British Corps of Engineers

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Origin and History

Together with the Royal Artillery, the British Military Engineers were under the umbrella of the Board of Ordnance and not Whitehall or the Regular British Army. For various constitutional reasons and to limit the power of a standing army, the Board of Ordnance was a civilian authority. The administration and service were headquartered at the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich Warren in London which also housed the Royal Military Academy (1741). The technical schooling provided at Woolwich was key to the success of both the Royal Artillery and the Engineers. Besides schooling, the Board of Ordnance was responsible for all matters related to firearms, artillery and ammunition including the supply and distribution of ammunition, even while on campaign. This was not part of the Quartermaster General duties. The Board of Ordnance would assign civilian clerks, tradesmen, artisans and its own paymaster to each campaign.

In reality, the Board of Ordnance was not totally independent of the Army. The Board was headed by very high-ranking officers of the Army itself, another example of multiple ranks and stations at the very top of the military; but the budgets and administration were separate. The head of the Board of Ordnance and the Royal Regiment of Artillery held the rank of "Master General and Colonel". In 1757, this was the Duke of Marlborough, Charles Spencer (Army Rank: Field Marshal). In 1757, the "Lieutenant General of the Ordnance and Colonel-en-Second" was Lord George Sackville (Army Rank: Lieutenant General; also Colonel of the 2nd Dragoon Guards). With the death of Marlborough in 1758, the Viscount Ligonier assumed the post of Master General (Army Rank: Field Marshal, John Ligonier; also Colonel of the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards).

At the beginning of the war, most engineers were not recognized as being officers, but professional men. Where an engineer did hold officer status, it would often be at a lower level than his professional station ― very senior engineers having the army rank of only a lieutenant. This situation was a constant source of complaint by the engineers, charging ill-treatment by the regular officers. There were a few rare exceptions to this rule, individuals holding both a higher officer commission with regular duties within a regiment and engineer status. Among the exceptions was William Eyre who designed Fort Edward, Fort William Henry and Crown Point in North America. In 1755, Eyre held the rank of captain in the 44th Foot (1747) and Engineer Extraordinary. In January 1756, Eyre was promoted to major of the 44th Foot.

It is thought that the title "Corps of Royal Engineers" first appears on a warrant dated April 25, 1787. During the Seven Years War, the Officer and Regimental Lists do not reference "Royal Engineers", just "Engineers" (National Archives, War Office, WO 65/#). The titles associated with engineer ranks were not typical of the army nor immediately logical. Much to the satisfaction of the engineers, army ranks were conferred on May 14, 1757, but they also continued to track their engineering ranks. Considering the need, even by 1759, the number of engineers was not large, 61 individuals. Title followed by the maximum number of individuals authorized to the rank (1759):

Title Army Rank
Chief as Colonel (1) Colonel
Director (2) Lieutenant Colonel
Sub-Director (4) Major
Engineer-in-Ordinary (12) Captain
Engineer Extraordinary (12) Captain Lieutenant
Sub-Engineer (14) Lieutenant
Practitioner (16) Ensign

The title or rank of "Chief Engineer" is often used in narratives and histories. In many instances it is a reference to the "Chief as Colonel", but in equal number, it references the highest ranking engineer in an expedition or campaign or theatre.

During the Seven Years' War, the regiment was commanded by:

  • throughout the war: Chief Engineer Colonel William Skinner (Major General, February 1761)

As to education and training, a biography of Adam Williamson has Williamson at Woolwich Warren as a cadet gunner on January 1, 1748, age 14. He entered the Royal Military Academy in 1750, graduating on January 1, 1753 as a Practitioner Engineer. Williamson was wounded at the Combat of Monongahela (1755). In October 1755, Williamson was accepted as an ensign in the 6th Foot (Gibraltar), but he remained in America. During the Siege of Fort William Henry (August 1757), Williamson served inside the Bastion itself, as a staff engineer under Webb and Monro. On September 25, 1757, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the 5th Regiment of Foot, even though the 5th was stationed on the Isle of Wright and never came to North America. In 1758, Williamson served at the Siege of Louisbourg and then, in 1759, at the Siege of Québec, where he was again wounded. He was not transferred to a North American regiment until promoted to captain in the 40th Foot on April 21, 1760. In 1762, Williamson was assigned to West Indies including the capture of Martinique. Simply put, Williamson was one of a few individuals who campaigned for the full duration of the war in the Americas.

Williamson continued his rise in rank reaching major of the 61st Foot in 1770 and Engineer-in-Ordinary (Minorca). After 1770 and his rise to major, Williamson no longer appears on the engineering rolls even though he was stationed in Minorca for about five years, where his expertise would have been needed. He became the lieutenant colonel of the 18th Foot in December 1775, purchased. In July 1776, the rank & file of the 18th were drafted (transferred) into other regiments in North America with the officers returning to Britain to reform the 18th Foot. He was promoted to major general in April 1790. In the mid-1790s, Williamson first performed well as the Governor of Jamaica, but then poorly in wake of local political pressures and excessive spending. With recall from Jamaica, he was made colonel of the 72nd Regiment of Foot (March 1794) and reached the rank of lieutenant general (1797). While in Jamaica, his wife had died from yellow fever and he had spent most of his personal fortune. He died in 1798 at the age of 65 from severe fall in his home, Avebury Manor in Wiltshire, England.

Service during the War

Engineers accompanied almost all British expeditions and participated in all campaigns where the British Army was involved.

Uniform

The early army uniform of the engineers is thought to have been be a red coat with black cuffs, lapels and collar, buff waistcoat and breeches with a black tricorne (May 1757). Less certain are gold buttons with the tricorne trimmed in a black lace. There is some suggestion that the coat may have been trimmed in a gold lace. If and when this "uniform" was actually adopted in the field is uncertain or it may have simply been the Woolwich cadet uniform. Engineers could be appointed to staff positions, but with the granting of officer status, it appears that the younger engineers were carried on existing regimental rolls, even if detached to another theatre or continent. At other times, their primary duties would be as a typical line infantry officer of their parent regiment. Regardless of duties, there is a very good chance that these engineers wore the uniforms of their assigned regiments.

The commonly depicted blue engineer coat faced in black does not seem to have been adopted until 1783. During the Seven Years War, French engineers wore a red coat. Wearing the typical colours of the enemy, engineers scouting in forward positions were subject to friendly fire and both the British and French suffered casualties as a result their choice of dress. After losing a senior engineer at Oswego in 1756 to friendly fire, Montcalm was careful not to dress his engineers in red while on campaign.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the British engineers suffered a number of friendly fire incidents because of the confusion caused by the colour of their blue coats.

Colours

The various detachments of the corps did not carry colours.

References

Baule, Steven 2014. Protecting the Empire's Frontier. Officers in the 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot during Its North American Service, 1767-1776. Ohio University Press. Athens, Ohio.

Porter, Whitworth 1889. History of the Corps of Royal Engineer. Longmans, Green and Co. London. (On-line).

Acknowledgement

Kenneth P Dunne for the initial version of this article.