Think Piece: Still following the Sapper

If you’ve spent time at a base with engineers or have watched 1 Field Squadron march on Anzac Day you will have seen the phrase ‘Follow the Sapper’. Follow the sapper is a saying, coined in the Crimean War (1854-56) which is as relevant now as it would have been back in 1914 on the beaches of Gallipoli. The term ‘Sapper’ originates from the French word ‘sapeur’ meaning to sap or dig, where soldiers would sap under fortifications or form protective trenches to allow equipment to be brought forward. Sappers have unique skill sets and abilities which are highly sought after, and they are often at the front removing obstacles to allow the land battle to continue, hence the saying follow the sapper.

I have chosen to share some insight into the Sappers at Gallipoli in WWI not only because I am an engineer myself, but because they are often forgotten as they are imbedded into other units. Much of the early wartime history of the engineers in WWI was poorly documented in official histories, however there are diaries and letters of Sappers who fought at Gallipoli which tell their story. A story, which in many ways parallels that of the modern day sapper. It is important to note that Gallipoli was not the first action that the engineers saw, but the second after a battle on the Suez Canal. Even at the landing of Gallipoli, the engineers were at the front, with 1 FD Coy (part of the then called Australian Engineers) being the lead element of the ANZAC landing. The first casualty of the battle was Sapper Fred Reynolds, killed by a sniper before he was even able to leave the boat. The engineers played an integral role in the development of the position at Gallipoli and the sustainability of the force.

Within the first four hours of landing, they had built a road to take weapons and equipment to the covering force. They built secondary roads, allowing for the first field gun to be moved into position at MacLangan’s Ridge. They were responsible for building wells for water, digging tunnels and trenches and even making grenades and bombs for use against the Turks. The grenades were made from a can packed with high explosives, with a detonator and fuse all attached to a stick. The bomb they produced was called a Lotbiniére bomb, named after the Chief Engineer of the Corps and was similar to the grenade except it was a slab of guncotton with primer and was attached to a paddle. Although crude, these bombs were the only initial answer against the German fragmentation grenade used by the Turks. One trait which is common among engineers is resourcefulness, and this was shown by Lance Corporal Wales who produced vital improvised trench periscopes out of looking glasses. Probably one of the most famous tasks completed by the engineers was Watson’s Pier at ANZAC Cove. To celebrate the completion of the pier, the first corps dinner was held. This is known as the Waterloo Dinner and is still celebrated by engineer units around the country. This is only a very small insight into some of the tasks which engineers achieved, but I would recommend reading ‘The Royal Australian Engineers 1902 to 1919’ for more in-depth detail on their role at Gallipoli and WWI in general.

Although the equipment the Sappers carry in modern warfare is more high tech, and the job increasingly dangerous, the engineers are much the same as in 1914, resourceful, task orientated and always ready for a beer. So when in doubt, always follow the sapper!

Melanie Fuller enlisted in the Army Reserve in September 2012 graduating from her First Appointment Course as an Army Reserve General Service Officer in 2015.  She was awarded the Sword of Honour for best overall performance and Royal New South Wales Regiment Prize for best tactics and field skills at the completion of her final training block at the Royal Military College, Duntroon.  She is currently in her second year of  her PhD in Biomedical Nanotechnology at Flinders University, researching nanomesh which incorporates nanoparticles and antibiotics. At Flinders she is also teaching first year practical chemistry and is a science and engineering ambassador. Melanie is currently posted to 3 Field Squadron, 10th/27th Royal South Australian Regiment as a combat engineer officer.

Caption: (Left) Sapper Frederick Austin Reynolds (Right) A memorial cross to Non Commissioned Officers and men of the 1st Field Company Australian Engineers, killed or wounded in action on the Gallipoli Peninsula, erected in the cemetery in which some of the men were buried by their comrades. (AWM C03164)