The work of the transport section of an infantry battalion

Imperial War Museum photograpoh Q28892. Field cookers of the 1st Battalion Irish Guards, 2nd Division, moving off from a village on the Western Front, 17 August, 1915

The classic memoir of the Great War, “Four years on the Western Front: being the experiences of a ranker in the London Rifle Brigade, 4th, 3rd and 56th Divisions” by “A rifleman” includes some wonderful, atmospheric accounts of his work with battalion transport. The LRB was also known as the 1/5th (City of London) Battalion of the London Regiment.

“A rifleman” was Rfmn 145, later 300281, Aubrey Maurice Smith. His memoir was originally published by Odhams in 1922 but has been reprinted since. Beware that recent cheap paperback and Kindle versions include many typographical errors, clearly having been produced by OCR and without benefit of proof-reading before taking your money.

Smith wrote, on his transfer in October 1915 from being a rifleman to work in the battalion’s transport, for which he had no previous experience:

“The attraction of being one of the transport men appeared to be that, however unpleasant the conditions of driving, however dangerous the road and to whatever time you stayed up in delivering the rations and ammunition, there was always cover of some sort to come back to when the job was finished, where an hour or so’s sleep might be snatched in peace. This advantage was a very considerable one and, after recalling how I had loathed the roads at the Second Battle of Ypres and how I had pitied the men stuck up on horseback in the traffic blocks when I could rush for a ditch if necessary, I none the less came to the conclusion that it would be a good plan to try to join it”.

The battalion’s transport section was being re-formed after a period when it had been disbanded when the London Rifle Brigade was used on lines of communication work. It brought together some “old hands” from the original section with men, like Smith, who needed to be trained. It was not always a harmonious group. To make matters worse, the inexperienced Smith was given two of the most independently-minded and difficult of horses, “Jack” and “Tar”.

Our section consisted of 

11 limber drivers, each with two horses (two [for carrying] tools, 4 machine guns, 5 ammunition)

2 water cart drivers, each with two horses

4 field kitchen drivers, each with two horses

1 mess cart driver, with one horse

1 medical cart driver, with one horse

11 grooms, each with one officer’s charger (liable for [additional work as] brakemen’s’ spare men’s and other jobs)

About 10 pack-pony men, each with a pony

1 TO’s [ Transport Officer’s] batman

2 cooks

2 wheelers

2 shoeing smiths

1 forage man and a few spare men.

4 NCOs.”

Aubrey Maurice Smith was twice awarded the Military Medal for bravery.

“Every day certain drivers had to go out on duty. The whole object of the section was to deliver food, water, fuel, post, ammunition and tools, machine-guns and ordnance to the battalion, no matter where they were, nor how long it took to reach them. .. Some driver was always out on duty, even if he were not actually connected with ‘delivering the goods’; he would be drawing clean clothing from the baths, fuel from the dump, water at the nearest refilling point, ordnance at the AOC stores. There is no need to g into detail about this daily routine; over the difficulties of harnessing up horses with our racks a long way away; over the frequent complains that horses or harness were too dirty; over the hurried breakfasts and shaving operations when out on an early morning job.”

IWM photograph Q17643. 1st Scots Guards. Battalion transport at a ration dump, 1917. We can only wonder at how much manual effort and care it took to keep this pair of horses looking as white as they do.

Links

The structure of an infantry battalion

The London Regiment

Poem: “On the road from Pop to Ypres”