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298272 (WR/30497) Sapper
Royal Engineers

Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis
Ó 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Unless otherwise noted, the details supplied in this narrative were extracted from the soldier’s service papers obtained from the Public Record Office at Kew, Richmond, Surrey. It should be noted that Forbes’s papers were located in the burnt document files, therefore they were not completely legible due to severe water damage. Some information pertaining to his service had to be omitted because it could not be read clearly from the papers. Some place names or dates may also be in error due to the poor condition of the service papers.


William Forbes was born in the Parish of Echt in the County of Aberdeenshire, Scotland sometime between 1888 and 1892. The town of Echt is located approximately 12 miles due west of the city of Aberdeen and at one time was a center for horse and cattle fairs.

The uncertainty regarding Forbes’s year of birth is due to multiple entries in his service papers giving his age at different times during his service. As with most British soldiers up to the time of the Great War of 1914-1918, his date of birth is not specifically entered on the forms contained in his military records. Instead, his age is indicated in years and days on various documents prepared between his enlistment and his demobilization. His age is listed in three places. Back calculating his birth date from the ages listed results in dates between 1888 and 1892. The date considered to be his most probable birth date is the 30th of January 1892.

Forbes was married before he enlisted in the Army to serve in the Great War. His wife’s name was Mary Helen. The Forbes were members of the Church of England and had been married in Aberdeen on the 18th of July 1914. They lived at 147 Spital in Aberdeen and William worked as a stone cutter for one of the many quarries located in Aberdeenshire [1].


The following is a description of William Forbes at the time he enlisted in the Army in 1915:

Apparent Age:

24 years [2]

Chest (normal):

34 inches

Chest (expanded):

37 inches


5 feet 9 inches








William Forbes attested as a Private (Regimental Number 298272) for General Service on the 12th of December 1915. He was recruited for service at the 75th Recruiting District in Aberdeen, the regimental depot and recruiting district of the Gordon Highlanders. His was a Short Service Attestation for the duration of the war. At the time he was enlisted, Forbes indicated that he had no previous naval or military service.

Forbes was transferred to the Army Reserve on the day following his enlistment. His call up for active service was deferred for some reason not indicated in his papers. Based on information found later in his service documents it may be that his call up was deferred for medical reasons, although this is not known for certain.


Call Up for Active Service (June 1917)

In early June of 1917 the 75th Recruiting District received the following memorandum regarding Forbes from Brigadier-General A. Campbell Geddes, Directory of Recruiting, Military Railways and Roads at the War Office:

"Please enlist Mr. William Forbes in the Quarry Companies, R.E., now being formed for service in France, provided he is medically fit for work in that Country.

He should be given a Railway Warrant and instructed to report to the Officer Commanding R.E. Troops, The Curragh [3], to whom his documents should be sent as soon as possible."

This memorandum no doubt was prompted by the need for experienced and qualified quarrymen for the new Quarry Companies and by Forbes’s civilian trade as a stone cutter. Private William Forbes was called to active service on the 17th of June 1917. He was given a medical examination at Aberdeen and was placed in Medical Category B2. Medical Category B2 meant that a soldier was "temporarily unfit for General Service for more than 6 months." Unfortunately the reasons for this categorization, although included on his Medical History Sheet, are illegible due to water damage. At the time of his call up his age was noted to be 25 years and 138 days. This would put his birth date on the 30th of January 1892.

The Curragh, Ireland (July 1917)

Forbes was not mobilized immediately after his call up and medical examination. It was not until the 2nd of July 1917 that he reported to the recruiting office at Aberdeen and was issued a pass directing him to proceed by steamship from Aberdeen to Curragh Camp by way of Dublin [4].

Forbes proceeded to The Curragh as ordered, but he experienced some difficulty in joining his unit. His orders apparently directed him to join the 327th Quarrying Company in Ireland. When he arrived in Ireland he was not able to join the company for the reasons explained in the following memorandum dated at the Royal Engineers Barracks, Curragh, on the 5th of July 1917 from the Commander Royal Engineers, 65th (Lowland) Division to the Recruiting Officer, Aberdeen:

"Reference attached papers concerning William Forbes, please not that,

1. Recruiting for the 327th Quarrying Company ceased on 1st June – Authority, DICRUIT 3596 D.R., dated 1st June, 1917 – and that this Company proceeded overseas on that date.

2. It was an Irish Company and enlistment was voluntary. Does Forbes not come under the Military Service Act?

3. All details of this Company have been sent to Roads Depot, Salamanca Barracks, Aldershot. I understand that English Quarrying Companies Depot is at Buxton.

4. The man is being kept here pending a reply from you.

5. The Assistant Inspector of Recruiting, Irish Command, does not understand how Forbes came to be in possession of the Director General of Railways and Roads Recruiting Circular."

While Forbes awaited further orders in Ireland, the resolution of this administrative "screw-up" was handled by the Recruiting Officer in Aberdeen. On the 5th of July the Recruiting Officer responded to the memorandum of the C.R.E., 65th Division by telling him that Forbes and his papers were to be sent to Buxton. On the 7th of July the Recruiting Officer sent the following note to the Officer Commanding, Royal Engineers (Roads) at Buxton, Derbyshire:

"With reference to minute, I have wired Curragh to send the man on to Buxton; his documents are herewith."

With the problem of Forbes’s final destination solved, the Adjutant, 65th Division Royal Engineers sent the following memorandum, dated 8 July 1917, to the Adjutant, Roads and Quarries Depot [5] Royal Engineers at Buxton:

"Please see attached letter and telegram. This Recruit has been attached for rations to the 414th Lowland Field Co. R.E. since July 5th and leaves today about 5 p.m. He should arrive at Buxton early on Monday."

Buxton, Derbyshire (July 1917)

Forbes arrived at Buxton on the 10th of July 1917 where his Attestation was finally certified by the Approving Officer. He was issued Regimental Number WR/30497 and his rank was changed from Private to Sapper as he officially was made a member of the Corps of Royal Engineers.

Aldershot, Hampshire (July 1917)

At the Roads and Quarries Depot, Royal Engineers Sapper Forbes was qualified as a Quarryman and authorized Engineer Pay at the rate of 1 shilling per day. He immediately received orders to proceed to Aldershot where he joined the 348th Quarrying Company at the Roads Depot in Salamanca Barracks.

In August of 1916 there were only two Quarrying Companies in the Royal Engineers within the establishment of the Director of Works (France). By August of 1917 this number had been raised to a total of 10 companies. The large increase in the number of Quarrying Companies occurred at about the time of Sapper Forbes’s call up for active service; hence, it is clear why he was needed when he was. Prior to his call up it is probable that he was working in a quarry in the Aberdeen area and that his work may have been considered important enough to defer his entry on active service. By mid-1917 military requirements were such that he was needed in uniform in France to apply his skills to the quarrying operations on the Western Front.

At the time of Forbes’s call up the Quarrying Companies of the Royal Engineers consisted of the 198th, 199th, 320th through 329th and the 348th. The primary mission of these companies was the operation of quarries for the purpose of producing road metal (crushed stone or aggregate) primarily for the construction of roads and for ballast for railway tracks. The work of the quarry companies was augmented by skilled French labour and local civilian labour as well as Army Troops Companies of the Royal Engineers and R.E. Labour Battalions. The table below lists the operational quarries on the Western Front and the type of rock or material they produced [6]. Further information regarding the work of the quarry companies of the Royal Engineers and the types of geological formations in which they worked may be found in The Work of the Royal Engineers in the European War, 1914-1919: Geological Work on the Western Front published by The Institution of Royal Engineers in 1922 and in Geology of the Western Front, 1914-1918 by Peter Doyle, published by the Geologists’ Association in 1998.

Quarry Location or Name

Type of Rock

Beaulieu (Galtier’s Quarry)



Limestone (fair quality)

Vallée Heureuse

Limestone (soft)


Flint gravel

Necy (Orne)


St. André (Marquise)


Etavaux (near Caen)

Quartzoid and schist

Incheville (on River Bresle near Le Tréport)

Flint gravel

Milly (sur Therain)

Sand (fine concrete aggregate)

Ste. Pierre Halte (Calais)

Beach shingle (gravel)

Arques La Bataille (near Dieppe)

Flint gravel

Banc Noir (Rinxent)


Boulogne (Outreau Steel Works)


The equipment used by the Quarrying Companies consisted primarily of pneumatic compressors, pneumatic drills, pneumatic jack-hammers, rock crushers, and side-tipping wagons. The French normally used cheddite [7] as an explosive when working the quarries, but early in 1916 the British supplied the quarries with blastine.

The work of the men in a Quarrying Company typically involved first removing the overburden, or soil, from the rock to be quarried. The rock was then drilled and blasted from the quarry face and the blast rock was transported to the crusher to break it down to a suitable size for use as road metal, railroad ballast or concrete aggregate. Screens may have been used in conjunction with the crusher to obtain a suitable grain size distribution. The processed stone was then stockpiled until it could be hauled away by railroad, truck or wagon to its intended place of use.

France (1917 to 1919)

Since Forbes was a stone cutter, or Quarryman in the military jargon, he required no training before deploying to the theatre of the war in France. On the 25th of July 1917 he received orders transferring him to the British Expeditionary Force in France. It is not clear whether he went over with the 348th Quarrying Company or whether he joined the unit in a draft of men or as an individual replacement. His service papers are unclear on this point and the Royal Engineers’ history of the Great War does not elaborate to any great degree on the work or the location of the Quarrying Companies. Since the 348th was the last Quarrying Company formed, it may be assumed that the company was at Aldershot when Forbes joined it and that he went over to France with the unit.

Forbes and his company embarked for France on the 25th of August 1917 and disembarked on the 28th of August. It must be assumed that the 348th Quarry Company was employed at one of the quarries previously listed, although the exact location of the company during its service in the Great War does not appear in any of the R.E. histories written during the period.

From his records it is known that Forbes was granted 14 days leave on the 26th of October 1918 while he was still serving with the 348th Quarry Company. He arrived in the U.K. on the 28th of October. It appears that he returned to France and continued to serve with the 348th until the 7th of May 1919 when he was transferred to the 328th Quarrying Company.

The fact that Forbes remained in France long after the Armistice was signed is not unusual for two reasons. Firstly because the Quarrying Companies were probably needed to assist the French and Belgians with the rebuilding of their roads and secondly because as a late comer to the war, Forbes would have had to wait for demobilization until those who had been called up before him were discharged.

Shortly after his transfer to the 328th Quarrying Company, Sapper Forbes was sent to Calais for a medical examination prior to his return to the U.K. and in preparation for his demobilization. On the 15th of May 1919 he was granted 14 days of leave at home and was posted to the Royal Engineers Training Battalion at Chatham, Kent. It appears that he served for another four months before reporting to the Dispersal Unit at Kinross for demobilization. On the 23rd of September 1919 Sapper Forbes was issued his Protection Certificate and Certificate of Identity at Kinross. His Medical Category was noted to be B1 and his place of rejoining the Colours in case of emergency was listed as Longmoor Camp in Liss, Hampshire.

Sapper William Forbes was transferred to the Class "Z" Army Reserve on demobilization on the 27th of October 1919. For his service during the Great War he was awarded the British War Medal and Victory Medal.

NOTE: Sapper Forbes was not entitled to the
Mention in Despatches oak leaf shown on the medal above.

Quarrying Companies Casualties

The Quarrying Companies were rear echelon units and the men who served in them were relatively safe from harm because of their distance from the front lines. This does not, however, mean that these units were without losses. The following table summarizes the fatalities in the Royal Engineers Quarrying Companies in France during the Great War of 1914-1918 [8]:


Regimental Number



Cause of Death

Date of Death

Carey, John






Crossman, Albert Edward






Crowther, Horace Samuel






Cunningham, Robert






Davidson, Alexander






Ellis, Harry






Elwell, James Henry






Fort, Albert James






Goodwin, Wilfred Rippin






Hines, George






Holbrough, George






McConnachie, James






North, George Isaac






Pollock, John





Richards, David






Webster, Arthur






NOTES: DOD/A in the table indicates that the cause of death was disease or accident. DOW indicates that the man died of wounds received.

An analysis of the table above indicates the following:

  1. All the men were Pioneers or Sappers. No officers or non-commissioned officers serving in the Quarrying Companies died during the war.
  2. Of the 16 men listed in the table 14 died in 1918. The other two men died in 1917. Half of the men died within two months of the end of the war, probably of influenza..
  3. All of the men except Pioneer George Isaac North died of disease or were killed accidentally. North was the only combat related death.
  4. Sapper John Pollock served with Sapper William Forbes in the 348th Quarrying Company. Pollock died on the day Forbes left for the U.K. to begin his 14 days leave. Pollock war born in Fordell in Fifeshire, Scotland and enlisted in the Royal Engineers at Cowdenbeath, Fife [9].
  5. There were no losses in the 198th, 320th, 321st, 323rd, or 327th Quarrying Companies.
  6. All men whose cause of death is marked with an asterisk died in the United Kingdom. All others died in France and Flanders.

An attempt was made by the author to determine the location of the 348th Quarrying Company at the time of Sapper Pollock’s death, in an attempt to pin down where Forbes and his company might have served in 1918. Pollock was buried at Terlincthum British Cemetery on the northern outskirts of Boulogne. Unfortunately this is of little help, since Boulogne housed numerous military hospitals and other medical establishments during the war. If Pollock was injured or taken seriously ill at a quarry where the 348th Company was stationed, he could have been evacuated back quite some distance to one of these hospitals in the Boulogne area before he died.


a. Promotions: William Forbes received the following promotions during his time in service:

Date of Promotion or Appointment

Rank or Position

12 December 1915

Private, General Service

10 July 1917

Sapper, Royal Engineers

b. Conduct: Sapper Forbes did not receive any Good Conduct Badges during his time in service.


a. Education: William Forbes did not earn a Certificate of Education during his time in the Army.

b. Qualifications: William Forbes earned the following qualifications during his time in service.



10 July 1917

Quarryman – Granted Engineer Pay at the rate of 1s per day

30 July 1917

Proficient Quarryman

2 December 1918

Skilled Quarryman –
Granted Engineer Pay at the rate of 1s 4d per day


No detailed medical history is included in Sapper Forbes’s service papers. The only medical information provided on him is the results of his two medical examinations. The first examination was in June of 1917 when he was placed in Medical Category B2. The second examination took place in May of 1919 when he was categorized as B1.


William and Mary Helen Forbes were married on the 18th of July 1914 in Aberdeen, Scotland. After their marriage they resided at 147 Spital in Aberdeen and they retained this residence during the entire time that Sapper Forbes was serving in the Army. The Forbes had two children; William Alfred born on the 28th of December 1914 and a daughter Evelyn born on the 28th of July 1916. Both children were born in Aberdeen.


Sapper William Forbes was transferred to the Class "Z" Army Reserve at Kinross, Scotland on his demobilization after the Great War. His total service was reckoned as shown in the tables below:


Period of Service

12 December 1915 to 16 June 1917

Army Reserve

17 June 1917 – 4 July 1917

Aberdeen, Scotland

5 - 8 July 1917

The Curragh, Ireland

9 - ? July 1917

Buxton, Derbyshire

? July – 24 August 1917

Aldershot, Hampshire

25 August 1917 – 15 May 1919


16 May – 26 October 1919

Chatham, Kent

27 October 1919

To Class "Z" Army Reserve


Period of Service

Reserve Service

1 year and 176 days [10]

Home Service

231 days

Service Abroad

1 year and 263 days

Total Service

3 years and 42 days


When William Forbes was demobilized from the Army in 1919 he stated that his intended place of residence was 147 Spital in Aberdeen. It is probable that he returned to Scotland with the intention of working at his pre-war trade as a stone cutter.

Like many of the men, demobilization probably could not come soon enough Forbes, but his discharge was dependent on the length his service and the importance of his future role in civilian life. Since he was not called up for active service until 1917, Forbes had to wait for almost a year after the end of the war as batches of demob-happy soldiers preceded him home. For the later batches like his, the euphoria of victory had already faded and tempers were frayed. When men like Forbes finally reach home, many would rush to the nearest pub with friends only to hear the landlord shout, "Now then, you lot, before you take another step, SHOW US YER MONEY!" Thus the land fit for heroes welcomed back its champions.

Disillusionment probably was not dispelled for Forbes after being home a few weeks. A happy reunion with family members was followed by a search for work. The late comers like him found that the soldiers who had been demobilized before them had already taken every position. There were few jobs available that offered any prospect of permanency. Although Forbes had marketable skills, work still was probably difficult for him to find. Probably what was more surprising to him was that he found he missed the camaraderie and structured pattern of military life. It was at this point that many men began to think of re-enlisting in the Army. Precisely what happened to William Forbes is not known [11].


1. DOYLE, P. Geology of the Western Front, 1914-1918. The Geologists’ Association, Guide No. 61, London, 1998.

2. INSTITUTION OF ROYAL ENGINEERS. The Work of the Royal Engineers in the European War, 1914-1919: Work Under the Director of Works (France). The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1924.

3. INSTITUTION OF ROYAL ENGINEERS. The Work of the Royal Engineers in the European War, 1914-1919: Geological Work on the Western Front. The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1922.

4. NAVAL & MILITARY PRESS. Soldiers Died in the Great War. A Searchable Digital Database. Dallington, East Sussex, 1998.

5. ZIEGLER, P. Soldiers: Fighting Men’s Lives, 1901-2001. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002.


[1] Forbes’s service papers show an entry of "Group 6" next to his occupation of stone cutter. The significance of this notation is not known.

[2] This would make his birth year 1891.

[3] The Curragh was the location of a military training camps to the west of Dublin, Ireland.

[4] The pass issued to Forbes for his travel to Ireland indicated that he would travel on a Burns Steamship. Research by the author indicates that the Burns & Laird Lines (later part of Coast Lines Ltd.) were operating at that time from Scotland to Ireland.

[5] The official name of the establishment in the Royal Engineers was the Roads and Quarries Depot. In soldiers’ service papers this establishment is frequently, and erroneously, referred to as the Roads Depot or the Quarries or Quarry Depot.

[6] INSTITUTION OF ROYAL ENGINEERS. The Work of the Royal Engineers in the European War, 1914-1919: Work Under the Director of Works (France). The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1924, pp. 207-216.

[7] Cheddite is any of a group of high explosives made from nitroglycerine compounds mixed with sodium or potassium chlorate.

[8] Soldier Died in the Great War.

[9] Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

[10] This only includes time in the Army Reserve prior to his call up for active service. The time he spent in the Class "Z" Army Reserve after demobilization is not known.

[11] This information is taken from Soldiers: Fighting Men’s Lives, 1901-2001 by Philip Ziegler. In his book Ziegler provides an interesting account of the typical experiences of the last to be demobilized soldiers returning home from France after the Great War.