CORPS OF ROYAL ENGINEERS
taken from 'Our Regiments in South Africa' by John Stirling
IT would be difficult to conceive of a campaign in which the work of the Engineers would be more arduous than it was in South Africa, or in which the difference between middling and excellent service on their part would be more acutely felt by those in command or by the body of the fighting troops. The corps is fortunate in that in no quarter, official or unofficial, has there been the slightest attempt to bestow on them anything but the heartiest commendations. The difficulties they had to contend with and overcame were appreciated by all the generals. It has often been remarked that the natural courage required to prevent men running away from a shower of shrapnel or a hail of rifle-bullets, where the men have the power of returning the storm even in diminished force, is a totally different quality from the trained, inculcated heroism which enables men to go out in the face of certain extreme danger to repair a telegraph line, examine a bit of railway, or build a bridge without the excitement afforded by the opportunity of returning fire. The Engineers had to do all these things and a hundred others. The splendid conduct of Major Irvine's pontoon company in "constructing well and rapidly, under fire," the bridges required on the Tugela, was said by General Buller "to deserve much praise", and unofficial writers were wonder-struck at the cool, methodical work, flurry, haste, or anything slipshod being unseen. Every plank set in its place, every knot tied as if at a drill.
Apart from the tendering of lavish praise, the only remark civilian writers have ventured is that the army at first trusted too much to the Engineers. It may be so, but the fault vanished when the commonsense which flourishes on active service smothered the regulations, which rather get the upper hand in peace-time.
Any detailed account of the work of the Royal Engineers it is impossible to give, but it must not be forgotten that they were constantly in the thick of the fighting, as when half of the 37th company were on the shell-riven and bullet-swept summit of Spion Kop on 24th January, or as when the 7th company, with the Canadian Regiment, made the last grand advance at Paardeberg on the night of the 26th February.
It would perhaps be wrong not to recall Major Hunter Weston's achievement in piercing the enemy's line on the night before the occupation of Bloemfontein, and his successful cutting of the railway several miles to the north of the town, whereby he secured many locomotives and trucks. This was by no means the only splendid feat of Major Hunter Weston.
In his despatch of 2nd April 1901 Lord Roberts notes that the period during which the advance from Bloemfontein to Pretoria, a distance of about three hundred miles, was made, was 3rd May to 11th June, and during that time there were repaired twenty-seven bridges and forty-one culverts, and ten miles of line were laid. This work was done either by the Engineers or by soldiers or native labour acting under Engineer officers or non-commissioned officers.
During the whole war the work on telegraph lines was very great and, owing to the guerrilla nature of the campaign, extremely hazardous. Many commendations earned by the Corps were got for members of it volunteering to go through districts thickly infested by bands of the enemy to repair a broken wire. Going out on trolleys to examine the railways and remove mines and obstructions under fire was a task which often fell to the Engineers, and sometimes met with a deserved mention.
The Army List of December 1900 shows the following units as in South Africa The 5th to the 12th, the 17th, 20th, 23rd, 26th, 29th, 31st, 37th, 38th, 42nd, 45th, and 47th companies, the 1st Division Telegraph Battalion, A and C Troops Bridging Battalion, Field Troop, 1st Field Park, and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Balloon sections.
Two V C.'s were gained by the Corps. Corporal Kirkby was awarded the Cross for on 2nd June 1900, during a retirement after an attempt to cut the Delagoa line, the party being hotly pressed by very superior numbers, riding back for a dismounted man and bringing him behind a rise, it being the third occasion of his being mentioned for gallantry By a memorandum in the Gazette of 19th April 1901 it was announced that Lieutenant R. J. T. Digby-Jones, R.E., along with Trooper Albrecht of the Imperial Light Horse, would have been recommended for the V.C. on account of their having during the attack on Waggon Hill, Ladysmith, on 6th January 1900, displayed conspicuous bravery and gallant conduct, but both these heroes had been killed.
Apart from honours bestowed on Major - General Elliott-Wood, Colonel Rochefort-Boyd, Colonel Gorringe, Colonel Sandbach, Major Girouard, Major Hawkins, and other of the principal officers of the Corps, the mentions gained in the chief despatches are approximately as follows By Sir George White, despatch of 2nd December 1899, 1 officer, 3 non-commissioned officers and men, despatch of 23rd March 1900, 8 officers and 32 non-commissioned officers and men for the siege.
In Lord Roberts' despatch of 28th February 1900 as to Paardeberg the work of Colonel Kincaid and the 7th company Royal Engineers in the last rush forward was brought to notice. In Lord Kitchener's despatches, written during the war, there were mentioned approximately 11 officers and 30 non-commissioned officers and men, and in his final despatch 46 officers and 64 non-commissioned officers and men.
Last updated 6 September, 2008