Topic: AIF - DMC - British
The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914
Part 4, With the rank and pay of a Sapper
An extract from Holmes, R., Riding the Retreat, London, 1995, pp. 55 - 58.
With the rank and pay of a Sapper
The officers and men of the division's two Royal Engineer field companies cut less of a dash than their gunner comrades, but without their help the division would be hard-pressed to operate effectively. Each company had a war strength of six officers, 200 NCOs and men and sixty horses, and consisted of a headquarters and four sections, each commanded by a subaltern. The sappers were trained to carry out all sorts of field engineering. They could construct a strongpoint, reinforce a farm track so that a 6o-pdr could use it or blow a bridge so that the enemy could not. They could throw a pontoon bridge across a river, or, if pontoons were lacking, improvise something scarcely less serviceable with whatever timber they might lay hands on.
Sapper officers had a reputation for being serious or eccentric - `mad, married or Methodist'. During the retreat they were called upon to perform tasks which often seemed hard for their modest rank, like blowing bridges on whose destruction the safety of the Army depended. Their NCOs took their lead from this easy shouldering of wide responsibility. Lieutenant James Pennycuick, who served with 5th Division's 59th Field Company, recalled that the senior NCO in his section `J. Buckle by name, was a man of exceptional character and merit'. The remainder of his section was no less impressive.
In the Engineers we then recruited tradesmen, carpenters, bricklayers, masons and the like and taught them to be soldiers - firing exactly the same musketry course as the infantry. Even in that good company our tradesmen soldiers were of outstanding quality. Many and varied were the jobs the Engineer companies were called upon to do and our sappers could do anything. It was the greatest of privileges to serve. with them.
Sappers enjoyed higher rates of pay than infantrymen: a sapper drew 3s to the infantry private's 1s. The fact that the latter increasingly found themselves providing working parties under the direction of engineer officers of NCOs inevitably caused friction. Ernest Shephard jotted the chalked doggerel of some unnamed trench poet in his diary:
God made the bee
The bee makes honey
The Dorsets do the work
And the REs get the money
The division's Signal Company was part of the Royal Engineers Signal Service. Its members still wore sapper badges but their brassards of dark and light blue set them apart from their comrades in the field companies, though it was not until 1920 that the Royal Corps of Signals came into being. Field Service Regulations 1909 opened its chapter on inter-communication and orders by stressing that: `The constant maintenance of communication between the various parts of an army is of urgent importance.' It went on to warn that the `elaborate means of communication provided under modern conditions should not be used in such a manner as to cripple the initiative of subordinates by unnecessary interference'.
The more static the operations the more elaborate the communications. Wireless, as we have seen, was of very limited value, and most of the energies of the divisional signal companies and the signal units controlled directly by GHQ went into the laying and maintenance of line. The French civilian telephone network was valuable, and it soon became apparent that railway telephones, which connected the numerous stations of the very extensive railway network, had particular advantages. Wise commanders would establish their headquarters in stations or mairies so that their numbers could be found easily. However, it was unwise to rely on civilian communications, and in any event no telephones were to be found in the haystacks, cowsheds and hedges where some commanders inevitably found; themselves.
Divisional signal companies were concerned with establishing and manning the signal office at divisional headquarters, for communications by telephone and telegraph, and with running line out to brigade headquarters. Line parties worked from a wagon containing cable which unrolled as the wagon moved on. An accomplished team could lay line at the gallop, its senior NCO picking the route as he went, a horseman behind adjusting the lay of the cable with a tool rather like a shepherd's crook, and a follow-up party dealing with road-crossings, where the cable would have to be hoisted out of harm's way or protected against hooves and wheels.
The limitations of a system which relied on line had been foreseen, and on mobilisation the army not only accepted the services of gentlemen who offered to serve with their private cars - the Royal Automobile Club produced twenty-five such volunteers - but used newspaper appeals to call for motor-cycle dispatch riders. W. H. L. Watson, an Oxford undergraduate, duly contacted the War Office and was instantly transformed into a corporal, Royal Engineers; he joined 5th Division's signal company in Ireland, and found himself in a ringside seat for the whole 1914 campaign. The cars whisked officers between headquarters, and dispatch riders roared dangerously along the pave with messages.
The divisional commander had two other useful communication assets. His cyclist company provided scouts and messengers. Cyclists were useless off roads, but on them could make better average speed than cavalry. Military cyclists later found themselves in the Army Cycling Corps, whose bicycle wheel cap badge makes an occasional incongruous appearance on headstones in military cemeteries, but in 1914 cyclist companies were formed on mobilisation from soldiers drawn from other units. Sergeant T. H. Cubbon went to war with 3rd Division's cyclist company. His Field Message Book records that on mobilisation he drew from his Company Quartermaster-Sergeant, amongst other things, nine compasses, two eight-gallon paraffin bottles, four six-foot flag poles, twelve 3ft 6in flag poles, 112 maps and a grease tub. The flag poles, for use with semaphore flags, would be attached to the cross-bar of the bike, the six-foot version dividing in half for ease of carriage.
Sergeant Cubbon was an old soldier in the full sense of the word. On i6 August he recorded: `Cadged dinner with an old French couple. Cleaned rifle and bicycle.' On the following day, hospitality lavished during a visit to Wassigny proved too much for him: ‘Got mouldy. Returned about 6pm. Went to bed.' Eventually his taste for creature comforts led to his downfall. On 3 September, he wrote: `Had row with [Lieutenant] Sharpe and [Captain] Lloyd on account of being absent last night. Had to hand everything over to Sgt Giles as QMS.' Later he added: `Have just heard that Mundy, O'Gorman and myself are being returned to our units on crimes ... My bicycle taken from me.' He reported to the King's Regiment on 8 September, was severely reprimanded by his commanding officer, and found himself back in the war with a vengeance. 10 September was: `The most awful day I have had. Shells bursting on all sides, bullets within a foot. Before entering firing line prayed and had a look at a photograph of Flo ... I was in charge of the burial party. Terrible sights. Jakes had to be picked up in pieces and buried in a ground sheet. Took Kenny's razor, [shoulder] titles and cap badge.'
Citation: The Nature of the British Army prior to 1914, With the rank and pay of a Sapper, Part 4