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Corps History - Part 10
Indian Sappers (1740-1947)

The Honourable East India Company - 1600-1858

On 31 December 1600 Elizabeth I granted a Royal Charter to the 'Honourable East India Company', sometimes referred to as 'John Company', with the intent to favour trade privileges in India. In time the Company transformed from a commercial trading venture to one which virtually ruled India as it acquired auxiliary governmental and military functions, this remained the case until the Company's dissolution in 1858.

The Company divided its civil and military administration into three presidencies; Bombay (1638), Madras (1639) and Bengal (1690).

The military wing of the Company arose out of its need to have an army to protect its trading interests.

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Engineers of the Honourable East India Company Army - 1750-1862

By the 1740’s each military administration of each presidency had its own cadre of engineer officers, they were titled:

Bengal Engineers
Bombay Engineers
Madras Engineers

They were commissioned directly into the East India Company Army. Their responsibilities were similar to those of their counterparts serving with the Corps of Engineers back in Britain. Indeed until 1771 their tasks were so interchangeable that some of the British engineers commissioned into the Corps elected to serve with the Company's army in India.

In 1798 the Company began to send its cadets, wishing to train as gunners or engineers, to the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, but by 1809 these arrangements were changed when the Company's newly established Military Seminary at Addiscombe, Croydon took on the training of all the Company's cadets.

The East India Company Memorial - 1862
The East India Company Memorial
A rose water container (Tazza) was presented to the Corps by the officers of the Honourable East India Company's Engineers in 1862
Military Seminary at Addiscombe, Croydon
East India Company Military Seminary, Addiscombe, Croydon
(Photo: Vibart)
After the Mutiny (1857) it was decided, for security reasons, that all artillery and engineers in India should be part of the British Army. On 1 April 1862 the Bengal, Bombay, Madras Engineers were amalgamated into the Corps of Royal Engineers. To complete the integration process the officers were trained at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich and then at the School of Military Engineering, Chatham, as were all Royal Engineer officers.
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Indian Engineer Soldiers 1777-1947

Like the officers the Indian engineer soldier corps were divided among the three armies, but unlike the officers they were recruited from the native population.

Bengal Sappers and Miners - 1803

  • Originated as the 'Corps of Bengal Pioneers' raised from two pioneer companies in 1803. It evolved into the 'Bengal Sappers and Miners' in 1819 on the absorption of the 'Company of Miners' (raised in 1808). In 1843 it absorbed into it's ranks the 'Broadfoot's Sappers' (raised in 1840).

  • In 1847 it was renamed the 'Bengal Sappers and Pioneers' and in 1851 the 'Corps of Bengal Sappers and Miners'. Lord Kitchener's Reforms in 1903 saw it redesignated as the '1st Sappers and Miners' which was, again, altered in 1906 to '1st Prince of Wales's Own Sappers and Miners'.
  • On the accession of George V to the throne in 1910 it was renamed '1st King George's Own Sappers and Miners' with the numerical nomination being dropped in 1923. In 1937 it was re-titled 'King George V's Bengal Sappers and Miners'.

  • In 1941 they became the 'King George V's Bengal Sappers and Miners Group' of the Indian Engineers in 1946 the 'King George V's Group' of the Royal Indian Engineers.
Bengal Sappers and Miners - 1879
Corps of Bengal Sappers and Miners
guarding their sector of the Sherpore Cantonment, outside the city boundary of Kabul, Afghanistan, during the Afghan War 1878-9

Madras Sappers and Miners - 1780

  • Originated from two companies of Pioneers raised in 1780 called the 'Madras Pioneers', which were expanded and titled 'Corps of Madras Pioneers' but was renamed the 'Corps of Madras Sappers and Miners' in 1831.
  • 'Queen's Own' was added to their title in 1876.

  • The Kitchener Reforms (1903) saw their title changed to '2nd Queen's Own Madras Sappers and Miners' which was again changed in 1911 to '2nd Queen Victoria's Own Madras Sappers and Miners'

  • In 1923 they became 'Queen Victoria's Own Madras Sappers and Miners'.

  • In 1941 they became the 'Queen Victoria's Own Madras Sappers and Miners Group' of the Indian Engineers and in 1946 the 'Queen Victoria's Own Madras Group' of the Royal Indian Engineers.
Queen's Own Madras Sappers & Miners - 1897
Queen's Own Madras Sappers & Miners, 1897. From left to right: A Subedar and a Sepoy in cold weather review order, a Sepoy in warm weather drill order, and a Havildar-Major in warm weather field order.
(Photo: unknown)

Bombay Sappers and Miners - 1777

  • Originated from a company of 'Lascar Pioneer' in 1777, which was redesignated as 'The Pioneer Corps'. In 1799 a 'Corps of Engineer Lascars and Pontoon Train' was raised its was later renamed the 'Sapper and Miners Company' and by 1820 was merged with the Pioneer Corps.

  • In 1830 it was called the 'Engineers Corps' and seven years later the 'Corps of Bombay Sappers and Miners' (1837).

  • With the Kitchener Reforms in 1903 it was re-titled '3rd Sapper and Miners' and in 1923 become the 'Royal Bombay Sapper and Miners'.

  • In 1941 they became the 'Royal Bombay Sappers and Miners Group' of the Indian Engineers in 1946 the 'Bombay Group' of the Royal Indian Engineers.

Post-Mutiny arrangements - These corps were not greatly affected by the post-Mutiny reorganisation. Although the supply of the British engineer non-commissioned officers (NCO's) was regularised by the formation of a Royal Engineer holding company (40th Depot Company) at Chatham in 1862. By 1868 this arrangement was extended to include three Royal Engineer 'skeleton' holding companies, one for each presidency, being established in India:

  • 41st Depot Company (later H Depot Company) based at the Bengal Sappers and Miner's Depot in Roorkee.
  • 43rd Depot Company (later L Depot Company) based at the Bombay Sappers and Miner's Depot in Kirkee.
  • 42nd Depot Company (later K Depot Company) based at the Madras Sappers and Miner's Depot in Bangalore.

In 1902 Lord Kitchener became Commander-in-Chief India and enacted far-reaching reforms on the Indian Army, which for the Sapper and Miner units results in a renaming.

Army estimates show that the strengths of Sappers and Miners were:

1888-89 - 3,000 sappers and miners.
1914 - 4,877 sappers and miners.
British Indian Army Rank structure showing equivalent Royal Engineer rank
Viceroy's Commissioned Officers
Subedar Major - Major
Subedar - Captain
Jemadar - Lieutenant
Non-Commissioned officers

Havildar Major - Sergeant Major
Quartermaster Havildar - Quartermaster Sergeant
Havildar - Sergeant
Naik - Corporal
Lance Naik - Lance Corporal

Sepoy - Sapper
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Military Works Branch - 1871-1923

Some of the
Major works projects

    Great Trunk Road (1830's)
    Godavari irrigation project (1840's)
    Ganges canal (1850's)
    Jumna canal (1860's)
    Himalayas survey (1820-80's)
    Sind-Pishin railway line (1880's)
    Khyber railway line (1890's)

A Military Works Branch, Public Works Department was formed in 1871, after which it became the Military Works Department (1881), then the Military Works Services (1899) until it eventually emerged as the Military Engineer Services in 1923.

This department was responsible for road, railways, canals and barracks construction, irrigation projects, as well as other works of a military nature.

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Corps of Indian Engineers - 1932-46

On 18 November 1932 the 'Corps of Indian Engineers' was formed from an amalgamation of the Military Engineer Services and the three presidencies Corps of Sappers and Miners. It was officered by a mixture of British (Royal Engineers) and Indian officers.

At the outbreak of the Second World War (1939-1945) the Corps of Indian Engineers, only consisted of works and field units, but demand for engineering solutions soon brought expansion to the Corps.

In 1939 it became apparent that the Indian Army required units to operate railways and ports, so inline with British arrangements it fell to the Indian Engineers to form Transportation units.

The engineers accompanied the Indian Army who played a major part in British campaigns in East Africa, the Western Desert, Italy, Malaya and Burma (see Corps History - Part 16 The Corps and the Second World War).

Indian Engineers Strength 1939-45
*Royal and Indian Engineers
(Note: Figures excludes transportation and survey personnel and units).

In 1946 the Corps was granted the title of the 'Corps of Royal Indian Engineers' in recognition of the work it had done during the war.

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Indian Campaigns - 1865-1930

Bhutan War - 1865

Major William Trevor and Lieutenant James Dundas (both late of the Bengal Engineers), were each awarded the Victoria Cross for their gallant conduct at an attack on a blockhouse at Dewan-Girim, Bhutan on 30 April 1865.


Second Afghan War - 1878-80

The origins of the Second Afghan war were similar to those of the the first and lay in the British fear of Russian domination in Afghan affairs. In 1878 a Russian envoy was received by Sher Ali, Amir of Afghan whilst the British representative was turned away, in British eyes this was tantamount to an insult and formed the occasion of war, which broke out in November of the same year.

Three columns with their engineers invaded Afghanistan:

Peshawar Force (Lieutenant General Sir Sam Browne (of the Sam Browne belt fame))
  • 2nd Company Bengal Sappers and Miners (Lieutenant JC Campbell RE)
  • 3rd Company Bengal Sappers and Miners (Captain Dove RE)
  • 8th Company Bengal Sappers and Miners (Captain HP Leach RE)
  • B Company Madras Sappers and Miners (Lieutenant Conner RE)
  • E Company Madras Sappers and Miners (Lieutenant Blindly RE)
  • K Company Madras Sappers and Miners (Captain Raw son RE)

Their main duties included; road-making, building posts on the line of communication, bridge building across the Kabul river (a trestle bridge of three lengths which took 10 days to construct), drainage works, hutting troops, constructing a large fort near Ella, and laying a telegraph line from Dakar to Andaman.

Two engineer offices with this force were awarded Victoria Crosses, the first to Lieutenant Reginald Hart, Royal Engineers for his gallant conduct in endeavouring to rescue a wounded So war (an Indian trooper) of the 13th Bengal Lancers on 31 January 1879. The second was won by Captain Edward Embrown Leach, Royal Engineers on 17 March 1879 for his utmost gallantry in changing, with some men of the 45th Sikhs, a very much large number of the enemy.

Ku ram Valley Column (Major General (later Field Marshal Lord) Frederick Roberts)
  • 7th Company Bengal Sappers and Miners (Lieutenant Bus ton RE)

Their duties included; building a road from Hull to Prewar Ko tall (this road had to cross a river twice and be made practical for camels and later carts), building fortified posts on the lines of communication, and strengthen the fort at Kuram.

Quetta Force, when amalgamated with the Multan Division was commanded by Lieutenant General Stewart, with Major Buddulph at the head of the Quetta Division.
  • 4th Company Bengal Sappers and Miners (Captain Haslett RE)
  • 9th Company Bengal Sappers and Miners (Lieutenant Barton RE)
  • 10th Company Bengal Sappers and Miners (Captain LF Brown RE)
  • 2nd Company Bombay Sappers and Miners (Lieutenant GT Jones RE)
  • 3rd Company Bombay Sappers and Miners (Lieutenant Slater RE)
  • 4th Company Bombay Sappers and Miners (Lieutenant Coles RE)
  • 5th Company Bombay Sappers and Miners (Lieutenant Bethell RE)

A strong contingent of engineer Field and Survey officers also accompanied the columns. The Survey and other engineer officers conducted extensive and detailed surveys of the areas which enable them to produce accurate maps for the forces.

The columns all reached their objectives swiftly and the war was brought to an end with the treaty of Gandamak in May 1879, but it did not endure for long. The British envoy, Sir Louis Cavagnari and his escort were murdered on 3 September 1879.


Burma - 1885

The engineer Lieutenant General Sir Harry Prendergast VC was appointed commander of the Burma Expedition of 1885.

The engineer units involved were:

  • 4th and 5th Companies Bengal Sappers and Miners (Captain Barton RE)
  • B, D and H Companies and Telegraph Detachment Madras 'Queen's Own' Sappers and Miners
  • 2nd Company Bombay Sappers and Miners (Captain Fullerton RE)

Second World War - 1939-45

See Corps History Part 16 - Corps in the Second World War

Still under development


Author: SC Fenwick, FoREM

Follow the Sapper. Napier G (Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, 2005)

Links to further reading:

Biography - Lord Kitchener (1850-1916)
VC citation - Major William Trevor VC
VC citation - Captain Edward Pemberton Leach VC

King's Engineers and Skilled Levies (1066-1346)    The Corps & Ordnance and its Train (1370-1713)
Corps of Engineers (1716-1832)    Engineer Soldiers (1772-1856)
Global wars & a 3rd Corps (1756-1815)    Royal Engineer Establishment (1812-1962)
Engineers & early Victorian Wars (1853-1880)
Corps amalgamation and Coastal Defence (1855-1905)
The Corps & late Victorian Wars (1882-1902)     Indian Sappers (1740-1947)
Militia, Volunteers and Territorials (1865-1979)    Engineers in a Civic role (1820-1911)
The Corps & Army Reforms (1902-1913)    The Corps & First World War (1914-1920)
The Corps between the wars (1920-1939)    The Corps & Second World War (1939-1945)
The Corps at Home (1945-80)    The Corps and British Army of the Rhine (1945-80)
The Corps and the Cold War (1947-91)    The Corps and the Imperial rundown (1945-94)

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