2nd Pioneer Battalion (Australia)

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2nd Pioneer Battalion
Australians from the 2nd Pioneer Battalion at Bapaume in 1917 (AWM image E00343).jpg
Pioneers from the 2nd Pioneer Battalion at Bapaume, March 1917
BranchAustralian Army
Part of2nd Division
ColoursPurple and white
EngagementsFirst World War
Unit colour patch2nd Pioneer Battalion 1st AIF.png

The 2nd Pioneer Battalion was an Australian infantry and light engineer unit raised for service during the First World War as part of the all volunteer Australian Imperial Force (AIF). Formed in Egypt in March 1916, the battalion subsequently served on the Western Front in France and Belgium, after being transferred to the European battlefields shortly after its establishment. Assigned to the 2nd Division, the 2nd Pioneer Battalion fought in most of the major battles that the AIF participated in between mid-1916 and the end of the war in November 1918. It was subsequently disbanded in early 1919.


The 2nd Pioneers were established on 10 March 1916, at Tel-el-Kebir in Egypt, and were subsequently assigned to the 2nd Division.[1][2] The battalion was formed in the aftermath of the failed Gallipoli campaign when the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) was expanded as part of plans to transfer it from the Middle East to Europe for service in the trenches along the Western Front. This expansion saw several new infantry divisions raised in Egypt and Australia, as well as specialist support units such as machine gun companies, engineer companies, artillery batteries and pioneer battalions, which were needed to meet the conditions prevalent on the Western Front.[3] Its first commanding officer was Lieutenant Colonel Frederick Annand, a Royal Australian Engineers officer.[4]

Trained as infantrymen, they were also tasked with some engineer functions, with a large number of personnel possessing trade qualifications from civilian life. As such, they were designated as pioneer units. The pioneer concept had existed within the British Indian Army before the war, but had not initially been adopted in other British Empire forces. In early 1916, the Australian Army was reorganised ahead of its transfer to the Western Front in Europe. A total of five pioneer battalions were raised by the AIF at this time, with one being assigned to each of the five infantry divisions that the Australians deployed to the battlefield in France and Belgium. Tasked with digging trenches, labouring, constructing strong points and light railways, and undertaking battlefield clearance, the troops assigned to the pioneers required construction and engineering experience in addition to basic soldiering skills.[5]

The 12th Reinforcements for the 2nd Pioneers at Port Melbourne, 30 October 1917

Formed from volunteers drawn from the state of Victoria,[6] the battalion consisted of four companies, under a headquarters company.[5] The battalion subsequently served on the Western Front from mid-1916 until the end of the war.[1] To identify the battalion's personnel, they were issued with a purple and white unit colour patch. The colours were in common with other Australian pioneer battalions, while the diamond shape denoted that the unit was part of the 2nd Division.[7] The battalion's first major action was fought around the Pozieres heights in late July 1916, during which it suffered over 200 casualties during a two-week period.[8]

Despite the heavy losses at Pozieres, the pioneers subsequently took part in the Battle of Mouquet Farm in July and August 1916. The following year, after the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line, and the pioneers were committed to a series of actions aimed at attacking these defences as part of Allied efforts to follow up the Germans. This saw them take part in the fighting during the Second Battle of Bullecourt in May,[9] and the Third Battle of Ypres later in the year.[10] In early 1918, they helped to defend against the German spring offensive in early 1918. In August 1918, the 2nd Pioneers supported the Allied advance during the Hundred Days Offensive, which ultimately brought about an end to the war.[11]

Their final action came around Montbrehain amidst the Battle of St. Quentin Canal in early October 1918. In the lead up to the battle, the 2nd Pioneers carried out bridging operations over the Somme,[12] but later they were used primarily as infantry during the assault on the village due to heavy losses amongst 2nd Division's infantry battalions earlier in the year.[13][14] During the battle, the 2nd Pioneers were moved into the line at night, taking over from an exhausted brigade, and holding their position throughout the night until relieved. Later, the pioneers joined the "mopping up operations", taking up a position to the flank of the 21st and 24th Infantry Battalions, in what historian William Westerman describes as the "most successful use of Australian pioneers in a combat capacity in the entire war".[15] Losses in this final attack amounted to 19 killed and 87 wounded.[16] Shortly afterwards the Australian Corps was withdrawn from the line for rest at the behest of the Australian prime minister, Billy Hughes,[17] and the battalion saw no further action before the armistice in November. As personnel were repatriated to Australia in drafts as part of the gradual demobilisation of the AIF, the battalion's strength dwindled until finally it was disbanded on 18 May 1919 while in the Charleroi area of Belgium.[18]


Within the AIF, according to Westerman, the pioneer battalion concept was not "effectively employed by Australian commanders".[19] In this regard, Westerman argues that the AIF pioneer battalions were rigidly utilized as either engineers or infantry, instead of "integrating those two functions".[19] Additionally, while he argues that they were under utilised in their infantry roles, and that the amount of time that was spent training as infantry and the resources consumed was disproportionate for the amount of time they spent in the line undertaking infantry tasks.[20] While several units, such as the 2nd Pioneers at Montrebrehain, undertook successful infantry actions,[21] units such the 1st and 4th Pioneers never saw action directly in their infantry role.[22] Additionally, the units' separation from the field engineers resulted in "administrative, organisational and command and control problems" which even limited their utility as engineering formations.[19]

After the war, the concept of pioneer battalions was discontinued in the Australian Army. In the immediate aftermath of the war, as plans were drawn up for the shape of the post conflict Army, a proposal was put forth to raise six pioneer battalions in the peacetime Army,[23] but a combination of global disarmament and financial hardship resulted in this plan being scrapped.[24] As a result, pioneer battalions disappeared from the Australian Army order of battle until the Second World War, when four such battalions were raised as part of the Second Australian Imperial Force.[25] According to Alexander Rodger, as a result of the decision not to re-raise pioneer battalions in the interwar years, no battle honours were subsequently awarded to the 2nd Pioneer Battalion – or any other First World War pioneer battalion – as there was no equivalent unit to perpetuate the honours when they were promulgated by the Australian Army in 1927.[26]



  1. ^ a b Mallett 2003.
  2. ^ Kuring 2004, pp. 83, 90–92.
  3. ^ Kelly 2015, p. 68.
  4. ^ Laverty 1979.
  5. ^ a b Dennis et al 1995, p. 465.
  6. ^ Kuring 2004, p. 90.
  7. ^ Bean 1941a, p. 968.
  8. ^ Bean 1941a, p. 724.
  9. ^ Bean 1941b, p. 478.
  10. ^ Bean 1941b, p. 777.
  11. ^ Returned and Services League.
  12. ^ Westerman 2017, p. 52.
  13. ^ Lee 2016, The Hundred Days.
  14. ^ Pedersen 2018, pp. 490–497.
  15. ^ Westerman 2017, p. 56.
  16. ^ AWM4 14/14/29: October 1918.
  17. ^ Grey 2008, p. 109.
  18. ^ AWM4 14/14/36: May 1919.
  19. ^ a b c Westerman 2017, p. 43.
  20. ^ Westerman 2017, pp. 51–56.
  21. ^ Westerman 2017, pp. 56 & 58.
  22. ^ Westerman 2017, p. 57.
  23. ^ Palazzo 2001, p. 85.
  24. ^ Keogh 1965, pp. 33–39.
  25. ^ Dennis et al 1995, pp. 465–466.
  26. ^ Rodger 2003, p. 91.


  • "2nd Pioneer Battalion". RSL Virtual War Memorial. Returned and Services League. Retrieved 29 April 2016.
  • "AWM4 14/14/29: October 1918: 2nd Pioneer Battalion". Unit war diaries. Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 20 August 2016.
  • "AWM4 14/14/36: May 1919: 2nd Pioneer Battalion". Unit war diaries. Australian War Memorial. Retrieved 20 August 2016.
  • Bean, Charles (1941a) [1929]. The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918. Vol. III (12th ed.). Canberra, Australian Capital Territory: Australian War Memorial. OCLC 220623454.
  • Bean, Charles (1941b) [1933]. The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917. Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918. Vol. IV (11th ed.). Canberra, Australian Capital Territory: Australian War Memorial. OCLC 220901148.
  • Dennis, Peter; et al. (1995). The Oxford Companion to Australian Military History (1st ed.). Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press Australia & New Zealand. ISBN 0-19-553227-9.
  • Grey, Jeffrey (2008). A Military History of Australia (3rd ed.). Melbourne, Victoria: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-69791-0.
  • Kelly, Darryl (June 2015). "Close But Not Close Enough: Australians Recommended for the VC But Not Awarded: Private William Edward Cox, 1st Pioneer Battalion". Contact: Air, Land & Sea. No. 46. pp. 68–71. ISSN 1449-2385.
  • Keogh, Eustace (1965). South West Pacific 1941–45. Melbourne, Victoria: Grayflower Publications. OCLC 7185705.
  • Kuring, Ian (2004). Redcoats to Cams: A History of Australian Infantry 1788–2001. Loftus, New South Wales: Australian Military Historical Publications. ISBN 1876439998.
  • Laverty, John (1979). "Annand, Frederick William Gadsby (1872–1958)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Australian National University. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  • Lee, Roger (2016). "The AIF and the Hundred Days: 'Orchestration' for Tactical Success in 1918". In Bou, Jean (ed.). The AIF in Battle: How the Australian Imperial Force Fought, 1914–1918. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Publishing. ISBN 9780522870220.
  • Mallett, Ross (2003). "Pioneer Battalions". AIF Project. University of New South Wales. Archived from the original on 12 November 2009. Retrieved 26 April 2016.
  • Palazzo, Albert (2001). The Australian Army: A History of Its Organisation 1901–2001. South Melbourne, Victoria: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-551506-4.
  • Pedersen, Peter (2018). ANZACs on the Western Front: the Australian War Memorial battlefield guide. Richmond, Victoria: John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9780730337393.
  • Rodger, Alexander (2003). Battle Honours of the British Empire and Commonwealth Land Forces 1662–1991. Marlborough, Wiltshire: The Crowood Press. ISBN 1-86126-637-5.
  • Westerman, William (2017). "The Handy Man of the Division: Assessing the effectiveness of the pioneer battalion concept in the First Australian Imperial Force". British Journal for Military History. 3 (2): 43–61. ISSN 2057-0422.

Further reading[edit]

  • Walsh, Leo (1993). The Nominal Roll: 2nd Pioneer Battalion, 2nd Infantry Division, Australian Imperial Force 1916–1919 (1st ed.). Brisbane, Queensland: Victoria Barracks Historical Society. ISBN 978-0-64611-259-6.