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Royal Engineers
ŠLieutenant Colonel Edward De Santis, 1999

Early Life and Enlistment (1871-1891)

John Swan was born in St. Paul’s Parish near the town of Perth, in the County of Perth, Scotland, in April of 1871. John was the son of James Swan of 266 High Street, Perth. As a young man, John Swan worked as a plumber and gas fitter. Prior to his enlistment in the Army, he served for a period of 5-1/2 years as an Apprentice Plumber to a Mr. Mc Leish in the town of Perth.

John Swan was recruited for service in the Royal Engineers by Sergeant Pensioner A. Crichton. He was enlisted at Perth on the 9th of February 1891. Swan opted for a Short Service Enlistment of 7 years with the Colours and 5 years in the Reserve. At the time of his enlistment, Swan indicated that he was not married, he had never been sentenced to imprisonment, and he had no prior naval or military service.

Swan was 19 years and 10 months old when he enlisted. He was described as being 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed 132 pounds. His normal chest measurement was 34 inches and his expanded chest measurement was 35-1/2 inches. Swan had a sallow complexion, blue eyes and black hair. His distinctive marks included a hairy mole on his right arm. Swan listed his religion as Presbyterian on his enlistment papers.

On the same day as his enlistment, John Swan swore the Oath of Attestation. This was also accomplished at Perth where his oath was certified by the Colonel Commanding the 42nd Regimental District, the home of the famous Royal Highland Regiment, or Black Watch. He was examined and declared medically fit for service in the Army by F.R. Wilson, Brigade Surgeon on the Medical Staff of the 42nd Regimental District. Swan was given the Primary Military Examination on the day of his enlistment by the Recruiting Officer of the 42nd Regimental District and found fit for service. Finally, the Colonel Commanding the Regimental District completed the Certificate of the Approving Field Officer and John Swan was duly made a member of Her Majesty’s land forces.

Training and Service at Chatham (1891-1895)

With the formalities of his enlistment completed, John Swan was sent to Brompton Barracks at Chatham, Kent. At Chatham he was issued Regimental Number 25556 and was given the rank of Sapper. He then began his training as an engineer soldier.

After about a year of training, it appears that Sapper Swan was posted to a unit at Chatham. He was appointed to the rank of Lance Corporal on the 11th of June 1892 and was granted Good Conduct Pay at the rate of 1.d. on the 9th of February 1893. Lance Corporal Swan appears to have been assigned to the School of Military Engineering (S.M.E.). While at Chatham he pursued his education and was awarded a 3rd Class Certificate of Education on the 23rd of March 1893. On the 11th of June 1894 he was awarded a 2nd Class Certificate of Education.

While still serving at Chatham, Swan was promoted to the rank of 2nd Corporal on the 1st of February 1895. On the 9th of October of the same year he extended his enlistment to complete 12 years of service with the Colours. His character at the time was rated as "Very Good" by his commanding officer and his request for extension was approved by the Assistant Commandant of the School of Military Engineering. At the time of his extension he was under orders for service abroad.

Service in Malta, Egypt and the Sudan (1895-1902)

2nd Corporal Swan sailed for Malta on the 13th of November 1895. He remained on the island of Malta for a little less than a year and then sailed for Egypt on the 30th of October 1896 to join the combined British and Egyptian forces under General Sir H.H. Kitchener; forces which were then preparing for the reconquest of the Sudan from a fanatical religious leader known as the Khalifa. Swan joined the 2nd (Fortress) Company, Royal Engineers in Cairo upon his arrival in Egypt. The 2nd Company was commanded by Major L.A. Arkwright, R.E. Other officers assigned to the 2nd Company at that time included Lieutenants D.A. Friederichs, R.E., G.E. Elkington, R.E. and J.P. Moir, R.E.

The 2nd Company, R.E. was busily engaged in preparations to embark on active service in the Sudan when Swan joined the unit. While in Cairo working on these preparations, Swan was promoted to the rank of Corporal on the 1st of December 1896.

In preparation for the advance into the Sudan, the 2nd Company sent a section under the command of Lieutenant G.E. Elkington, R.E. to a position between Berber and the River Atbara in January of 1898. Lieutenant Elkington’s section had been in Egypt for some time and had taken part in the Dongola Expedition of 1896.

The remainder of the 2nd Company moved to a position between Berber and the River Atbara on the 15th of March 1898 and then to Ras el Hudi on the 21st of March. On the 8th of April 1898, Corporal Swan and the 2nd Company, R.E. took part in the battle of the Atbara against the Dervish forces of Emir Mahmoud. During this battle, the combined British and Egyptian force, 14,000 strong, attacked an entrenched zariba on the River Atbara that was occupied by 18,000 Dervish troops. The Anglo-Egyptian force thoroughly routed the Dervish who suffered 5,000 killed and 1,000 prisoners, while many more fell during the pursuit following the battle. The Anglo-Egyptian losses were 570 killed and wounded, including 29 British officers.

Following this action the 2nd Company continued the advance to Khartoum, passing through Wad Hamed on the 24th of August and Om Teref on the 29th of August, and finally reaching Egeiga on the west bank of the Nile on the 30th of August. The British and Egyptian divisions of the expeditionary force took up defensive positions in front of Egeiga. There is no record of the part taken by the 2nd Company, R.E. in the preparation of the defences, but it is presumed that they built a section of the zariba and assisted the infantry units of the British Division with their defensive positions. During the battle the company acted as infantry and were posted between the 1st British Brigade (Wauchope) and the 2nd Egyptian Brigade (Maxwell). The company did not perform any field engineering work during the battle.

On the 2nd of September 1898, the British force, 23,000 strong, was attacked in their defensive position by a Dervish force of more than 50,000 commanded by the Khalifa (see Figures 1 through 4). The Dervish attacked the British zariba and were repulsed with heavy losses. Kitchener then advanced his divisions to drive the enemy before him into the town of Omdurman, the center of the Dervish empire. In the course of the advance, the Egyptian Brigade on the British right, under General Hector Macdonald, became isolated and was attacked in front by the centre of the Dervish army, while his flank and rear were threatened by the Dervish left. The position was critical, but through the extreme steadiness of the Sudanese in Macdonald’s Brigade, who changed front under heavy fire, the attack was repulsed. During this battle, the 21st Lancers, among whom was Winston Churchill, made the last full-scale cavalry charge of modern warfare. The British and Egyptian losses were 500 killed and wounded. The Dervish lost about 15,000 men in a day of terrible carnage. Following the defeat of the Dervish force at Omdurman, the Anglo-Egyptian force was easily able to enter Khartoum, the place where a gallant Sapper officer had lost his life in 1885.

Following the battle at Omdurman and the occupation of Khartoum, the 2nd Company, R.E. returned to Cairo. Corporal Swan was awarded the Khedive’s Sudan Medal which was presented by the Egyptian government to British soldiers who participated in the Sudan campaign. The medal was authorized by the British government in Army Order 163 of 1898. Swan received the medal with the clasps [THE ATBARA] and [KHARTOUM]. On the 8th of April 1899, Swan was awarded the Queen’s Sudan Medal under authority of Army Order 49 of 1899. His name appears on the medal roll of the 2nd Company, R.E. for participation in the Expedition to Khartoum. Swan was not actually presented with the Queen’s Sudan Medal until the 17th of August 1900. At that time he was still stationed with the 2nd Company in Cairo.

Swan was to continue serving in Egypt for another year and a half. He was promoted to the rank of Sergeant on the 1st of April 1901 and on the 22nd of August 1902 he re-engaged to complete 21 years of service with the Colours. Swan’s Re-engagement Papers (Army Form B. 136) were prepared by 2nd Lieutenant H.O. Clagston, Officer Commanding the 2nd Company, R.E., witnessed by Company Sergeant Major J.T. Anderton, R.E., and approved by the Commander Royal Engineers (C.R.E.) Egypt.

Home Service (1902-1904)

Sergeant Swan sailed from Egypt for home on the 14th of December 1902 after having spent 6 years and 45 days in Egypt and the Sudan. After a period of leave, Swan was posted to "G" (Depot) Company, Royal Engineers at Chatham. He reported in to his new unit on the 6th of March 1903.

On the 1st of April 1904 Sergeant Swan elected to receive Service (Proficiency) Pay, Class I, at the rate of 7.d. per day. This proficiency pay was offered to men of certain arms in accordance with their specialty skills and efficiency in the performance of their duties.

Service at Gibraltar (1904-1907)

Swan sailed from England, bound for Gibraltar, on the 8th of November 1904. Upon arrival on "The Rock" he was posted to the 1st (Fortress) Company, Royal Engineers commanded by Major C. Hill, R.E. The 1st Company, R.E. was stationed in the North Sub-District of Gibraltar, with headquarters at Southport Street. Other officers in the company at that time included Lieutenants H.P.T. Lefroy, R.E. and M.G. Taylor, R.E.

On the 15th of February 1906, Swan married Eleanor Isabel Hobbert at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Gibraltar. The marriage was performed by Minister John Brown Smith and was witnessed by James Fielding and Caroline Thompson. Since Swan was married with the leave of his Commanding Officer, he was placed on the married rolls on the date of his wedding. Sergeant Swan was promoted to the rank of Company Sergeant Major on the 31st of March 1907 while still serving with the 1st Company, R.E.

Home Service (1907-1909)

The Swans sailed from Gibraltar for home on the 2nd of September 1907. Company Sergeant Major Swan joined his new unit, "M" (Depot) Company, Royal Engineers at Chatham on the 18th of September.

On the 8th of February 1909 he completed 18 years of service and became eligible for the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. He was awarded the medal by authority of Army Order 270 of 1909 along with a gratuity. The gratuity would not actually be paid to him until after his final discharge from the Army in 1912.

Service in South Africa (1909-1912)

On the 19th of October 1909, Company Sergeant Major Swan sailed from England bound for South Africa. It is not known whether his wife accompanied him, although it would probably be safe to assume that she did. Upon arrival he was assigned to the 47th (Fortress) Company, Royal Engineers in Simon’s Town at the Cape of Good Hope. The 47th Company was commanded by Captain C.S.A. Ackerman, R.E. Other officers in the company included Lieutenants W.H.A. Hunt, R.E. and J. Day, R.E. The 47th Company at that time was part of the Cape Colony District, Cape Peninsula Sub-District, which had its headquarters at The Castle in Cape Town.

On the 4th of April 1910, Company Sergeant Major Swan was admitted to hospital at Simon’s Town with an ailment called "delirium tremors." This is the first indication in his service record that he was hospitalized during his more than 19 years in the Army. He was released from hospital on the 11th of April. On the 26th of March 1911 Swan was stricken with the same ailment and again hospitalized for treatment. He was released from hospital on the 8th of April. One might suspect that this ailment was the result of the unhealthy climate in the vicinity of Simon’s Town. He may have even been suffering from malaria. Following this second episode with "delirium tremors," his records indicate that he did not suffer from this illness or any other during the remainder of his time in the Army. He continued his duties in South Africa until the 2nd of January 1912 when he sailed home to England.

Discharge (1912)

Company Sergeant Major Swan was posted to "G" (Depot) Company, Royal Engineers at Chatham on the 20th of January 1912. On the 25th of this same month he submitted his initial application for discharge from the Army. Discharge proceeding were initiated by the Royal Engineers Record Centre at Chatham on the 5th of February 1912. During this period it appears that Swan was temporarily assigned to Gosport, as it was there that he was finally discharged from the Army on the 8th of February 1912 upon the termination of his second period of limited engagement.

Swan was 40 years and 10 months old at the time of his discharge. His description on discharge indicates that he was 5 feet 7 inches tall with a normal chest measurement of 37 inches and an expanded chest measurement of 39 inches. He was described as having a fresh complexion, blue eyes and grey hair. He still had the hairy mole on his right arm.

John Swan was a "skilled" plumber and gasfitter. He was still receiving Class I Proficiency Pay at the rate of 7.d. per day at the time of his discharge. His overall conduct during the period of his Army service was rated as "Very Good." Swan’s commanding officer indicated that with regard to special qualifications for employment in civilian life, Swan was "a superior plumber & gas fitter" and was "thoroughly reliable."

As previously indicated, John Swan had received the Queen’s Sudan Medal, the Khedive’s Sudan Medal with clasps [THE ATBARA] and [KHARTOUM], and the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal with gratuity during the period of his military service. He was also in possession of a Second Class Certificate of Education.

On the date of his discharge, John Swan had completed exactly 21 years of service with the Colours. All of this time was counted towards his pension.

Swan indicated to the Royal Engineer Records Centre that his intended place of residence after leaving the Army was to be 77, Upper Milton Road, Gillingham, Kent.

On the 9th of February 1912, John Swan’s military records were forwarded to the Secretary of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, London. On the 25th of March 1912 the Royal Hospital prepared a certification of payment of the 5-Pound gratuity to which Swan was entitled for receiving the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal.


John Swan’s military service papers show no record of he and his wife having any children while he was in the Army.

A check of the official Army Lists during the period of the Great War of 1914 to 1918 did not indicate that Swan was commissioned and returned to active service for the period of the war.



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a. W.O. Form 83. Proceedings of a Regimental Discharge Board.
b. Form F. Medical History.
c. Detailed Statement of Services.


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HART, H.G. The New Army List, April 1864