Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, August 11, 2018

What Is Meant by "Sapper"?

Sappers Working On a Trench

"He is a man [and now woman] of all work of the army and the public: astronomer, geologist, surveyor, draftsman, artist, architect, traveler, explorer, antiquary, mechanic, diver, soldier and sailor; ready to do anything or go anywhere; in short, he is a sapper. . . " Capt T.W.J. Connolly (1815-1885), Royal Engineer Historian

All students of the Great War know of the tremendous contribution made by combat engineers in the struggle from digging trenches and tunnels, to clearing mines, to building roads and field fortifications.  The British Army, especially, used "Sapper" to identify all the troops involved in such activities. Here is a little background on the term from the Canadian Army.

The term "sapper" has been associated with engineers for many generations. The origin of this term lies in the French word sape, meaning undermine and the Middle French word sap that was a spade or a hoe. The dictionary defines a "sap" as a trench that is prolonged by digging away the earth from within the trench itself.

Sappers Building a Plank Road

In medieval times, when armies laid siege to a fortification, one of the common methods of breaching the defenses was to dig a trench, or "sap," up to the base of the castle wall. A tunnel would then be dug under, or into, the wall. Prior to the introduction of explosives, a breach of the defensive wall would be accomplished by replacing blocks of stone with wooden supports. The supports would then be burned causing a section of wall to collapse. In the French Army, digging a trench under fire was known as "driving a sap" and the men who did this were known as sapeurs. Thus, the terms "sappers" became associated with engineers. After the discovery of gunpowder, an explosive "mine" was used to breach the wall. This task was, of course, also the responsibility of the engineers.

In 1813, the Royal Engineers officially adopted the title Royal Sappers and Miners, and, in 1856, the rank of the common soldier was changed from private to sapper. The CME has continued to use this designation and, just as privates in the artillery are referred to as "gunners," field engineers of the rank of private are referred to as "sappers." A sapper should always be addressed as Sapper Smith, not as Private Smith. The term may also be used to refer to a group of field engineers who are not necessarily of the rank of private: for example, "here come the sappers to breach the minefield." All ranks in field engineer units traditionally referred to themselves as sappers because other trades in the unit were first trained as field engineers. Today it is primarily combat engineers that are referred to as sappers.

Sources: Canadian Military Engineers, Royal Pioneers

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