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

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

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?