Role of the Royal Engineers at Tel el Kebir

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Role of the Royal Engineers at Tel el Kebir

Postby pittpiper » 01 Oct 2011 22:40

Osprey books are not always the best sources of information, but in the campaign issue on Tel el Kebir the battle map shows Blood's detachment of Royal Engineers in position behind Alison's brigade. Can anyone tell me what role this detachment played in the battle?

Thank you,

Sam
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Re: Role of the Royal Engineers at Tel el Kebir

Postby Mark A. Reid » 01 Oct 2011 23:22

Hi Sam;

The primary role of the Engineers was, and still is, to assist the fighting troops in advancing, holding ground and destroying enemy forces, which generally consists in destroying the enemy's installations, etc. I would imagine that their specific role at Tel-el-Kebir was to destroy/dismantle any enemy obstacles such as fortifications or " infernal machines. " You will note that they were positioned immediately behind the Highland Brigade on the Left Flank, ready to provide immediate assistance but not exposed like the front ranks of the Assault Force, to use a modern term. They probably carried some tools, gabions, etc. in case required to breach walls or ford ditches.

As it turned out, the Egyptian positions were pretty straight forward and were not mined or protected with barbed wire, water-filled moats or other complicated obstructions. Engineers were also expected to help in the aftermath of the fighting by expediting the conversion of recently-captured fortifications, ie, by reconstructing installations to meet a threat from the opposite, or different, directions. They would also have advised on the placement/construction of new sites for logistical support, new obstacles or the establishment of bridges, etc.

You will have noted that the RE did not suffer any casualties at the battle, they were not intended to skewer enemy soldiers with their billhooks or take a fully combatant role as they appear to do today.

My apologies for such a cursory reply but I'm just off to dinner. No doubt some worthy Sapper will be along shortly to refute my comments and put a mere infantryman in his place for daring to comment on their duties.

Cheers,

Mark
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Re: Role of the Royal Engineers at Tel el Kebir

Postby pittpiper » 01 Oct 2011 23:47

Thank you Mark,

I assumed that would have been their role, but I was curious because the map in the Osprey book is the only one I've seen showing that detachment there. In one of the histories of the Royal Engineers there are descriptions of the pontoon troop moving up a long the canal, and the telegraph troop going out the night before to plant posts marking the line of advance, but nothing on Bloods detachment as seen in Osprey. Perhaps some sapper out there has a good account of these chaps.

Sam
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Re: Role of the Royal Engineers at Tel el Kebir

Postby ED, in Los Angeles » 02 Oct 2011 04:56

I have been called a 'sap' but never a sapper.

Just so everybody knows what this is about, and not all have interest or knowledge of this war between England and Egypt, Tel el Kebir was halfway from the British East to West starting point from the Suez Canal to the final prize..Cairo. The "road" to Cairo was actually a freshwater canal from Cairo to the Suez Canal. Just North and right along side of the canal was a railway that went all the way from the Canal to Cairo. A telegraph ran along side the railway and that needed repair. The British and Indian Engineers and all Infantry were using boats and railway to advance on Cairo. The Canal had been dammed by the Egyptians and the railway had been obstructed also. The engineers had the duty to get the railway running and open the Sweetwater Canal as it was called. This was the supply line and the way the troops would advance.
The story is interesting as the British had to bring in steam engines and rolling stock. The Egyptians had taken the railway engines and cars with them as they damaged the railway behind them as they fell back.

But the question is, "Role of the Royal Engineers at Tel el Kebir".
I don't know if the Osprey book that shows the Royal Engineers at the battle is wrong. They got there just after the battle hauling pontoon barges in the Sweetwater Canal. The barges hauled bridging equipment and could brobably be used as pontoon bridges themselves. My source doesn't say but barge and bridge are probably the same. The pontoons also hauled much supplies for the advance.
Here is my source:

"There is little to record about the doings of "A" (Pontoon) Troop, under Major R. J. Bond, R.N., which landed with "C" Troop on August 28th. As few bridges were needed, the equipment was used mostly for transporting supplies. The traffic on the Sweetwater Canal, by means of navel launches towing boats, was carried on under such difficulties, oweing to the shallowness of the water and the remains of two dams, that it was necessary to supplementit by the pontoon rafts of "A" troop (1), towed by horses and nearly 400 tons of stores were conveyed to the front on these rafts before The Battle of Tel el Kebir. Although four bridges were got in readiness to provide communication across the canal during the battle, they were not used because the drawbridge near the village of Tel el Kebir was found intact. The bridges accompanied the Indian Contingent in the advance, and one of them, a Blanchard's light infantry bridge, with Lieutenant A. E. Sandbach, R.E., in charge, arrived at the dam in the Egyptian front line within a few minutes of the rout of the defenders. Sandbach hauled his rafts over the dam without dismantling them, and those of the other bridges followed, after which the dam, and and a barrier across the railway, were demolished by the 17th and 26th Field Companies, R.E., under Captain Elliot Wood and Major Bindon Blood respectively. A diary kept by Lieutenant J. L. Irvine, R.E., shows the trials which the Pontoon Troop had to endure during the advance from Ismalia. Sunken boats fouled the tow lines, the rafts foundered under excessive loading or were damaged negotiating the narrow passages through the dams, and the towing horses often took fright and bolted; but the unit never failed to "deliver the goods", both literally and figuratively."
(1) "A" Troop had equipment for 100 yards of service pontoon bridge, 80 yards of Blanchard's infantry pontoon bridge,and 20 yards of trestle bridge,in addidion to a few Berthon collapsible boats and some trussed baulks.

See; The Royal Engineers In Egypt And The Sudan" by Lt.-Col. E. W. C. Sandes, D.S.O., M.C.
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Re: Role of the Royal Engineers at Tel el Kebir

Postby Mark A. Reid » 02 Oct 2011 19:20

Thanks Ed;

As always, a concise and detailed reply. I'll go back to filling my gabions and weaving some more fascines!

Cheers,

Mark
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Re: Role of the Royal Engineers at Tel el Kebir

Postby pittpiper » 03 Oct 2011 15:55

Thank you Ed. That is a good account. I will be on the lookout for that book.

Sam
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Re: Role of the Royal Engineers at Tel el Kebir

Postby Larmo » 23 May 2015 23:53

Thought I would add to the mix this little bit regarding other RE troops who served at Tel El-Kebir. Specifically men of the 8th Company (Railway)RE. A lucky Ebay purchase won a nice Egypt Pair to a Lance Corporal James Conley 16543 RE, he received the clasp for the battle and later a clasp for the Nile 1884-85. Accompanying the medals was a nice little pile of copied documents from the National Archives detailing Conley's history and the creation of this specialized company for the important task of running the supply trains up and down the line. On the morning of the battle, while not a direct combat role, theirs was an important mission in clearing the Egyptian entrenchments which were blocking the advance of the engines, and opening the line for much need food, ammunition and casualty evacuation.

The company commander, Captain Sydney Smith R.E. detailed their activity on that day, he wrote, “My men (having been plate laying all day) turned in till 4:30 a.m. when the ironclad with Majors Wallace and Ardagh and the “material” train with myself and the plate laying party started for the front. In a very short time we heard the sound of very heavy firing and shortly after came into range of the enemy’s shells, when it was thought prudent to stop. The ironclad was unable to fire, it being too dark to distinguish our own men from the enemy. During this, I ran the “material” train back to Kassasin leaving the party behind, and changed the engine to the rear of the train in case we had to beat a hasty retreat: and on returning, found the fight practically over, so both trains steamed up to the entrenchments, where we found a heavy gun battery built right across the railway. The parapet was made of rushes interlaced with layers of clay, and although we had a company of Indian Sappers and Miners as well as our own men, who worked with a will, it took us two hours to remove the parapet so that the trains could pass through, but luckily we found the permanent way intact. On arriving at Tel El Kebir station between 8 and 9 a.m. the scene was almost indescribable, the station completely blocked with trains full of the enemy’s ammunition, the line strewn with dead and wounded, and our own soldiers swarming over the place almost mad for want of water“.

I really enjoy his referencing the first train as the "ironclad", so 19th century, I always envision the Moniter & Merrimac when I read that passage. :D

Checking the medal rolls on for the 8th Company on Ancestry.com, I counted 27 men, plus 2 attached men, who were listed as receiving the Tel El-Kebir Clasp. Several of the men (including James Conley) had the word "no" in the column for the clasp but crossed out, with a "yes" written next to it.

Sources:
"Diary of work performed by the 8th Company RE, In Egypt", Captain Sydney Smith RE November 6th 1882
"Report of the Railway Operations in Egypt during August and September 1882", Major W.A.J.Wallace RE
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