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The History Pages

History and background of the Royal Pioneer Corps 1.

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  History and background of the Royal Pioneer Corps 1

Timeline of The Royal Pioneer Corps

1854 - Army Works Corps (formed for service in the Crimea)
1856 - disbanded
1917 - Labour Corps
1920 - Disbanded
1939 - Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps
1940 - Pioneer Corps
1946 - Royal Pioneer Corps
1993 - United with Royal Corps of Transport, Royal Army Catering Corps, and the
            Postal and Courier Service of the Royal Engineers to form Royal Logistic Corps.

            'Pioneer' Connaught                      Member of Labour                    Member of Royal Pioneer
                 Rangers - 1854                                 Corps - 1917                                     Corps - 1949

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 purpose.
The 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 17 :-

They which 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 that :-

'The cap shall be embroidered shovel in front' a
device which was incorporated on the cap badge in 1984.

The initial cap badge

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 :-

'Not 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

'The 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 Ypres.

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 dozen shovels.
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 and running
such lines. This track was constructed near Feuchy during the Arras offensive of 1917.


History & Background 2

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