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The History Pages

History and background of the Royal Pioneer Corps.

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  History and background of the Royal Pioneer Corps

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.

In August 1914 there was no formed body of troops specifically designed for these tasks. In the infantry, manual work near the front lines was carried out by the Pioneer Battalions which were added to each Division. Some infantry regiments formed labour companies and works battalions for work on the lines of communication and at home, but the organisation of manpower was haphazard until the formation of the Labour Corps.

The labour units expanded hugely and became increasingly well-organised. However, despite adding large numbers of men from India, Egypt, China and elsewhere, there was never enough manpower to do all the labouring work required. The total number of men engaged on work in France and Flanders alone approximated 700,000 at the end of the war, and this was in the labour units alone. In many cases the men of the infantry, artillery and other arms were forced to give up time to hard effort when perhaps training or rest might have been a more effective option.

According to the Official History: "..although some labour units were raised and eventually labourers from various parts of the Empire and China were brought to France, the numbers were never at any period sufficient for the demands of a great army operating in a friendly country".


The Army Service Corps Labour Companies
Among the earliest such units formed, the ASC Labour Companies originated to provide manpower to unload British ships and operate the docks in France. Two railway labour companies were also formed.

The Royal Engineers Labour Battalions
The RE raised 11 Battalions for labouring work.

Infantry Pioneer and Labour or Works Battalions
An early solution to the vast demand for labour was to create in each infantry Division a battalion that would be trained and capable of fighting as infantry, but that would normally be engaged on labouring work. They were given the name of Pioneers. They differed from normal infantry in that they would be composed of a mixture of men who were experienced with picks and shovels (i.e. miners, road men, etc) and some who had skilled trades (smiths, carpenters, joiners, bricklayers, masons, tinsmiths, engine drivers and fitters). A Pioneer battalion would also carry a range of technical stores that infantry would not. This type of battalion came into being with an Army Order in December 1914. In early 1916, a number of infantry battalions composed of men who were medically graded unfit for the fighting were formed for labouring work. They had only 2 officers per battalion. Twelve such battalions existed in June 1916.

Non Combatant Corps
After the passing of the Military Service Act in early 1916 it was decided to form a Non-Combatant Corps of conscientious objectors for work on roads, hutments, timber work, quarrying, sanitary duties and handling supplies. Eight NCC Companies existed by the middle of June 1916.

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.

When the Labour Corps was formed in mid 1917 it was decided that the men assigned to it from other regiments, often because of their reduced medical category, should change their regimental badges to that of the
General Service Corps
. Many of the men disliked having to wear this badge and preferred to retain their regimental identity. Towards the end of 1918 the Labour Corps was granted their own badge - the piled pick, rifle and shovel emblem that was to become the badge of the Pioneer Corps (later Royal Pioneer Corps). Once it had been created, the Labour Corps was split into various Labour groups, each consisting of a headquarters and several Labour companies. In addition there were Area Employment Companies, Area Employment (Artisan) Companies, Divisional Employment Companies, and Agricultural Companies.

Special Labour units were not fully mobile and were limited to a geographical area. They were called Employment Companies. They were identified by another prefix - Area, Divisional, Corps or Army. Area Coys were located in a specific town undertaking the routine tasks etc and they never moved. Divisional and Corps Companies were attached to the relevant Headquarters and moved with that unit. They were only employed in the unit and consisted of lower graded men who were physically less capable to the standard Labour Companies. The personnel included, clerks, batmen, runners, cooks in messes, Divisional Concert Party, sock depot, laundry and bath units and also supplied men to the sanitary and salvage sections. These men were working in the units prior to the formation of the Labour Corps and had no organised establishment or chain of command so they were all transferred under the Labour Corps.

The company establishment was two officers, one company Quarter Master Sergeant, 270 NCOs and Privates, an Orderly Room Clerk and a Batman. Normal Labour companies were commanded by a Major and consisted of some 425 men. The company role was a varied one including running the divisional baths, laundry, cinema, stores and officers mess as well as acting as divisional police and undertaking guard duty. Within the company there were specialists such as tailors, shoemakers, butchers and telephone operators.

Men of the 22/Durham Light Infantry Pioneer battalion pose for the
camera during a break from their labours near Maurepas in December 1916.

Pioneers of the 11/Liverpool enjoying an alfresco meal in exposed
conditions near Ypres in December 1917. Note the regimental badge on some helmets.

Although initially considered non-combatants, the British companies of the Labour Corps often performed their duties in forward areas, often under heavy fire. In the spring of 1918 the Corps assumed combatant status for dealing with the last German offensive of March 1918. Throughout the summer of that year the men of the Labour Corps units in the forward areas worked fully armed and some served as fighting soldiers when need arose. However the vast majority of men continued to work in unarmed companies. Life in the Labour Corps could be as bad as that enjoyed by front line troops; they were often under continual shellfire for months at a time. Indeed 2,300 men in the Labour Corps were either killed in action or died of wounds between May 1917 and the end of the war.

Constructing and erecting trench bridges were frequent tasks for the Pioneer battalions.
This is a standard trench bridge crossing former German trenches at Gommecourt.

Pioneer battalions
, created as an expedient in 1914, were a new concept in the British Army. Intended to provide the Royal Engineers with skilled labour and to relieve the infantry from some of its non-combatant duties, Pioneers became the work horses of the Expeditionary Forces. The Coldstream Guards and over three dozen County regiments, each created at least one pioneer battalion. Several new Army battalions were raised specifically as Pioneers, while others were converted Territorials or Kitchener units formed originally as conventional infantry. Adopting a badge of a cross rifle and pick, these battalions wired, dug and revetted in all weathers and in all terrains. On many occasions they abandoned their working tools and fought alongside the infantry in repelling enemy attacks. In their efforts to stem the German offensives of 1918, several Pioneer units fought themselves to virtual annihilation. The work of the Pioneer battalions has been largely ignored or misunderstood. Far from being the units of the aged and infirm, these sixty eight battalions played a major role in the Allied victory.

Pioneers of the 10/DCLI constructing a pontoon
bridge over the canalised River Scheldt in October 1918.

Indian, Chinese, native South African, Egyptian and other overseas labour
With the shortage of manpower for labouring work continuing, Sir Douglas Haig requested an increase in the force of an additional 21,000 men. This demand was filled by importing men from China (where the British followed a French lead and signed an agreement with the Chinese for a supply of men), India, South Africa, Egypt and other places within the British Empire. Many of them were shipped to France via the west coast of British Columbia, Canada. The foreign units of the Labour Corps, including the prisoners of war, were not supposed to be posted near the front line. However, there are many war graves in France and Flanders that bear Chinese lettering, the resting place of Labour Corps workers, mostly killed by shellfire. When the war ended in November 1918, the Labour Corps continued their support role and were also involved in salvage work, grave and burial registration and as Prisoner of War guards.

Demand continued and by the wars end a total of approximately 300,000 such workers had been engaged, of which 193,500 were in France and Flanders. By the end of 1917 there were 50,000 Chinese workers in France, rising to 96,000 by August 1918 (with another 30,000 working for the French). 100,000 Egyptians were working in France and the Middle East, alongside 21,000 Indians and 20,000 South Africans, who were also in East Africa. They were kept on lines of communication and other work well behind the fighting line, and as a force were rather immobile due to the decisions to segregate them - many of these workers were black - and provide special camps. Indian labourers were more often used closer to the front lines, on fortification work. Many Indians were also used in Divisional Ammunition Column work, as drivers as well as in the manual tasks. The South African Native Labour Corps came to France early in 1917 and established a base at Arques-la-Bataille.

Women's Auxiliary Army Corps
Formed in March 1917 after a proposal by the Army Council was welcomed by Sir Douglas Haig. Women would be used on the Lines of Communication and at GHQ, on tasks that did not require heavy labour. Initially called the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs), they eventually took the formal title of Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps. The women enlisted for a year or duration, whichever was longer. They were used on a wide variety of tasks, principally in clerical, canteen, motor transport, storehouses and telephone and postal roles. Approximately 10,000 WAACs saw service, most in France and Flanders. More information

Entrenching Battalions
Formed from the small surplus of men left after the break-up of many infantry battalions in early 1918, and the re-allocation of their strength to bring other units up to establishment. Men were all regarded as fit and ready to replace losses in fighting units at any time. There is some evidence that some Entrenching units were also formed in 1916. More information

Use of enemy prisoners of war
Until mid 1916, German prisoners were sent to England. From this time onward, prisoners were initially sent to Abbeville. Men with useful skills, notably forestry and engineering, were drafted into companies of about 100 men each, for use in POW Forestry Companies and ASC and RE workshops, respectively. 47 such POW labour companies were attached to the Labour Corps when it was formed.

After a gruelling period on the Somme, the concert party of the 11/DLI posed for
this picture at Picquigny in October 1916. Captain G S Fillingham (centre) was
posted from the regular 2/DLI. He recalled:

'A typical pioneer job was this - be present under shell fire all day in support of the main attack.
Then move forward and grab ground and dig trenches in so called no man's land under enemy
fire at night. Go back before day break, sleep and start all over again. Casualties no object'.

By the end of the war the Labour Corps had a strength of about 380,000 men stationed in the UK, in France and Flanders, Italy, Egypt and Salonika. In fact the size of the Corps reached its greatest of almost 400,000 in Jan 1919. This included about 240 Labour Companies in France and Flanders with about thirty to fifty Labour Companies allocated to each of the first, second, third, fourth and fifth armies, with a few kept aside as lines of communication units. There were about the same number of companies serving elsewhere overseas at area, divisional, corps and army level as well as some 400 or so companies working in the UK. In late 1918 and early 1919 there were Labour Companies numbered from 1 to over 1000, with little evidence of their origin. The Labour Corps was disbanded late in 1919.

In 1937, as part of the general planning for war provision was made for a special labour force to consist of Infantry and Cavalry reservists to be formed in groups and companies under the general administration of the Royal Engineers. Some of these formations landed in France within the first weeks of World War 2 in September 1939.

In WW2 the Labour Corps was reformed but due to the association with Labour it was named Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps on 17 October 1939 out of the six group headquarters and 48 companies then existing, who had been sent to France with the BEF in the first week of the war. The units were the same as the Labour Companies in WW1 but no Employment Companies were formed as the HQ had their own establishment and personnel working within depots etc were drawn from Pioneer Companies. Direct enlistment into the Corps began that day. In December 1939 a Director of Auxiliary Pioneer Services was appointed who worked under the Director of Recruiting and Organisation. Enemy Aliens were recruited into the Pioneer Corps and over 10,000 Germans, Austrians and Italians were recruited. Some fought in BEF in 1939, 1940. They served in Alien Companies but by 1942 when their loyalty was confirmed many were allowed to transfer to the Fighting Arms (No 10 Command and the 2 Pathfinder Parachute Companies) were all Germans. Many were commissioned into all three services.

In November 1939 the War Office approved a badge for the Corps. Described as:- A rifle, a shovel and a pick ‘piled’ on them a laurel wreath, all ensigned with a crown. Beneath, the motto Labor Omnia Vincit (Work Conquers all). The badge was not designed for the Pioneer Corps but was approved in October 1918 for the Labour Corps which was formed in 1917 and disbanded in 1919.

In July 1940 a Brigadier was appointed as Inspector, Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. In August 1940 the Quartermaster General proposed that a Labour Directorate should be formed under his department. The existing appointments were abolished. Brigadier ALI Friend, who had been inspector of the AMPC was appointed Director and Inspector of Labour with a staff of a 1 ADL, 1 DADL and 2 Staff Captains. The Corps rapidly expanded as the Services' need for a larger labour force became apparent. The title was changed to Pioneer Corps in 1940.

In November 1940 the Colonel Commandant, Field Marshall Lord Milne, pointed out that the title Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps was extremely unpopular with all ranks and bad for esperite de corps. At the same time it was agreed that Companies should be armed on 100% scale instead of 25% which has previously been the case. Training centres were quickly formed to receive, clothe and equip recruits and personnel posted from other Arms Companies were formed and dispatched as required, this being the normal unit allotted to meet labour requirements. It was usually to consist of about 280 men divided into 10 sections of 26 men and a small HQ. Each section was commanded by a Sgt. Two sections were commanded by a Lieutenant. A number of companies (between 4 and 20) within a geographical area would be commanded by a Group HQ under a Lieutenant Colonel.

In addition to UK troops, Pioneers were enlisted from the Commonwealth and included Swazis, Basutos, Buchuanas, East and West Africans, Mauritians, Rodriguais and Seychellois, Sinhalese, Indians of all classes, Cypriots and Maltese. Syrians, Palestines and Arabs also joined the Corps. In addition, in NW Europe, Free French, Dutch and Belgian Companies of Pioneers were formed.

Worldwide, wherever labour was required to keep the military machine in operation, including control and administration of civilian labour in support of the Forces, Pioneers played their part with distinction. When called upon the Corps took its place alongside the infantry - in France etc. Wherever Pioneers served commanders paid tribute to their work and contribution to final victory. During the war there was practically no task that was not performed by Pioneers. The Corps handled all kinds and types of stores and ammunition, built camps, airfields and fortifications, cleared rubble and demolished roadblocks, built roads, railways and bridges, loaded and unloaded ships, trains and planes, constructed aircraft pens against enemy bombing and a host of other jobs.

It is true to say that there was no British theatre of war in the world where Pioneers were not to be found. In November 1942 Pioneers made their first amphibious landing in North Africa with the First Army and earned a great name during the six months campaign. One Company went into the line as infantry for three weeks and acquitted itself with great credit.

D-Day - The Pioneer Story

History Index

Labor Omnia Vincit