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Royal Regiment of Artillery/Corps of Royal Engineers

Volume 612: debated on Monday 4 July 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Charlie Elphicke.)

This year marks the tercentenary of the formation of my regiment, the Royal Regiment of Artillery, as well as the 90th birthday of our Captain General, Her Majesty the Queen. It also marks the tercentenary of the formation of the Corps of Royal Engineers, with which we Gunners have had a long sibling rivalry. We share much with the Royal Engineers: our mottos, our patron saint, even the red and blue of our rugby kits and regimental ties. I am pleased to say that a Gunner and a Sapper will share tonight’s Adjournment debate. As my hon. Friend the Minister is no doubt more knowledgeable than I am about the history of his corps, I hope that you will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, if I focus on my own regiment, and give him an opportunity to fill in any details about the history of the Royal Engineers that I might miss.

The use of artillery pre-dates Roman times, when slings, catapults, ballistas and trebuchets were used to project missiles in times of war. Records indicate that Edward III may have used cannon against the Scots in 1327, but there is no doubt that he used five primitive guns against the French at the Battle of Crécy in 1346. Taking pot shots at the Scots and the French: what a way to start a career! In those days, the guns were fired from fortified gun pits dug by the Sappers and miners who were the forefathers of modern military engineers. I bet those early Gunners and Sappers slated each other back then just as vigorously as their modern counterparts do today.

It was on 26 May 1716 that the first two permanent companies of Royal Artillery were formed by royal warrant in the reign of George I. Those two companies numbered 100 men each, and were headquartered in Tower Place, which later became the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich. The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery is still quartered there, maintaining a 300-year unbroken connection with that part of south-east London. The Royal Artillery’s numbers rose to four companies in 1722, when it merged with two independent artillery companies based in Menorca and Gibraltar, once again establishing a long relationship with those islands. The new unit, formed in 1722, was renamed the Royal Regiment of Artillery.

A military academy was established in Woolwich in 1720 to provide training for Artillery and Engineer officers. Initially it was a gathering of “gentlemen cadets”, learning

“gunnery, fortification, mathematics and a little French”.

It produced

“good officers of Artillery and perfect Engineers”.

Perfect Engineers? Well, they may think that they are perfect, but I am yet to be convinced. [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Minister indicates that he is indeed a perfect example of a perfect Engineer.

The Royal Horse Artillery was formed in 1793, and officers of other branches of Artillery have had to keep an eye out for their sisters and girlfriends ever since.

Artillery technology advanced throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, improving accuracy, range, mobility, reliability and lethality. That tradition of innovation is still alive and well today with the Gunners being at the cutting edge of surveillance, drone technology, communication technology and precision munitions. It was during the Napoleonic wars that British gunnery came into its own, and many gunner officers of that era are still famous in the regiment today and include the well-known names of Ramsay, Bull, Lawson, Mercer, and of course Napoleon himself. Napoleon had the great advantage in life of being a gunner but the great disadvantage of ultimately losing the Napoleonic wars—and of being French.

It was an incident in the oft-forgotten conflict between Great Britain and America in 1814, a few years before our centenary, that led to millions of Americans singing about my regiment every day. It is interesting that on 4 July—American independence day—we are reminded of that event. In the first verse of their national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner” are the following lines, and if you will forgive me, I think it is only fair that I give them my best rendition:

“And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”.

Now, I have been told that in order to sing in the Chamber one requires a music and entertainment licence, but as that was neither musical nor entertaining I think I got away with it. The rockets that provided the “red glare” immortalised in the American national anthem were the Congreve rockets fired by the Rocket Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery, and I think that is pretty cool.

Until 1855, the Royal Artillery was commanded through the Board of Ordnance rather than via the War Office, which meant that the Gunners had a completely separate chain of command from the gun line itself right up the monarch of the time, who was the Captain General. This separate chain of command led to the Gunners getting a reputation for being rather independent minded, which led to the following quote, attributed to Wellington:

“I despair of my army. I truly do. The infantry do not understand my orders, the cavalry do not obey my orders, and the artillery make up their own orders.”

Unfortunately, the bicentenary of the Gunners and the Sappers was not celebrated properly because it fell in the middle of the first world war. That conflict saw a huge increase in Royal Artillery numbers, and it is estimated that 800,000 men served as Gunners and 48,499 of those Gunners gave their lives in the conflict. The Great War was often known as the Gunners’ war.

I declare an interest as I served in the Royal Artillery for some eleven and a half years. It is good that we are having this debate tonight. In this decade of centenaries when we particularly remember the first world war—we remembered the Somme just last week—we remember the courage and bravery of the men who gave their lives. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this debate enables the House to recognise the array of roles carried out by the armed forces, by the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers and by many others?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and he is right in what he says. It would have been remiss had I not also mentioned that the Irish Artillery had a significant part to play. Even after the Act of Union, when the Irish Artillery and the Royal Artillery became one unit, Irish soldiers serving in the artillery and in cap badges right across the Army had a huge role to play in our success.

Following on from the hon. Gentleman’s reference to the Battle of the Somme, it is worth remembering that in the famous week-long barrage that preceded that battle the Gunners fired in excess of 1.7 million shells.

The second world war saw another great expansion in the Royal Artillery, with more than 1.2 million people serving as Gunners. More people served in the Royal Artillery than in the entire Royal Navy. Since its formation in May 1716, more than 2.5 million men and women have served as Gunners. Some Gunners are famous for being great military leaders, such as Field Marshal Viscount Alanbrooke, who was Chief of the Imperial General Staff and Winston Churchill’s wartime military leader, but many more are famous for other reasons. The great post-war comedians Frankie Howerd, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe were all Gunners. Perhaps it is because Gunner officers have to be good at maths that five Chancellors of the Exchequer have been Gunner officers: Anthony Barber; Hugh Dalton; Derick Heathcoat-Amory; Roy Jenkins; and Selwyn Lloyd. My regiment also produced that great proto-Thatcherite Keith Joseph, and, of course, Prime Minister Edward Heath. The Gunners currently give this House five hon. Members: my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) and for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and myself. The Gunners have also produced eight Olympic gold medallists, including Captain Heather Stanning, who won rowing gold in the 2012 games.

To celebrate our tercentenary, the Gunners sent our Captain General’s baton from Woolwich to Larkhill, the long way round. This year-long relay, undertaken by every Gunner unit, went via battlefields across the globe where Gunners have fought and died. The baton, commissioned especially for this anniversary, is in the shape of a Napoleonic gun barrel but made of titanium, thus representing both tradition and modernity. The trip culminated with a parade, a march-past and the firing of a feu de joie before our Captain General in Larkhill. I was delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster), attended the parade, completing the historic circle and representing centuries of Gunners and Sappers working side by side.

In conclusion, let me make the point that the Gunners do not have flags or guidons like the infantry or cavalry. The guns of the Royal Artillery are the regiment’s colours. They are the tools of our trade, the badge we wear and our rallying point in battle. Our guns are hugely important to us but, ultimately, just like the Royal Engineers, our most valuable asset is our people. Gunners throughout history and of all ranks have a bond. We may be the size of a corps, but we maintain the intimacy and camaraderie of a regiment. I am honoured to have served with such wonderful people in such a glorious regiment, and I wish it well for the next 300 years.

I start, of course, by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) on securing this debate, which has allowed this House to show its gratitude for the significant contribution that the Royal Regiment of Artillery and the Corps of Royal Engineers have made to the defence of this country over the past 300 years. I welcome the opportunity to express the Government’s appreciation for their gallant service. It is appropriate for me to respond to my hon. Friend, as we both continue to serve in the reserves, he being a Gunner and I a Sapper. I should say that I am only a Sapper because my father was a Gunner—we thought that perhaps I should upgrade.

We have heard of the exploits of the Gunners and Sappers, and I wish to recap on our history. On 26 May 2016, the Royal Regiment of Artillery and the Corps of Royal Engineers celebrated our 300th birthdays. Whereas they had previously been on the same establishment, a royal warrant of 26 May 1716 separated the artillery and the engineers. From that point, the Royal Artillery and Corps of Engineers came into being, but in recognition of our common heritage we share the motto, Ubique, which means “everywhere”. It may mean slightly different things for each regiment, but we share the motto. Let me address each in turn.

Many things define the Royal Artillery’s achievements. In original thought, it was the first regiment to educate its officers and to undertake formal military exercises. In science, a Royal Artillery officer named Shrapnel invented a shell which still bears his name, and General Congreve’s pioneering rocket designs from the 18th century were still recognisable in equipment recently used in Afghanistan. In scale, Woolwich, the home of the regiment from 1716 to 2008, was the first military-industrial complex in the world, and in the second world war, more than a million men and women wore the Royal Artillery badge and saw action on land, sea and air in every theatre.

In non-military pursuits, Gunners have been prominent in music, the film world, mountaineering, ocean sailing, past and current Olympiads and political leadership, as we have heard, though that is probably equally shared by the Sappers. In the outright distinction of the Gunners, the nation’s debt to Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke is perhaps the greatest example. Along the way there has been much gallantry, heroism, sacrifice and service to the nation and mankind. Sixty-two Gunners have won the Victoria Cross, and since 1945 many Gunners have been decorated for gallantry, including Sergeant Bryan, Gunner Gadsby and Lance Bombardier Prout, who were awarded Conspicuous Gallantry Crosses in recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During the past year, as we have heard, the Gunners carried out a number of commemorative events, centred around a global relay. A unique baton was made, designed to replicate the barrel of a gun dating from 1716. The baton contained a message of loyal greetings to the Queen, their Captain General, written on a vellum scroll—as it happens, manufactured in my own constituency, in Newport Pagnell—and placed inside the barrel of the replicated gun. In keeping with the regiment’s motto, the baton has, as we have heard, travelled around the world during the past 12 months, starting from Woolwich. It has visited 26 countries, including members of the Commonwealth and our principal allies.

At a review of the regiment by Her Majesty on 26 May at Larkhill in Wiltshire, the home of the Royal Artillery, the baton was carried across Salisbury Plain by two mounted soldiers of the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, before being presented to the Captain General. The royal review was the culmination of the Royal Artillery tercentenary celebrations and was watched by some 5,000 guests, drawn from the serving regiment and including veterans and families. It began with a 21-gun salute fired by the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery. On parade were 40 Royal Artillery weapon systems and armoured vehicles, together with 240 soldiers and the massed bands of the Royal Artillery. After the parade, many Gunners and their families were introduced to Her Majesty. Later the same day, she unveiled the foundation stone of the tercentenary chapel and cloister at the royal garrison church in Larkhill.

The many members of the Royal Artillery celebrating the tercentenary did so in the knowledge that, although they are shaped by their past, they are defined by what they do today and are ready for what is to come in 2016 and beyond. From the highly sophisticated and integrated means of finding adversaries and protecting our own forces to striking hard, with precision and at range, the regiment’s capability comprises a wide variety of weapon systems. The unique ability of the Royal Artillery to integrate and co-ordinate battle-winning effects and activity across all arms and covering the full spectrum of conflict will continue to be needed in the future as military operations grow in complexity.

I am not a military person myself, but I have the honour of being an associate member of the Institution of Royal Engineers. I was awarded that honour for the work that I did with the 72 Regiment, which was headquartered in my constituency. I also am a member of the institute of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, with whom I visited the Somme last weekend.

I am delighted to hear that, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his continuing support of the Corps of Royal Engineers and our armed forces.

That, Madam Deputy Speaker, was a brief summary of the Royal Regiment of Artillery. If you think that was good, it is about to get even better.

The Royal Engineers have had no less of an impact on the Army during their 300 years. From the middle of the 19th century, the Royal Engineers were involved in virtually every scientific development and technical function of the Army, and they were typically in the lead. From the time of the Crimean war, their name has forever been associated with the cry “Follow the Sapper”, reflecting their guiding roles on the battlefield and in technical innovation.

From mapping to construction, transport to communications and diving to flying, the Royal Engineers were at the forefront of nurturing new ideas and capabilities. That included a variety of famous civil endeavours. Lieutenant-Colonel John By played a major role in the early development of Canada, including in the building of the Rideau canal—now a world heritage site—in the 1820s. The Royal Albert hall was designed by two Royal Engineers, Major-General Henry Scott and Captain Francis Fowke. Major-General Edmund Du Cane and Colonel Sir Joshua Jebb directed many of the prison reforms during the Victorian era. Others continued the work of their forebears in the Ordnance Survey by conducting mapping operations across the British empire, and many made names for themselves as colonial governors in the West Indies and Australia.

The roles of the Royal Engineers were many and varied, and they had a critical involvement in scientific change. Over time, some of those roles were relinquished. In 1912, the Air Battalion became the Military Wing of the Royal Flying Corps, and subsequently the Royal Air Force. In 1914, responsibility for mechanical transport was transferred to the newly formed Royal Army Service Corps. In 1920, the Royal Corps of Signals was formed out of the Royal Engineers Signals Service.

It was said that Queen Victoria wept when she heard that Major-General Charles Gordon, a national hero, was killed at Khartoum. One of the Sappers’ other famous forebears was Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, who went on to become the Secretary of State for War in August 1914. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the field marshal’s untimely death at sea.

A total of 32 Victoria Crosses and 14 George Crosses have been awarded to members of the corps for conspicuous bravery not only on the battlefield but in areas away from the direct line of enemy fire. Many of the latter were awarded for explosive ordnance disposal, or bomb disposal, and are in recognition—sadly, too often posthumously—of actions that saved not only countless lives but property, both small and great, including St Paul’s cathedral, which was rescued from an unexploded bomb by a team of ten Sappers commanded by Lieutenant Robert Davies in September 1940. As a Royal Engineer bomb disposal officer, I am fiercely proud to wear my bomb disposal regimental tie this evening, in memory of those who sacrificed their lives.

Celebrations of the tercentenary are being conducted right across the regular and reserve units of the Royal Engineers and the 106 branches of the Royal Engineers Association. These events have included a series of open days across all regiments of the corps and a musical extravaganza in Rochester castle in July. The events will culminate with the corps memorial weekend in September, followed by a visit from Her Majesty, the Colonel-in-Chief, in October.

The Corps of Royal Engineers has an equally proud history, which has seen Sappers take a prominent role in every major campaign and action fought by the British Army over the last 300 years, whether they were building barracks or bridges, constructing fortifications or field works, or delivering power or water—in other words, enabling the Army to live, move and fight.

That set of essential tasks continues to this day. It sees the corps at the forefront of operational deployments, enabling and supporting all elements of the UK armed forces. In addition to counter-improvised explosive device training in Iraq, and training members of the Afghan national army in Kabul, these deployments include a significant construction project in the Falkland Islands. There is also the provision of assistance to Nepal after the earthquake last year, where the corps is assisting with reconstruction in remote areas in support of the Gurkha Welfare Trust.

In both cases, three centuries have forged strong regiments and determined their character. “Once a Sapper, always a Sapper” and “Once a Gunner, always a Gunner” are the proud and justified boasts of the Royal Engineers and the Royal Artillery. Today, our units are well supported by strong central regimental headquarters, comprising a positive mix of military, civil service and charity staff.

Our common enterprising, can-do character and willingness of spirit will continue to define both corps everywhere they may serve. That professional heritage encompasses a preparedness to embrace technology, a determination to apply it intelligently on the battlefield and an essential competence in all they do.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter. I am delighted to have had the opportunity to express the Government’s appreciation for the service of the Royal Regiment of Artillery and the Corps of Royal Engineers in the year of our tercentenary. As you gather, Madam Deputy Speaker, there has been both a fierce rivalry and a common bond between the two regiments for over 300 years. None the less, this evening and in the spirit of the occasion, I am delighted that, as a Sapper, I have the final word.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.