The history of the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia) can be traced back to the sixteenth century. Its title has changed on several occasions, and its role has varied over time, but throughout its long history one feature has remained constant: the regiment has never been part of the regular army, but has always been a reserve force. Composed of men who had ordinary occupations, and who were brought together for military training at intervals, the Regiment was called on at times of need. At such times, it was ‘embodied’, and its members became full-time soldiers for as long as was required.
The origins of the Regiment lie in a muster roll of 1539, which lists all those in the county of Monmouthshire eligible for military service in the county militia. At this period, each parish had to provide a quota of men and equipment for the militia, which was intended to provide a local defence force. The system had shortcomings, but continued in existence - albeit with some changes and periods of inactivity - until the mid eighteenth century.
In 1757, the Militia Act brought substantial changes, creating a far more professional force. County regiments, Monmouthshire included, were smaller and better trained than the militia had been in the past. Rather than all men being expected to serve, a number were selected by ballot to serve for three years – although it was possible for those who were selected to avoid service by paying for a substitute. Officers were appointed by the Lord Lieutenant of the county, and were from the higher social classes. Most importantly, the regiments were ‘embodied’ (assembled) from time to time for training.
The militia could only be deployed at home, but provided an important contribution to the maintenance of civil order and to home defence. The Monmouthshire militia was embodied four times between 1760 and 1816. The most significant of these periods of service was during the wars against France from 1793 to 1816, when the Regiment carried out defence duties on the south coast of England, as well as serving in Bristol and the west country, and in Ireland. At the start of this period of active service, the Brecon Militia (which was only of company strength) was incorporated into the Regiment, under the new title Monmouth and Brecon Militia. The name was changed to the Royal Monmouth and Brecon Militia in 1804. In 1820, the militias were separated into two regiments again, with the Monmouthshire Regiment being named the Royal Monmouthshire Militia.
From 1816 until the 1850s, the Regiment, in common with other county militias, was for the most part inactive. In 1852, however, another Militia Act revived the militias. The Act abandoned the principle of conscription, which had fallen into disuse, in favour of voluntary recruitment. The Monmouthshire Militia was revived with the name the Royal Monmouthshire Light Infantry. The Regiment was embodied in 1854, at the time of the Crimean War, but only for home defence duties. It was posted to Pembroke Dock from January 1855 to July 1856.
In 1877 came a major change to the regiment: it was converted from an infantry regiment to a corps of engineers, with the new name the Royal Monmouthshire Engineers (Militia). The new role demanded different and more intensive training, as members of the regiment acquired the specialised engineering skills required of them. Supervision of the training came from the (regular army) Royal Engineers, based in Chatham, and it was partly in order to identify the Regiment more closely with the Royal Engineers that the name was changed again, in 1896, to the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia). This has remained the name of the Regiment since then.
During the Second Boer War (1899-1902), a number of members of the Regiment volunteered for service overseas. Three companies and a section, composed of these volunteers, went out to South Africa between 1900 and 1903, serving a year or more each. The rest of the Regiment was embodied for a short period (May – October 1900) for service in the UK, replacing regular engineer units which had been sent to South Africa.
A major reorganisation of the reserve forces in 1908 led to the end of most of the militia regiments. The Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia), however, survived the changes to become a unit of the newly-created Special Reserve. As such, the Regiment was available for service overseas should it be needed, and it was mobilised in August 1914 on the outbreak of the First World War. At this point, the Regiment consisted of three companies; in November 1914, all three were sent to France and Flanders where they served in various locations until the end of the war. Between September 1914 and January 1917 five further companies were formed from new volunteers. Four of these were sent to France, but one (No 5 (Siege) Company) was sent to Gallipoli and Egypt. All eight companies were disbanded during 1919, and the Regiment reduced to a cadre of fifteen men.
In 1926, the Regiment was re-formed, as part of the newly-created Supplementary Reserve. This was a reserve force composed of specialist troops, available for service overseas as well as at home. Recruitment to the Regiment went well, a number of former officers returned, and as well as regular training, annual camps were held most years from 1926 to 1939.
On the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, the Regiment was mobilised, and its two companies were sent to France as part of the the British Expeditionary Force. Most of the members of 101 Company returned from France via Dunkirk in May 1940, but most of 100 Company were taken prisoner and spent the next five years in prisoner of war camps. 100 Company and the remnants of 101 Company regrouped, and in June 1944 returned to France as part of VIII Corps Royal Engineers.They played an active role in the invasion of Europe, being especially skilled in the construction of long Bailey Bridges over major rivers and canals.
By the end of the war, the companies had effectively become absorbed into the regular Royal Engineers, but the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia) was re-established in 1948, again as a Supplementary Reserve regiment.
The Supplementary Reserve was abolished in 1953, and the Regiment became part of the Territorial Army. In 1967, a major reorganisation of the Territorial Army threatened the existence of the Regiment as a distinct entity. However, it not only survived, but increased in size as squadrons from other engineer regiments in south Wales, the west Midlands, and Bristol which had been disbanded were added to it.
The Regiment has retained its close links with Monmouth, and in particular with Great Castle House, next to the ruins of the castle. Although Great Castle House was built by the Duke of Beaufort in 1672, he used it little, and throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was used for a variety of purposes. The association of the Regiment with the building began in 1853, when it was leased to the Clerk of Peace for Monmouthshire as a barracks for the militia. Substantial wings were added to each side of the building in the 1860s, and in 1901 the War Department bought the freehold of the house, as well as of the adjacent Little Castle House and the castle ruins. For a short period after the First World war, the building was unoccupied, and during the 1920s and 1930s it was shared with the Monmouth Territorial Army Association. Since 1945, Great Castle House has been in the sole occupation of the Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia), serving as its headquarters.
More information on the history of the Regiment can be found at http://www.monmouthcastlemuseum.org.uk/