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Groundbreaking History: Shovels and E-Tools of The RCR

Ground-breaking History: Shovels and E-Tools

By Jessica Stevenson, MI, MMST

Many aspects of military life directly depend on digging. Soldiers dig trenches, dugouts, and shelters, as well as fighting positions and foxholes. They also dig latrines and cooking pits, move debris and rubble, and fill sandbags during emergencies. Although military technology has advanced in considerable ways in the last century or so, the simplest, stealthiest, and most effective form of digging is still a soldier carrying a shovel. From the intricate trench systems of the First World War to the defensive fortifications formed with sandbags during modern weather events, digging as a key skill of soldiering is evident in the similarity of shovels and tools used across these time periods. This story will examine two of the most common types of shovels issued to soldiers, the Entrenching Tool and the General Service Shovel, using examples from The Royal Canadian Regiment Museum collection.

1908 Pattern Entrenching Tool

Originally developed by the British, the 1908 pattern entrenching tool, or “E-Tool”, was made of two separate pieces: a metal head consisting of a spade and a pick, and a wooden helve. The metal head attached to the end of the wooden helve where it would rest at a 90-degree angle to create a mattock-style tool that could chop away at dirt or the sides of a trench. The tool was carried in two pieces in a canvas pouch attached to the lower back of a soldier’s webbing. The metal head rested inside the pouch while the helve was threaded through two outer loops. This E-tool was unpopular with soldiers as they found it difficult to assemble the pieces quickly when needed. Additionally, the small spade-size and limited digging styles afforded by the mattock-style use made it difficult to dig either large formations or for extended periods of time. Despite the unpopularity of the 1908 pattern, these E-Tools were used for the remainder of the First World War and into the 1930s. This 1908 pattern E-tool was manufactured in 1916 by the British company Septimus Vaughan Limited, according to the manufacturing stamp on the metal of the spade.

Date: 1916
Donated by: The RCR Collection
Object ID: RCRM2021.001.071

General Service Shovel (1915)

In response to the difficulties with the 1908 Pattern E-Tool, the British and Canadian militaries also issued stronger tools to use for larger projects. This included the “Shovel, General Service” or GS shovel, which consisted of a larger spade attached to a long wooden handle. GS shovels were produced by both British and Canadian manufacturers, but many followed similar patterns. The pattern is very similar to the shovels produced by the British company Bulldog Tools, which continued to make standard-sized spades in the same First World War pattern until at least 1960. The company still operates today.

Of particular interest is the line of wear along the bottom of the spade. GS shovels were used to dig heavier fortifications and as a result many of the remaining shovels have significant height differences from one another due to the level of wear on the end of the spade. The pattern of wear seen here suggests the shovel in our collection was used with some degree of regularity.

Date: C.1915
Donated by: Harry Rammage
Object ID: RCRM1967.008.0001

Turkish Entrenching Tool

This E-Tool from The RCR Museum collection was used by Turkish forces in Cyprus. It was picked up by a member of The RCR on deployment there in 1974 after a series of hostilities between the Turks and Greeks. Although the tool was likely manufactured just prior to 1974, the pattern here is very similar to an entrenching tool popularized by the Russians during the early 20th Century. The Russians called this tool the MPL-50. The distinct square-shaped spade with metal riveting was designed to be used for more than digging. Depending on the scenario, the MPL-50 could also be used as a paddle, axe, or flat surface for cooking if necessary.

In the late 1930s, the British tried developing a new entrenching tool pattern and settled on a design known as the No. 3 Pattern. Although the Russians popularized the MPL-50, other European countries borrowed some of this design and created their own versions. The No. 3 Pattern had many similar features to the MPL-50, including a shorter, square-shaped spade attached to a wooden handle with rivets. The No. 3 Pattern was never popular either and there is little evidence to suggest that Canadians ever used them aside from very early in the Second World War.

Date: C.1974
Donated by: Douglas Cavener
Object ID: RCRM1975.008.0001
Detail 1

M-1945 American Entrenching Tool

After the failure of the No. 3 Pattern, the British and the Canadians developed the 1937 Pattern Entrenching Tool, which was essentially the 1908 pattern with a few modifications. One of the differences included later E-Tools having a metal attachment on the end of the wooden helve that could hold a spike bayonet.

In 1943, the Americans created the M-1943 Entrenching Tool using a German design that featured a folding spade attached to a wooden handle with a metal screw ring. This shovel was well-received as the screw ring could be adjusted to three different positions, with the spade either folded away against the handle for storage, folded out 180-degrees to form a straight shovel, or folded to 90-degrees to create the same mattock-style head as the Canadian 1937 pattern. A later update to the pattern in 1945 included the addition of a separate piece of metal that could be folded up to create a pick, thus turning the tool into something that could be spade, pick, or pick-mattock as required.

While these shovels were American in origin, some Canadians find themselves with American tools through the end of the Second World War. The next update to the official Canadian pattern of E-Tool in 1951 developed a folding spade very similar to the M-1945.

Date: C.1945
Donated by: The RCR Collection
Object ID: RCRM2020.001.101
Detail 4

General Service Shovel (1953)

Despite the design improvements in 1951, few Canadians fighting in Korea saw these updates until late or post-war. As a result, soldiers were still dealing with the 1937 Pattern E-Tools and, once more, they turned to their General Service Shovels instead. Men used their GS shovels in a variety of ways, including digging bunkers, foxholes, latrines, and fortifying defensive positions. The shovel was meant to be used for certain types of digging, as it was heavy and bulky to carry, with no designated carrier or spot on a soldier’s webbing. However, many tucked the handles inside their webbing and carried their GS shovels with them anyway. Shovels were often carried into the field on patrols to use for dismantling hazards or traps, and, occasionally, were even used as a weapon.

The overall design remained relatively unchanged from the GS type, produced in the First World War. One variation to be noted during this time period: the change in handle from a “T” shape to a “D” shape for some Canadian manufacturers. This GS shovel still has the “T” shape handle and was produced by E&W Lucas Ltd. in 1953.

Date: C.1953
Donated by: Lou Belic
Object ID: RCRM1985.022.001
Detail 4

A Common Military Task

Chapter 4 of the technical report “Optimising Operational Physical Fitness” conducted by the NATO Research and Technology Organisation in 2009 classifies digging as a “Common Military Task” with the expectation that the need for manual excavation will never cease. The report includes methodology and research for tracking the physical fitness and capability of soldiers while digging and using shovels.

V. René Nevola, “Chapter 4 – COMMON MILITARY TASK: DIGGING”
Optimizing Operational Physical Fitness, NATO RTO, 2009