character at the Seat of
War such as the construction of Roads and Railways, the
erection of stonehouses and jetties, on which stores and
materials might be landed with facility.
The next reference to Pioneers that
can be readily established is that of the 106th Hazara
Pioneers of the Indian Army. Much of the Indian Army's
work was done in roadless country and there was a steady demand
for battalions of Pioneers Many were raised at various times
but few of them had a long career. The usual practice was
to raise them in a hurry when they were needed and disband
them as soon as the immediate emergency was over. The Hazara
Pioneers had a longer run than most. They were raised in 1904
and disbanded in a burst of economy in 1933. During their
short life they were given the number belonging to the 6th
Bombay Infantry, which had been disbanded in the economies
of 1882. The uniform was drab with red facings until 1914,
at which time full dress almost ceased to be worn. Then it
was changed to scarlet with plum facings.
The Labour Corps, formed in
February 1917, is generally regarded as a predecessor of the
Royal Pioneer Corps.
In WW1 the British had no organised Labour system at the start
of the war, depending on civilians supplied by the French
Government. As the war progressed demands for Labour increased
as armies grew in size and at the same time less Frenchmen
available to assist. The British started to send labourers
to France in 1915-1916 to work in docks etc. In April 1917
they were formed into a Labour Corps which was to reach 325,000
British soldiers, 98,000 Chinese, 10,000 Africans, 6 Battalions
British West Indies Regt, 300,000 PWs and contingents from
Egypt and Fiji all serving in France in Nov 1918. They also
included non-combatant Coys and Alien Coys. Among its ranks
were a number of labour units, originally formed as Battalions
of Infantry Regiments. These were of two types, Works Battalions
and Labour Battalions. When these were transferred from the
infantry to the Labour Corps in the middle of 1917, the Works
Battalions were (rather confusingly) re-designated Labour
Battalions, while the original Labour Battalions were broken
up and reformed as Independent Labour Companies.
Pioneers of the 11/DLI on
a light railway at Elverdinghe on the opening day of Third
The initial need for labour units during
WW1 had been achieved with some 38 Labour Battalions established
in 18 different infantry regiments, and a large number of
Labour Companies from other infantry regiments. In addition
there were a good number of Labour Companies in the Royal
Engineers and the Army Service Corps. All these became Labour
Corps companies in the spring and summer of 1917. The Labour
Battalions and later the Labour Companies of the Labour Corps
carried out a whole range of defence works duties in the UK
and in overseas theatres, especially in France and Flanders.
These included road and railway building/repair, moving ammunition
and stores, load and unloading ships and trains, burial duties
and at home agriculture and forestry.
Pioneers and RE used a variety
of means to transport tools and stores.
These mules are equipped with saddles designed to carry two
Aveluy Wood, September 1916.
A regular feature of a Pioneer's
life was road clearing.
Men using scoopes to sweep mud from a road near St. Julien
during Third Ypres.
Typical of the many plank
roads laid across the slough beneath the Passchendaele
ridge. This photo shows men of an Australian Pioneer battalion
laying a road
near Chateau Wood in September 1917.
Light railways were pushed
across captured ground as soon as prevailing
conditions allowed. Pioneers were frequently employed in laying
such lines. This track was constructed near Feuchy during
the Arras offensive of 1917.
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