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Dissenters but not pacifists


The civils were founded in 1818 - hardly 'back in the beginning of time', and their reason for calling themselves 'civils' certainly wasn't because of any 'pacifist Quaker origins'. The Royal Engineers are known for being 'mad, married and Methodist' - this last because of their propensity for prayer meetings. Perhaps Quakers were special but the Dissenting faction as a whole - which, it is agreed, were founders of engineering - were not necessarily pacifist.

The evil of landmines is indiscriminate laying by armies which have abandoned hope of advancing. The worst problems came with mass-produced, low-metal content mines laid by dropping indiscriminately from aircraft. It was primarily a tactic by the Communist powers, notably in Afghanistan; perhaps also in Mostar. Indeed, a political problem rather than a purely military one.

Whence came 'civil engineer'? Engineering had always been military - Shakespeare's 'engineer hoist on his own petard' was a sapper. Military engineers were concerned with erecting fortifications and reducing them; in the 17th and 19th centuries the wars in France and the Low Countries were wars of movement.

The French set up the Corps des Ponts et Chaussees in 1706 and the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees in 1747. They soon found that roads and bridges built for the easy movement of armies also proved beneficial to commerce and general prosperity - hence the idea of civil engineering. It has to be admitted that the major contribution of civil engineers to the 'Civitas' had already taken place with the provision of potable water and sewerage - this provision was epoch-making and the foundation of the possibility of living in cities.

We did not put the 'civil into civilisation'. Civilisation came from living in cities - 'civitates' - agglomerations of people living together behind walls for protection from wandering bands of ruffians (soldiers, if you will). A military requirement, perhaps?

Putting back the 'infrastructure' is not the easiest task. Wars come from the hearts and minds of people - that is where one has to begin.

Sir Alan Harris CBE FEng FCGI Hon DSc BSc(Eng) FICE FIStructE, Ashley Gardens, Thirleby Road, London SW1P 1HL

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