Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

The Army’s Hewers and Drawers – The Story of the Pioneer Corps.

The Pioneer Corps was the stuff of jokes.

A motley collection of ineffectual blokes

Dredged into the army by war’s hunger for bodies.

Clerks and light labourers, intellectuals and incapables.

Too short or too tall. Weak in the head, too modest,

Or bright to be an officer. Unfit to fight. Fit to clean stables.

Cleaning up after the proper soldiers. Tidying the war.

The above extract from a poem I wrote in memory of my father illustrates the view of the Pioneer Corps propagated by comedians and ‘proper’ soldiers. Like thousands of others, my father gave thanks to the country that gave him a home and employment and family by enlisting in the armed forces in Britain’s hour of need.

Michael Young, in his influential book The Rise of the Meritocracy, took an unflattering view of the Pioneer Corps.  He claimed that the morale of these ‘hewers and drawers  … these dull-witted men’ was spectacularly increased ‘when the stupid were kept together… and they were no longer daunted by having superior people to compete with.’  In fairness to Young, it should be noted that his intent was a satirical critique of how the cult of IQ measurement was creating a smug ruling class and a demoralized lower class.

Nevertheless, one must challenge the view that the Pioneer Corps was merely a dumping ground for mentally-challenged labourers. My father had little formal education but was witty, astute and well-read. Among the ranks of the Pioneer Corps were the artist Sir Edward Paolozzi, the dramatist Christopher Fry, the writer Alfred Perles, Professor Jack Cowan, founder of the Architectural Science Review, Hans Coper, the sculptor and potter and the Olympic athlete Sidney Wooderson.

The word ‘pioneer’ derives from the 11th century French word paionier, which has links with the Spanish peon and the word ‘pawn’ for a chess piece. Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary links it with ‘pedal’ and ‘pedestrian’. From the 15th century ‘pioneer’ has meant a foot soldier who prepared the way for the army. From around 1605 it acquired the added meaning of a person who goes first or does something first. It was first used as a verb in 1780.

The pioneers would go in advance of an army preparing roads and trenches for the oncoming warriors. The idea of using a group of soldiers whose main function was to provide the army with labour rather than to fight goes back many thousands of years. In the Old Testament, Nehemiah, chapter 4, verse 17  contains the words ‘Of them that built on the wall and that carried burdens, and that laded: with one of his hands he did the work, and with the other he held a sword.’

There were pioneers in the English garrison at Calais in 1346 and pioneer contingents under their own officers attached to the Artillery in 1600. Pioneers would go in advance preparing roads and trenches for the combatants. The Labour Corps, formed in February 1917 was the precursor of the Pioneer Corps. Before that the army relied on French civilian labour. As the need for labour grew, the British government sent labourers to France in1915 in a force that included 38,000 Chinese, 10,000 Africans. By 1918 there were also 300,000 prisoners of war and contingents from Fiji and Egypt.

In 1918, the Labour Corps acquired its badge which became the emblem of the Pioneer Corps – the piled pick, rifle and shovel.

They often had to carry out their tasks under heavy fire and in the spring of 1918 took up arms and fought the German army when the need arose. 2,300 men of the Labour Corps were killed between May 1917 and the end of the war.

In September 1939, groups of reservists were formed into Works Labour Companies. The next month they became the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps and in November 1940 the name was changed to the Pioneer Corps.

Pioneers were enlisted from Ceylon, Mauritius, Seychelles, Basutoland, Bechuanaland, Swaziland, East and West Africa, Cyprus, Malta, India, Syria and Palestine. In North West Europe, Free French, Belgian and Dutch companies were formed.  Over 10,000 Germans, Austrians and Italians were recruited, earning the Pioneer corps the nickname ‘The King’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens’.

Among these ‘aliens’ were many uprooted by the rise of the Nazis. In 1916, Kurt Lewin volunteered for the Kaiser’s army. In 1939, he fled anti-Semitism, made his home in Britain and, in 1940, enlisted in the 74th company of the Pioneer Corps.

Ignaz Schwarz arrived in Britain in 1938 from Vienna and became Sidney Graham. He joined the Pioneer Corps and volunteered for hazardous duty.

Emeritus Professor HJ (Jack) Cowan, the world’s first Professor of Architectural Science and founding editor of the Architectural Science Review came to Britain from  Glogau in  Silesia, was interned and deported to Canada. He was given a choice of staying in Canada or returning to England. He chose the latter and joined the Pioneer Corps. He spent the war dismantling mines and was seriously injured on 1st January 1945,

Helmut Rosettenstein was born in Koenigsberg and came to Britain in March 1939. He became Harry Rossney, and joined the Pioneer Corps before serving with the Graves Restoration Unit hand-writing names on the temporary crosses in post D-Day Normandy that eventually became Commonwealth War Graves.

Geoffrey Perry was born Horst Pinschewer and grew up in Berlin, before coming to Britain and joining the Pioneer Corps. In May 1945, he and a British officer called Bertie Lickorish encountered an odd-looking figure in a forest near the German border with Denmark. It was William Joyce, ‘Lord Haw-Haw’. ‘I shot him in the bum,’ said Perry.

The Italian father of Sir Edward Paolozzi, the distinguished painter and sculptor, creator of murals on London Underground, was interned and then sent to a camp in Canada. The ship was torpedoed and Paolozzi lost his father, his grandfather and an uncle. Paolozzi himself was briefly held in an Edinburgh jail and after his release returned to the family’s Leith ice cream parlour to help his mother. He advanced to Edinburgh College of Art, but was conscripted into the Pioneer Corps in 1943.


Christopher Fry, the verse dramatist and screenwriter, was a profoundly religious man, whose opposition to war led to him being advised to join the fire service by TS Eliot. Fry said that he had no head for heights. The poet told him to concentrate on basements. Fry joined the Pioneer Corps, working on the Liverpool docks during the Blitzes, as well as in London.

In Soldiers and Civilians, the writer and friend of Henry Miller, Alfred Perles, born in Vienna in 1897, to Czech Jewish parents, described working in the Pioneer Corps in London and  testified to the liberation of losing all that he owned when a bomb destroyed his London house. He felt newborn in his khaki battledress in Oxford Street, an unknown soldier. He was protected from all curiosity, malevolent and benevolent. ‘Only I knew that I had just lost all my terrestrial goods. It did not matter. After all, I had lost nothing essential. As a matter of fact, all I had lost was essentially inessential. All of a sudden, I realized that all one possibly can lose must needs be inessential.’

The Corps handled all kinds of stores and ammunition, built camps, airfields and fortifications, cleared rubble and demolished roadblocks, built roads, railways and bridges, loaded and unloaded ships, trains and planes and constructed aircraft pens against enemy bombing.

On 6 June 1944, 13 Pioneer companies landed with the first allied wave and a further ten companies with the second, making a total of about 6,700 men ashore by the end of the day. The first Pioneer party landed 20 minutes after Operation Overlord had started. By D-day + 79, the complete Pioneer Order of Battle, consisting of over 68,000 officers and men, had been brought to France. The Pioneers who arrived with the assault troops landed ‘wetshod’, which meant a long wade ashore in full equipment. Some had to swim ashore from grounded craft. This would have been traumatic for my father who was born and brought up by the sea but never learnt to swim.

Some, including my father were recruited for burial parties. My father escaped without serious injury but for the rest of his life suffered from anosmia – he lost his sense of smell. The last smell he remembered was of the rotting corpses of young men at Caen in Normandy. The pioneers bivouacked in fields, in severe weather, working long hours with little rest. Conditions were hazardous because of minefields. Over 2,000 British personnel, serving with the Corps, and nearly 6,000 of other nationalities lost their lives.

By May 1945 The Pioneer Corps was probably the largest Corps in the Army with 12,000 Officers, 166,000 British and 400,000 Commonwealth Personnel, as well as being responsible for a civilian labour force of 1,074,000 and a Prisoner of War force of 173,000.

A grateful nation recognised the Pioneers’ contribution to victory and in November 1946, King George VI renamed it the Royal Pioneer Corps.  Pioneers later served in many conflicts around the world. In 1993, the Corps lost its separate identity when it was merged with several other units to become part of the Royal Logistics Corps, although there are still currently two specialist pioneer units within that corps.


Many commentators, including some on the left, have concluded that there is something rotten in the state of Britain today, particularly with elements of the nation’s youth, and have suggested radical remedies. Deborah Orr, in The Independent, believes that respectful attention should be given to the suggestion by actress Brooke Kinsella that one way of tackling the extreme anti-social behaviour that devastated her family when her young brother Ben was stabbed to death, might be to bring back national service


In a report published by the Centre for Policy Studies think-tank, Tom Burkard, who was a corporal in the Royal Pioneer Corps, and is now  director of a children’s charity, proposed that ex-military personnel could be excellent teachers and improve discipline and learning in schools. His proposal was backed by the former chief of the defence staff, Lord Guthrie of Craigiebank, who said that it could offer an antidote to problems of youth knife crime, drugs and violence.


Perhaps there is room for a new Pioneer Corps dedicated to moulding troubled British youth into responsible citizens through community service. As long ago as 1945, John Rawling Rees noted that the health and crime records of the Pioneer Corps compared very favourably with the best units in the field and that service in the corps had a therapeutic effect on soldiers who had displayed delinquent behaviour. About 18% of the National Service men in the Pioneer corps in 1952 were illiterate but the Corps had a good record of teaching them to read.

Perhaps the Pioneer Corps could, even today, help young people cast off their old selves and don a uniform of public service.

The Corps motto translates from the Latin as ‘Work conquers all’. Would a new Pioneer Corps benefit British society today?


Intellectual Property Rights

By a strange coincidence, this article was published  in the February issue of Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD) on the very same day that I discovered that an article I posted on Open Salon on 26 March 2011 had appeared on another website on 27 March 2011 without  acknowledging me as author.

For some reason my article has not made it to the LMD website this month so I am reproducing it here on my Word Press blog.

Under intellectual property law, owners are granted certain exclusive rights to a variety of intangible assets such as musical, literary, and artistic works; discoveries and inventions. According to Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author”. The natural rights argument is based on Locke’s idea that a person has a natural right over the fruits of his or her labour. Utilitarians argue that a society that protects private, including intellectual,  property is more effective and prosperous than societies that do not.

The earliest recorded historical case-law on copyright comes from ancient Ireland. The Cathach is the oldest extant Irish manuscript and the earliest example of Irish writing. It is traditionally ascribed to Saint Columba as the copy of a Psalter lent to Columba by St. Finnian. A dispute arose about the ownership of the copy and King Diarmait Mac Cerbhaill gave the judgement “To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy”.

The Berne Convention was first established in 1886 and  relates to literary and artistic works, which includes films. The convention, to which Sri Lanka is a signatory,  requires its member states to provide protection for every production in the literary, scientific and artistic domain. A core principle is that each signatory would give citizens of other member states the same rights of copyright that it gave to its own citizens. The stated purpose of the convention is protection  of authors rather than the protection of publishers and others.

Sitting down to watch a DVD one is  assailed by a noisy prologue asserting: “You wouldn’t steal a handbag, you wouldn’t steal a TV etc”. There is an irony in this strident propaganda against pirate DVDs because the disc on which it was included was purchased in Colombo’s Majestic City for 230 rupees. These pirate emporia are openly advertised in reputable publications like LMD. In some establishments the very latest movies are available for as little as 60 rupees. On one occasion, I stood next to a policeman while making my illicit purchases.

The protection of a creator’s creation  might at first seem to be an unalloyed good. However, Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, believes the term “operates as a catch-all to lump together disparate laws [which] originated separately, evolved differently, cover different activities, have different rules, and raise different public policy issues”.

In 1980, Ananda Chakrabarty won a US Supreme Court case allowing him to patent a bacterium to digest oil that he had genetically engineered. Five years later, the US Patent and Trademark Office allowed genetically modified (GM) plants, seeds and plant tissue to be patented. By 1987 animal patenting was permitted. Today human gene sequences, cell lines and stem cells are patented. Since the mid-1990s, Monsanto has sued 145 individual US farmers for patent infringement in connection with its genetically engineered seed. One farmer received an eight-month prison sentence for violating a court order to destroy seeds. In India, thousands of farmers have committed suicide because of Monsanto’s policies.

Eben Moglen ,  professor of  law  and legal history at Columbia University writes in his dotCommunist Manifesto: “Society confronts the simple fact that when everyone can possess every intellectual work of beauty and utility–reaping all the human value of every increase of knowledge–at the same cost that any one person can possess them, it is no longer moral to exclude. … the bourgeois system of ownership demands that knowledge and culture be rationed by the ability to pay.”

“Anything that is worth copying is worth sharing.” His other quotes: “The more we give away, the richer we become.”

Eben Moglen  says , “‘When everybody owns the press, then freedom of the press belongs to everybody’”. This is the world of citizen journalism. It is great for we journeymen writers  to have access to Wikipedia , Google, Word Press and Questia so that we can easily research the drivel we inflict on the world. A lot of this is free to us , so we are grateful.

It came as a shock to me when I saw my  own immortal words in print without payment. It was actually a pleasant surprise to see my work in the New York Times. Quite a few of the articles I wrote for the Le Monde diplomatique blog appeared in publications and websites all over the world. The New York Times was perhaps the most prestigious, but it was also good to see my name in the International Herald Tribune and the Scotsman. It seems that, without my knowledge Agence Globale was syndicating my unpaid work on behalf of Le Monde diplomatique. I have never been able to establish whether the New York times etc  paid Le Monde diplomatique for my work.

It was  worse   when my articles were published without even a mention of my name, let alone payment being made. This happened with an article in the Sri Lankan Sunday Times about the Environmental Foundation Ltd (EFL). I made a complaint to the Press complaints Authority but it seems the fault lay with EFL who allowed the paper to accept my article as a press release.

It came as a worse shock when I saw some more of my words in print with someone else’s name at the top. This happened when the Sunday Leader, which had never responded when I submitted articles, published word for word an article by me on animal welfare with the name of one of their staffers on it.

People willingly write for free for Huffington Post. The divine Arianna became a very rich woman when she announced  “a merger of visions” with AOL which netted $315 million. “And, of course, thank you to our HuffPost community, whose engagement, enthusiasm, loyalty, and support have been the foundation of HuffPost’s growth. We can’t wait to begin the ride.”




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