Home Page

25390 Sapper
Royal Engineers

Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis
2004. All Rights Reserved.


A search was made for the military service of papers of Sapper Traill in War Office files WO97 at the National Archives, formerly the Public Record Office (PRO) in Kew, Richmond, Surrey. The files searched included WO97/4042, WO97/6099, WO363 T/1283, WO364/4265, WO363/5722 and Supplementary Files WO97, PIN 71, PIN 82 and PIN 26. No papers could be located for this man. However, some information, including a photograph, was located in a book entitled A Military History of Perthshire. The medal roll pages for Traill's award of the Queen's South Africa[1] and King's South Africa[2] medals were found at the PRO.


James Alexander Traill was born in the town of Gask in the county of Perthshire, Scotland in 1871. On modern day maps the town is shown as Findo Gask, located approximately seven miles west southwest of Perth.[3] It is a town of much historical significance. The actual or historical name of the town was Findogask after St. Findoc, the patron saint of the parish church. Standing in the middle of nearby Gask Woods is an area that once held the refuge of the Scottish patriot William Wallace (1272 - 1305) while he was escaping from Perth after a failed English plot to capture him.[4]

James's birth surname was actually Alexander. It appears that he may have become an orphan early in life and that he was adopted by John and Mary Trail of Methven, Perthshire. The 1881 British Census shows the following information for the family of John Trail:

Dwelling: Almondbank[5]
Census Place: Methven, Perth, Scotland[6]
Source: FHL Film 0203509 GRO Ref. Volume 380 Enumeration District 3 Page 5
Name and Occupation Relation Mar Age Sex Birthplace
John Trail, Joiner Head




Kinfauns, Perth, Scotland
Mary Trail, Joiner's Wife Wife




Dowlie, Perth, Scotland
Isabella Alexander (Trail), Assisting Mother Step




Gask, Perth, Scotland
James Alexander (Trail), Scholar Step




Gask, Perth, Scotland
John Trail Son




Gask, Perth, Scotland
Frances Trail Daughter




Methven, Perth, Scotland
Mary Trail Daughter




Methven, Perth, Scotland
Alexander Paterson, Groom Lodger




Stonehaven, Kincardine, Scotland

The table above indicates that James's adopted family name was actually Trail, although this could be an error in the census data since the surname Traill was not uncommon in Scotland. James used the name Traill during the period of his military service. It should also be noted that James had a sister by the name of Isabella who also was adopted by the Trail family.


Since Traill's military service papers were not available at the National Archives, a detailed description of him could not be found. However, the very fuzzy photograph of him found in A Military History of Perthshire shows him to be a man of average height and slender build. He had dark hair, bushy eyebrows and a well-groomed mustache.


James Traill was found to be medically fit[7] for service in the Army and was enlisted in the Corps of Royal Engineers in 1890 for a period of seven years active service and five years in the reserve.[8],[9] Following his enlistment he was posted to Brompton Barracks where he underwent his basic recruit training as an engineer soldier.[10] The 1891 Census of England confirms that Sapper James Alexander Trail, 21 years of age, unmarried, was living at Brompton Barracks, in the Civil Parish of Gillingham and the Ecclesiastical Parish of Holy Trinity in Kent at the time of the census.[11]


Home Service (1891-1899)

His postings following the completion of his recruit training (probably in 1891) until 1899 are not known. It appears, however, that in 1899 he was posted to Shorncliffe Camp in Kent where he joined the 38th Field Company, Royal Engineers. Since Traill's initial engagement of seven years with the Colours would have been completed in 1897, it appears that he extended his service to complete 12 years.[12]

The 38th Field Company was commanded by Major Alexander William Roper, R.E.[13] at the time that Traill joined the unit. In November of 1899 the company was attached to the newly formed 6th Infantry Division for service in the South African War. The 6th Infantry Division was commanded by Lieutenant-General Kelly-Kenny and the division's Commander Royal Engineers (CRE) was Lieutenant Colonel Philip Thomas Buston.[14],[15]

South Africa (1899-1902)

The 38th Field Company departed Shorncliffe bound for South Africa aboard the SS Tintagel Castle.[16] By the 10th of February the company was located, along with other 6th Infantry Division troops, along the western railway line from Graspan Station to the Modder River. The company reached the Modder River in the vicinity of Klip Drift on the 14th of February and on the 15th it took part in the operations, under the overall command of Lord Roberts, to relieve the British forces besieged in the town Kimberley.

Kimberley having been relieved after a siege of four months, Lord Roberts then devoted his attention to the Boer Army under General Cronje, which was attempting to make good its retreat to Bloemfontein along the north bank of the Modder River. Cronje succeeded in getting past the British force at Klip Drift and formed a laager near Paardeberg Drift on the north bank of the river, while the British took up a position with the infantry on the south and the cavalry on the north of the Modder and east of the Boer laager, so as to cut the road between Cronje and Bloemfontein. The 38th Field Company remained with the infantry on the south bank of the river.

An attempt was made to capture the laager on the 18th of February 1900, but it was not successful, and Lord Roberts decided to reduce the Boers to submission by investment. The 38th Field Company, along with other Sapper units, was ordered to dig trenches towards the laager both from the east and west. The 38th Field Company worked on the east side along with the 9th Field Company. The work of both companies was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Ronald Charles Maxwell, R.E. The Boer position was carried on the 27th of February.

By the 6th of March 1900 the 38th Field Company had moved to Poplar Grove in preparation for operations at Driefontein. The company advanced from Poplar Grove on the 10th of March with Lieutenant General French's column to attack the Boer positions at Driefontein where the Boers occupied a position about seven miles in extent, which was attacked in front by the 6th Infantry Division. The Boers were driven out of their position, thereby opening the road to Bloemfontein.

In May of 1900 the 38th Field Company, with the other units of the 6th Infantry Division, was operating in the Orange Free State guarding the line of communications (primarily the railways) and maintaining order in the eastern and southern parts of the State. During June and July of 1900 part of the 38th Field Company was given the task of occupying the mountain passes in the Brandwater Basin, and during the period from the 1st through the 29th of July 1900 the company took part in the actions at Wittebergen. The campaign at Wittebergen involved operations inside a line from Harrismith to Bethlehem, then to Senekal and Clocolan, along the Basuto border and back to Harrismith.

The 38th Field Company next moved to the Transvaal where, between the 30th of July 1900 and the 31st of May 1902, it worked on maintenance of railways and telegraph lines, the construction of defensive positions, cantonments and hospitals, road construction, bridge building and the construction of blockhouses. The company was known to be stationed at Bloemfontein in August of 1900 and at Nooitgedacht in December of 1900. In July of 1901 the 38th Field Company was at Kroonstad. On the 19th of July 1901 the 38th Field Company's medal roll for the Queen's South Africa medal was prepared. For his service during the South African War, Sapper Traill was awarded this medal with the clasps [RELIEF OF KIMBERLEY] [PAARDEBERG] [DRIEFONTEIN] [WITTEBERGEN] and [TRANSVAAL].[17]

On the 4th of August 1902 Sapper Traill was transferred to a Provisional Company in preparation for his transfer to the Army Reserve. On the 24th of March 1903 he was authorized the award of the King's South Africa medal with clasps [SOUTH AFRICA 1901] and [SOUTH AFRICA 1902].[18] His Queen's South Africa medal with five clasps was sent to him in the U.K. on the 12th of August 1903.


a. Promotions: James Traill was not promoted during his time in service. He remained a Sapper for the 12 years that he served.

b. Conduct: As Sapper Traill's military service papers could not be located, there is no record of his conduct during his 12 years of service, nor is there any evidence that he was awarded any Good Conduct Badges.


a. Education: There is no record of Sapper Traill having earned any Certificates of Education during his time in service:

b. Qualifications: Similarly, there is no record of Sapper Traill having earned any special qualifications during his time in service.


No medical information was available regarding Sapper Traill during the period of his military service.


No marriage or personal information available was available regarding Sapper Traill during his period of military service.


There is no record of Sapper Traill's discharge from the Army on the termination of his first period of limited engagement in 1902. It is known that he was transferred to the Army Reserve in 1902. His total service was reckoned as shown in the tables below:


Period of Service

Home Service

1890 to 16 December 1899

South Africa

17 December 1899 to 4 August 1902


Period of Service

Home Service

9 years and 162 days

Service Abroad

2 years and 203 days

Total Service

12 years


No post service life information was available regarding Sapper Traill.



1. AUTOMOBILE ASSOCIATION. The Complete Atlas of Britain. The Automobile Association, Basingstoke, 1979.

2. CONOLLY, T.W.J. Roll of Officers of the Corps of Royal Engineers From 1660 to 1898. The Royal Engineers Institute, Chatham, Kent, 1898.

3. GORDON, L.L. British Battles and Medals. Spink & Son, Ltd., London, 1971.

4. GRIERSON, J.M. Scarlet Into Khaki: The British Army on the Eve of the Boer War. Greenhill Books, London, 1988.

5. HARBOTTLE, T. Dictionary of Battles. Stein and Day, New York, 1971.

6. INSTITUTION OF ROYAL ENGINEERS. The Medal Roll of the Corps of Royal Engineers. Volume V. Queen's and King's South Africa Medals, 1899-1902. The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 2003.

7. LETTS, C. Roadbook of Britain. Charles Letts and Company Limited, London, 1977.

8. SKELLEY, A.R. The Victorian Army at Home: The Recruitment and Terms and Conditions of the British Regular, 1859-1899. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 1977.

9. WATSON, C.M. The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers. Volume III. The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1954.


1. Queen's South Africa Medal Roll, 38th Field Company, Royal Engineers, Kroonstad, 19 July 1901, WO158/13.

2. King's South Africa Medal Roll, 38th Field Company, Royal Engineers, Bloemfontein, 24 March 1903, WO314/98.

3. Royal Engineers Medal Book, 7/151.

Internet Web Sites

1. Ancestry.com - 1891 England Census (searchable only by paid subscription)


2. Methven Perthshire Scotland Information.


3. Scottish Towns, Gask, Perthshire.


Research Papers

GASE, S. Movements of Royal Engineers Companies. West Drayton, Middlesex, 2001.


[1] This medal is in the author's collection. The naming on the spells the man's name as TRAILL, although census records indicate that his adopted name was TRAIL.

[2] The whereabouts of this medal is not known.

[3] The Complete Atlas of Britain, map 92.

[4] Scottish Towns - Gask, Perthshire Internet web site.

[5] Almondbank is a small town on the River Almond, located about 2.5 miles due east of Methven and 4 miles northwest of Perth.

[6] The town of Methven is located approximately 6 miles west northwest of the city of Perth on the current day highway 85. The area of Methven, in common with the rest of Perthshire, was the centre of flax growing and home-based line weaving by the end of the 18th century, with almost half of the town's population employed in the industry. Robert Stirling was born in Methven in 1790. Despite no formal engineering education, Stirling invented a highly efficient external combustion engine in 1816 known as The Stirling Engine.

[7] See Age and Physical Requirements for Soldiers in the British Army and in the Corps of Royal Engineers (Victorian Period).

[8] A Military History of Perthshire.

[9] See Periods of Enlistment for the Corps of Royal Engineers.

[10] See Engineer Recruit Training.

[11] 1891 Census of England, Source Information RG12/666, Registration District: Medway, Sub-Registration District: Gillingham, Institution: Brompton Barracks, Folio 84, Page 18.

[12] See Extensions of Service of the Regular Army

[13] For his service during the South African War of 1899-1902 Major Roper received a promotion to Brevet Lieutenant Colonel.

[14] WATSON, pp. 41 and 128.

[15] For his service during the South African War of 1899-1902 Lieutenant Colonel Buston was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

[16] GASE, S. SS Tintagel Castle, as ship of 5,531 tons displacement, was built in 1896. In 1900 the ship was transferred to the Union-Castle Mail Steamship Company and in 1912 it was sold to the French Cie. De Nav. Sud-Atlantique headquartered in Paris. The French renamed the ship Liger.

[17] QSA Medal Roll.

[18] KSA Medal Roll.