This article is on artisan works companies and will explain what they were and how to research both the units and soldiers who served with them. I’ve also written a series of articles to help you research those who served in the British Army during the Second World War:
I also offer a Second World War Soldier Research and Document Copying Service.
Artisan Works Company Royal Engineers
Artisan works companies were war-raised units of the Royal Engineers which were mostly formed between January and April 1940. At the time, the British Expeditionary Force was in France and the Royal Engineers was creating dozens of new units to work on engineering tasks in the country. Most artisan works companies were numbered between 651 and 723 in a numbering block they also shared with general construction companies. The role of an artisan works company was to carry out building work on the lines of communication. This meant that while on active service, they were often many miles behind the front line. In January 1940, the first war establishment of an artisan works company was published and is outlined below. This establishment was altered during the war.
An artisan works company was divided into a headquarters and four sections and was commanded by a Major who was one of six officers serving with the unit. A Captain was second-in-command and then there were four subalterns, either Lieutenants or Second Lieutenants. The Major and Captain served with the headquarters while there was one subaltern in charge of each section. Then there were 257 other ranks, with 21 serving with the headquarters and 58 in each section. This gave an artisan works company a total strength of 263 all ranks. Of those who served with the company, 173 were tradesmen having passed a trade test in a particular skill. As artisan works companies’ main role was the construction of buildings, the trades are those you would have found on any building site in Britain at the time.
- Bricklayers: 32
- Carpenters and joiners: 60
- Clerks: 3
- Concreters: 20
- Draughtsmen (architectural): 2
- Electricians: 24
- Masons: 8
- Painters and decorators: 12
- Plumbers and pipefitters: 12
- Pioneers: 47
There were also thirty soldiers who weren’t tradesmen but had been trained as drivers I.C. (Internal combustion). This information will be recorded in a soldier’s service record along with any trade tests they passed and their skill level. For transport, there were six bicycles, five motorcycles, a car, a van, and ten lorries. Its armament was eleven .38-inch Webley revolvers, 252 Lee-Enfield rifles, and four light machine guns. Shortages in arms and equipment early in the war meant the above figures could fluctuate.
Researching an Artisan Works Company
The only way to research an artisan works company is to view its war diaries at the National Archives in London. Without consulting these documents, you’d be lucky to find more than a few passing references to a company. A war diary was written by an officer of a unit and recorded its location and activities. They often contain appendices recording orders, construction reports, diagrams of building works, and maps. I offer a copying service for these documents.
Researching A Soldier who Served in an Artisan Works Company
The most important document to research a soldier who served in an artisan works company is their service record. Without a service record, you won’t be able to research a soldier unless you already have paperwork relating to their service. A service record will provide you with the unit/s a soldier served with and when they served with them, allowing you to then look at the correct war diaries. Most of the information found in a service record will not be recorded anywhere else. They are held by the Ministry of Defence which currently charges a £30 fee for a copy. I’ve written a separate guide to help you order service records. You’ll encounter a lot of jargon in the form of abbreviations and acronyms.
If you’re researching a soldier who was killed, wounded, or captured while serving with an artisan works company, you’ll be able to start your research even if you don’t have their service record. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission recorded all the dead of the British Army between 3 September 1939 and 31 December 1947. You’ll be able to find out where a soldier is buried or commemorated and the date of their death, as well as other information. Their unit may not be recorded, instead, they may just be listed as a soldier of the Royal Engineers. If the artisan works company they were serving with when they died does appear in their entry, you can turn to its war diary to see if the circumstances of the soldier’s death were recorded.
If a soldier was wounded or taken prisoner of war, you can search the casualty lists and prisoner of war records on Findmypast. This is a genealogy website which usually offers a free trial period. Many soldiers serving with artisan works companies were taken prisoner during the fall of France in May and June 1940. There is a file regarding enquiries into missing soldiers of these companies held at the National Archives which may be useful if you’re researching a soldier who was killed, taken prisoner or went missing in May or June 1940. Its catalogue reference is British Expeditionary Force, France: Royal Engineers (works companies), missing men: WO 361/102. Another useful resource if you’re researching a casualty is the British Newspaper Archive which is also available to view on Findmypast. However, only a fraction of the newspapers have been digitized from the Second World War.
Another useful source of information is the WO 416 series of index cards created by Germany for their Allied prisoners of war. Only the surnames between Aaby and Lusted have been catalogued so far and there are eighteen soldiers listed as serving with an artisan works company when they were captured. However, there will be others captured serving with an artisan works company who haven’t had their unit listed in their entry. The London Gazette is a useful resource to search if you’re looking for an officer as it will record when they were commissioned, as well as any subsequent promotions, honours or awards. An officer may appear with their name in full or just initials. The London Gazette’s search system is very poor, so don’t be surprised if you can’t find an officer.