No. 5 Siege Company in World War 1
from Low & Everett’s history of the Regiment

No. 5 Company was formed on 28th November 1914 and was the most widely travelled of all R.M.R.E. Companies. It was equipped with horse transport and, being earmarked for service in the Middle East, establishment was kept at the original figure of Siege Companies. The strength on Embarkation was 7 officers, 257 other ranks, 48 horses, 19 vehicles.

The Company sailed from Avonmouth for Port Said on 10th June, 1915 under Major Lamotte and Captain C. W. Robertson and spent an enjoyable and expensive week there. Captain Robertson recalls that the Officers wore leather belts with chamois pockets in which were twenty golden sovereigns. These disappeared quickly in Port Said.

During this short stay one section (Vachell) was ordered to build a Barrel Pier bridge across the Suez Canal. Could this be the last B.P. bridge ever built by the British Army in War? Vachell records that before he could start work he had to scour Port Said for barrels and that he never finished the job.

At the end of a week the Company went to Alexandria and embarked on the Khedival Mail Steamer 'Osmaniek' for the island of Lemnos, where they built two timber piers at Mudros under very trying conditions due to lack of accommodation, and the heat and the flies. However, even before these piers were finished, the Aquitania and Mauretania arrived with the 10th Irish Division on board, who helped the situation with a supply of beer and some whisky.

On 19th July, 1915 the Company embarked for Gallipoli in the 'Ibex' and reached 'V' Beach at Cape Helles, and after waiting a short while for the Turkish shellfire to stop, they disembarked on to the River Clyde which had been beached to form a pier. This was in the middle of the night and they were taken to a bivouac area and were surprised in the morning to find that the flat pieces of ground on which they had slept were in fact gravestones. It was found that the Company should have been on X Beach to which it moved and dug in and was joined by a field bakery which produced hot rolls for breakfast in return for some very modest services. It remained in these dugouts until the evacuation in January 1916.

The tasks given to the Company included the building of a 30,000 gallon water reservoir, whilst H. W. Clarke, who was later awarded the M.C., took over the R.E. Dump, and others maintained and extended the piers on W Beach. To do so they sank two ships intentionally, and joined them together with timber 'caissons' filled with stones. It is of interest that the water for the reservoir was all brought by sea from the Nile or the Sweet Water Canal, since the Turks had contaminated all the wells on the peninsula.

Captain C. W. Robertson writes of the conditions on the beaches and the evacuation.
"Working on the beaches had its advantages for we could board any of the boats which came alongside the piers and we could often buy luxury food and even crockery and odds and ends for our mess.
"One of our problems was eating our meals in the day time. The flies were rampant and it was difficult to eat a mouthful without swallowing a few flies as well. At first we hung sacks over the doorways and windows of the mess dug-out and ate our meals in semidarkness. Later we managed to scrounge a few sheets of glass and some wire gauze and made fly-proof windows.
"Another cause of considerable discomfort was the number of rats and mice that invaded our dug-outs and kept us awake at nights by walking over our faces. At first we slept in valises on the ground but later we had beds made--simple wooden frames with expanded metal in place of a spring mattress. It was necessary to fill our sleeping bags with N.C.I. powder to combat the fleas.
"As autumn approached the weather grew colder and we had only our drill uniforms. We had left our serge uniforms and winter under-clothing in Egypt. As a result most of us suffered from chills and there was a regular epidemic of jaundice. Major Lamotte, our Commanding Officer, was invalided to Egypt and his place was taken by Major Sebag-Montefiore, RE.
"The weather had deteriorated and was often wet and stormy but the Turks seemed to be short of shells and we had a fairly peaceful time. I built a stationary hospital in the open not far from our camp. This was composed of half a dozen wooden huts which came from Cairo in sections and were easily erected on small concrete foundations.
"The Gallipoli Expedition had become a deadlock, although we had made a landing at Suvla Bay some miles further north. The 10th Irish Division that had arrived on the Aquitania when we were at Mudros was one of the divisions to carry out this successful landing. They reached the interior of the peninsula but apparently through lack of liaison with the Navy neither water nor food was available and they had to return to the beaches so their advantage was lost. So we were in a state of stalemate. Lord Kitchener came out and had a look at the terrain from advanced observation posts and conferred with Sir Ian Hamilton. They decided that the peninsula must be evacuated.
"Suvla Bay and Anzac were evacuated first, and finally Cape Helles. This last was naturally the trickiest and most nerve-rending. The first evidence we had of the impending evacuation was an order that all loose horses, and there were quite a number at large between the front line and the beaches, had to be rounded up. After this half the company were sent to V Beach to cut gangways through the Messina and Sigalion, (the two ships which had been sunk to form piers). The idea of the gangways was that troops could be unobtrusively taken off on lighters which came alongside these ships. The other half company was employed making portable piers on wheels which could be wheeled out from X and W Beaches. We also started to load up any valuable material from the R.E. Park on lighters to be taken to Mudros. Other material was dumped into the sea. Occasionally enemy aircraft came over during the daytime and it seems likely that the Turks realised that we intended to evacuate the peninsula. They made several determined attacks on the front line but we kept it strongly manned until the final night. As many troops as possible were evacuated and only essential troops and services remained till the last two nights. It was necessary to keep the Turks guessing and to give them no indication of the time of final evacuation. All activities had to be carried out under cover of darkness. Gun positions were already camouflaged so that if a gun were removed this fact could not be observed from the air. Some guns were saved, others were destroyed; a minimum remained in action to the end. These were mostly French 75 mm guns and they kept on firing until the last moment and were then put out of action. We ourselves made a front line attack on the penultimate night to show that we were still holding the line in force. As soon as the attack was over most of the troops were marched to the beaches and embarked on lighters and so to transport ships which plied back and forth to Mudros. An ingenious arrangement was contrived in the front line. Hose pipes were laid along the trenches with holes at intervals which dropped water into tins. These tins were wired to the triggers of rifles fixed in the firing line. As the tin became full of water the rifle would fire. This made the Turks think that the front line was still manned. On the final night every single man was evacuated without casualty. The only casualty of the entire evacuation was a man wounded on board a transport ship and this from a splinter of shell from our own ammunition dump to which a time fuse had been laid. I myself got off the peninsula on the penultimate night. Clarke and I had been working for about a week getting valuable material from the R.E. Park loaded into lighters, and material which we could not save was dumped into the sea. We received orders suddenly at 6.00 p.m. to return to camp and to take half the company to V Beach for embarkation and once again we found ourselves on the River Clyde."

Another officer describes his share of the evacuation.
"During a storm on November 1st, all the piers at the W. Beach had been washed away. With no idea of evacuation, a breakwater and new pier were started, and when it was decided that the troops were to go the work went on night and day under constant shell-fire--fortunately with little loss. But when the time came to go, the breakwater was not finished. There was a gap of about 200 feet. So the Navy produced an old Greek ship and proposed to sink her and close the gap. But when she was sunk, it did not do as was intended. On the contrary, it diverted the waves on the lines it was wanted to bridge. So it was decided to build a floating bridge, and the writer of this letter was given the job. It was in six sections. On the first night of the evacuation the plan worked with great success, but only a few troops crossed.
"The next (last) day was quieter than usual, and I strengthened and improved the raft which had been floated alongside the pier so as not to be seen by aeroplanes. There were three 'flights.' In spite of the motion we got 2,000 over the raft for the first flight, and everything was well ahead of time, but by about nine o'clock the sea was getting up in rather an alarming fashion, and there were signs of breakdown on the raft in more than one place.
"To help matters a great big unmanageable hospital barge bumped into us. I was there with about twenty sappers, and the embarkation officer decided that it was hopeless to think of using it for the second flight, but we were to do our best to stop it breaking up and away, as it might come in useful in an emergency in the last flight; also the wind might drop as quickly as it rose. I therefore spent a very strenuous time till about one o'clock holding it together, but we had a gun lighter adrift, and into it, and very nearly lost the whole show. At one o'clock everything was up to time, but they had lost a steam lighter, and we were to be crowded as much as possible, and taken direct to torpedo-boat destroyers. The engines of two lighters had broken down and two more were aground. It was a very dark night, but the Turks had shelled very little; only six fell on our beach after dark. The wind was rising all the time. The firing line had been empty since twelve o'clock, and we were all very anxious to get away, but we had to await the last infantry, and then we were all to go off together.
"The infantry arrived up to time, and we got into a lighter and the order was given for the fuses to be lit for the fires, destroying everything we had to leave behind, including a large quantity of explosives. After our lighter was packed we all had to turn out again and get in another, because it got jammed in by another gun lighter that had got adrift. This took at least half an hour. Then we were taken across to a torpedo destroyer, and the business of transferring was terrible, as even in the harbour the sea was now very rough; however, most of us were on board when the first fire went up--I think it was the Army Service Corps. Then others quickly followed, and the captain of the destroyer, who knew the time for the magazine to blow up, wanted to get out to sea, but he dare not take the lighter out with him, so the men remaining in the lighter were sent below (the lighters are specially constructed and have a splinter-proof roof), while we went astern, and when we had gone about a hundred yards the magazine blew up.
"I have never seen such a marvellous sight. The beach was in flames cliff-high from end to end, everything as light as day, and then this terrific explosion; it shook the sea and the ship, and we saw a huge red mushroom spurt up into the air with large lumps of black rock in the red flame. I suppose we were farther out than it seemed. I know I thought not one of us had a chance, and that the decks would be piled up with earth and rock falling on us, but we were only on the fringe of the shower. Six men were cut but none severely. It had taken so long unloading the lighter that by now it was 4.30, and only after the magazine blew up did the Turks start shelling. The firing lines had been empty all that time, and the Turks had not found out."

With the end of the campaign in the Gallipoli Peninsula, considerable Turkish forces (with a small German stiffening) were set free to advance through Palestine to the Egyptian Border with the objective of stopping traffic through the Suez Canal. The British and Dominion forces in Egypt had a similar gain. This, if successful, would have dealt a major blow at Gt. Britain and the Commonwealth. General Sir Archibald Murray was the Allied C.-in-C. He was charged with the task of keeping Egypt free of hostile forces, and of maintaining the Suez Canal open and free for normal use.

The plan of campaign was, broadly speaking, to hold back the enemy forces on about the line of the Egyptian border and to clear the Sinai Peninsula. This involved operating across, and in, an almost waterless desert which was most unsuitable for wheeled transport. There is practically no record of the activities of the Company at this time. Water supply was one of the major R.E. tasks. A pipe line was constructed from the Sweet Water Canal in Egypt towards El Arish along the coast, and eventually to Gaza. A pumping station was constructed at Kantara in connection with it. There was some bridging over the canal. "Forming cut" was a frequent operation to give passage to the shipping. A large quantity of wire mesh was laid on the sand of the desert to facilitate the passage of vehicles, and especially of artillery. It is recorded that for the latter teams were doubled. There was also work on fortifications. No. 5 took a hand in all this.

In the middle of 1916, the Coy, was reorganised as a Field Coy. The date of the actual change is not clear, but the War Office Authority, however, is dated 14th April, 1916. About this time a new Infantry Div, the 74th, was being formed from certain Yeomanry Regiments which were dismounted for the purpose. The Divisional. Engineers consisted of :

5th Field Coy. R.M.R.E. (to give it its new title).
5th Field Coy. R.Ay.R.E. (similarly reorganised).
439th Field Coy. R.E.

This Division became famous. It adopted a broken spur as its divisional sign. The first G.O.C. was Major-General E. S. Girdwood and the C.R.E. was Lt.-Col. R. P. T. Hawksley, later Brig.-Gen. C.M.G., D.S.O. Capt. G. Hope Gill records that work with this Div. was "varied and lively." During the operation across the desert, water recce parties marched with the advanced guard, and were often ahead of it. In July, 1917, Gen. Sir Archibald Murray was succeeded by Gen. Sir Edmund Allenby (later Field Marshal Lord Allenby). His immediate objectives were the capture of Gaza, Beersheba and Jerusalem. There had been two abortive attempts on Gaza, but the Third Battle was successful and Jerusalem was captured on 9th December, 1917. The attack started at dawn on the previous day, and in their operations, 74th Div. greatly distinguished itself.

Then followed a period of reorganisation and preparation for the next phase. However, the German attack in France on 21st March, 1918 took place before Allenby's preparations were complete, and all the troops he could possibly spare were transferred to France, during April and May, the 52nd and 74th Divs. plus other troops were withdrawn and sent there.

1st September, 1918, the 74th Div. joined III Corps on the Somme; III Corps was in Sir Henry Rawlinson's IV Army. It took part in the very heavy but successful fighting across the old Somme battlefield, with credit and distinction. By the end of September, the IV Army had reached the outer defences of the Hindenburg Line. On the 26th September, 1918, 74th Div. was transferred north to Sir Herbert Plumer's 2nd Army and took part in the final advance on this part of the British Front.

The Field Coy. tasks were largely pontoon bridges, and the provision of infantry foot bridges over the innumerable water courses which exist in this part of Belgium.

About this time, the Coy. was commanded by a Regular officer, Major Kigell, R.E.

The Armistice on 11th November, 1918, found the Coy. in the neighbourhood of Tournai. It was then put under orders for the "Army of Occupation," but this was shortly cancelled. Early in 1919 it was moved to Jeumont on the Franco--Belgian frontier, and reduced to cadre. Captain F. Vyvyan-Robinson, M.C. (who had been cross-posted from No. 1 in the summer of 1918) was left in charge of the cadre. In May, 1919, he was ordered home and the cadre shortly after arrived at Monmouth and was disbanded. Thus ended four and a half years of service, of which any unit could be proud, as Siege Coy. and Field Coy. in Gallipoli, Egypt, Palestine, France and Belgium.

The names of twelve fatal casualties are inscribed on the Regimental War Memorial. In view of the actions in which the Coy. was engaged, this number is remarkably low.

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From "The History of the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers [Militia]" by Low & Everett, 1969
Now out of print.

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