“Follow the sapper is a timeless cry.” – 1995
Throughout the history of warfare, there was a need for men willing to battle not the enemy themselves but the defenses they erected to protect themselves. Today, the role of sapper is referred to as engineers. These men and women apply math and scientific ingenuity into building and tearing down edifices. They are as important to a battle as the soldiers fighting.
In medieval times, sappers were not necessarily that well educated. They worked almost exclusively on getting beneath castle walls, planting incendiary devices and razing them.
‘Sap’ is defined as ‘gradually weakening or destroying.’
A sappers job was to gradually weaken and destroy walls that seemed otherwise impregnable. Building trebuchets, catapults, battering rams and other siege weapons were costly, timely affairs and highly dependent on the availability of natural resources in close proximity to the battle site. As military expertise increased, commanders of fortresses learned to destroy the landscape for miles in all directions, thus making it extremely difficult for besiegers to locate the natural resources they required to build siege weapons.
Sappers worked grueling hours, digging long ditches, eventually going underground. Tunneling was dangerous and collapse a constant threat. This concept of trenching beneath strongholds has never gone away. Sappers such as this were employed during the American Civil War as well as both World Wars.
Weakening the ground underneath a wall, weakened it. Using a variety of animal fats, oils and resins, the walls could be heated to a point where they collapsed in on themselves. Later, after gunpowder came along, explosive devices were incorporated. And then came the age of canons, mortars and howitzers. This brought about the end of the castle building era.
Chemical weaponry was also employed. Sulfur, quicklime and other toxins were introduced into the fires, polluting the air around the wall, prohibiting repairers of the breach from getting at it.