Artisan Works Company Royal Engineers

This article looks at artisan works companies of the Royal Engineers and will help you research both the units and those who served with them. I’ve written other guides to help you research soldiers who served in the British Army during the Second World War, with many of them focussing on the Royal Engineers.

I also offer a Second World War Soldier Research and Document Copying Service.

Artisan Works Companies of the Royal Engineers

Artisan works companies were war-raised units of the Royal Engineers which were mostly formed in Britain between January and April 1940. At the time, the British Expeditionary Force was in France and the Royal Engineers was creating large numbers of new units to work on engineering tasks in the country. The role of artisan works companies was to carry out building work on the lines of communication. This meant that while on active service, they were often far behind the front line. A lot of soldiers who served with artisan works companies, at least in early 1940, had been recruited directly from building sites. Local councils and building firms helped to recruit a lot of these men and formed some of the companies.

For example, the 687th Artisan Works Company was formed by Wates Ltd, and one of the Company’s directors, Allan Wates, served as the unit’s first commanding officer. Most artisan works companies were numbered between 651 and 723 in a numbering block they also shared with general construction companies. These were very similar units. By early 1943, most general construction companies had been converted into artisan works companies. The companies served all over the world, including Belgium, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Italy, Libya, and Tunisia.

War Establishment of an Artisan Works Company

Each unit of the British Army had its own war establishment, which recorded its structure and composition. The first war establishment for an artisan works company was “Notified in Army Council Instructions for the week ending 17th January, 1940”. This war establishment was given the designation IV/1931/9B/1 and was replaced by IV/9B/2 during the first half of 1942. Both war establishments were similar. IV/9B/2 was also replaced during the war. The first war establishment of an artisan works company is recorded below as it was in use for over two years, and the following establishments were similar. Its title page recorded:

Artisan Works Company, Royal Engineers

Consisting of:- Headquarters and 4 works sections.

Note. – This unit is organized for building work in the Line of Communication Area.

The line, or lines of communication led from the front to the rear area. An artisan works company had a strength of 6 officers and 257 other ranks. A Major commanded the company with a Captain as second-in-command. Both officers served with the headquarters. This was the smallest part of a company containing 2 officers and 21 other ranks. Each works section had the same composition. They were commanded by a subaltern, either a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant. Then there were fifty-nine other ranks. Of the other ranks serving with a company, 220 had passed a trade test in a specific skill. If a soldier passed a trade test, it should be recorded in their service record. All tradesmen were split equally between the sections, except where noted below. The following trades were represented:

  • 32 bricklayers
  • 60 carpenters and joiners
  • 3 clerks serving with the headquarters
  • 20 concreters
  • 2 draughtsmen (architectural) serving with the headquarters
  • 24 electricians
  • 8 masons
  • 12 painters and decorators
  • 12 plumbers and pipefitters
  • 47 pioneers. 3 served with the headquarters

The non-tradesmen included thirty Drivers Internal Combustion (I.C.) who drove and maintained a unit’s vehicles. Six of the Drivers I.C. acted as batmen to the officers, one was on sanitary duties and one was on water duties. For transport, an artisan works company had:

  • Six bicycles
  • Five motorcycles
  • One 4-seater 4-wheeled car
  • One 12-cwt van
  • One 30-cwt 4-wheeled general service lorry
  • Nine 3-ton, 4-wheeled general service lorries

For weaponry, a company was armed with eleven .38-inch pistols, 252 Lee-Enfield rifles, and 4 light machine guns. The latter were either Lewis or Bren guns. The Lewis gun had been brought into service during the First World War and many Royal Engineers units were initially armed with them. This was due to the Bren gun being in short supply early in the war.

Researching an Artisan Works Company

The only way to thoroughly 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 online. 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. Artisan works companies usually served on the lines of communication, as general headquarters troops, or under a Commander Royal Engineers. They may also have war diaries to consult but there probably won’t be a lot of additional information, due to the large number of units they tended to have under their command. If the war diaries of the company you’re researching are poor, I’d recommend having a look at the war diaries of units it was working alongside. Usually, they will be other units of the Royal Engineers or from the Pioneer Corps.

One resource which is available for free online and can provide you with some information is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database. By searching the database, you’ll be able to find out where an artisan works company’s soldiers are buried, or the memorial they are commemorated on. This will provide you with an idea of when and where a unit served abroad. For example, four soldiers of the 702nd Artisan Works Company died between 18 November and 4 December 1942, and all are buried in Algeria. Three are buried in Bone War Cemetery, Annaba, therefore, at the time the Company was based in the city or nearby. You have to check to see if there is a concentration report, as a lot of soldiers were exhumed and reburied during and after the war. This will be towards the bottom of a page. One of the three soldiers, Sapper Walter Gerald Moran, was exhumed from Bone European Cemetery in August 1944 and reburied in Bone Military Cemetery. Some soldiers were initially buried many miles away from their subsequent resting places.

To find an artisan company’s dead, click on the following link: Search the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database. Then put in the following information without the quotation marks

  • In the “Regiment” box type “Royal Engineers”
  • In the “War” box tick “Second World War”
  • Click on the “Unit” icon in the “Additional Fields” section. Then, type in the number of the artisan works company and nothing else. For example, if you want to find the dead of the 687th Artisan Works Company you type “687”.
  • Then click “Search”

Other units will also probably appear, but the dead of the Company you searched for should appear at the top. For example, the two soldiers who died serving with the 687th Artisan Works Company appear first when the above search is carried out.

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. These were held by the Ministry of Defence, but it has recently begun transferring them to the National Archives in London. As there are millions of documents to be moved, and catalogued, this is a slow process. A small number of service records for the Royal Engineers have already been added to the National Archives’ catalogue. If you already know a soldier’s army number, search for it in the catalogue. However, most haven’t and a service record will either be still held by the Ministry of Defence or have been transferred to the National Archives but not yet catalogued. I’ve written a separate article on how to order a copy of a service record. The reason a service record is so important is that a lot of the information it contains can’t be found elsewhere.

If you’re researching a soldier who served in the ranks, so wasn’t an officer, you can search the Royal Engineers’ tracer cards available to view on Findmypast. A card should provide you with the list of units a soldier served with, along with the date they joined. Other information is often recorded, for example if a soldier was invalided from their unit, or embarked for overseas service. You can search via name, army number and date of enlistment. There is a lot of jargon in the files, and my page on abbreviations and acronyms will help. An artisan works company will be abbreviated as A.W.C. on the card with a number preceding it. As many were converted from general construction companies, G.C.C. may also appear. Once you know which units a soldier served with, you can turn to their war diaries for information about where an artisan works company served, and its activities.

Sergeant Robert Hunt of the 685th Artisan Works Company

Sergeant Robert Hunt of the 685th Artisan Works Company was reported missing in France on 23 May 1940. In its 23 August 1940 edition, the Runcorn Weekly News and District Reporter published Robert’s photograph under the header “Ditton Sergeant Missing”. A short column reported that Robert was “a bricklayer by trade and was foreman bricklayer for the Unit Construction Company at Speke” and that “any information would be welcomed by his relatives”. Robert was taken prisoner in France and didn’t return to Britain until 1945, after the end of the war in Europe. There is a wide variety of sources of information both online and at the National Archives for Robert. The Runcorn Weekly News and District Reporter is one of the newspapers which is available to view on Findmypast.

If you’re researching a soldier who was killed, wounded, or captured while serving with an artisan works company, you’ll have a variety of sources to consult online. 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. I’d also recommend searching the Royal Engineers’ other ranks casualty cards available on Findmypast. These documents often record details about a soldier’s cause of death which you won’t be able to find elsewhere. This is especially the case if a soldier died away from their unit, e.g. in hospital. You can search by name or army number, with the latter found in a soldier’s entry in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s database. War diaries will often record when a soldier of a company died, and may provide more information.
If a soldier was wounded or taken prisoner of war, you can search the casualty lists and prisoner of war records on Findmypast. 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 but more are added each month.

Another useful source of information is the WO 416 series of index cards created by Germany for their Allied prisoners of war. There are thirty-one 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.