Home Page

13290 Company Sergeant Major
Royal Engineers

Lieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis
2001. All Rights Reserved.


Unless otherwise noted, the details supplied in this narrative were obtained from the soldier’s service papers found in the WO97/1683 file at the Public Record Office in Kew, Richmond, Surrey.


Walter Frederick Donmall was born about January of 1861 in the Parish of Higher Kingcomb, near the town of Dorchester [1], in the County of Dorsetshire, the son of Henry and Sarah Donmall. The 1881 Census Records for England do not include Walter Frederick Donmall because at the time of the census he was probably serving abroad in Malta. The census records do show that Henry Donmall was born in Greenwich, Kent in 1829 and that Sarah Donmall was born in Deptford, Kent in 1829 [2]. According to Walter’s enlistment papers, the Donmalls were Wesleyan.


The following is a description of Walter Frederick Donmall at the time he enlisted in the Army in 1875:

Apparent Age:

14 years and 7 months


5 feet 4 inches

Chest Measurement:

31 inches







Smallpox Marks:


Vaccination Marks:

Good (vaccinated in infancy and in 1871)


72 beats per minute


18 inspirations per minute

Muscular Development:



Walter Frederick Donmall was recruited [3] and enlisted for service in the Royal Engineers on the 5th of November 1875 by Sergeant Major W. Cottrell, Royal Engineers. His enlistment took place at Chatham, Kent at 10:10 a.m. when Walter signed on as a Boy Soldier for a period of 12 years of Army service [4].

Although he was only a boy of 14, Walter was required to answer all the questions normally asked of a recruit prior to attestation. Of course he was not married and had no prior military service or service in the militia or reserve forces. He indicated that he had no trade and that he was not an Apprentice. He also responded that he had never been previously rejected for military service. These questions were put to him on the 5th of November 1875 by one Sergeant J. Anderson, Royal Engineers.

On the same date as his enlistment, young Walter was examined by Surgeon Major J.W. Fox, who found him fit for military service and issued his Medical Certificate on Enlistment. Walter was also revaccinated on this date, but the result of the vaccination was listed as "failed."

On the 6th of November 1875 young Walter proceeded to Rochester, Kent where he took the Oath of Attestation before Justice of the Peace Lewis Levy at 12:30 p.m. He was re-examined by Surgeon Major Fox and again found fit for military service. Surgeon Major Fox then issue his Medical Certificate on Approval. Walter Donmall’s enlistment was verified on this date by Captain A.K. Haslett, R.E. [5], who then issued the Certificate of Superintending Officer. Lieutenant Colonel F.E. Cox, R.E. [6] then issued the Certificate of Approving Field Officer verifying Donmall’s enlistment in the Royal Engineers. Young Walter was given Regimental Number 13290 and was immediately sent off to Chatham to take up his duties as a Boy Soldier in the Royal Engineers. His enlistment was subsequently given final approval by the Deputy Assistant Adjutant General of the Royal Engineers on the 20th of November 1875.

While at Chatham, Walter Donmall served an apprenticeship until he reached the normal age of enlistment. At the time he joined the Army, the normal age for enlistment was 18 years; hence, he would not have been eligible to join the ranks of his fellow Sappers until July of 1879.


Service at Chatham (1875 – 1879)

Walter Donmall served at Chatham from 1875 to 1879 as a Boy Soldier and then underwent recruit training [7] in the School of Military Engineering after reaching the appropriate age for full time service as a Sapper in the Corps of Royal Engineers. On the 25th of September 1879 Donmall, by then a Lance Corporal, departed England for Malta where he arrived on the 8th of October. His service papers are not explicit with regard to his posting at Malta, but it is probable that he was assigned to a fortress company of the Royal Engineers, probably the 33rd Company.

Service on Malta (1879 – 1881) and at Chatham (1881 – 1883)

Donmall served on the island of Malta from 1879 to 1881 and was promoted to the rank of 2nd Corporal while he was there. On the 11th of May 1881 he left Malta for home and was posted to Chatham again on his arrival in England. The unit he was assigned to at Chatham is not shown in his service papers; however, he appears to have spent a great deal of time between 1881 and 1883 attending various classes of instruction. During his time at Chatham, Donmall was promoted to the rank of Corporal.

Service at Gibraltar (1883 – 1885)

On the 19th of December 1883 Corporal Donmall departed England for Gibraltar, arriving there on the 27th of December. He served at Gibraltar for about 14 months, probably in another fortress company, and was then posted to Egypt for service in the eastern Sudan. Donmall sailed from Gibraltar on the S.S. Queen on the 23rd of February 1885 and arrived at Suakin on the Red Sea on the 8th of March 1885.

Service in the Sudan and Egypt (1885 – 1891)

While Corporal Donmall was at Chatham, momentous events were occurring in the Sudan. General Gordon [8] was besieged at Khartoum and ultimately slain by the forces of the Mahdi on the 26th of January 1885. On the receipt of intelligence of the fall of Khartoum to the Dervish forces, the first impulse of the British government was to persevere in the war in the Sudan, to recapture Khartoum, and to punish the Mahdi. With this in view, a railway was to be laid down from Suakin on the Red Sea to Berber, and Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Graham [9] was appointed to command the troops necessary to protect its construction [10].

There were four companies of the Royal Engineers serving in the Sudan at the time that Donmall arrived there. These were the 10th Railway Company and the 17th, 24th and 26th Field Companies [11]. Again, Donmall’s service papers make no reference to the unit in which he served; however, a study of dates and places eliminates all but the 10th Railway Company as the most logical possibility.

NOTE: Information uncovered subsquent to the original writing of this narrative indicates that Donmall may have been assigned to the 24th Company. See ADDENDUM NO. 1 below. The information in the following paragraphs regarding the 10th Railway Company has been left on this site for historical information only. It probably does not pertain to the service of Company Sergeant Major Donmall.

The 10th Railway Company, Royal Engineers was commanded by Major W.H. Rathbone, R.E. [12]. Other officers in the company included Captain H.G. Kunhardt, R.E. [13], Captain W.A.E. St. Clair, R.E. [14], Captain G.H. Sim, R.E. [15], Lieutenant F.A. Molony, R.E. [16], and Lieutenant H. Bonham-Carter, R.E. [17]. In addition to regular soldiers of the Royal Engineers, the 10th Railway Company listed 39 Volunteers on its rolls, 25 of them from the 1st Newcastle and Durham Engineers, 7 from the 1st Lancashire Engineers, and the remaining 7 from various other corps, enlisted for the duration of the war. The normal peace time establishment for the Royal Engineers railway companies was 2 officers, 6 staff sergeants and sergeants, 2 buglers, 14 corporals and second corporals and 43 sappers. This strength represented only the cadre for the company in wartime [18]. At the time that Corporal Donmall joined the unit it was in the process of active service expansion. In Egypt the company would also employ a civilian work force to assist in its work.

The company sailed from England on the 14th of March 1885 to join the command of Lieutenant General Sir Gerald Graham and landed at Suakin on the 7th of April [19]. A party under Captains Kunhardt and St. Clair and Lieutenant Molony was detailed to survey and stake out the proposed railway line, while the remainder of the company worked on the 18-inch gauge railway system around the town. Corporal Donmall and his company subsequently worked on extending the railway line from Quarantine Island in Suakin harbour to Handub and Otao where it arrived on the 30th of April. During this time 16 miles of track were completed. Construction on the railway ceased in early May of 1885 when hostilities ended in the area. For his service in the campaigns in the eastern Sudan, Donmall was awarded the Egypt 1882 Medal with clasp [SUAKIN 1885] as well as the Khedive’s Bronze Star [20].

Donmall did not leave Egypt after hostilities ended in May of 1885. On the 9th of June he was posted to Abbassia where he was promoted to the rank of Sergeant less than two months later. On the 14th of December 1885 he was posted to Cairo. Again, Donmall’s service papers give no indication of the unit to which he was assigned or the type of work he did while in Egypt. He served in Egypt for almost seven years before returning home. While in Egypt he married Ellen J. Murray, with leave, at Alexandria on the 9th of August 1889. He and his wife were placed on the Married Establishment on that date [21].

Service at Chatham (1891 – 1895)

Sergeant Donmall and his wife arrived home from Egypt on the 23rd of October 1891. Upon his arrival he was posted to Chatham where it is believed that he joined the 18th Company, Royal Engineers. He remained at Chatham until 1895 at which time he applied for discharge to pension with 18 years of service. While he was serving at Chatham he was promoted to the rank of Company Sergeant Major and was authorized the award of the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal [22] by Army Orders dated the 1st of April 1894. Company Sergeant Major Donmall was discharged from the Army on the 15th of July 1895.


a. Promotions: Walter Frederick Donmall received the following promotions during his time in service:

Date of Promotion or Appointment

Rank or Position

January 1879

Joined the ranks as a Sapper upon reaching eligible age for normal enlistment

4 March 1879

Appointed to the rank of
Lance Corporal [23]

1 September 1880

Promoted to the rank of 2nd Corporal

1 September 1882

Promoted to the rank of Corporal

1 August 1885

Promoted to the rank of Sergeant

1 April 1893

Promoted to the rank of
Company Sergeant Major

b. Conduct: Walter Frederick Donmall received the following Good Conduct Badges during his time in service:

Date of Award

Good Conduct Badge

3 April 1890

Eligible for Good Conduct Pay at 3.d.[24]

6 April 1894

Eligible for Good Conduct Pay at 4.d.


a. Education: Walter Frederick Donmall earned a 2nd Class Certificate of Education during his time in service [25].

b. Qualifications and Training: Walter Frederick Donmall received the following qualifications and training during his time in the Army.


Qualifications and Training


Passed class of instruction at the Drawing School, School of Military Engineering, Chatham, Kent.


Passed class of instruction in Field Works at the School of Military Engineering, Chatham, Kent with a rating of "Good."


Passed class of instruction in Musketry at the School of Musketry, Hythe, Kent.


The following medical information was taken from Walter Frederick Donmall’s service records during his time in service:


Date of


Period of Hospitalization
or Treatment


21 Mar 1877


Released from hospital on 30 Mar 1877


27 Jul 1880

Febricula [26]

Released from hospital on 3 Aug 1880


17 Aug 1880

General Debility

Released from hospital on 9 Sep 1880


3 Oct 1883

Revaccination against smallpox

Revaccinated by H.W. Hubbard, Army Medical Department. Vaccination "failed."


16 Apr 1885

General Debility

Released from hospital on 3 May 1885.


10 Feb 1887

Tubercule [27]
of the lung

Released from hospital on 26 Feb 1887.


7 Dec 1887

Medical examination

Found fit for re-engagement to complete 18 years with the Colours.


16 Sep 1890

Re-vaccinated against smallpox

Vaccination "failed."


25 Aug 1891


Released from hospital on 29 Aug 1891.


22 Mar 1895

Dyspepsia [28]

Released from hospital on 24 Apr 1895.


The British Census of 1881 shows that the parents of Company Sergeant Major Donmall were living at 33 Chatham Street, Newington, Surrey. His father’s occupation was listed as a Peddler [29]. Other persons residing in the Donmall household at the time included a woman by the name of Jane Nash, age 53, of York, a Missionary, and Samuel Nash, age 13, a student and the son of Jane Nash.

At the time of Donmall’s marriage in 1889, his mother was listed as his next of kin. Her address at that time is shown in his service papers as Kingston, Surrey. Presumably his father was deceased at this time.

Walter Frederick Donmall and Ellen J. Murray were wed in Alexandria, Egypt on the 9th of August 1889. Eight and a half months after their return to England from Egypt, Ellen Donmall gave birth to their first child at Chatham. Their daughter Mary Maud was born on the 13th of July 1891. A second child, Evelyn Elizabeth, was born to the Donmalls on the 27th of January 1893 and their third child, James William Frederick was born on the 11th of November 1893. Tragically, James William Frederick Donmall died on the 20th of January 1894 at the age of 2 months and 9 days.


Walter Frederick Donmall was discharged from the Army at Chatham, Kent on the 15th of July 1895 on the termination of his second period of limited engagement. His total service was reckoned as shown in the tables below:


Period of Service


6 November 1875 – 24 September 1879


25 September 1879 – 10 May 1881


11 May 1881 – 18 December 1883


19 December 1883 – 22 February 1885


23 February 1885 – 22 October 1891


23 October 1891 – 15 July 1895


Period of Service (*)

Home Service

10 years and 81 days

Service Abroad

9 years and 171 days

Total Service

19 years and 252 days

(*) Donmall’s service papers indicate that 2 years and 151 days of service were forfeited towards pension and were not allowed to reckon towards Good Conduct Pay.

Lieutenant Colonel W.G. Morris, R.E. [30], Assistant Commandant of the School of Military Engineering confirmed Donmall’s Statement of Service prior to his discharge. His discharge papers indicate that his habits were rated as "Regular" and his conduct as "Very Good" during his time in service. There is no indication in his record of Donmall’s name appearing in the Regimental Defaulters’ Book or of his ever having been tried by court-martial for any offence.


No information was available to the author regarding Company Sergeant Major Donmall’s life after leaving the Army.


The source for the information in this Addendum is The Sapper magazine, February 1935, p. 505. The following was published under Editor’s Notes in this issue of the magazine:

"On or about March 21st, 1935, is the 50th anniversary of Sir John McNeil’s Zariba disaster, an affair in which the 24th Coy. were concerned, and ex-C.S.C. W.F. Donmall (Edinburgh) has sent a few brief particulars from memory. A short article from any reader who has any data on this subject would be appreciated for our March number."

This Editor’s Note brings to light a number of facts not heretofore known about CSM Donmall.

  1. He apparently was serving in the 24th Company, Royal Engineers and not the 10th Railway Company as previously thought. The note would seem to indicate that he was present at the Battle of Tofrek (McNeill’s Zariba). For details regarding the Battle of Tofrek, see the author's research on Corporal George Andrews, R.E.
  2. Company Sergeant Major Donmall was still alive in February of 1935.
  3. He was living in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1935.


  1. The service papers of Company Sergeant Major Walter Frederick Donmall, R.E.
    (WO97/1683) consisting of the following documents:

a. Proceedings on Attestation.
b. Description on Enlistment.
c. Military History Sheet.
d. Medical History.
e. Statement of Services.

2. 1881 British Census. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Family History Resource File. Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 1999.

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

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

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

6. PORTER, W. The History of the Corps of Royal Engineers. Volume II. The Institution of Royal Engineers, Chatham, Kent, 1952.

7. 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.


[1] Donmall’s Record of Service indicates that he was born near the town of Dorset. The author believes that there is an error in his Proceedings on Attestation and that the town name should be Dorchester.

[2] 1881 British Census. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. FHL Film 1341121, PRO Ref. RG11, Piece 0537, Folio 25, Page 6. It should be noted that the census records indicate that Henry Donmall was born in Greenwick, Kent. The author thinks that this is probably an error and that the town of his birth was really Greenwich.

[3] See Explanatory Notes on Recruitment of Boy Soldiers.

[4] See Explanatory Notes on Periods of Enlistment for the Corps of Royal Engineers.

[5] Arthur Kyle Haslett, later Major, Royal Engineers.

[6] Francis Edward Cox, later Major General.

[7] See Explanatory Notes on Engineer Recruit Training.

[8] CONOLLY, p. 33. Charles George Gordon, C.B., a Sapper Officer.

[9] Ibid., p. 32. Sir Gerald Graham, V.C., G.C.B., G.C.M.G. was a Sapper Officer. He retired from the Army on 14 June 1890 and died at Bideford, Devonshire, on the 17th of December 1899.

[10] PORTER, W., p. 80.

[11] GORDON, p. 211.

[12] CONOLLY, p. 42. William Hans Rathbone, later Colonel; retired 21 December 1898.

[13] Ibid., p. 49. Henry Geffcken Kunhardt, later Major; died at Marseilles on 4 November 1892.

[14] Ibid., p. 52. William Augustus Edmund St. Clair; later Lieutenant Colonel.

[15] Ibid., P. 51. George Hamilton Sim; later Lieutenant Colonel.

[16] Ibid., p. 58. Francis Arthur Molony; later Major. Major Molony’s King’s South Africa medal for service in the Boer War is also in the author’s collection.

[17] Ibid., p.59. Herman Bonham-Carter; later Major.

[18] GRIERSON, p. 65.

[19] These dates do not coincide with the dated in Donmall’s service papers. It is uncertain whether he joined the company in England or preceded it to Suakin and joined it there.

[20] Both of these medals were sold by Jeremy Tenniswood of Aldershot in 1985.

[21] See Explanatory Notes Marriage of Soldiers During the Victorian Period.

[22] This medal in the author’s collection prompted this research work.

[23] Based on his age, Donmall could only have been a Sapper for about four months before being appointed to the rank of Lance Corporal. This rapid promotion indicates that he must have performed his duties as a Boy Soldier in an outstanding manner.

[24] See Explanatory Notes on Good Conduct Pay.

[25] See Explanatory Notes on Certificates of Education.

[26] A fever.

[27] A nodule or swelling.

[28] Severe indigestion.

[29] 1881 British Census. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. FHL Film 1341121, PRO Ref. RG11, Piece 0537, Folio 25, Page 6.

[30] William George Morris, CMG, R.E., later Colonel.