The Labour Corps of 1917-1918

Before the formation of the Labour Corps

The Army Service Corps Labour Companies

Among the earliest such units formed, the ASC Labour Companies originated to provide manpower to unload British ships and operate the docks in France. Two railway labour companies were also formed.

The Royal Engineers Labour Battalions

The RE raised 11 Battalions for labouring work.

Infantry Pioneer and Labour or Works Battalions

An early solution to the vast demand for labour was to create in each infantry Division a battalion that would be trained and capable of fighting as infantry, but that would normally be engaged on labouring work. They were given the name of Pioneers. They differed from normal infantry in that they would be composed of a mixture of men who were experienced with picks and shovels (i.e. miners, road men, etc) and some who had skilled trades (smiths, carpenters, joiners, bricklayers, masons, tinsmiths, engine drivers and fitters). A Pioneer battalion would also carry a range of technical stores that infantry would not. This type of battalion came into being with an Army Order in December 1914. In early 1916, a number of infantry battalions composed of men who were medically graded unfit for the fighting were formed for labouring work. They had only 2 officers per battalion. Twelve such battalions existed in June 1916.

The Labour Corps is formed

Army Order 85/17

The formation of the Labour Corps was authorised by a Royal Warrant issued as Army Order 85 published on 22 February 1917. The order specifically made the point that the raising of the Corps was to be a temporary measure but it would be regarded as a Corps for the purposes of the Army Act. Regimental pay would be the same as that of the infantry of the line.

Army Council Instruction 611

Army Council Instruction 611 of 13 April 1917 gave definition to the new Corps. Its purpose was to “obtain more fluidity in utilising the services of men in Infantry Labour and Works units, and to simplify administrative work.

The Corps would consist of a number of different types of units:

  • a Labour Company;
  • a Labour Group Headquarters;
  • a Depot Labour Company;
  • a Labour Battalion;
  • a (Home Service) Labour Company.

Labour Companies

Army Council Instruction 611 stated that 203 Labour Companies would be formed from existing regimental Infantry Labour Battalions and Infantry Labour Companies. All Warrant Officers and NCOs serving in those units and who were required in the new structure would be transferred to the Labour Corps; all Privates would too. Those Warrant Officers and NCOs not required would be transferred elsewhere.

The original conversion of infantry units to the new companies, with the renumbering applied to the men, is laid out on this page: Labour Companies

An exception was the 1st to 4th Infantry Labour Companies of the Middlesex Regiment, which were not to be transferred to the Labour Corps. Instead, men of the 1st and 2nd ILC who were invalided home would be posted to the regiment’s 30th (Works) Battalion and those of the 3rd and 4th ILC to the 31st (Works) Battalion.

Labour Group Headquarters

These were to be formed overseas. Forty Group HQs would be formed in France and two in Salonika. They would be responsible for the discipline, administration and interior economy of the Labour Companies working with the district allotted to the Group Headquarters.

The original list of Labour Group HQs, with the renumbering applied to the men, is laid out on this page: Labour Group Headquarters

Depot Labour Companies

Army Council Instruction 611 stated that the eleven Depot Labour Companies were to be formed by the existing Depot Labour Companies in six of the the army commands at home. Their purpose was to provide drafts for Labour Companies serving overseas; to provide men locally for working parties as fatigues, as long as they could be quickly recalled if needed; to receive labour personnel returned from overseas and to deal with them according to their medical category: men of category “A” would be transferred to a Reserve Battalion of the infantry, B1, B2, C1 and C2 would be available for drafting overseas again, and B3 and C3 (i.e. fit only for home service) would be dealt with according to regulations in force at the time.

The first ten companies would be numbered 295 to 304 Depot Labour Companies and the last would be 320 (Home Service) Depot Labour Company.

The original list of Depot Labour Companies, with the renumbering applied to the men, is laid out on this page: Depot Labour Companies

Army Council Instruction 897 of 1917 changed the name of these units to Reserve Labour Company.

Labour Battalions

Army Council Instruction 611 stated that Labour Battalions would be formed from existing regimental Infantry Works Battalions. Their purpose was to provide working parties for military purposes as and when required and for civil work if they could be spared. They were for home service only.

The original list of Labour Battalions, with the renumbering applied to the men, is laid out on this page: Labour Battalions

An exception was the 30th and 31st (Works) Battalions of the Middlesex Regiment, which were not to be transferred to the Labour Corps.

Dress distinctions

Army Council Instruction 611 stated that men of the Labour Corps would wear the “Royal Arms” as a cap badge, with the following shoulder titles. It was recognised that it would be some time before these were all fully available and that in the meantime Men would continue to wear their pre-transfer insignia.

  • Labour Companies, (Home Service) Labour Companies and Depot Labour Companies: the letters “LC” preceded by the number of their Company (e.g. “24LC”);
  • Labour Group Headquarters: the letters “LC” with no numeric prefix;
  • Labour Battalions: the letters “LB” preceded by the number of their Battalion (e.g. “4LB”).

(This instruction was soon cancelled by ACI 837 and all men would now wear just the “LC”.)

The man would also need a new identity disc bearing his Labour Corps details. Old discs were to be gathered in and defaced or destroyed.

War diaries of Labour Corps units

Army Council Instruction 611 stated that units of the Labour Corps would not be required to maintain a war diary unless the Commander-in-Chief concerned authorised otherwise. This, and the fact that the nominal rolls and other documents were destroyed in the Arnside Street fire in 1940 makes researching a man of the Labour Corps difficult and producing a good analysis of his story a rather sketchy affair.

Army Council Instruction 837 of 23 May 1917

This ACI also defined four new types of units:

  • a Divisional Employment Company;
  • an Area Employment Company;
  • a (Home Service) Employment Company; and
  • a Depot Employment Company.

The first two of these types would be formed under orders of the Field Marshal Commander-in-Chief in France; the others under the home commands. A Labour Corps Base Depot would also be formed in France. Details are laid out on this page: The Divisional, Area or Home Service Employment Companies of the Labour Corps

Army Council Instruction 897 of 1917

This ACI also defined two new types of units:

  • a Labour Centre;
  • a (Home Service) Labour Company.

They were to be formed from the remaining personnel of Labour Battalions who were not posted to Employment Companies.

Labour Centres

One Labour Centre was raised for each of the home commands (Scottish, Northern, Western, Irish, Eastern, Aldershot, Southern and London District) and named, for example, as Scottish Command Labour Centre.

Its role was to provide drafts for overseas Labour Companies.

Men who were in Labour Battalions but at present attached to the Forage Companies of the Army Service Corps would be posted as follows: V Forage Company to Eastern Command Labour Centre; W and Z to Southern; X to Northern; Y to Western; R to Scottish; Q to London District.

(Home Service) Labour Companies

Army Council Instruction 897 stated that the 53 (Home Service) Labour Companies were to be formed by transfer and conversion of existing Infantry Works Companies.

The original list of (Home Service) Labour Companies, with the renumbering applied to the men, is laid out on this page: (Home Service) Labour Companies

Army Council Instruction 924 of 12 June 1917

This ACI authorised the transfer of existing Agricultural Companies to be transferred to the Labour Corps. Research carried out by historians John Starling and Ivor Lee suggests that the transferred men were numbered in the Labour Corps sequence in the block 23000 to 29000.The “company” did not exist as a formed body, for with the exception of its small headquarters unit the men either lived at home or were billeted near the farm or smallholding at which they were employed. A further set of companies was established in October 1917.

Army Council Instruction 985 of 20 June 1917

This ACI authorised the other ranks of the existing 1st to 11th RE Labour Battalions in France to transfer and became 700 to 710 Labour Companies of the Labour Corps respectively. Men affected by this transfer were renumbered in the Labour Corps range 289501 to 295100. 12th Labour Battalion in Salonika became 711 Labour Company of the Labour Corps and its men were renumbered in the range 348240 to 349500.

It also authorised the other ranks of the existing ASC Labour Companies to be transferred: ASC Labour Companies 1 – 3, 5 – 16, 18 – 20, 24 – 25, 27 – 28 and 31 – 32 became 712 t0 735 Labour Companies of the Labour Corps respectively. Men affected by this transfer were renumbered in the Labour Corps range 296701 to 310800.

The labour units became increasingly well-organised but despite adding large numbers of men from India, Egypt, China and elsewhere, there was never enough manpower to do all the labouring work required. In many cases the men of the infantry, artillery and other arms were forced to give up time to hard effort when perhaps training or rest might have been a more effective option.

According to the Official History: “..although some labour units were raised and eventually labourers from various parts of the Empire and China were brought to France, the numbers were never at any period sufficient for the demands of a great army operating in a friendly country”.

The Corps grew to some 389,900 men (more than 10% of the total size of the Army) by the Armistice. Of this total, around 175,000 were working in the United Kingdom and the rest in the theatres of war. In the crises of March and April 1918 on the Western Front, some Labour Corps units were used as emergency infantry.

Indian, Chinese, native South African, Egyptian and other overseas labour

With the shortage of manpower for labouring work continuing, Sir Douglas Haig requested an increase in the force of an additional 21,000 men. This demand was filled by importing men from China (where the British followed a French lead and signed an agreement with the Chinese for a supply of men), India, South Africa, Egypt and other places within the British Empire. Demand continued and by the wars end a total of approximately 300,000 such workers had been engaged, of which 193,500 were in France and Flanders. By the end of 1917 there were 50,000 Chinese workers in France, rising to 96,000 by August 1918 (with another 30,000 working for the French). 100,000 Egyptians were working in France and the Middle East, alongside 21,000 Indians and 20,000 South Africans, who were also in East Africa. They were kept on lines of communication and other work well behind the fighting line, and as a force were rather immobile due to the decisions to segregate them – many of these workers were black – and provide special camps. Indian labourers were more often used closer to the front lines, on fortification work. Many Indians were also used in Divisional Ammunition Column work, as drivers as well as in the manual tasks. The South African Native Labour Corps came to France early in 1917 and established a base at Arques-la-Bataille.

Men of the Chinese Labour Corps stacking sacks of corn at Boulogne, 12 August 1917. Imperial war Museum image Q2701

Men of the Chinese Labour Corps stacking sacks of corn at Boulogne, 12 August 1917. Imperial war Museum image Q2701

Use of enemy prisoners of war

Until mid 1916, German prisoners were sent to England. From this time onward, prisoners were initially sent to Abbeville. Men with useful skills, notably forestry and engineering, were drafted into companies of about 100 men each, for use in POW Forestry Companies and ASC and RE workshops, respectively. 47 such POW labour companies were attached to the Labour Corps when it was formed.

Commemoration of men of the Labour Corps

The headstone of Pte 79375 Henry Edward Field of 133 Labour Company in Kezelberg Military Cemetery. Although he transferred into this unit from 25 Infantry Labour Company of the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) he has Labour Corps insignia. One of the relatively few headstones of this design. Field died, of injuries sustained accidentally: his skull had been fractured in a train collision. He was brought in, already dead, to 3rd Australian Casualty Clearing Station.

Books

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Links

The Labour Company of the Labour Corps

The Divisional, Area or Home Service Employment Companies of the Labour Corps

The Labour Group Headquarters

The Depot Labour Company of the Labour Corps

Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps and other women’s organisations

Entrenching Battalions