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Friday, 15 February 2013

Canadian Railway Troops

World War I is widely viewed as the first 'modern' war in part because of the important role played by many technologies in its events.  The airplane, machine gun, heavy artillery and the tank all made their military debut during its battles.  Behind the front lines, other technologies fulfilled important functions.  The telegraph and telephone dramatically improved military communication.  'Lorries' and other gas-powered vehicles gradually replaced horses and wagons as means of transportation.

One of the oldest 'modern' technologies - railways - also played a crucial role in the war's events.  A central part of the Industrial Revolution, railways and steam engine powered locomotives revolutionized 19th century transportation.  While the armies marched to battle in August 1914 with teams of horses hauling their supplies, as the war progressed, railways became the primary means of moving men and supplies to the front lines.

Narrow gauge train carrying artillery shells to the front lines.
Railways had played a role in several 19th century military conflicts.  Railway lines were used to move troops to Lower Canada during the Rebellions of 1837-38.  They were a vital resource during the American Civil War (1861-65), and allowed the Canadian government to quickly respond to the 1885 Saskatchewan Rebellion.  Movement of troops and supplies by rail was common practice in the European wars leading to the unification of Germany (1866-71).  Nevertheless, as the 19th century drew to a close, the military establishment had not fully recognized and harnessed its potential.

Railways were not particularly important in the war's early events.  However, by December 1914, both sides realized that the conflict would not be quickly resolved and now faced the challenge of moving large quantities of supplies to the millions of men fighting along the Western Front.  The quantity of goods required was staggering.  The British Army, for example, provided each soldier with 1 1/2 lb. of fresh rations daily, in addition to standard-issued tins of hard tack crackers and 'bully beef'.  Animal fodder, ammunition, petroleum oil and lubricants also had to be transported to the battle zone.  The average horse consumed ten times as much as a soldier.  By 1915, British troops and animals were consuming an astonishing 4400 tons of food and fodder daily!

As the size of the armies increased, moving supplies to the front lines on roads already crowded with infantry traffic posed another problem.  The resulting shortages of food and supplies made large-scale attacks impossible.  The increasing reliance on new weapons - particularly artillery and machine guns - required a steady stream of ammunition to the front lines merely to maintain a defensive position.  It was soon apparent that an efficient transportation system behind the front lines was vital to winning the war, and the railway gradually emerged as the most effective solution.

Construction crew building narrow gauge line.
Canada was particularly suited to a lead role in building an effective wartime railway system in Europe.  In the years before the war's outbreak, Canadians built more railway lines than any other part of the British Empire.  A 25-year railway boom saw the construction of three trans-continental lines and dozens of regional branch connectors.  As a result, Canada possessed the expertise required to 'do the job'.  In fact, as early as October 1914, the Canadian government considered the inclusion of 'railway troops' as part of its 'Second Contingent' of troops, but British authorities politely rejected the suggestion. 

By the end of 1914, however, events along the Western Front forced Britain to reconsider.  The French government initially assumed responsibility for construction and maintenance of all railway lines in France and Belgium.  In the aftermath of the first battle of the Marne, in which Allied forces recaptured territory lost to German forces, the challenges faced by France quickly became apparent.  A significant gap existed between rail connections and the front lines, and the French government realized that it lacked both the manpower and expertise to quickly resolve the problem.  The crisis led Britain to request the formation of a Canadian contingent of men skilled in railway construction and willing to enlist for the duration of the war.

The Canadian government quickly responded with the creation of a railway construction unit - the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps (CORCC) - on February 22, 1915.  Initial recruits were drawn from the Canadian Pacific Railroad's (CPR) experienced labor pool and placed under the command of Lt.-Colonel C. W. P. Ramsay, the company's chief construction engineer.  The contingent mobilized at Saint John, NB before travelling to England for further training.  On August 24, 1915, CORCC arrived in France and was attached to the Belgian army, where it immediately began work on building 60 cm (small gauge) rail lines, concrete machine gun emplacements and other engineering projects.

Soldiers bending steel rail.
In a January 1916 letter to a fellow CORCC officer, Lt.-Colonel Ramsay demonstrated considerable foresight with regard to railways' potential role in the war.  If extended to within 3 miles of the front lines, Ramsay predicted that 75 % of motor vehicle transportation requirements could be eliminated.  Moreover, railways required less manpower, cost less to operate, and provide larger hauling capacity - a railway car carried ten tons as compared to a lorry's maximum load of three tons.  Ramsay was confident that British military authorities would soon change their opinion of railways' role in fighting the war.

Events soon demonstrated the accuracy of Ramsay's predictions.  In March 1916, a new British policy called for the construction of 60 cm tramways between the front trenches and points beyond which horses could not safely move supplies.  Britain requested an additional 1000 Canadian recruits to assist with this undertaking.  While the new policy enhanced railways' role in the war effort, events on the battlefield soon led to even more dramatic changes.

On July 1, 1916, British forces launched the Somme offensive, the first full-scale attack on German positions.  As the attack progressed, the existing road-based transportation system was quickly overwhelmed.  Each day, seven trainloads of munitions arrived at the railheads behind British front lines.  Transportation to artillery guns and soldiers in the front trenches required the equivalent of 36 miles of truck transportation for each British Division.  The result was predictable - the existing road system was incapable of moving such large quantities in a timely and efficient manner.  As a result, in August 1916, British commanders adopted a second policy, requiring the construction of light railway lines to connect standard gauge railway heads to the tramway system at the front.  This change effectively eliminated road transportation as a means to move supplies to the front lines.
Canadian soldiers grading railway bed.
As the Somme offensive withered without significant results by the end of 1916, British commanders searched for factors to explain its failure.  One lesson was obvious - the existing transportation system was incapable of moving the supplies required to sustain a large-scale attack to the front lines.  The British government commissioned Sir Eric Geddes, a transportation expert, to examine the problem and make recommendations.  His report led to two significant changes.  First, the entire transportation system behind the front lines - docks, railways, canals and roads - were placed under central command.  Second, Geddes was aware of Canada's expertise in railway construction and recommended the recruitment of additional contingents of skilled engineers and railway workers for overseas service.

In early 1917, the British government formally requested the creation of a Canadian railway contingent.  In response, the Canadian government organized the Canadian Railways Troops (CRT), launching a national recruitment campaign that produced five units for overseas service by the end of February 1917.  An additional seven units arrived at the front between April 1917 and March 1918.  Upon arrival, the CRT immediately assumed responsibility for building, operating, maintaining and repairing all standard- and light-gauge railway lines within the British sector in France.

Unlike regular Canadian infantry, CRT enlistments were not part of the Canadian Corps.  Rather, they were placed under the command of Brigadier (later Major-General) John William Stewart, a native of Scotland who had immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia before the war.  Stewart was appointed Deputy-Director of General Transportation (Construction) at British General Headquarters in January 1917.  Under his direction, the CRT established a Depot at Purfleet, England, where the original units and later reinforcements underwent initial training before departing for the European continent.  Unlike their infantry counterparts, CRT recruits received no weapons or trench warfare training.  Rather, they were recruited solely because of their knowledge and experience in railway construction and operation.

Steam locomotive on narrow gauge line at Ypres, Belgium (1917).
In July 1917, 2nd Battalion CRT opened a training camp at Wanou, several kilometres east of Ypres, Belgium, where its personnel explored ways to improve light railway construction.  Their work resulted in the adoption of a streamlined construction process: grading, bridging and culvert construction, followed by rail section and plate layers, and finally trains carrying rails, sleepers, ballast and construction supplies.  After training, CRT units were capable of laying up to 2 1/2 miles of track - including 4 bridges and 16 culverts - in a 16-hour day.  Infantry soldiers, 'pioneer' units and 'labor' battalions from the Canadian Corps provided the 'muscle' required to build the rail lines, under careful CRT supervision.

The additional manpower, organization and training quickly produced an extensive network of light railway lines that connected standard gauge railway heads to tramways servicing the front lines.  The two-foot gauge light railway employed a combination of horse and mechanical power, but was a marked improvement over horse and wagon road transport.  Canadian units also constructed a narrow gauge railway, powered by gas engines, behind the entire Belgian front line.  When completed, it was used to move food and munitions to the trenches under cover of darkness.  The quantity of freight hauled by light rail in 1917 demonstrates its rapid expansion.  In March 1917, light railways moved 500 tons of freight daily.  By September 1917, the quantity increased to 6000 tons a day. 

The emergence of an efficient transportation system provided crucial support to several 1917 offensives, the first of which was launched in the Arras sector.  To support an attack three times larger than the previous year's Somme offensive, the CRT laid rail to within a short distance of front lines at Vimy Ridge, where the Canadian Corps' was preparing to attack.  As the offensive commenced on April 9, railway troops transported munitions and supplies to the front trenches on standard and narrow gauge lines and evacuated wounded soldiers to field ambulance stations.  Within five hours of the battle's commencement, CRT soldiers constructed a spur line to supply shells to a British battery near the Ridge.  Narrow gauge lines reached the top of the Ridge within one week of its capture, with spurs extending to supply dumps on the Douai plain beyond the Ridge by month's end.  CRT units built a total of 60 miles of narrow gauge line in the area during that time.

Evacuating Canadian wounded soldiers at Courcelette, France (1916).
The support provided at Vimy was only the first of several instances in which rail systems provided crucial support to an infantry attack.  During the June 1917 assault on the Messines Ridge, Belgium, railway operation was so efficient that the number of trains assigned to move munitions to the front was actually reduced as the operation proceeded.  Light gauge railways played a similar role in supporting the attack at Passchendaele in October-November 1917.  For the duration of the war, the elaborate system constructed and maintained by CRT was critical in supporting infantry attacks along the Western Front. 

While the vast majority of CRT recruits did not serve in a military capacity, there was one significant exception.  In late March 1918, during the German 'Spring offensive', the 2nd Battalion CRT was 'kitted out' with extra ammunition, machine guns and other supplies and assigned to positions along the front line near the strategic location of Amiens.  The unit endured significant enemy artillery fire, engaged in night raids into German trenches, and was forced to withdraw from their positions several times due to enemy attacks.  The battalion suffered 29 casualties and 2 deaths during its service 'in the line'.

At the same time, other members of 2nd CRT salvaged crucial supplies stored in the area.  Hastily tying sleepers together, they loaded steel rails, telephone poles, ties and other items onto the makeshift rafts and floated them down canals to secure areas behind the line.  Meanwhile, other CRT units assembled to the rear of the British 5th Army, where they constructed a network of defensive lines 30 miles wide and containing more than 120 miles of trenches, in preparation for a major retreat.  Fortunately, on April 4, British forces succeeded in halting the German advance outside the strategic town of Amiens, where several critical railway junctions were located.

Narrow gauge line adjacent to artillery gun.
While CRT personnel were not routinely involved in combat, their assignment nevertheless placed them at considerable risk.  Working with heavy equipment and engaging in physically demanding labor inevitably resulted in injuries on the job.  Many CRT recruits were older and not in the same physical condition as infantry recruits, factors that also contributed to injury.  As railway lines pushed closer to front lines, artillery shelling was a common occurrence.  Troops were also exposed to bombing from the air, machine gun and rifle fire while working. 

Unlike troops in the front lines, there were no trenches where CRT units could take shelter when under attack.  As a result, some personnel suffered from 'shell shock'.  In some cases, 'shell shock' victims from infantry units were relocated to CRT battalions on the mistaken belief that their work was less perilous.  In total, CRT units suffered 1,977 deaths during service, in addition to 1,382 'non-fatal' battle casualties and 1,087 'work' injuries requiring medical treatment.  The fact that 490 CRT personnel received honours and decorations in recognition of their service reinforces the fact that their work was both vital and dangerous.

In mid-1918, CRT and CORCC units were combined under one command to form the Corps of Canadian Railway Troops.  The German spring offensive had inflicted significant damage on the light railway system, necessitating repairs as Allied troops recaptured the territory during the late spring and summer months.  When a major counter-attack was launched in August 1918, CRT units focused on repairing standard gauge lines destroyed by retreating German forces.  CRT personnel and resources also played crucial roles in several battles during this time.  At Canal du Nord (September 27 - October 1, 1918), CRT units moved 2000 tons of supplies daily to troops spearheading the assault.  At Cambrai (October 8 - 10), tanks were brought forward by rail car and travelled to the battlefield along a railway bed.

Narrow gauge line damaged in battle.
During the closing weeks of the war, CRT units followed the advancing infantry units as they pushed German forces back into Belgium.  The speed of the retreat, however, made it difficult to keep pace.  When fighting ended on November 11, 1918, operating railway lines were still 30 kilometres behind forward Allied positions.

At war's end, CRT ranks contained 19,000 personnel - 16,000 working in France and Belgium, with the remainder in England.  It was second in size only to the massive Canadian Corps of infantry battalions.  From the inception of the CORCC in early 1915 until the November 1918 Armistice, Canadian railway soldiers constructed all light railways in areas occupied by the five British Armies, and 60 % of the standard gauge lines connecting the channel ports to the front lines.   In total, Canadians built 1880 kilometres (1169 miles) of broad gauge railway line and 2275 kilometres (1414) miles of narrow gauge line during their wartime service. 

Sadly, after CRT units demobilized as their members returned to Canada, none were perpetuated in the military units maintained during peacetime.  As a result, their crucial contribution to the Allied war effort has often been overlooked.  Their record of service bears testimony to the vital role played by Canadian railway expertise during World War I.
Troops transported on narrow gauge line.
 
*****

Additional information:

The National Film Board's "Images of a Forgotten War" collection contains a ten-minute video depicting the work of Canadian engineers and CRT personnel behind the front lines during World War I.  Click here to view the video.

Sources:

6th Canadian Railway Troops.  Great War Forum.  Available online.

Canadian Light Railway Section I.  Images of a Forgotten War - Films of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in the Great War.  National Film Board of Canada.  Available online.

Canadian Railway Troops.  Russians & Ukrainians in the C. E. F. 1914-1919.  Available online.

Jager, Major George, CD.  "Sinews of Steel: Canadian Railway Troops on the Western Front, 1914-1918".  Canadian Army Journal, Vol. 10.3, Fall 2007.  Available online.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this overview of the CRT. My grandfather served July to October 1917 with the 9th Battalion CRT in France and Belgium, until his dugout was shelled in Poperinge. He was pulled out of the rubble with shell-shock and spent the rest of the war in a string of hospitals in England.

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  2. You're most welcome, David. I have attempted to highlight the important contributions to the war effort provided by units working behind the front lines. Your grandfather's experience certainly illustrates the dangers the soldiers faced throughout their time in the forward area.

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