A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CORPS OF ROYAL ENGINEERS
The origins of British military engineering can be traced back to the Anglo-Saxons and King Offa of Mercia. Later, in 1066 William the Conqueror’s Chief Engineer, Humphrey de Tilleul, erected a pre-fabricated fort at Hastings after the battle with King Harold. He was succeeded as King’s Engineer by a monk named Gundulph, who became Bishop of Rochester and famously oversaw the construction of the White Tower in the Tower of London. In 1415, Nicholas Merbury who had been King Henry V’s Chief Engineer at the Battle of Agincourt, was made the first Master of the King’s Works and Ordnance under whom was established an Office of Ordnance, which in 1518 was renamed the Board of Ordnance. In 1715 the role of the Board of Ordnance was reassessed and the then Chief Engineer, the Right Honourable Brigadier Michael Richards, proposed the formation of a regiment of artillery on a separate establishment, making artillery independent of the Chief Engineer’s control. This was enacted by Royal Warrant on 26th May 1716 and the Royal Regiment of Artillery was born. It is from this point that the Royal Artillery and the then Corps of Engineers pursued their separate paths.
The growth of overseas garrisons and expeditions, and the need for engineer officers to support them, saw the Corps of Engineers increase and in 1757 they were given military officer rank. Thirty years later a Royal Warrant dated 25th April 1787 granted ‘Royal’ status, leading to the current Corps of Royal Engineers title.
In parallel with these developments, in 1772 events in Gibraltar had inspired the Chief Engineer there to gain authority to form the first ‘Soldier-Artificer Company’ - the fore-runners of today’s non-commissioned ranks. Later, on 10th October 1787 the Corps of Royal Military Artificers was formed and in 1813 it became the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners, both of which were officered by the Corps of Royal Engineers. But it was not until 1856 with the abolition of the Board of Ordnance that on 17th October 1856 the Corps of Royal Sappers and Miners was amalgamated with the Corps of Royal Engineers to form the Corps we know today.
From the mid-1800s until the end of the First World War, Royal Engineers were involved in virtually every scientific development and technical function of the Army. From transport to communications, and searchlights to submarine mining, Royal Engineers were at the forefront of nurturing new ideas and capabilities, which included a variety of famous civil endeavors. Lieutenant Colonel John By played a major role in the early development of Canada, including the building of the Rideau Canal between Montreal and Kingston in the 1820s - now a World Heritage Site. Sir William Reid, who was a Lieutenant at the time of the Peninsular War, became chairman of the committee for the planning of the Great Exhibition in 1851. Others continued the work of their forebears in the Ordnance Survey by conducting survey operations across the British Empire, and many made names for themselves as colonial governors in the West Indies and Australia. At the start of the 20th Century, Royal Engineers were heavily involved in early flying and the Royal Engineers Balloon Battalion merged into the new Royal Flying Corps in 1912 which in turn led to the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918. By 1914 responsibility for mechanical transport had been transferred to the newly formed Royal Army Service Corps and in 1920 the Royal Engineers helped form the Royal Corps of Signals. After the Second World War certain Royal Engineer specialisations were progressively transferred, first to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and then to the Royal Corps of Transport. More recently, in 1994 the Corps handed over responsibility for the Postal and Courier role to the Royal Logistic Corps.
The Corps of Royal Engineers has a very proud history that has seen Sappers take part in every major campaign and action fought by the British Army over the last 300 years. This continues to this day and sees the Corps at the forefront of campaigns and deployments enabling and supporting all elements of the UK’s Armed Forces.