The heroes, and sometimes the villains, in regency romances are often involved in war, whether in the Royal Navy, the army, or as spies. Even if their wartime activities do not appear directly in the story, their military experiences shape their lives and their characters. In the army, the most glamourous were the cavalry or the Guards regiments, and this was reflected in the higher costs of purchasing commissions in those regiments than in regiments of foot.
There were some army units in which commissions could not be bought—the engineers and the artillery. In both cases, cadets underwent the same basic training, including engineering (as you might expect!), chemistry and physics, and languages. On completion of basic training they could choose which branch to enter.
The duties of an engineer officer were varied—I’ve described some of their responsibilities below using examples of construction, destruction, and transport, although each contains elements of the others. My examples are from the Peninsular War, mainly because there has been so much written about it, both as memoires and collected letters, and by later historians. The principles and general duties would have been similar in other parts of the world.
Due to the difficulties of campaigning in the winter, the Peninsular War involved a great many advances and retreats. After the disastrous retreat to Corunna in the winter of 1808-9, the British went back to Portugal to help to defend it against the French, under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley. During that summer’s campaign the army got as far as Talavera, less than 80 miles from Madrid. They could not hold these positions, and Wellesley, now Viscount Wellington, retreated westwards. In October of 1809, he ordered the construction of a series of fortifications that became known as the Lines of Torres Vedras. Wellington provided guidance as to the areas to be surveyed and defended, but it was left to teams of engineers to carry out the surveying and determine the size and nature of the various fortifications, and then to supervise their construction.
The fortifications achieved their purpose – the French armies could not penetrate them, keeping Lisbon and the British troops safe until they could venture forth again the following spring.
The conflicts in the Peninsular War included battles between opposing armies, such as at Talavera or Salamanca, and sieges of key fortress towns. The most notorious of the latter is the 3rd Siege of Badajoz, which many readers will have heard of because of the appalling atrocities carried out by the British troops after the fortress had been taken.
As with all sieges, the basic plan was simple: fire artillery at the walls until part had crumbled enough for men to climb the pile of rubble, then send in the infantry. What I hadn’t realised before I read up about it a little more, was that before the artillery could even start firing, trenches had to be dug to protect the guns and the gunners.
Engineer officers were in charge of siting and constructing the trenches, and helping to decide where the guns were to be placed, but the actual digging was carried out—reluctantly—by normal troops.
When the breaches in the walls were ‘practicable’, the engineers still had a role to play; one that could be as dangerous as being an infantry officer in the battalions attempting to scale the walls. The engineers knew their way through the trenches and where the weakest points in the walls were, and often led the attacking units. The engineering department also looked after scaling ladders used in secondary attacks and, again, would lead the infantry to the best places to attempt the walls.
This photo gives an idea of the scale. This is the actual location of one of the breaches in the walls.
The role of engineer officers in sieges was more hazardous than in their other areas of responsibility. I have a few books that are memoires, diaries or letters of officers in the Peninsular War. In this fairly random collection (bought in various second-hand bookshops), the two that concern engineers are both from young officers who died doing their duty: Edmund Mulcaster, killed during the artillery bombardment at Badajoz, and Lancelot Machell, killed while supervising men removing obstructions in the way of the attacking parties at the Siege of San Sebastian.
Following a successful siege, the conquered town needed to be put back into a fit state to repel any enemy attempts to re-take it, and one or more engineers would be left with the new garrison to supervise repairs to the walls.
The other activities that engineers were asked to undertake are possibly more interesting from the point of view of storytelling. Today, we are used to having detailed and accurate maps of anywhere we want to go. Not so then, and with thousands of men to move, as well as food, guns and ammunition, knowing which road to take, and whether it would be passable for wagons and the ox-teams pulling guns, was vital. This was particularly difficult in the mountainous regions of Spain, and later when Wellington’s army finally crossed the Pyrenees into France.
Many engineers spent time riding ahead of the army scouting out suitable routes and mapping them, assessing bridges or the defences of nearby towns, or finding places where a temporary bridge could be put across a river. They could be sent with small working parties to prepare river crossings or repair bridges.
During a retreat, the engineers would also be responsible for mining bridges, ready to blow them up before the following enemy army could cross. As Wellington’s armies spent several years advancing and retreating across Spain, it is quite likely that they were sometimes asked to rebuild bridges that their fellow engineers had demolished.
All these activities give plenty of scope for contact with the enemy, spying, and other skulduggery and danger.
The hero of my novel, The Mrs MacKinnons, was an engineer officer with the East India Company army and, although not described in detail in the book, his experiences there form the background to his part of the story.
Much of the information for this article was taken from Wellington’s Engineers—Military Engineering in the Peninsular War 1808-1814, by Mark S. Thompson.
The diaries referred to are:
The Peninsular War Letters of Lancelot Machell, R.E. by Mark S. Thompson
The Peninsular War Diary of Edmund Mulcaster, R.E. by Mark S. Thompson