By Rob Fitzmaurice
The Royal Engineers were initially established in 1716 to provide a cadre of engineering expertise to the British Crown. By 1787, having received a Royal Warrant from King George III in recognition of their service to the empire, the Corps of Royal Engineers was born. In 1832, their involvement in the campaigns of the Crown around the globe was so extensive that King William IV bestowed onto the Corps the motto of ‘Ubique,’ (everywhere). As warfare developed and invention and innovation dictated victory on the battlefield, The Duke of Wellington set up the forerunner of the Royal School of Military Engineering in 1812 in Chatham, where it remains to this day. The Corps of Royal Engineers continues to provide engineering expertise, in both civilian and military terms, to the British Crown, and the Royal Engineers have served in every theatre and virtually every major battle involving the British forces since their foundation.
Their role in times of peace was to aid in the modernisation of the Empire. The design and construction of roads, railways, and harbours were common occupations of engineering units. Their skill at cartography and in the production of detailed surveys and maps was unparalleled during the 18th and 19th centuries. Closer to home, prestigious buildings and bridges were also designed by Royal Engineers. The Royal Albert Hall in London (1871) and the Mellows Bridge (formerly Queens Bridge) in Dublin, the oldest bridge across the River Liffey (completed in 1768), were Royal Engineers projects. The Royal Engineers even found time to enter a team into the inaugural F.A. Cup competition in 1872, losing 1 – 0 to Kennington Oval. However, the primary duty of a military engineer was always to provide engineering support to the army. From early work on siege techniques and fortifications to the development and use of explosives to innovation on the battlefield, the Royal Engineers were at the forefront of technological advancement.
The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 caused the Corps, like the rest of the armies of Europe, to vastly swell in size. From the initial confusion that the British Expeditionary Force found itself in during the autumn of 1914, the Royal Engineers developed into a highly modern, competent, and wide-ranging force along with the British Army. By the end of the war in 1918, the Royal Engineers numbered 350,000 men. The First World War changed modern conflict forever: while images of infantry men charging over the top is synonymous with the war, the impact the Royal Engineers had—not only on the war itself, but also on future conflicts—cannot be over-stated.
The progress made during the four years of the conflict had much to do with the involvement of the Royal Engineers. Apart from providing traditional engineering support, such as fortifications and demolition support for the infantry, the first British use of gas at the Battle of Loos in 1915 was under the control of the Royal Engineers. In addition, the Royal Engineers painstakingly tunnelled beneath the German lines in preparation for the detonation of the nineteen mines, cumulating in the massive chain of explosions which decimated the German-held Ridge at Messines in 1917. When detonated, the million pounds of explosive created the largest man-made noise ever heard—reputedly, the sound carried even to Dublin—and instantaneously killed an estimated 10,000 German troops in their trenches.
The Royal Engineers also had a significant involvement in the development of the tank. First used during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, its subsequent effects have been felt around the world to this day. The Royal Engineers Air Battalion, formed in 1911, was the precursor to the Royal Air Force (formed in 1918), and many of its pilots were drawn from the engineers’ ranks. Not all of the engineering tasks performed were as glamorous as aerial combat, but they were no less vital to the successful running of the campaign. The Royal Engineers took on numerous roles, such as providing logistics, running the postal service, operating the vast railway network, and providing water supply and sanitation service across all theatres of the conflict. The communications network grew from a simple telegraphy service before 1914 to a network so vast that ultimately the British Army had to create a separate Corps to run the operation, The Royal Corps of Signals, which was established in 1920.
By the conclusion of the war in 1918, the sheer scale and complexity of the trenching and fortifications constructed were immense, a testament to the dedication and professionalism exhibited by the Royal Engineers over the four years of the war.