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French pioneer during the Napoleonic Wars.

A pioneer (/ˌp.əˈnɪər/) is a soldier employed to perform engineering and construction tasks. The term is in principle similar to sapper.

Pioneers were originally part of the artillery branch of European armies. Subsequently, they formed part of the engineering branch, in the logistic branch, part of the infantry; or comprised a branch in their own right.

Historically the primary role of pioneer units was to assist other arms in tasks such as the construction of field fortifications, military camps, bridges and roads.[1] Prior to and during the First World War pioneers were often engaged in the construction and repair of military railways.[2] During the 20th century British Commonwealth military forces have come to distinguish between small units of "assault pioneers" belonging to infantry regiments and separate pioneer units (as in the former Royal Pioneer Corps). The United States Marine Corps have sometimes organized their sappers into "Pioneer Battalions".[3]

Origin of the term

The word pioneer is originally from France. The word (French language: pionnier) was borrowed into English, from Old French pionnier, which meant a "foot soldier", from the root 'peon'[4] recorded in 1523.[5] It was used in a military sense as early as 1626–1627.[6] In the late 18th century Captain George Smith defined the term as:

PIONEERS, in war-time, are such as are commanded in from the country, to march with an army, for mending the ways, for working on entrenchments, fortifications, and for making mines and approaches: the soldiers are likewise employed in all these things. Most of the foreign regiments of artillery have half a company of pioneers, well instructed in that important branch of duty. Our regiments of infantry and cavalry have 3 or 4 pioneers each, provided with aprons, hatchets, saws, spades, and pick-axes.[7]

Pioneer regiments in the Indian Army

Extensive use was made of pioneers in the British Indian Army because of the demands of campaigning in difficult terrain with little or no infrastructure. In 1780 two companies of pioneers were raised in Madras, increasing to 16 in 1803 divided into two battalions. Bombay and Bengal pioneers were formed during the same period. In the late nineteenth century a number of existing Indian infantry regiments took the title and the construction role of pioneers.[8] The twelve Indian Pioneer regiments in existence in 1914 were trained and equipped for road, rail and engineering work, as well as for conventional infantry service. While this dual function did not qualify them to be regarded as elite units, the frequency with which they saw active service made postings to pioneer regiments popular with British officers.[9]

Prior to World War I each sepoy in a Pioneer regiment carried a pickaxe or a light spade in special leather equipment as well as rifle and bayonet. NCOs and buglers carried axes, saws and billhooks. Heavier equipment such as explosives was carried by mule. The unit was therefore well equipped for simple field engineering tasks, as well as being able to defend itself in hostile territory. During the War the increased specialisation required of Pioneers made them too valuable to use as regular assault infantry. Accordingly in 1929 the Pioneer regiments were taken out of the line infantry and grouped into the Corps of Madras Pioneers (four battalions), the Corps of Bombay Pioneers (four battalions), the Corps of Sikhs Pioneers (four battalions), and the Corps of Hazara Pioneers (one battalion).[10]

All four Pioneer Corps were disbanded in 1933 and their personnel mostly transferred into the Corps of Sappers and Miners, whose role they had come to parallel. An Indian Pioneer Corps was re-established in 1943

Pioneers in the British Army

Historically, British infantry regiments maintained small units of pioneers for heavy work and engineering, especially for clearing paths through forests and for leading assaults on fortifications. These units evolved into assault pioneers. They also inspired the creation of the Royal Pioneer Corps.

The Royal Pioneer Corps was a British Army combatant corps used for light engineering tasks. The Royal Pioneer Corps was raised on 17 October 1939 as the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps. It was renamed the Pioneer Corps on 22 November 1940. It was renamed the Royal Pioneer Corps on 28 November 1946. On 5 April 1993, the Royal Pioneer Corps united with other units to form the Royal Logistics Corps.

There are currently three specialist pioneer units in the Royal Logistics Corps:

All British infantry regiments still maintain assault pioneer units.

Israeli Army

The Israeli army has a unit called the Fighting Pioneer Youth, in Hebrew Noar Halutzi Lohem or just "Nahal". This unit is an infantry brigade. The title of Israeli military pioneers is a back-derivation from the civilian term: The Israeli army's pioneers were formed in 1948 from Jewish civilian pioneers, i.e. settlers, who were permitted to combine military service and farming.

Pioneer units

United Kingdom

  • British Garrison at Calais Pioneers
  • Pioneer Corps
  • 4th (Pioneer) Battalion Coldstream Guards with the Guards Division, 1917[12] alternatively known as Guards Pioneer Battalion
  • 6th East Yorkshire Regiment (Pioneer Battalion) with Division, 1917 (three company establishment)
  • 3rd "Salford Pals" Battalion (19th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers) (converted to a pioneer battalion)
  • 9th Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders Regiment (Pioneer Battalion) with 9th Division, 1917
  • 1/6th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (Pioneer Battalion) with 5th Division, 1917
  • 9th Battalion, South Staffordshire Regiment (Pioneer Battalion) with 23rd Division, 1917
  • 9th Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment (Pioneer Battalion) with 37th Division 1915-18
  • 19th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment (Pioneer Battalion) with 41st Division, 1917
  • 1/5th Royal Sussex Regiment (Pioneer Battalion) with 48th Division, 1917
  • 8th (Pioneer) Battalion, Royal Sussex Regiment divisional pioneer battalion
  • 12th (Pioneer) Battalion Sherwood Foresters
  • Pioneer Battalion, The Royal Scots
  • 19th Battalion (Pioneers), The Welsh Regiment (Glamorgan Pioneers)
  • 15th (Pioneer) Battalion, the Royal Fusiliers (City of London Regiment) recruited at Oxford, Thame, Dover, Elham and Lyminge, Bude, Woolacombe and Truro areas during the Second World War
  • 5th (Pioneer) Battalion, Cheshire Regiment was appointed "in consequence of earning a high reputation as diggers and as constructors of field works"
  • 25th (Pioneer) Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps[13]
  • Pioneer Battalion, 5th Royal Irish Lancers, 1902 - 1922 was created to construct a new railway in the I Corps area on the Western Front.
  • 1st Battalions Monmouthshire Regiment Territorial Force 11 November 1915: Pioneer Battalion of 46th Division, south west of Avesnes, France.[14]
  • 2nd Battalions Monmouthshire Regiment Territorial Force 1 May 1916: Joined 29th Division as Pioneer Battalion.[15][16]
  • 3rd Battalions Monmouthshire Regiment Territorial Force 28 September 1915: Became Pioneer Battalion, 28th Division.
  • 16th (Pioneer) Battalion, Royal Irish Rifles
  • 605th Pioneer Battalion, Pioneer Corps - used for light engineering tasks
  • 606th Pioneer Battalion, Pioneer Corps - used for light engineering tasks
  • 23 Pioneer Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps
  • 168 Pioneer Regiment, Territorial Army


During World War I, Australia raised six pioneer battalions within the First Australian Imperial Force (1 AIF) for service on the Western Front, one per division:[17]

  • 1st Pioneer Battalion (New South Wales), 1st Division, 1 AIF
  • 2nd Pioneer Battalion, 2nd Division, 1 AIF
  • 3rd Pioneer Battalion, 3rd Division, 1 AIF
  • 4th Pioneer Battalion, 4th Division, 1 AIF
  • 5th Pioneer Battalion, 5th Division, 1 AIF
  • 6th Pioneer Battalion, 6th Division, 1 AIF (disbanded without seeing combat)

In World War II, four pioneer battalions were raised as part of the Second Australian Imperial Force (2 AIF):[18]


  • 2nd Canadian Pioneer Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force with over a thousand men whose training gave them a combination of engineering and infantry skills.
  • 48th Battalion served in the field as the 3rd Canadian Pioneer Battalion (48th Canadians), with the 3rd Canadian Division
  • 67th "Western Scots" (Pioneer Battalion), Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1916
  • 107th Pioneer Battalion

New Zealand

South Africa

  • South African Army Pioneer Battalion

Other commonwealth countries

  • African Pioneer Corps
British Indian Army Pioneer Battalions enlisted, drilled and trained as any other native infantry battalion of the line, but received additional construction training.


First World War
Imperial German Army pioneers were regarded as a separate combat arm trained in construction and demolition or fortifications, but were often used as emergency infantry.[19] One battalion was assigned to each Corps.
  • The Guard Pioneer Battalion 1. (6 companies with 20 large and 18 small flame-throwers each)
  • The Guard Pioneer Battalion 2.
  • The Guard Pioneer Battalion 3.
  • The Guard Reserve Pioneer Battalion - created from reservists who had been civilian firemen, and were issued with experimental flame-throwers
  • 1st Bavarian Pioneer Battalion, First Bavarian Division (12 destruction squads)
  • 2nd Bavarian Pioneer Battalion

Prussian Army pioneer battalions

  • 1 Prussian Pioneer Battalion of the Guards - 3 Field companies, one Reserve company
  • 12 Prussian Pioneer Battalions of the Line (18 officers, 495 men and 6 other persons)
    • 2nd Pioneer Battalion at Stettin
    • 4th Pioneer Battalion at Magdeburg
  • Saxon Pioneer Battalion
World War Two
German Army pioneer battalions
  • Panzer-pionier-bataillon (armoured pioneer battalion performing engineering tasks during an assault from manoeuvre)
  • Sturmpionierbataillon (assault pioneer battalion performing engineering tasks during an infantry assault)
  • Gebirgs-pionier-bataillon 95, a pioneer unit trained for the mountain terrain
  • Pionier-bataillon 233 (divisional pioneer unit)
  • Heeres-pionier-bataillon 73 (Corps pioneer unit)
  • Pioneer Battalion, Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, Waffen-SS
  • Pioneer Battalions, Estonian Auxiliary Police


  • 1st Pioneer Battalion, Imperial Russian Army
  • 2nd Pioneer Battalion, Imperial Russian Army
  • 3rd Pioneer Battalion (later 5th Pioneer Battalion), Imperial Russian Army
  • 4th Pioneer Battalion, Imperial Russian Army

United States

  • First Pioneer Battalion of Engineers, Mounted, United States Army (1st Bn. mtd. Engra.) (3 companies)
  • First Pioneer Battalion of Engineers, United States Army (1st Bn. Engrs.) (3 companies)
  • 9th Pioneer Battalion, US Army
  • 18th Reserve Pioneer Battalion, US Army
  • Jefferson County Pioneer Battalion, Pennsylvania (CO Lieutenant-Colonel, Hance Robinson)
  • 1st Pioneer Battalion, United States Marine Corps
  • 2nd Pioneer Battalion, United States Marine Corps
  • 3rd Pioneer Battalion, United States Marine Corps
  • 4th Pioneer Battalion, United States Marine Corps
  • 5th Pioneer Battalion, United States Marine Corps[20]

See also

Citations and notes

  1. [1] Pioneers[dead link]
  2. Dooley, p.170.
  3. Lane, p.160.
  4. "Online Etymology Dictionary". 2013. Retrieved 16 September 2013. 
  5. Which is in turn derived from pedn-, from Late Latin, "one who has broad feet"
  6. English Ordnance 1626 to 1643[dead link]
  7. Smith, George (1779). An Universal Military Dictionary, or A copious explanation of the technical terms &c. used in the equipment, machinery movements and military operations of an army. Whitehall, London: J. Millan. 
  8. Carman, W.Y. (1969). Indian Army Uniforms under the British: Artillery, Engineers and Infantry. London: Morgan-Grampian. 
  9. Gaylor, John (1992). Sons of John Company - the Indian and Pakistan Armies 1903-1991. Spellmount. ISBN 0-946771-98-7. 
  10. Summer, Ian (2001). The Indian Army 1914-1947. Oxford: Osprey. pp. 46–47. ISBN 1-84176-196-6. 
  11. "Allied Rapid Reaction Corps | HQ ARRC bids farewell to Germany". 18 June 2012. Retrieved 16 September 2013. 
  12. Seven infantry battalions were converted to divisional pioneers in 1917 with a strength of about 600 personnel that could also be used as infantry
  13. At Field-Marshal Earl Kitchener's suggestion, a pioneer battalion formed part of each of the field infantry divisions, and by June 1916 all divisions possessed a pioneer battalion
  14. They established great reputations for their prowess as diggers and contained many highly skilled men among the miners in their ranks
  15. Digging assembly and communication trenches, in providing in advance for the Forwarding of ammunition and supplies, in mining and sapping before the attack
  16. The only Territorial battalion to take part in the march into Germany, and to help to establish 'Die Wacht am Rhein'.
  17. "Pioneers". AIF Project. ADFA. Retrieved 9 January 2014. 
  18. "Second World War, 1939-1945 units". Australian War Memorial. 2013. Retrieved 15 September 2013. 
  19. Showalter, p.272.
  20. The pioneer battalion supplied the foundation for the divisional shore parties


Works related to at Wikisource

  • Dooley, Thomas P., Irishmen Or English Soldiers?: The Times and World of a Southern Catholic Irish Man (1876–1916) Enlisting in the British Army During the First World War, Liverpool University Press, 1995
  • Lane, Kerry, Guadalcanal Marine, University Press of Mississippi, 2004
  • Showalter, Dennis E., Tannenberg: Clash of Empires, 1914, Brassey's, London, 2004

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