The contribution to the war effort, especially on the Western Front, of the designated Railway Construction Companies of the Royal Engineers is largely overlooked and/or not researched in most accounts of the conflict. Given the fact that the earliest troop movements gave rise to the phrase “war by timetable” and that the railway was the primary means of movement of men, munitions and supplies, the important if unglamorous role of this military function cannot be underestimated.
The RE railway construction and maintenance troops RE in 1914
In August 1914 there were only two Regular and three Special Reserve RE Railway Companies. Their establishments were as follows
|8th Railway Company||
|10th Railway Company||
|Royal Anglesey (1 Company)||
|Royal Monmouth (2 Companyy)||
The army set in motion plans to expand upon the remaining rail network still in Allied hands in France and Flanders. The 8th Railway Company landed in France in August 1914 and the 10th and two Special Reserve Companies in November of that year. The third Special Reserve Company landed in February 1915. It was soon seen that these units would not suffice for probable requirements and the Director of Railway Transport was instructed to organise additional Railway Construction units. In October 1914, the Railway Executive Committee in England formed a Sub-Committee for Recruiting. Very large numbers of the employees of British railway companies were then volunteering for military service and the men for RE Railway units were selected from them. By the end of 1917, out of 180,000 enlistments from English railway companies, about 40,000 were serving in RE Railway units.
Training the RE troops
The HQ of the regular railway troops before the war was at Longmoor in Hampshire and the Special Reserve Companies came there annually for training using the specialised Woolmer Instructional Military Railway. During the war, Longmoor, and subsequently part of Bordon, became the centre for all RE railway and road personnel and at one time also for Inland Water Transport personnel. From the outbreak of the war until the armistice, nearly 1,700 officers and 66,000 other ranks were sent overseas from this centre.
The source of railway troops
Approximately half the officers for the new units were provided by the British railway companies on the recommendation of the Railway Executive Committee and the other half were mainly men from overseas who had been employed on colonial and foreign railways. Some of the Companies formed in 1915 drew upon a large contingent of local men, forming the kind of unit seen in the infantry as “Pal’s Battalions”. However, as time wore on and with the major transport logistical re-structuring of 1917, the local flavour would become diluted as men were swapped around and experienced men from other army units were combed out to swell the ranks of the Railway Companies.
Once in France, the sappers would be assigned to a Construction Train, of which there were eight in operation in mid-1915. Each Construction Train would have a complement of up to two complete Railway Companies, with a Captain as officer commanding the train. This enabled the sappers to carry both themselves and all their necessary tools and equipment to and from wherever the next work was required. The Companies would pitch tents for accommodation, as required. Large-scale work would include the construction of the major stores and ammunition dump at Audruicq, ten miles from Calais. Here, and at numerous other locations such as the nearby major ammunition dump at Zeneghem Yard, there was great use of Chinese Labour and R.E. Labour Companies to prepare the ground, ready for the platelaying sappers.
As the various campaigns and battles unfolded, RE Railway Companies were engaged all over the British sector, joined by Dominion RE Railway Companies. Close examination of the period maps bear testimony to miles of what was to be temporary track that criss-crossed the area. Howitzer Spurs, Ambulance Train Sidings, Tank Enablements and bridges were all constructed, in addition to the constant maintenance and line doubling. Work in progress was always a potential target for enemy artillery and also there were the attentions of the German Air Force to contend with. Zeneghem Yard, for instance, was a natural target and sappers from RE Railway Companies are recorded as having to help extinguish serious fires resulting from air raids.
A primary objective was always to take standard gauge railways as close to the front as possible, to lessen the demands on light railway systems, horsed transport and manpower. For the sappers, work could mean toiling around the clock, especially where lines had been cut by shellfire. Inevitably there were casualties; analysis of the records shows that 173 men from Railway Companies lost their lives. From just the two Regular Companies in 1914, there would be a total of forty-five Companies engaged in Standard Gauge Railway Construction, including other theatres such as Egypt and Salonica, by the end of hostilities. Most of the men in the RE Railway Companies had enlisted for the duration of the war and were naturally keen to return home as soon as possible. However, there was still much line repair work to be done in order to restore the lines of communication now extending deeper into the areas formerly held by the Germans. The Railway Companies gradually began to be demobilised and by August 1919 the last Company had laid its last sleeper.
|Railway Companies||Raised||Embarked||Theatre||War Diary||Date from||Date to|
|2nd (Monmouth)||Longmoor||11.11.14||F & F||WO 95/4052||11.14||5.19|
|3rd (Anglesey)||Longmoor||11.11.14||F & F||WO 95/4052||11.14||6.15|
|3rd (Monmouth)||Longmoor||11.11.14||F & F||WO 95/4052||11.14||5.19|
|8th||Longmoor||15.8.14||F & F||WO 95/4052||8.14||5.19|
|10th||Longmoor||28.11.14||F & F||WO 95/4052||10.14||8.19|
|109th||Longmoor||24.12.14||F & F||WO 95/4053||12.14||3.19|
|110th||Longmoor||15.2.15||F & F||WO 95/4053||2.15||4.19|
|111th||Longmoor||15.2.15||F & F||WO 95/4053||2.15||4.19|
|112th||Longmoor||15.2.15||F & F||WO 95/4053||11.14||5.19|
|113th||Cheltenham||14.4.15||F & F||WO 95/4053||3.17||5.19|
|114th||Cheltenham||1.5.15||F & F||WO 95/4054||1.16||1.19|
|117th||Longmoor||24.8. & 5.9.15||Salonika||WO 95/4356||8.15||12.15|
|118th||Longmoor||N/K||F & F||N/A|
|119th||Longmoor||30.5.16||F & F||WO 95/4054||6.16||3.19|
|120th||Longmoor||N/K||F & F||WO 95/4054||5.17||4.19|
|259th||N/K||N/K||F & F||N/A|
|260th||Longmoor||3.2.17||F & F||WO 95/4054||2.17||6.19|
|261st||Longmoor||26.2.17||F & F||WO 95/4054||3.17||8.19|
|262nd||Longmoor||26.2.17||F & F||WO 95/4054||2.17||2.19|
|263rd||Longmoor||26.4.17||F & F||WO 95/4054||4.17||10.17|
|264th||Longmoor||13.5.17||F & F||WO 95/4054||4.17||11.18|
|268th||Longmoor||19.12.16||F & F||N/A|
|269th||Longmoor||17.1.17||F & F||WO 95/4055||3.18||12.18|
|271st||Cheltenham||26.1.16||F & F||WO 95/4055||7.17||9.18|
|275th||Longmoor||21.8.16||F & F||WO 95/4055||8.17||7.19|
|277th||N/K||N/K||F & F||WO 95/4055||3.16||8.19|
|278th||Boulogne||N/A||F & F||WO 95/4055||3.16||7.19|
|279th||N/K||N/K||F & F||WO 95/4055||5.16||6.19|
|280th||Cheltenham||N/K||F & F||N/A|
|281st||Cheltenham||N/K||F & F||N/A|
|282nd||Cheltenham||N/K||F & F||N/A|
|295th||N/K||N/K||F & F||WO 95/4055||7.17||5.19|
|296th||Boulogne||N/A||F & F||WO 95/4055||1.18||3.19|
|297th||N/K||N/K||F & F||N/A|
|298th||N/K||N/K||F & F||WO 95/4055||1.17||12.18|
|299th||N/K||N/K||F & F||WO 95/4718||1.18||7.18|
|Note: this table includes only those Companies engaged on Standard Gauge railway work . Note that the army seemed to use the term Broad Gauge almost interchangeably with Standard Gauge.|
|With thanks to Kevin Horn, grandson of railway engineer 55961 Sapper Thomas Horn, for this article and table of the RE Railway Companies.|
See also this article on the Gloucestershire Railway Construction Companies RE
The RE also raised Railway Operating Companies and Railway Workshop Companies.
The Royal Engineers Labour Battalions
The RE raised 11 Labour Battalions consisting of navvies, tradesmen and semi-skilled men who could be released from munitions production work, for use in construction of rear lines of defence and other works. The first of these units began to arrive in France in August 1915. 30th Labour Battalion RE was allotted permanently to transport work; it was eventually converted into three of the railway construction companies and one wagon erecting company.