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Royal Engineers and Bombay Sappers and Miners
Fred Larimore

Research on Sergeant Thomas Overend shows the following general information, dates of rank, campaign service, and army appointments related to his 21 years 6 days (1861-1882) service in the British Army:

Birth & Enlistment:

Thomas Overend was born in or near the Town of Newry, in the County of Down, Ireland, in around August of 1841. At the age 20 years, he enlisted in the Royal Engineers at Westminster on the 5th of July 1861 with a bounty of 1 pound and a free kit. "Cash bounties were sometimes used to attract men to the Colours, the amount varying with the need for men." The sum of enlistment bounties has varied throughout history. They often were the cause of desertion, fraudulent enlistment, and various practices of recruiting deception. The giving of enlistment bounties was eliminated from army recruiting in 1870. The terms of this enlistment were officially described as:

"Seven years active and five years reserve, or three years active and nine years reserve at the option of the recruit; but in proportions settled by the War Office, with the [obligation of an additional year in active service if the soldier has been in garrison abroad (and eight years in the reserve)]."

Thomas Overend chose the first option. He listed his trade as a carpenter. This would be of use to the Royal Engineers. He had been recruited and presented with Notice by Sergeant R. Griffiths of the Royal Engineers. On the 8th of July 1861 his enlistment was certified by Major the Honourable Hussey Fane Keane, Assistant Adjutant General, Royal Engineers. He was recorded in the Regimental Register and given the regimental number 6801, which he retained throughout his entire service.

Physical Description:

Thomas Overend’s physical description on enlistment shows that he was 5 feet 8 inches tall, had a fresh complexion, gray eyes, and brown hair. His religious denomination was not listed.

Statement of Conduct:

Sapper Thomas Overend received his first Good Conduct pay on the 8th of July 1864 and was promoted to 2nd Corporal on the 1st of July 1867. A Good Conduct pay is given, "For good conduct, which means, that the soldier has never been punished, he receives further extra pay (Good Conduct Pay). The daily rate amounts to 1d. The recipient wears a badge in the shape of a ^, pointing upwards, on the lower sleeve of the left arm. Every badge brings an extra penny a day. In case of punishment the soldier forfeits this extra pay or a part of it, but can recover it by good conduct. These extra payments and badges are only awarded to men from the corporal downward." On the 8th of July 1869 he was entitled to 2d Good Conduct pay.

He re-engaged to complete 21 years service on the 2nd of December 1869 while serving in the 10th Field Company under the command of Captain Gordon Douglas Pritchard, R.E. Re-engagement served both the purposes of the army and the individual soldier. Re-engagement is, "To strengthen the cadres still more and to make provision for such men as desire to earn their living in the army, certain classes of soldiers are allowed to engage for 21 years, and by this means earn a pension." He was paid a 2 pound Bounty and a 1 pound Gratuity for re-engagement. Short after his re-engagement, on the 1st of March 1870 he was promoted Corporal and received his 3rd Good Conduct pay on the 8th of July 1873. On the 1st of December 1874, Thomas Overend was promoted Sergeant and would have received regular good conduct pays throughout his service had he not been promoted. He qualified for his 4d Good Conduct pay on the 8th of July 1877. At the time of his discharge he would have been in possession of his 5d Good Conduct pay which he qualified for on the 8th of July 1882. His name never appeared in the Regimental Defaulters Book and he was never tried by Court Martial during his service. He received the Army Long Service Good Conduct Medal and a Gratuity of 5 pounds as per General Order 63 of 1880.

Overseas & Campaign Service:

Sergeant Thomas Ovenend’s overseas and campaign service includes the following. He served as a 2nd Corporal in the Abyssinia Campaign with the 10th Company of the Royal Engineers from his departing England on the 4th of November 1867 to his returning to England on the 7th of July 1868, a total of 246 days. Trouble had begun when the Christian emperor of Abyssinia, Theodore III, carried his drive for reform and his anti-Moslem crusade too far. He ultimately imprisoned European missionaries and the British Consul after his return from a visit to Moslem Sudan. After the failure of negotiations and Theodore’s ignoring the final British ultimatum of August 1867 the campaign was launched. After landing at Zula in early December 1867, the 10th Company, Royal Engineers joined with Sappers and Miners from the Indian Army to prepare for the advance to Magdala. The 10th Company (83 other ranks) had been organized before leaving England into four specific sections. These sections were Photographers (7 men), Signalers (10 men), Telegraphers (25 men), and Well Borers (21 men). There were also officers' servants (3 men) and a miscellaneous group of artisans and miners (17 men). During the campaign the men of these various sections generally kept to the work that they were sent out from England to perform. The section to which 2nd Corporal Overend was assigned is unclear. He may have been with the group of artisans as a carpenter. In the advance from Zula across the plateau by Senafe and Antalo to Magdala it becomes quite clear the importance of the Engineers to the ultimate success of this operation:

" The engineering difficulties in reaching Senafe were enormous. Three miles after entering the Kumayli Gorge, the track began to ascend steeply. The mountains grew closer and closer together till, at a place called Lower Suru, ten miles beyond Kumayli, the precipices on either side were only a few yards apart. Here the Sappers and a corps of Balichi labourers were engaged for six weeks in making a road ten feet wide; in some places it was carried over enormous granite boulders by ramps; in others it was blasted out of the face of the precipice. Gradually the track wound up and up till it emerged at last on the table land at Senafe, 7,000 feet above the sea and 63 miles from Zula. Beyond Senafe the route was easier for 37 miles to Adigrat, and thence the track led across waterless uplands, destitute of supplies and impassable for wheeled traffic. As the very existence of the force(,) when it reached the desolate tableland(,) would depend on the efficiency of the Engineers on the coast and in the Kumayli defile, Sir Robert Napier ordered Colonel Wilkins to remain at Zula to ensure that no hitch should occur. "G" and "H" Companies of the Madras Sappers and Miners were kept also at Zula and Kumayli throughout the campaign. The various departments of engineering - railways, roads, water-supply, telegraphs, signaling, and a field park - had each its small and efficient cadre of Engineer officers. There was even a Photographic Section. No commercial business could have been organized more carefully."

From Senafe the force advanced to Adigrat, arriving there on the 3rd of February 1868. On the 26th of February the main force marched from Adigrat to Antalo. With the engineers again instrumental in the advance, the force reached Antalo at the beginning of March of 1868. The line of march of the force, then climbed to over 10,000 feet, descended, and crossed the Bashilo River, and on the 7th of April defeated the enemy at Arogi within ten miles of Magdala.

" ‘I thought that the people now coming were women,’ remarked King Theodore, but, ‘I find that they are men.’ The King sent to sue for peace; but when he heard Napier’s terms - unconditional surrender of himself, his force and his prisoners - he flew into a rage. ‘A warrior,’ replied he, ‘who has dandled strong men in his arms like infants, will never suffer himself to be dandled in the arms of others.’"

Napier immediately pressed his advance on the Magdala Fortress stronghold with 3,500 men. The fort had only two main gates and was perched high on a granite mountain. The 10th Company, Royal Engineers, with 2nd Corporal Thomas Overend, and under the command of Major Gordon Douglas Pritchard, R.E., would play a significant role in the assault on the fort.

"In the assault on April 13th, the Engineers led the way along a path on the side of a precipice towards one of the gates carrying tools, ladders, and two barrels of powder. Major Pritchard, R.E., and others were wounded; but he, Lieutenant A. Le Mesurier, R.E., and a few men entered the escalade, and joined by the 33rd Regiment, made a dash for the upper gate. There they found the body of King Theodore who had shot himself when he saw his men deserting him. The Abyssinians had lost 700 men killed and 1200 wounded, and the British had only 20 wounded. The remnants of King Theodore’s army surrendered or fled in disorder, and the war was over."

The assault on the fort at Magdala and the war were over but the campaign was not over. There still remained the march back to the coast:

"After a most difficult march back to the coast, in extremes of temperature and through defiles flooded with raging torrents, Napier embarked his troops for England and India and sailed himself for England where he received a glorious welcome and a peerage. The trials and difficulties of this ‘Engineer’ campaign are well described in his farewell to his men:

‘You have traversed, often under a tropical sun or amidst storms of rain or sleet, 400 miles of mountainous and difficult country. You have crossed many steep and precipitous ranges of mountains more than 10,000 feet in altitude where your supplies could not keep pace with you. You have stormed the almost inaccessible fortress of Magdala. You have released not only the British captives but those of other friendly nations. Magdala has been committed to flames and remains only a scorched rock. Your gallant exploit will live in history. The Queen and the people of England will appreciate your services.’"

After returning from Abyssinia, 2nd Corporal Overend was to have a stay at home from the 8th of July 1868 to the 7th of January 1875, a period of 6 years and 5 months. Thomas Overend, now a newly promoted Sergeant of 39 days and after having just been newly married for 34 days, would next proceed to India on the 8th of January 1875. It is not known if he was accompanied by his wife or not. It is possible, since he was married with leave, that she did accompany him to India.

After 3 years and 108 days in India Sergeant Overend would take part in the first military expedition ever sent from India to Europe. In April and May of 1878, as a result of the terms of the Treaty of San Stefano that ended the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, the Home Government determined to occupy Cyprus with an expeditionary force that would be launched from Malta. An Indian Army force, about 7,000 strong, was sent from India to Malta for this purpose. The Engineers with the force were from Madras and Bombay. It appears that Sergeant Overend was seconded to either the 3rd or the 5th Companies of Bombay Sappers and Miners which left Bombay on the sailing ship Oriflamme for Malta on the 26th of April 1878. After reaching Malta at the end of May, the Indian Expeditionary Force was mobilized under Major General John Ross, and landed at Larnaka, Cyprus in July. For the three months that the Engineers were on Cyprus they were occupied with the construction of piers, road-work, the building of huts, the securing of a water-supply, making signaling arrangements, and conducting a survey of the island. They worked under very difficult conditions as much of the time they were much reduced in numbers by fever contracted during the stay. Sergeant Overend departed Cyprus for Malta on the 10th of November 1878 and departed Malta for India on the 8th of December 1878. During this service Sergeant Overend served a total of 104 days on Malta and 122 days on Cyprus. There was no fighting during this expedition, but by much hard construction work, the engineers had turned Cyprus into a garrison station.

Sergeant Overend was to be back in India from the end of December 1878 to the 17th of December 1879. He was ordered to proceed to Afghanistan, with the outbreak of the 2nd Afghan War, as a member of the 4th Company, Bombay Sappers and Miners under the command of Lieutenant Henry Oliphant Selby, R.E. and Lieutenant Walter Coles, R.E. On the 17th of December 1879 Sergeant Overend was with the 4th Company, Bombay Sappers and Miners at Siba, a town located at the south end of the Bolan Pass 73 miles from Quetta. In February of 1880, the 4th Company, Bombay Sappers and Miners (along with the 2nd, 3rd and 5th Companies) were to proceed to the Nari Valley. This is a river valley north of Siba. They were under orders to construct a road to facilitate the building of the railroad that was planned from Jacobabad to Siba, and through to Kandahar via two routes, one through the Bolan Pass and the other through the Nari River Valley. The 4th Company was the lead-company of two sent into the Nari Valley and saw some fighting with a force sent to open the Chappar Rift north-west of Harnari and Shahrig. During the 2nd Afghan War, Sergeant Overend was not to see a lot of fighting, but would have a significant role, as a British non-commissioned officer in the work contributed by the Bombay Sappers and Miners. The work that was assigned these men was instrumental to the success of the campaign, and cleared the way for the laying of many miles of new railroad through some of the roughest terrain in the world.

Sergeant Overend served in the 2nd Afghan War from the 17th of December 1878 to the 26th of March 1880 when he left the 2nd Afghan War theatre for India. He is listed as one of a total of six British Royal Engineer non-commissioned officers on the medal roll of the 4th Company, Bombay Sappers and Miners entitled to the 2nd Afghan War Medal without a clasp. The roll was sent to Calcutta, Despatch No. 188, on the 25th of May 1882.

After his return from Afghanistan, Sergeant Overend continued his service in India until the 4th of May 1882 when he departed India for England. During his service in the British Army, Sergeant Thomas Overend accumulated a total of 7 years 362 days of overseas service.

Marriage Information:

On the 5th of December 1874, Sergeant Overend married Mary Ann Pitts at Sheerness, Kent. The marriage was with leave and there are no children listed on his papers at the time of his discharge. In the Victorian British Army, "Marriage is allowed to all the staff-sergeants, to 50% of the other sergeants, 4% of the corporals and privates in the cavalry, artillery and engineers, and 3% in the infantry. Corporals and men have this concession made them on condition of their having served seven years, and that they have two good conduct badges, and prove that they have 5 Pounds in the savings bank. Married soldiers may receive rations separately, and uncooked, and if the man is engaged on duty away from his family, he is paid 4d a day for his wife and 1-1/2d a day for each child."

"A man who married without permission had a hard time indeed, for his wife and children were denied quarters of any sort and were given no extra rations; the wife had to work or starve."

Women on the strength had (to use the official language) ‘the privilege of washing for their respective companies.’ They might thereby earn a halfpenny per day per customer. Some worked as cooks or did needlework; the more respectable were selected to be maids or nursemaids in officers’ homes. Until the last half of the Victorian era, they usually lived in the barracks with the men, their home a corner screened off with blankets or canvas sheets. It was a hard life, and many of the women were rough. Certainly they needed to be tough."

Discharge Statement:

Sergeant Thomas Overend was discharged from the Royal Engineers with 21 years and 6 days service on the 13th of July 1882. There is no statement of conduct given at the time of his discharge. However, it is certainly clear that he was at least a very good and efficient non-commissioned officer who was in possession of a medal for Long Service and Good Conduct. It can also be stated the he is clearly shown to possess good judgement and high quality leadership skills as he was seconded as a Sergeant to work with the Bombay Sappers and Miners during the 2nd Afghan War. He was later awarded a George V, Army Meritorious Service Medal with an annuity of 10 pounds for his life spent as a soldier of the British Army. This further award would suggest that, in addition to the above speculation as to his character, he had also been zealous in the performance of all his duties, trustworthy, responsible, and probably sober. His intended residence at the time of discharge is not listed. It is known from the annuity records for the Meritorious Service Medal that he was still alive in 1926.

Biographical Endnotes:

1. Lieutenant General Honourable H.F. Keane, Royal Engineers, served in the Crimean war from 31 December 1854, including the siege and fall of Sebastopol, and the battle of Tchernaya (Companion of the Bath, Brevet of Major, 5th Class of the Medjidie, Medal with clasp, and Turkish Medal). Major General, 1 October 1877 and Lieutenant General 13 September 1879.

2. Colonel G.D. Pritchard, Royal Engineers, served during the Indian Mutiny of 1857-59 with the 23rd Company Royal Engineers, and was present at the action of Khujwa, throughout the relief of Lucknow by Lord Clyde, battle of Cawnpore on 6th December 1857, action of Khodagunge, siege and capture of Lucknow, throughout the Rohilcund campaign, including the attack on Fort Rooya, action of Allygunge, and capture of Bareilly; throughout the Oude and Trans-Gogra campaign, including the action of Dounderakera, attack on fort Oomreah, action of Burjeedia, capture of Fort Musjeedia, and the affair on the Raptee near Bankee (Medal with two clasps). Served during the China War of 1860, and was present at the actions of Sinho and Tangku, led the assaulting party (after Major Graham, R.E., was wounded) at the storming of the North Taku Fort, being one of the first to enter; present at the affairs of the 18th and 23rd of September, and the surrender of Pekin (twice Mentioned in Despatches, Medal and two clasps, and Brevet of Major). Commanded the 10th Company Royal Engineers throughout the Abyssinian Campaign 1868 and was present at the action of Arogee, and storming of the Fortress of Magdala, wounded in the right arm and shoulder (Mentioned in Despatches, Brevet of Lieutenant Colonel, and Medal). Lieutenant Colonel 1 July 1881 and Brevet Colonel 15 August 1876.

3. General Sir Robert Napier, after the Abyssinian Campaign, was thanked by Parliament and created Baron Napier of Magdala. From 1870 to 1876 he was Commander-in-Chief in India. From 1877 to 1882, he was Governor of Gibraltar. He became a Field Marshal in 1883, in which year his statue was unveiled on the Maidan at Calcutta. He died in London on January 14th 1890, the most famous military engineer India has ever produced. An equestrian statue of Lord Napier can be seen opposite the Queen’s Gate leading into Hyde Park in London.

4. Sir John Ross served with the Rifle Brigade in the Crimea at the battles of Alma and Inkerman, and in the siege of Sebastopol, until February of 1855 (Crimea Medal with clasps, Brevet of Major, 5th Class of the Medjidie, and Turkish Medal). Served in the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58, including the action of Cawnpore, siege and capture of Lucknow. He commanded the Camel Corps at the capture of Calpee and during the subsequent campaign in Central India (Mentioned in Despatches, Brevet of Lieutenant Colonel, Companion of the Bath, and Medal with Lucknow and Relief of Lucknow). Served with the Rifle Brigade in the North West Frontier of India campaigns of 1863-64 (Medal and clasp). Commanded Bengal Army troops during operations in the Malay Peninsula in 1875-76 (mentioned in General Orders of the Government of India, Medal with clasp). Commanded the Indian Expeditionary Force that was sent to Cyprus in 1878. Served in the Afghan War of 1878-80; commanded the 2nd Division Kabul Field Force, which defeated the enemy at Shekabad (received the thanks of the Governor General in Council and of the Commander in Chief in India); accompanied Sir Frederick Roberts in the march to Kandahar in command of the Infantry Division and as 2nd in command. He was present at the battle of Kandahar (Mentioned in Despatches, received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, Knight Commander of the Bath, Medal with clasp, and Kabul to Kandahar Star).

5. Colonel Henry Oliphant Selby, Royal Engineers, served in the Afghan War of 1878-80, and took part in the march to Kandahar with the force under Major General Phayer (Mentioned in Despatches, Medal). Lieutenant, 13 January 1869. Captain, 1 July 1881 and Deputy Consulting Engineer for Railways, Bombay. Major, 17 December 1887. Lieutenant Colonel, 5 April 1894. Colonel (Army Rank), 5 April 1898. Died at Montreux, Switzerland on the 2nd of January 1900.

6. Major Walter Coles, Royal Engineers, Lieutenant, 29 April 1873. Served in the 2nd Afghan War 1878-80 and in Bikanir in 1883. Captain, 8 January 1885. Served in the Soudan in 1885. Major, 19 April 1893. Retired on the 23rd of October 1897.