Home Page

INDIAN PIONEER BATTALIONS

by
Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis, 1977

A.D. Hamilton’s Silver Jubilee Edition of the Coin and Medal Quarterly (June 1977) sparked my interest in the subject of this article. The Quarterly contained a rather large selection of medals to Indian recipients, many of which were named to Pioneer Battalions. As a result 1 decided to make a study of the Indian Pioneers to include their history and the units to which named medals may be found. The subject is quite extensive and can certainly use a more rigorous treatment than that contained in this article. Nevertheless, the article should serve to shed some light on a much-neglected area of collecting.

In his comprehensive book "The Military Engineer in India" Lieut.-Colonel E.W.C. Sandes, D.S.O., M.C., RE provides the following short history of the Indian Pioneers:

"There have been Pioneers in the Indian Army from the middle of the eighteenth century almost to the present day (1933), first as Engineer troops who were mostly converted into Sappers and Miners, and then as infantry with some engineering training. In the British Army they appeared before the reign of Henry VIII and in the early part of the sixteenth century were a properly organized Corps; but they were absorbed by the Engineers in later times and did not reappear as units of that army until a. Pioneer battalion was raised during the Great War of 1914-18 for every British division of infantry. After the war it was decided that these British battalions should be amalgamated with the R.E. field companies, but the process was not applied to the Pioneer battalions of the Indian Army because their high traditions seemed to justify their continued existence. In 1923 there were four Corps of Indian Pioneers-the Madras, Bombay, Sikh and Hazara Pioneers-the first three totaling 12 battalions and the last being an independent battalion; before 1932, however, amalgamations had reduced the total to six battalions and the Hazara battalion. It was soon apparent that, under modern conditions, Pioneers could hardly be both fully trained infantry and expert engineers, and that by reason of their organization and training they were better fitted to be engineers than infantry. Up to 1914 they were most useful as roadmakers in expeditions across the administrative border on the N.W. Frontier; but as such expeditions are now rare, and the regular garrisons stationed across the border are provided with permanent roads built by civil contract, Pioneers are no longer needed for road work. It is desirable also that the engineer troops of any division should be homogeneous. These facts, coupled with serious financial stringency, caused the Government of India to make the important decision in 1932 that Pioneers should be abolished from the Indian Army and that a part of the financial saving so effected should be applied towards an increase in the strength of the three Corps of Sappers and Miners."

And so for many years the Sappers and Miners had worked alongside their brethren, the Pioneers. They looked upon them as energetic helpers in large Projects and as brave fighters when occasion demanded that the shovel be abandoned for the rifle. The 13 battalions of Pioneers formed a solid backing for the three Corps of Sappers and Miners and a link between them and the infantry. But the conditions of modern warfare as well as fiscal constraints brought about many alterations in organization and the Pioneer battalions vanished from the Indian Army. The specialization demanded by modern warfare killed the Pioneer.

Sandes mentions the existence of 13 battalions in the Corps of Indian Pioneers, but the medal collector should not be misled by this number. As a result of renumbering, renaming, reorganization and amalgamation one can find medals named to many more than 13 battalions. In my research of medals, medal lists and catalogs I have come up with a total of 39 different ways of naming Pioneer Battalions, and this is most certainly not all inclusive. The following table is the result of my research:

1st Sikh Pioneers

4th Hazara Pioneers

1/31st Sikh Pioneers

64th Pioneers

1/1st Madras Pioneers

1/4th Hazara Pioneers

32nd Sikh Pioneers

81st Pioneers

2nd Sikh Pioneers

10th Bombay Pioneers

34th Sikh Pioneers

1/81st Pioneers

2nd Bombay Pioneers

1/12th Pioneers

3/34th Sikh Pioneers

2/81st Pioneers

1/2nd Madras Pioneers

2/12th Pioneers

34th Punjab Pioneers

106th Hazara Pioneers

3rd Sikh Pioneers

21st Sikh Pioneers

2/34th Pioneers

107th Pioneers

1/3rd Sikh Pioneers

21st Madras Pioneers

48th Pioneers

1/107th Pioneers

2/3rd Sikh Pioneers

23rd Sikh Pioneers

61st K.G.O. Pioneers

121st Pioneers

3/3rd Sikh Pioneers

2/23rd Sikh Pioneers

1/61st Pioneers

128th Pioneers

4th Bombay Pioneers

28th Bombay Infantry (Pnrs)

2/61st Pioneers

Marine Battalion