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Thursday, 28 February 2013

Sapper Francis 'Frank' Stewart Manson - A 'CRT' Soldier's Story

Date of Birth: December 2, 1892

Place of Birth: Sherbrooke, Guysborough County

Mother's Name: Lucy Walters

Father's Name: George W. Manson

Date of Enlistment: January 26, 1917 at Vancouver, BC

Regimental Number: 827203

Rank: Sapper

Forces: Canadian Expeditionary Force; Canadian Railway Troops

Name of Unit(s): 143rd OS Battalion (BC Bantams); 3rd Battalion Canadian Railway Troops

Location of service: England, Belgium & France

Occupation at Enlistment: Pipe fitter

Marital Status at Enlistment: Single

Next of Kin: George W. Manson (father)

Francis 'Frank' Stewart Manson was the youngest of four sons born to George W. and Lucy (Walters) Manson.  The family underwent a tragic disruption when mother Lucy died shortly after Frank's birth.  The boys were dispersed among nearby relatives while their father worked and resided in nearby Country Harbour.  Frank thus spent his childhood in the Aspen home of Alfred E. and Elizabeth (Manson) McKeen.  The fact that his military will named 'Aunt Libbie' as sole heir indicates the prominent role she played in his upbringing.

Sapper Francis Stewart Manson
Around 1907, Frank and his brother Alexander travelled to British Columbia, where they were reunited with siblings John 'Jack' and Lowell.  The young men found work at the Britannia Beach copper mine, where Frank took up pipefitting.  Perhaps it was youthful exuberance or the excitement of a new opportunity.  Whatever the motivation, on January 26, 1917, Frank enlisted in the 143rd Overseas Battalion at Vancouver, BC.   He was the first of his brothers to do so - older sibling Jack was later conscripted into service in December 1917.  As events unfolded, Frank's military career brought new experiences and outcomes that he could never have anticipated at enlistment.

The 143rd Overseas Battalion (BC Bantams) was authorized in November 1915 and commenced its province-wide recruitment campaign three months later.  Regular military standards required single men between the ages of 19 and 30 years, a minimum height of 5' 4" and a chest measurement of 34".  As a result, men of smaller stature were regularly rejected. The 143rd was one of two Canadian 'bantam' battalions authorized during the war.   Based on a successful British model that targeted its coal mining population, 'bantam' battalions were permitted to accept men with a minimum height of 5' 1 1/2" and a chest measurement of 30", although age requirements were set at 22 years.  As recruitment in British Columbia proceeded, however, slow response forced the unit to accept men who met regular infantry standards in order to achieve full strength.  Frank was one of the recruits whose stature well exceeded battalion requirements - at enlistment, he stood 5' 7 1/4", with a chest measurement of 35".

After a year of recruitment and training, the battalion travelled by train across the country, boarding the SS Southland at Halifax on February 17, 1917.  Ten days later, Frank set foot on English soil, travelling to billets at Witley Camp.  Sadly, the battalion met the same fate as most of the Nova Scotian battalions raised through similar enlistment campaigns - it was disbanded shortly after arrival in England.  Approximately 750 men, classified as 'Category A', were transferred to the 24th Reserve Battalion and dispersed among units at the front.  The remaining members were assigned to the recently formed Canadian Railway Troops (CRT).  Frank Manson was one of 135 'other ranks' (OR) attached to the 3rd Battalion CRT.

CRT soldiers placing ballast on a light gauge line.
CRT units were responsible for the construction, maintenance and repair of regular and light gauge railways throughout the British sector in France.  Frank's new unit originated when the 239th Battalion was re-designated the 3rd Battalion CRT on February 3, 1917.  The 143rd transfers arrived at CRT base, Purfleet, England, on March 15, bringing the battalion's numbers to full strength.  Several days before Frank's arrival, two of its companies - 'A' and 'B' - travelled from Shorncliffe, England to Boulogne, France.  Several days after their arrival, the men began laying track in the trans-shipping yard at Barlin, near Lens, France. 

On March 22, Frank and the other members of the battalion's 'C' and 'D' Companies proceeded overseas, arriving at Boulogne by mid-day.  Two days later, they travelled by train to Calais, moving onto their first work assignment at Poperinghe, near Ypres, Belgium.  On March 27, battalion's war diary described the weather as 'cold and clear… [with] snow and rain in [the] afternoon" as Frank and his comrades commenced work on a railway grade near Ypres.  Two days later, two rail cars and four 3-ton lorries loaded with the companies' tools and equipment arrived at Poperinghe. 

Working conditions were challenging at times.  On April 2, for example, the battalion's war diary describes the weather as 'freezing', with "heavy snows in the afternoon [and a] gale at night".  Nevertheless, work proceeded as usual.  While 'A' and 'B' Companies connected regular gauge track to a light rail system near Fosse, 'C' and 'D' companies laboured in Belgium, relocating to Ploegsteert, near Armentieres, on April 6. 

Plan for light railway yard at Savy-Berlette, France.
That same day, Frank was admitted to 3rd New Zealand Field Ambulance and transferred to hospital at Dieppe the following day for treatment of bronchitis.  He spent the next two and a half weeks receiving medical treatment and recuperating before rejoining his unit on April 27.  While his stay was relatively brief, it was an early sign of health complications that would plague his military career.

In Frank's absence, the battalion suffered its first fatality on April 23 when a 'sapper' was killed in an artillery shell explosion near Ploegsteert.  The day before Frank's return, shrapnel wounded a 'sapper' while a second man suffered 'shell shock' during an artillery barrage on 'B' Company's work site.  Military commanders were not immune to the dangers of working at locations close to the front lines.  On May 19, the war diary reported the first officer fatalities when artillery shells struck battalion headquarters near Thelus, killing two officers and one OR.  A fourth soldier was wounded in the attack.

While not actively engaged in combat, it is arguable that CRT personnel were more at risk of injury as they worked in the open, without protection from enemy fire.  Their work also involved daily risk of injury or death.  On May 2, for instance, two 'C' Company OR were accidentally injured while working in the ballast pit, "one trivial[,] one serious".  Later in the month, a member of 'A' Company was killed when he fell in front of a moving train.  Such incidents illustrate the perils of service in a CRT unit.

CRT light railway work party.
On May 3, 1917, Frank and the other members of 'C' and 'D' companies rejoined the rest of battalion at Barlin.  The war diary lists their strength upon return as 12 officers, 419 OR, 6 riding horses and 96 mules.  Several days later, 'C' Company began maintenance work on a 60 cm gauge railway line between Mareouil and St. Catherines, while 'D' Company constructed a 60 cm line from St. Nicolas to Bailleul.  On May 15, 'D' Company was divided into three parts, 'each working 8 hours throughout the 24 hour day[,] this on account of shelling so as to obtain that part of the day when no shelling was going on".

The following day, 'C' Company widened the existing line between Thelus and Bailleul.  'D' Company's work was delayed "owing to shelling" near Arras during the night, forcing the grading party's withdrawal from the forward area.  Over the following two weeks, Frank and his comrades laboured under persistent artillery fire.  On May 18, a 'C' Company grading party at Rochincourt was delayed by shelling that wounded two OR.  Two days later, 'C' Company worked without incident while 'D' Company laboured under shell fire for the entire day, suffering one OR fatality. 

The war diary also records the unit's various successes and challenges.  On May 21, for example, the first ammunition shipment travelled over a newly constructed line to forward positions at Gavrelle.  The following day, 'D' Company reported "great difficulty with sinking track over [a] shelled area".  At this time, personnel were dispersed into 23 detachments in the Arras area, making it difficult to distribute rations, as a kitchen and cook were required to service each group.  The transport officer later reported a 5 % loss of gasoline supplies "through either defective tins or through having inefficient plugs in tins".  These incidents represent a few of the many difficulties encountered while building railway lines in a war zone.

Clearing debris along standard gauge line.
On May 30, 'C' Company worked on construction and maintenance of the Rochincourt line while shell fire disrupted 'A' Company's assignment unloading ballast in the Thelus rail yard.  'D' Company rested in preparation for night work on the Thelus line.  The following day, 'C' Company distributed ballast on the Rochincourt line while 'D' Company focused on "construction of spurs". 

Frank's work with 3rd Battalion CRT continued through the summer and early autumn months of 1917. *  He enjoyed several week's break at 1st Army Rest Camp from September 22 to October 4 before rejoining the unit in the field.  Three weeks later, the health problems that plagued his earlier service returned.  On October 24, Frank was admitted to # 3 Casualty Clearing Station with a suspected case of 'phthisis', a contemporary name for pulmonary tuberculosis.  He was briefly admitted to 5th General Hospital at Rouen before being "invalided sick" and transported to England on October 31.  Two days later, Frank was admitted to Grove Military Hospital, Tooting Grove, where the initial diagnosis was confirmed.

In mid-November, Frank was relocated to No. 16, Canadian General Hospital, Orpington, where the doctors continued his treatment for "chronic tuberculosis".  On January 4, 1918, he was transferred once again to 5th Canadian General Hospital, Liverpool, remaining there for exactly one month before being "invalided to Canada".  Upon his return, Frank made the long train journey to British Columbia, where he was admitted to Vancouver General Hospital's Military Annex.  Here, he received "rest, [a] nourishing diet and fresh air" as medical personnel helped him cope with his illness. 

Tranquille Sanatorium, Kamloops, BC.
On February 25, 1918, Frank's cousin, Kate Manson, wrote to him from her Dartmouth residence, expressing concern for his health.  Kate had been "hoping for some word from home telling me of your recovery but in mother's last letter she stated that Aunt Libbie had not heard lately.  I sincerely hope that things are going well with my soldier cousin."  Unfortunately, the prognosis was not good.  A medical report dated June 3, 1918 gave the diagnosis as "tubercle of lung", contracted in France in October 1917 as a result of exposure and infection while on active service.  It described Frank's condition in these words:

"Patient is thin and pasty.  Coughs a great deal[,] raising copious whitish thick sputum which is streaked with blood in the morning.  He feels very weak but able to be up.  Slight exertion such as walking 1/4 mile causes some dyspnoea [labored breath], also such exertion as climbing stairs.  Could not walk over 1/2 mile without resting…. Even walking across room causes moderate dyspnoea." 

Frank was also losing weight as his illness progressed.

Sapper Francis Stewart Manson's gravestone, Kamloops, BC.
The medical report recommended medical discharge in addition to continued treatment.  On July 8, 1918, 'Sapper' Francis Stewart Manson was officially released from military service and admitted to the Royal Inland Hospital at Kamloops, BC.  One week later, he was transferred to nearby Tranquille Sanatorium, where Frank passed away on August 3, 1918.  Two days later, he was laid to rest in Pleasant Street Cemetery, Kamloops, BC.

*: Unfortunately, only three months of the battalion's war diary - March to May 1917 - are available online.  The author was therefore unable to access the battalion records for Frank's service from June - October 1917.


143rd Battalion, C. E. F. (B. C. Bantams).  Charles LeRoss, Webmaster.  Available online.

Regimental Record of Sapper Frank Stewart Manson, no. 827203.  Copy courtesy of Winn Manson Campbell, Kingston, NS.  Attestation papers available online.

War Diary, 3rd Battalion Canadian Railway Troops.  Library and Archives Canada.  RG9 , Militia and Defence , Series III-D-3 , Volume 5012 , Reel T-10861-10862, File : 733.  Portions available online.

Portrait of Frank Manson, postcard and letter from Kate Manson courtesy of Winn Manson Campbell, Kingston, NS.

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