“I had no idea what a sapper was…………”

Anzac Digger - Roy Denning
213 – Roy Howard Denning – Cover photo from “Anzac Digger” by Roy & Lorna Denning – Published 2004

“I had no idea what a sapper was, however I had placed myself unreservedly in the hands of the military …“ Sapper 213 Roy Denning


When the First World War started in 1914, most Australians did not know what the term “sapper” meant or in military terms, how vital the work of the sapper was to the operations of the military forces and their role in the success of many of the campaigns.
It would take the entire course of the first world war for the general public to gain a glimpse into the life of the sapper or Engineer.  It took nearly a further hundred years  for a very personal account to be told by an “original” sapper -213 Roy Denning of the 1st Field Company Engineers.
The phrase “sapper”  is derived from the French word sappe (“spadework,” or “trench”) and became connected with military engineering during the 17th century, when attackers dug covered trenches to approach the walls of a besieged fort. They also tunneled under those walls and then collapsed the tunnels, thus undermining the walls. These trenches and tunnels were called “saps,” and their diggers came to be called “sappers.”
The textbook definition is as follows…….. a Sapper is a Military engineer, meaning his duties involve building field defences, communication lines, construction of trenches, roads, bridges, as well as being trained to serve as infantry personnel. The term Sapper is still being used today by the British Army, Commonwealth nations and the U.S Military.

In modern armies, sappers serve three functions. They provide tactical support on the battlefield by installing portable bridges, tank traps, and other construction; they build major support facilities, such as airports, supply roads, fuel depots, and barracks; and they are assigned additional tasks, including the disarming and disposal of mines and unexploded bombs and shells and the preparation and distribution of maps. Source – Encyclopaedia Britannica

The modern Sapper’s  motto  “First in, Last out” …….

Sapper Roy Denning in his published war diary describes the day he enlisted……..
“On Monday the 9th September 1914, I left home for work as usual. I was a carpenter by trade . Not tall, not big , just medium. I had not mentioned to my mother or family that I intended to go to Victoria barracks in Sydney instead of going to work.
After considerable screening as to my capabilities , I was drafted in as a “Sapper” in the Engineers.
I had no idea what a sapper was, however I had placed myself unreservedly in the hands of the military to be sent to any part of the world. They could order me to go to my death if necessary. They could have me shot if I refused to obey orders. I had thought of all this and signed my name.
Now my chief worry was how I was going to break the news at home.”
Source: “Anzac Digger” by Roy and Lorna Denning.


After reading  “Anzac Digger” I discovered Roy was a very compassionate man and deep down he was a gentle soul. He was like so many of the volunteers , displaying all the willingness to being a soldier but perhaps not suited to war, and like most volunteers, he was untrained and unprepared.

Some men would thrive on soldiering and some would struggle and many like Roy would find an inner strength, an overwhelming sense of duty and responsibility to their mates. This inner strength helped men like Roy survive and push through the hardships he would have to endure over 4 years at war, displaying a fortitude that not many of us will ever have to muster.

Roy discussed with his mate 212 “Chook’ Charles Fowle whether it would be better to lose a limb or be killed. Chook said he would rather be killed but Roy replied  he was not ready to die ….“life was still sweet, self preservation still a potent factor demanding recognition”.

Roy also had two special mates  “cobbers ” as he called them, Phil and Fatty.  Phil was a 6 footer, 26 years old and reared on a farm, Fatty also a farmer was shorter and a rough carpenter.  Roy explained how he was not like either of them, not impulsive like Phil or boisterous like Fatty, but he felt he was slow in making up his mind, but when he did decide to do something he was determined to see it through.

When Roy enlisted in 1914,  he felt he was not so tall, just medium and perhaps he was not as confident as his two war mates Phil and Fatty, but Roy was his own man, self motivated and always determined and loyal to the end, his war record testimony to these fine qualities.

Roy Denning was a man who in war time would distinguished himself , and in his life after the war never gave up on anything and made a good fist of everything he tried …..  I think this is what gallant men do.

Sadly the war took something from Roy. The photos of Roy tell the tale, like so many returned soldiers, he looks older beyond his years and there is a sadness and distance in his gaze. The war had taken the best bits of Roy and left only bruised remnants and ultimately his family would become innocent casualties as they lived with Roy’s struggle to rebuild himself.

His daughter Lorna has written the epilogue to the final work her father and mother had completed in 1976. Lorna bravely gives the details of her childhood , growing up in a family subjected to her father’s inner torment brought on by the effects of war.

She explains how her father was devastated by the outbreak of World War II, being afraid his own son would be called up. He would suffer constantly from sleeplessness, hives and nightmares about war for another 30 years.

Roy had tried to have his work published in the early 70’s , but publishers were not interested in the First World War at the time. Sadly Roy and his wife Lorna would not see their hard work published before they died.

Their daughter Lorna however made it happen and in 2004 the book was finally published. It has been an inspiration to my own research and I am deeply indebted to the influence it has had on my own journey.

 Story – Copyright© VanceKelly2015

Anzac Digger Book Roy Denning

 Source & Photo:  “Anzac Digger” by Roy and Lorna Denning.


1.Phil is believed to be..129 Phillip Owen Ayton,  while “Fatty”is still not confirmed, a rough carpenter is the clue, but which rough carpenter ?….

2. The book“Anzac Digger” by Roy and Lorna Denning. is available from Military Booksellers and also Ebay.

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