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Compiled by Roland Wardle, Pioneer, King's Regiment In Canada - Portraying The 8th Regiment of Foot in Upper Canada during the War of 1812.
On Loan To The Incorporated Militia of Upper Canada
The idea of having a soldier whose chief role is to provide manual labor goes back many centuries. The Pioneers' roots date from Roman times. Roman legions frequently required groups of legionaries to move ahead of the main body in order to secure and clear the army's advance. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, each British infantry battalion (including the Foot Guards), would detail a section or squad (Pioneers) of ten men under the command of a corporal or sergeant. Their main tasks were to undertake and/or supervise heavy construction work. The Pioneers were an early form of combat engineers. They would travel in advance of the army in order to effectively clear the way for those who follow.
To paraphrase the British army's Royal Pioneer Corps; the Pioneer is a skilled worker who leads the way, embraces a purpose, tough of spirit, far-sighted, and adventurous, the person who will prepare the way for an advancing army. One of the earliest references may perhaps be found in the book of Nehemiah, Chapter 4, Verses 17-18: "They will build on the wall, and they that bear the burdens, with those that laded, everyone with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon. For the builders, everyone had his sword girded by his side, and so builded . . ."
Pioneers were mention in the pay and muster rolls of the British Garrison at Calais in the year 1346. By the 1600s, there were Pioneer contingents under their own officers and NCOs, attached to the Artillery. Later on, a company of Pioneers served with the 7th of Foot (Royal Fusiliers). By 1739, the Guards had organized and maintained a detachment, followed by the Black Watch and many other Infantry Regiments.
Each Line Battalion, or Infantry Regiment had its quota of such men. Trained infantry soldiers who were responsible for performing a variety of tasks under difficult conditions. Each company in a Battalion contributed two men to the Pioneer section under the command of a corporal or sergeant. The Pioneer would wear the normal red jacket. The pattern, the decorative tape and the facing colour (collar and cuffs) would identify the Regiment to which he belonged. The wings on the Pioneer's shoulder would show that he belonged to the Grenadier Company. The Pioneers drawn from the eight Battalion Companies would just wear the usual worsted tufts. No special badges were worn, apart from the plate on the front of the bearskin cap (prescribed for home service). On active service their respective regimental cap or shako was worn.
In theory at least, the principal distinction of the Pioneer was his axe, apron and his beard, the only soldiers allowed to be unshaven in the otherwise clean-shaven army. The wearing of the beard was a privilege, because their task was considered so arduous in warfare. Away from the Regiment and the niceties of formal camp life, they were permitted facial hair. However, it may have reflected the simple fact that because they formed the advance party, usually setting off before dawn, shaving in the dark was hardly a practical proposition. Like so many other privileges in the army, it soon became a requirement and even today, it is expected of the Regimental Pioneer sergeant that he will grow a suitably impressive beard. In practice, however, beards were probably much more widely worn on active service than contemporary illustrations suggest.
The Pioneer was a soldier who marched at the head of the Regiment. On the day that the Regiment was scheduled to relocate, an advance party consisting of Pioneers, the Regimental Quartermaster, Engineering Officers, Artificers and Guides would assemble and begin their march to the new location. This group would be prepared to be detached for possibly days at a time. The Pioneer's task would involve the facilitating the movement of the Regiment, even when crossing enemy terrain. This would typically include clearing natural obstacles, repairing or building roads and bridges.
The Pioneer was highly skilled in the use of tools, such as axes, spades, saws, and other tools. He would have the required skill and knowledge to use such tools or gain them by way of training. The men of the pioneer section were usually former labours, farmers, artisans and use to hard physical manual work. The Pioneer would use his skills to;
Pioneers would be employed alongside the infantry, often working under fire. During the Battle of Waterloo (June 18th, 1815), the Pioneers of the Coldstream Guards Regiment of Foot were instrumental in fortifying (on the night of 17th) Chateau Hougoumont, a position crucial to Wellington's strategy, with loopholes, firing steps and barricades. This was a typical example of their value to the Infantry Battalion on campaign. The Pioneer, being a trained soldier, would fight with in the firing line. He could also be used to carry off the wounded during the action or as a general guard of the Colours.
When in garrison or in a position for prolonged periods of time, the Pioneer would set up shop. One of the Pioneers' jobs would be to make the necessary repairs to fortifications, which were notorious for needing constant upkeep. They would use there skills and tools to construct stables, animal pens and other such requirements for the Regiment. Pioneers were often employed as supervisors over groups of privates assigned to fatigue duty.
During ceremonial occasions or formal parades, the Pioneers would whiten their aprons, or have a special whitened apron for such times. They would put on their bearskin caps and polish up their axes. Some units would turn up the left corner of their aprons, holding them in place with the regimental crest.
Pioneers were usually organized into a single formation. On ceremonial parade, the order of march for them was to march first leading the battalion. Following the French practice, the corps of Pioneers would march proudly at the head of the band, next the colonel, followed by the regiment in line companies. On the parade square, the Pioneer's formation would be posted nine paces behind the rear rank of the fifth company. When only one company fell in, the Pioneer falls in two paces behind the rear rank. Occasionally, at large events, the Pioneers of the various regiments were brigaded and deployed as a single unit with an engineering officer.
SECTION I (SOURCES; B)
Method of assembling a Regiment in Camp, posting the Officers, Music, Drummers, Fifers and Pioneers, with instructions for the Officers commanding Divisions at parades, field days and
The pioneers are formed up two deep, nine paces behind the center of the rear rank, when the battalion is in line. In marching past in review, they are in two ranks with a corporal at their head, six paces before the music in front of the grenadiers. In close column they fall into the rear. In filling from column into divisions, they close up to the rear if their respective divisions. When the battalion changes its front, the pioneers move round by the flanks to the rear.
Note; Some times the term Sapper and Pioneer are confused. In the British army, a Sapper was attached to the army and were always subordinate to the Royal Engineer Commander. Where as a Pioneer is attached to a regiment, subordinate to the Colonel.
The engineer in the English army was an officer and a specialist. The semi-engineer, labourer, worker, lower rank, were known as sappers and/or miners. A sapper, first used by the French military, was one who sapped another's fortifications.
To "SAP" was to dig a trench towards a place that was being besieged. In the French and Belgian army, they were known as a "sapeur or sappeur".
The British army, had the Pioneer. The French and Belgian had a genie, also using the word pionier (said to derive from pion, pedone, or pedis, meaning foot). The German army had a Zimmerman (pionier) and in the Spanish army, this person was known as a Peon, a foot soldier, but also a labourer. In the Mexican army, they were known as "Zapadores" or sappers.
Regulations regarding the Pioneers of Infantry (Line) Regiments Being Furnished with Proper Tools and Appointments
The Pioneer's, tools, distinguished them rather than their clothing. However, he was an infantryman first, and his entire kit was quite extensive.
The Colonels of infantry regiments, both Regulars and Militia, were responsible for the tools and appointments of their particular Pioneer section. At all time this equipment must be complete and in serviceable state. No battalion was considered fit for service, unless the pioneers were completely and properly equipped, on home service at least. The Pioneer appointments were require to be made of the best materials and in strict conformity to the patterns which are deposited with the Patterns for Clothing and Appointments of the Army. The following is a list of appointments for Pioneers of a battalion of infantry.
Typical arms and equipment for the British infantry Pioneer, for one Corporal (or sergeant) and ten privates.
2 felling axes with case (labourer's axe of the early 18th & 19th Century)
3 broad axes with case and belts
3 saws with cases and belts
8 spades with cases and belts
11 bill hooks with leather cases and girdles (slung at the hip)
11 aprons (leather)
11 bearskin caps (with pioneer plates), for home service.
11 shakos, while on service, with oilskin cover.
Stovepipe shako c. 1800 and "België", "Waterloo" or "Wellington" shako (Authorized on December 24, 1811).
11 flintlocks (Pioneers were armed with muskets)
11 flintlocks (musket) - slings
11 bayonets and scabbards.
11 pouches and/or cartridge boxes (containing 60 rounds each).
11 haversacks used for carrying rations.
11 greatcoats and /or blankets..
11 water canteens
11 plates and mugs, (mess tin and cover, after 1813).
11 knapsacks (Trotter after 1805) or 11 calfskin knapsacks (slung by single strap over the shoulder onto the right hip).
How equipment was actually worn would depend on regimental standing orders. However, cross belts and haversacks would be slung over and secured under shoulder-straps
Distribution of the implements to be carried by the Pioneers of a Battalion In addition to their arms and accouterments.
(For a Corporal and 10 men)
For the Pioneer to accomplish his duties, he would rely on the following. With these implements, the Pioneer could clear trees, construct small bridges and deal with any man-made obstacles thrown up in the path of the oncoming Battalion.
BILLHOOK; About the pioneer's waist was a black belt carrying the billhook. This ancient, traditional cutting tool is used mainly in European agriculture. The billhook used as a cutting tool goes back to the Iron Age. The billhook may vary in shape, weight and size, depending from which part of England it originated. They would have once been made by the local blacksmith to the user's specifications This tool, halfway between the need for an axe or a knife was used to sharpen stakes, trim timber, and to cut through thick hedges and scrub woodland. It would be the equivalent, to all large woodland utility knives (machetes, parangs, khukris, etc.). Typically having a blade between 6 inches to 10 inches long, with an increasingly strong curve towards the end. The blade is generally sharpened only on the inside of the curve and the edge of the billhook is beveled at a relatively abduce angle in order to avoid binding in green wood. The wooden handle is usually six inches to eight inches long. This was a popular tool used by British army throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This hook of ancient design, has existed for so long, it has developed a large variety of names in different parts of Britain including bill, billhook, hook bill hedging bill, handbill and groomhook, was also known as Fascine knife. In medieval times, the billhook was developed into a military weapon, also known as a bill or billhook. When the blade from the billhook was taken and added to a long pole, the weapon was called a Hilberd.
LEATHER APRON; The pioneer would also wear the traditional stout, buff leather apron (one of the pioneer's trademarks). The pants and the front of the jacket were almost entirely concealed beneath the leather apron. This distinctive trademark was deemed functional. The leather apron afforded protection from the hazards of his job.
PIONEER'S MATTOCK; Similar to a pick-axe, but having two broad blades set at different plains. Generally the blades took the form of an axe-like edge on one end and chisel edge on the other. The mattock was used to loosen earth, grub out roots and rocks or loosen brickwork. The chisel end curved slightly inwards to facilitate turning up earth while the axe end which was formed practically at right angles to helve made the tool extremely effective for cutting through tough obstructions.
FELLING AXE; Single cutting edge (head). Used for the felling of trees. Cuts across the grain of wood.
BROAD AXE; Edge is chisel-shaped (one side flat and one beveled ). Used with the grain of the wood (more controlled and precision splitting) .
For both axes they would have steel heads and wooden handles (Haft). If made in the UK and Europe traditionally, it was made of a resilient hardwood like hickory, in the USA and ash. For the 17th & the early part of the18th century the handle (haft) would be straight, no curves for the better grip, with a circular cross-section that wedged onto the axe-head without the aid of wedges or pins.
SPADE; Use full hand tool (type of shovel), used for digging, loosen ground, or to break up clumps in the earth. Used for a variety of different functions and jobs. Made in many different shapes and sizes. The most typical shape is a broad flat blade with a sharp lower edge, straight or curved. The spade has a wooden handle that ends with cross-piece (wood for this time period), sometimes T-shaped and sometimes forming a kind of loop for the hand.
MATTOCK; Hand tool similar to a pickaxe. Suitable for breaking up moderately hard ground. Distinguished by it's head, this broad-bladed chisel-like blade is perpendicular to the handle. Used effectively used as a hoe (adze). The reverse end may be pointed, in which case the tool is called a pick mattock, or may instead have an axe-like splitting end, then it is a cutter mattock. In the southern states, the mattock is called a "grub hoe" or "grub axe".The heads range from 3 to 7 pounds in weight. The shaft is normally 3 to 4 feet, often heavier than the head (think of a heavy baseball bat).
SAW; Crosscut saw, is designed to cut wood at a right angle to the direction of the grain or horizontally through the trunk of a standing tree. Buck saws and felling saws are crosscut saws. The bucking saw generally are often used on trees that are already downed. A felling saw is generally used to cut down standing trees. Note: before the 1880s crosscut saws were primarily used for bucking, with axes used to fell trees
PICKAXE; Hand tool with a hard head attached perpendicular to the wooden handle. Pickaxe has a head with a pointed end and a flat end (picks has both ends pointed). One end of the head is a spike, slightly curve ending in a sharp point. The spike is a effective tool for piercing or break up hardened dried earth or rocky surfaces. The other end or the second spike, is a flat end for prying. This chiseled end, is useful for cutting through roots.
Photos c/o Peter Burin, Deb Brown, Linda Willis
SOURCES (A)General Regulations and Orders for the Army.
Horse Guards, London. 1811
Pages 65, 66, 67.
Located in the Library at Historical Fort York..
(B) A Treatise on the Duty of Infantry Officers And the Present System Of British Military Discipline With an Appendix.
Capt. Thomas Reide.
Walter & Egerton, London. 1798
(1) British Military Uniforms.
W. Y. Carman.
Aroco Publishing Co., Inc. New York. 1957
(2) Discovering British Regimental Traditions.
Ian F. W. Beckett.
Shire Publications Ltd., Risborough, Buckinghamshire. 1999
(3) Military Dress of the Peninsular War: 1808 - 1814.
Martin Windrow & Gerry Embleton.
Ian Allan Ltd. Shepperton, Surrey 1974
(4) Portraits for a King:
The British Military Paintings of A. J. Dubois Drahonet (1791-1834).
Jenny Spencer - Smith.
Scope Too Ltd., London. 1990
(5) Redcoat: The British Soldier in the Age of Horse and Musket.
Harper Collins Publishers, London. 2001
(6) Soldiers of the Napoleonic Wars (3).
Almark Publishing Co. Ltd., London. 1975
(7) The British Military: Its System and Organization: 1803 - 1815.
S. J. Park & G. F. Nafazigar.
Rafam Co. Inc., Cambridge, Ont. 1983
(1) British Infantry Uniforms Since 1660.
Michael Barthorp & Pierre Turner. 1982
(2) Infantry Uniforms: 1742 1855.
Robert and Christopher Wilkinson - Latham. 1969
(3) Military Uniforms of the World in Colour.
Preben Kannik. 1968
(4) Uniforms of the American Revolution (in colour).
John Mollo & Malcolm McGregor. 1975
(5) Uniforms of the Seven Years War 1756 - 1763 (in colour).
John Mollo & Malcolm McGregor. 1977
(1) The Coldstream Guards.
Charles Grant & Michael Roffe. 1971
(2) Wellington's Peninsular Army.
James Lawford & Michael Roffe. 1973
(3)Wellington's Infantry 1.
Bryan Fosten. 1981
(4) The American War: 1812-1814.
Philip Katcher & Bryan Fosten. 1990
(5) Wellington's Highlanders.
Stuart Reid & Bryan Fosten. 1992
(6) Wellington's Foot Guards.
Ian Fletcher & William Younghsband. 1994
(7) King Georg's Army 1740 - 1793 (1) Infantry.
Stuart Reid & Paul Chappell. 1995
(8) British Forces in the West Indies 1793 - 1815.
Rene Chartrand & Paul Chappell. 1996
(9) British Redcoat 1740 - 1793.
Stuart Reid & Richard Hook. 1996
(10) British Redcoat (2): 1793 - 1815.
Stuart Reid & Graham Turner. 1997
(11) The United States Army 1812 - 1815.
James L. Kochan & David Rickman. 2000
Regiment:The Military Heritage Collection:
(1) Issue Four (October/November 1994).
The Grenadier Guards: 1656 - 1994.
(2) Issue Six (February/March 1995).
The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment: 1572-1995.
(3) Issue Seven (April/May 1995).
The Staffordshire Regiment (The Prince of Wales's): 1705-1995.
(4) Issue Twelve (February/March 1996).
The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers: 1674 - 1996.
(5) Issue Thirteen (April/May1996).
The Corps of Royal Engineers: 1066 - 1996.
(6) Issue Fifteen (August/September1996).
Royal Welch Fusiliers: 1689-1996.
FROM the WEB;
(1) Sapper: From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Article about the military vocation
(2) Also look on the web: for assault pioneer.
(3) Also read on the web: billhook, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
(4) Axe, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
(5) Spade, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
(6) Mattock, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
(7) Saw, look up "Crosscut saw", from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
(8) Pickaxe, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
(9) Combat engineering, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia