The German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line, 14 March – 5 April, 1917, is something of a footnote in the study of Great War military operations yet the engineering and logistic lessons taught were of crucial importance to the success of BEF mobile operations in 1918.

It represented the BEF’s only experience of a mobile pursuit against an enemy retiring to temporary prepared positions defended by machine guns while implementing a ‘scorched earth’ policy. 

The experience would prove very similar to that the BEF faced in the latter half of 1918., If the logistic and engineering changes of 1915-1916 represented the BEF’s first logistical ‘learning curve’ then the experience and lessons of the German withdrawal represented the beginnings of a second ‘learning curve’ preparing the BEF for mobile operations even before the full impact of the first was felt.

Carefully planned and executed it consisted of successive withdrawals to pre-planned temporary defensive lines utilising a predominantly machine gun defence. In addition to this the Germans annihilated the area of withdrawal: villages were flattened, wells poisoned, rail lines destroyed, roads were mined, key bridges (especially those crossing the Somme), were thoroughly wrecked and every dugout and pill box was sown with booby-traps designed to catch out the unwary souvenir-hungry soldier. The effect was to create a devastated zone that offered absolutely no possibility of succour to the advancing British. This situation was made much worse by the fact that the BEF, in this case mostly Fifth Army under Gough, were also advancing over the shell-battered 1916 Somme battlefields.

The pre-war BEF was designed as a mobile force and during 1914 the transport and supply organisation stood the test reasonably well. The same cannot be said when the BEF undertook mobile operations in March 1917. Despite the use of forward patrols and mobile columns the progress of the BEF was painfully slow. Some of the caution displayed was due to the fact that the BEF did not know if the German withdrawal was permanent or whether it presaged some form of counter-attack to be launched when the pursuing BEF was at its most vulnerable. Conversely Gough was under a great deal of pressure to get forward quickly in order to conform to the proposed Arras assault. In practice it was not the dual pressures facing Gough that dictated the pace of advance but the state of communications and the subsequent problem of supply. On 16 March, 1917 Gough noted that ‘Roads in the shelled area have practically ceased to exist…’ and added ‘Practically every round of field artillery ammunition has had to be carried up by pack horse…’. By 23 March troops had outpaced their lines of supply and Gough was forced to ‘… delay further operations until the guns and ammunition necessary for a further advance could be brought forward’. At the ‘sharp end’ the problem was all too apparent. The 56th Division War Diary commented that even the provision of something as routine as brigade supply and ammunition dumps for a proposed attack by 167th Brigade would be ‘… a difficult matter to deal with unless horse transport can be guaranteed. The tramline is at present a myth being buried 3ft in mud. The track along HOPE STREET is now non-existent.’. Water was also a major problem and in the 2nd Division advance no water points were available, instead 500 tins were sent up to be guarded and issued ‘sparingly’ by the brigade in the line.

While any notion that the BEF could effectively pursue and exploit the retirement rapidly disappeared in the face of supply and engineering realities the longer-term response of the BEF to those realities provided the basis for the successes of 1918 when the BEF faced a very similar situation.

Static warfare allowed for the development of a stable transport system and predictable supply, effectively ‘civilian circumstances that’ favoured a civilian approach based upon scientific management and statistical prediction. This is reflected in the controversial appointment of civilian railway supremo Sir Eric Geddes as Director General of Transportation [DGT] who was effectively given an independent command freeing him from military ‘interference’ and who centralised transportation to achieve efficiency. In 1918 it was clear that mobile warfare eliminated stability and predictability and that transport and supply must now conform to an unpredictable dynamic military situation, the antithesis of the Geddes approach. Consequently, the transportation system was ‘re-militarised’ and decentralised under the command of the Quartermaster-General from whom it had been taken in 1916.

The necessity for the decentralisation of transport during mobile warfare was first realized in 1917 during the German retirement. Neil Malcolm, Gough’s Fifth Army MGGS wrote in March 1917 ‘The experience gained in the withdrawal has convinced me that the present organisation of the transportation department is not altogether suitable to our requirements, especially in moving warfare’. The document goes on to outline examples of the inflexibility of the system especially with regard to light railways. It recommended a degree of decentralisation of transport command and control [C2] to the level of corps and divisions in order to achieve the flexible and responsive system required under the changed circumstances. In August 1918 the same system, now a definite ‘policy’, was implemented with great success by QMG Travers Clarke for the same reasons.,

On a more prosaic level was the question of water supply and bridging techniques and organisation both of which were crucial to the advance across the Somme region in 1917 and again in 1918.

Trees block the road

During the period of static warfare water supply had become an issue of predictability and the BEF responded by creating a vast network of mains piped water to definite watering points supplemented by water filtration barges located on the major rivers and lakes run by the Directorate of Inland Waterways Transport (IWT). Limited assault gains made the forward extension of this system a relatively simple affair. Similarly, there was little need to address bridging except with regard to maintenance and the construction of heavier bridges to deal with heavier guns and traffic behind the line. Mobile warfare in 1917 removed this predictability and provided the BEF with valuable lessons that were quietly codified throughout 1917 and successfully implemented in 1918.

Destroyed Garden Vaulx-Vraucourt

The issues of bridging and water are closely related to the unique geology of the Somme, a geology that had an intimate and profound effect upon the conduct of military operations and their concomitant logistic and engineering support requirements. The Somme area consists broadly of two features each with its own geological and geographical peculiarities. The Somme uplands, an arid area of gently rolling hills and shallow valleys and the principal broad river valleys that bisect the uplands (such as the River Somme) that are generally well-watered and marshy. The former brings with it the problem of lack of water, the latter the question of crossing powerful natural defensive barriers.

When the BEF began the process of reoccupation in 1917 they entered an arid zone and the destruction and poisoning of the few existing wells by the retiring Germans compounded the problem of providing water not only for men and animals, but also for water-hungry locomotives that would use the newly-constructed rail lines in the rear as the advance continued.

Initial supply consisted of extemporisation by the use of water tins, horse or mechanical water tankers and windlass and bucket for those few wells that could be put into order., , Similar measures were used again in 1918 during the initial phase of the advance on 8 August. During 1917 as the following corps and army troops occupied the area more substantial development consisting of five deep boreholes was undertaken using the latest pump and air compressor technology. The result was a steady supply of 400,000 gallons per day during March and April., It must be noted that during the preparations for the Somme in 1916 the Royal Engineers [RE], assuming a breakthrough and the resumption of mobility had considered the problem of moving across the arid areas and had planned accordingly. The result was a memorandum on water supply that covered among other things the use of fixed and mobile pumping stations, location and tabulation of all known wells, the provision of additional water carts to corps and sterilisation assets and techniques. The memorandum became ‘… a pattern for all subsequent water supply for military operations in France’. During the Battle of Amiens in 1918 the Germans were unable to undertake the same extensive devastation seen in 1917 and the five previously mentioned boreholes were successfully recovered. These proved to be critical to maintaining the advance through the arid ‘zone’: ‘… the situation was saved by the recovery of the British boreholes put down in this area in 1917’. Boreholes using air compressor plant took on average six or seven days to complete but once completed provided ‘copious supplies of water’. Without these it is unlikely that the advancing force of 600,000 men and 300,000 horses could have been supplied exclusively by water cart necessitating a potentially disastrous pause in the advance.

The experience of 1917 also had ramifications for water supply C2 when it became clear that the existing system required both expansion and reorganisation. In March 1917 three water boring sections were formed, later increased to five, attached to specialised Electrical and Mechanical [E&M] companies. In June of 1918 an inspector was added to the staff of the Engineer-in-Chief thereby ensuring representation at General Headquarters (GHQ). Water Supply Officers were installed at divisional and corps level to ensure timely development of supplies. By August 1918 responsibility for water supply had largely devolved from army to corps with the Corps Water Supply Officer effectively in charge of development supported by engineer army troops and E&M companies. Very quickly this was expanded further into ‘Water Supply Groups’. Interestingly this is consistent with the general C2 devolvement from army to corps level seen throughout the BEF. It was largely thanks to these changes, stimulated for the most part by the experience of 1917, that the Fourth Army in 1918 was able to make such rapid progress.

Water supply failure in the mobile battle would have halted the BEF in both 1917 and 1918. The natural barriers formed by water courses the BEF faced could have equally disastrous consequences. The successful and rapid crossing of the numerous rivers that bisected the mobile battlefield was clearly critical to maintaining the advance.

While the RE were responsible for many large-scale surveys and public works programmes around the world, RE military bridging techniques were forged out of the experience of colonial campaigning in diverse territories far from home while providing direct support for the infantry. Consequently, the primary focus was on the provision of bridges for ‘colonial police’ foot soldiers and light artillery improvising with whatever local materials were to hand. As the war unfolded technological development produced ever-larger artillery calibres, tanks and other heavy classes of goods and transport none of which the RE was experienced in providing the bridging capability for. Conversely the RE experience of heavy railway bridging was the construction of permanent structures while the exigencies of modern warfare required rapidly constructed semi-permanent structures to be built. The RE entered the war with an excellent system of bridging that was singularly unsuited to the task it faced. The ‘learning curve’ faced by the RE would be steep but one that the RE would surmount thanks to some prescient thinking by Canadian railway construction engineers and the stern test of the 1917 withdrawal.

Chemin Vert Loop Line. 'Heavy Inglis' type bridge carrying Bray-Chuignolles Road over River Somme at Bray. (c) IWM Q 46944

On 9 October 1914 a Mr A MacDougall submitted a memorandum together with a letter sent to Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden suggesting the formation of a contingent of Canadian railway construction engineers. His perceptive reasoning was that the BEF needed to maintain speedy and reliable railways to supply troops at some distance from their bases. During the mobile pursuit ‘The Germans will have totally destroyed every bridge and culvert, as well as long sections of [railway] road bed when they retreat’. MacDougall then went on to note that Canadian railway construction engineers had the specific skills necessary to deal with this:

In no country in the world can semi-permanent railway structures be built with greater speed than in Canada. This is the result of experience gained in building thousands of miles of railway with the most efficient and modern machinery. The European Engineers had had very little experience in this class of work, due to the practice in Europe being to always build permanent structures.

Coal Salvaging

The Secretary of State and the Army Council declined the offer but as the war expanded rapidly pragmatic considerations overtook these objections and the first contingent of the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps arrived in Belgium in August 1915. The 1917 German withdrawal demonstrated the forward thinking of MacDougall whose original idea blossomed into a Canadian railway force of nearly 16,000 men. In contrast Imperial RE railway engineers accounted for 5,312 all ranks. Reorganised into Railway Construction [RC] battalions under Lt.-Col. JW Stewart (later Major-General) and equipped with modern equipment such as steam-driven shovels and pile-drivers they arrived with increasing rapidity., The 1st RC Battalion arrived in October 1916 with another four battalions arriving between 11 January and 22 March 1917, and the 6th RC Battalion arriving in April. The German retreat made their arrival most timely and they pushed forward the broad-gauge rail lines with ‘… surprising rapidity in spite of the obstacles and difficulties imposed by atrocious weather and the thoroughness of the destruction left by the enemy in the wake of his retreat’. By the early summer of 1918 further expansion took place, the whole now called the Corps of Canadian Railway Troops. Thus, as the BEF was poised to undertake its advance it did so with an experienced and modern railway construction organisation ideally suited to the task. Throughout the advance of 1918 the ‘… head of steel on the selected railways kept pace fairly well with the advance’. The War Diary of the 1st Battalion, Canadian Troops gives a vivid account of just how close to the front of the advancing army they were working. On 2 September 1918 the battalion was filling a mine crater when they were shelled by German artillery, wounding three mules. They faced heavy shelling again on 3 September yet by 4 September they had filled the mine crater and laid over a mile of track on that day alone. By late-October progress was slowing due to lack of water, coal and the effect of German delay-action mines as the combined effects of these delaying tactics and shortages of essential supplies caused by the general over-extension of the BEF began to make themselves felt.

The problem of dealing with heavy (road) bridging sufficient to carry large guns, tanks and most importantly, Mechanical Transport [MT], was solved by a combination of standardised technology and the reorganisation of bridging C2. Again, it was the experience of the 1917 German retreat that occasioned the primary stimulus.

For a military force reliant upon weight of artillery firepower supplied through a ‘broad-gauge railway and MT’ policy the issue of rapid bridge construction and repair was central to maintaining the advance. This was the first time the BEF had faced this difficulty. The rapid withdrawal of the Germans and the commensurate destruction of vital bridges posed an enormous problem for the pursuing armies. When the Fourth Army reached the Somme on 17 March it found every bridge across the Somme and its principle tributaries destroyed. Although work was immediately put in hand it took a frustrating ten days for the bridges to be reconstructed sufficient for the passage of heavy traffic, the key element in maintaining the advance. On the Fourth Army front six bridges were constructed on one causeway alone at Brie, this constituting ‘… our first experience of heavy bridging on a large scale’. Clearly in any future advance this issue had to be addressed. Even as the advance took place lessons were being learned and solutions implemented culminating with the publication in late 1917 of a widely-distributed official document ‘The Organisation of Bridging Work’. The first lesson was one of bridging C2. Prior to the experience of the 1917 advance bridging was almost exclusively an army-level concern, consistent with the scale and immobility of the front. As the BEF advanced the armies fell behind and pragmatism demanded that the locus of command and control decision be moved from army to corps and divisions. In March 1917 IV Corps allowed their divisions much greater latitude in deciding the routes and positions of bridges they proposed to use. By summer 1918 bridging was by and large a definite corps concern with army dispatching materials as needed because ‘…corps were so far ahead of Army that control of bridging and the necessary materials, normally exercised by the latter was devolved to the former, under the supervision of the Corps Bridging Officer’., Corps was now responsible for coordinating the use of army bridging assets and for all permanent and heavy natures of bridging with divisions responsible for all other bridging up to 11,000 lbs. By 1918 there was bridging representation at every level of the BEF from GHQ to divisional. Furthermore, training was taken seriously as evidenced by the creation of bridging schools in both Britain and France, the latter eventually training 400 officers and 2,000 men. The very best of those that passed out went on to form ‘specialised’ bridging companies, one example being the 216th Army Troops Company, which became a specific bridging company in January 1918.

German Destruction of Railway at Albert, Sprint 1917

The final ‘piece’ in the jigsaw of bridging development was due to the work of two engineers, Professor Sir Charles Edward Inglis and Captain Hopkins who became GHQ Bridging Officer. Both these brilliant men designed standardised, lightweight, reusable bridges made from steel girders or poles that could be erected and dismantled far faster than traditional bridge designs. Inglis bridges were used for lighter traffic though heavier versions were developed and Hopkins bridges were used for heavier traffic up to a weight of about 35 tons, the weight of a tank. The key to their success was standardisation and its resultant simplicity. Anticipating the concept of ‘flat-pack’ unitary construction by many years the Inglis and Hopkins bridges were constructed using standardised span sub-assemblies and a minimum number of bolt sizes thus simplifying and speeding construction. The individual parts and sub-assemblies themselves were specifically designed for handling and transportation for the bridging transport in current use. This made them relatively easy to move, assemble and disassemble. By using standardised units and fastenings bridge construction was never delayed by the absence of any ‘custom’ part or specialist engineer.

British Lorries being used to deliver rail ballast for track construction

Hopkins and Inglis bridges were ‘mobile’ bridges and placed only temporarily, being built and dismantled in succession in order to maximise economy of materials and men. During the initial part of the advance lighter bridges for foot soldiers, regimental transport and field guns were necessary. As the bulk of the army moved forward these bridges were dismantled, packed and moved forward again for re-use while heavier natures of bridge were brought up to replace them. In turn these too were dismantled and moved forward being replaced by even heavier bridges capable of handling tanks and siege artillery. Simultaneously permanent or semi-permanent bridges were built allowing the even heaviest classes of bridge to move forward in turn.

Bapaume Gr Retreat High View 19 March 1917

The difference this made during the advance was remarkable as a comparison of bridging at Brie in 1917 and 1918 demonstrates. In 1917 it took Fourth Army ten days to erect six bridges. In September 1918 the ‘… first spans were delivered at the sites on the 6th, and all five bridges were completed and open for all traffic on the 9th. In just three days five bridges sufficient to handle any vehicle class including tanks were constructed. At Peronne engineering reconnaissance began on 2 September. Construction of temporary bridges sufficient to handle MT began on 4 September and was complete by 5 September. Three semi-permanent bridges started on 10 September were completed by 16 September. In the Third Army advance a 120 ft. span Hopkins Bridge, the longest erected during the 1918 advance, was completed in a mere five days.

Stimulated by the practical challenge of the 1917 German withdrawal the BEF responded rapidly. Through a combination of C2 reorganisation, greater priority, dissemination of techniques, training and technology the BEF was ready for the challenges of 1918 and the ‘Advance to Victory’ was not stalled for want of bridging.

MT was both the boon and bane of the BEF. MT (principally lorries) was flexible; very load efficient compared with horse transport; had longer-range distribution and supply capacity and required far less manpower per ton-load than the alternatives. MT also required specialist mechanical support and workshop facilities, complex organisation, depots, complicated parts administration and parking facilities. In practice the convoluted ‘corralling’ of MT into useful convoys also meant that they ran without load far more often than with load, thus reducing their high capacity load effectiveness. Above all they destroyed roads both because of the poor quality of French roads and because of their weight and mass use. It was this destruction and the consequent increase in the demand for road repair material that prompted the use of light railways and led to a ‘broad gauge and light railways policy’ from late-1916. Nevertheless, the utility of MT coupled with the expansion of the BEF saw its use rise year on year despite attempts to limit usage. In November 1916 the number of 3-ton and 30 cwt. lorries stood at 18,561. By April 1917 the figure was 21,969 increasing to 25,597 by October and rising again to 26,809 by the armistice. MT was simply too useful and its utility was proven whenever there was an advance or when the light railways ceased to function. During the Advance to Victory in 1918 it was once again MT that provided the essential bridge between the rapidly receding railheads and the forward troops. A glance at the figures for MT expansion demonstrates that between 1917 and 1918 the relative increase in the amount of MT was considerably slowed compared with previous years. Yet in 1918 MT faced its sternest test and greatest use begging the question, how was this achieved without a dramatic expansion in MT numbers in 1918 as was the case in 1916 and 1917?

The answer lay in the quiet reorganisation of MT throughout 1917 and early 1918 as a ‘…precaution against possible railway breakdowns’ and also the cumulative experience of 1916., MT was reorganized on a corps basis and ‘pooled’ rather than being exclusively allocated to a particular specialised task, unit or formation while GHQ withdrew as much MT as possible in order to form an MT reserve. Together with broad gauge railways this would allow the QMG Travers Clarke to implement his ‘broad gauge and MT policy’ during the advance in 1918 thereby returning the BEF back to its original pre-1914 concept of a highly mobile force capable of operating up to thirty miles in advance of the railhead.,

‘Pooling’ was a response to the increased scale of operations and had occurred in just about every branch, formation or unit in the BEF whether officially sanctioned or not. The withdrawal of artillery from divisions in 1916-1917 and its centralisation at corps level was a response to the increasing scale of operations. It prevented the piecemeal use of guns by individual divisions functioning at the tactical level in favour of more efficient ‘task-orientated’ deployment at the operational level. In the case of MT reorganisation using the principle of pooling was a response to the same stimuli and inspired by the French use of MT, especially during the Battle of Verdun which was almost wholly supplied by MT. It also allowed significant economies of MT and personnel to be made as ‘… pooled vehicles, if scientifically used, produced a greater output of work per vehicle than in the case of those affiliated exclusively to units’.

The reorganisation had two interlinked objectives: the centralisation of MT at corps level and the formation of an MT reserve. The achievement of the latter allowed attainment of the former. Divisional supply columns and ammunition sub-parks were amalgamated to form divisional MT companies. Similarly, corps supply columns and parks became corps MT columns while at the army level, supply columns (already motorised) were given an additional auxiliary MT company and designated army troops MT companies. Finally, corps troops supply columns (as distinct from corps supply columns) became corps troops MT companies. Seven separate organisations were thus amalgamated into four although this took some time. 

In the Canadian Corps the reorganisation order was given on 27 September, 1917 but was not complete until 14 April 1918. This rationalisation was given extra impetus by the adoption of a ‘universal’ establishment with a ‘standard’ section at its heart. A section consisted of sixteen lorries of which there were fifteen working lorries with one spare lorry on hand to ‘… allow for periodical overhaul., Any given MT company consisted of a headquarters and a variable number of standard sections. The reorganisation resulted in a considerable number of vehicles being withdrawn from service. Some of these were retained as replacement vehicles but the bulk was sent to GHQ to form GHQ Reserve MT Companies for use by the BEF as and when required.

Commensurate with these changes MT C2 was also altered with the appointment of a ‘Senior MT Officer’ (SMTO) at corps headquarters to oversee the organisation and assist corps staff in matters of MT allotment. As the corps SMTO duties make clear the SMTO was also responsible for making sure that MT companies were not misused by corps staff.. The benefits and administrative flexibility of this system are clear in practice as the following demonstrates. On 17 April 1918 the Canadian Corps MT Column had attached to it the 2nd [Imperial] Division artillery and four Army Field Artillery [AFA] brigades. Normally attached units caused a good deal of administrative problems but the reorganisation meant the Canadian Corps SMTO simply took on the additional MT transport of these units and integrated it into his own without need to refer to the parent formations from which they were detached.

The changes made to BEF engineering and logistical practice that proved so vital to the Advance to Victory in 1918 were to a great extent the product of the BEF experience of the 1917 German Withdrawal. Although far from perfect the BEF began the Advance to Victory with an intelligent, balanced, flexible and extremely effective logistic and engineering system specifically designed for mobile warfare. When tested in the crucible of the advance it did not fail. It carried the BEF over the ‘devastated zone’ of the Somme, through the formidable Hindenburg Line and on to the relatively undamaged ‘green fields’ beyond reaching as far as Mons, the site of the BEF’s original retreat in 1914. The combination of improved and rationalised MT, bridging and water supply, centralised or decentralised at the most effective level carried the BEF well beyond the original limit of thirty miles from railhead. Troops entering Mons and Valenciennes as the armistice took force were an astonishing 50-60 miles in advance of the Hindenburg Line. No matter how flexible the system was though it could not carry on indefinitely. After the breaching of the Hindenburg Line at the end of September the BEF supply system began to degrade as the gap between the advancing front and the nearest usable railhead widened to fifty miles. Although reliant on MT the BEF was not a motorised army and was dependent upon rail supply from which the MT could draw. As October wore on the system began to break down. Bridging began to fall further behind. On 19 October the 1st Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops noted that the roads and rail were horribly congested and that ‘… nine trains were standing between Gouzeaucourt and Marcoing at 16:30 hours owing to congestion in Marcoing Yard’. On 26 October work was being seriously impaired by German delay-action mines and despite the use of specifically-trained ‘IED’ bomb-disposal engineers drawn from Tunnelling Companies it was ‘… feared that much trouble and delay will be experienced from this source, as it is most difficult to locate where these have been planted’. One was even disguised as the grave of an unknown German soldier. As the month wore on the diary describes problems with increasing congestion, lack of water for locomotives, more mines, wet weather and the exhaustion of the men. During early November the mines and shortages continued to take their increasing toll.

In common with the rest of the BEF the logistic and engineering service was a learning organisation that assimilated, studied lessons and altered itself accordingly. It attempted to integrate various operational elements into a whole that was more than the sum of its parts. It changed its organisational and administrative C2 in response to experience, centralising or decentralising as necessary. Like the rest of the BEF the locus of C2 moved both upwards and downwards to corps, corps level being the most operationally apposite level. Throughout 1917 it found itself returning to the pre-war principles enshrined in FSR (1912) in order to provide mobility in 1918. Although it took time and was only ever partially understood the BEF also began to recognise the centrality of logistics and engineering in its 1918 operations, a very different situation from that found in 1917.

The experience of the Somme and the subsequent Geddes reforms, created a centralised, powerful and effective logistical system very much suited to the static, ‘set-piece’ operations of 1916 and 1917. Even as this bore fruit a second learning process was already under way stimulated by the German withdrawal. The withdrawal focused attention on mobility and the drawbacks of the Geddes ‘system’ in mobile conditions. This event was the only example of mobile warfare under modern conditions that the BEF had experienced. Logistically, this ‘forgotten’ episode was a watershed of singular importance that had a profound effect on operations in 1918 and deserves much wider and deeper study by scholars of the Great War.

Thus, though at the beginning of 1918 the BEF as a whole still had much to learn about mobile warfare the logistical services were already well-prepared for the long-awaited breakthrough and the movement that would follow. 


  1. It is interesting to note that in both cases the use of machine guns by the Germans caused the majority of casualties. See: Edmonds (1940; 1992) p. 161; and NAC, RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 4957, File: 503 – General Officer Commanding Artillery, Canadian Corps – War Diary, 1 September – 31 December, 1918. Entry for 2 September, 1918.
  2. TNA, WO 158/223 – Third Army Operations with Maps, Note of Proceedings of Army Commanders Conference, 17/03/17, p.2.
  3. Today we refer to these as Improvised Explosive Devices or ‘IED’s’.
  4. Known as the ‘Zone Rouge’ in the French sector.
  5. Edmonds (1940; 1992) p. 141.
  6.  TNA, WO 158/255 – Fifth Army: Summary of Operations for Week Ending 9th March, 1917, p.2.
  7. TNA, WO 158/255 – Fifth Army: Summary of Operations for Week Ending 23rd March, 1917, p.2.
  8. TNA, WO 95/2933 – 56th Division War Diary, March 1917. Notes on Reconnaissance, 16/03/17, p. 1, section ‘e’, ‘Dumps’.
  9. TNA, WO 95/1296 – 2nd Division War Diary, March 1917. Administrative Arrangements, p. 2, section ‘4’, ‘Water’.
  10.  I am grateful to my graduate student Matthew Wedge whose excellent work in this area has greatly informed my own.
  11.  TNA, WO 95/524 - Headquarters Branches and Services: Adjutant and Quarter-Master General, Agenda Conference on Transportation, Report by Major-General Neil Malcolm for General Commanding Fifth Army, 16/03/17, p. 1.
  12. TNA, WO 95/39 Branches and Services: Quarter-Master General War Diary, June–August 1918, Explanatory Review, August 1918, p.1.
  13. TNA, WO 95/40 - Branches and Services: Quarter-Master General War Diary, September-November 1918, Explanatory Review, October 1918, p. 3.
  14. By way of contrast former DGT Sir Percy S’DA Crookshank declared at a lecture in Simla to the United Services Institute of India ‘Whether the D.G.T. is under the Q.M.G. or an independent agency is neither here nor there’. See: The Institution of Royal Engineers, The Royal Engineers Journal, Vol. XXXII, No. 5 (November, 1920), p. 195.
  15. Given that both the 1917 German retirement and the principal battles of the Advance to Victory in 1918 took place in the Somme region this chapter focuses closely on this region though most of the principles and lessons are applicable elsewhere on the Western Front.
  16. For an outstanding analysis of the relationship between military operations 1914-1918 and the geology and geography of the Western Front see Johnson (1921) passim.
  17. As one moves eastwards and approaches St. Quentin the geology of the landscape begins to change and water supply becomes more abundant and easily extracted. The problem of bridging still remains.
  18. TNA, WO 95/534 Chief Engineer Fifth Army, Appendix 2: Notes on Water Supply work during the advance of the Fifth Army March-April 1917.
  19. TNA, WO 95/1296 – 2nd Division War Diary, March 1917. Administrative Arrangements, p. 2, section ‘4’, Water.
  20. History of the Corps of Royal Engineers: Volume V (1952) p .504. Divisions were not issued with deep-well hand-pumps, these being a corps asset, and thus had to ‘make do and mend’ with the equipment to hand.
  21. History of the Corps of Royal Engineers: Volume V (1952), p .503.
  22. History of the Corps of Royal Engineers: Volume V (1952), p .503
  23. TNA, WO 95/534 - Chief Engineer Fifth Army, Appendix 2: Notes on Water Supply work during the advance of the Fifth Army March-April 1917.
  24. History of the Corps of Royal Engineers: Volume V (1952) p .502.
  25. History of the Corps of Royal Engineers: Volume V (1952) p .504.
  26. TNA, WO 95/534 - Chief Engineer Fifth Army, Appendix 2: Notes on Water Supply work during the advance of the Fifth Army March-April 1917, Section ‘B’ – Horse Watering.
  27. Even with the advantage of technology and the recovered boreholes road transported water was still vital to the advance and supplied an estimated 20 million gallons during the last four months of the war. This equates to a staggering 178,000 gallons per day. See: History of the Corps of Royal Engineers: Volume V (1952) p .504.
  28. History of the Corps of Royal Engineers: Volume V (1952) p .386. III Corps Water Supply Group consisted of 144th and 288th Army Troops Companies, No. 1 Siege Company RARE, 136th Labour Company, III Corps Water Column, and No. 2 Section 303rd E&M Company.
  29. See: Simpson, A ‘The operational role of British corps command on the Western Front, 1914-18’ (2006) passim.
  30.  History of the Corps of Royal Engineers: Volume V (1952) p .386.
  31. See: Smithers, AJ, ‘Honourable Conquests: Account of the Enduring Work of the Royal Engineers Throughout the Empire’ (1991) passim for a good overview of the work of the Royal Engineers throughout the British Empire.
  32. Jager,G, ‘Sinews of Steel: Canadian Railway Troops on the Western Front, 1914-1918,’ Canadian Army Journal, Vol. 10.3 (2007),pp. 65-79, p. 69.
  33. Letter to Sir Robert Borden, 9 October 1914, quoted in Jager (2007) pp. 68-69.
  34.  Letter to Sir Robert Borden, 9 October 1914, quoted in Jager (2007), p. 69.
  35. NAC, RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5015, File: 745 – Overseas Railway Construction Corps - War Diary, August 1915. Entry for 28/08/15.
  36. Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, Report, 1918 (1919), p. 355.
  37. Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, Report, 1918 (1919), p. 357.
  38. Jager (2007), p. 70.
  39. On 1 January 1917 Stewart was appointed Deputy Director General Transportation (Construction) reporting directly to the DGT and effectively in charge of all railway construction on the Western Front. See: Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, Report, 1918 (1919), pp. 356-357.
  40. Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, Report, 1918 (1919) p. 357.
  41. Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, Report, 1918 (1919) p. 358.
  42. Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, Report, 1918 (1919) p. 360.
  43. Henniker (1937) p. xix. Although the ‘head of steel’ kept up with the advance useable railheads most definitely did not.
  44. NAC, RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5011, File: 730 – 1st Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops - War Diary, September 1918. Entries for 02-04/09/18.
  45. NAC, RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5011, File: 730 – 1st Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops - War Diary, September 1918. Entries for 30-31/10/18 and 03/11/18.
  46. Bridges were classified into ‘light’ (for infantry and pack animals),’medium’ pontoon and trestle-table bridges (for field artillery and regimental General Service wagons) and ‘heavy’ (for heavier artillery calibres and MT). The latter should not be confused with heavy railway bridging. See: Edmonds, JE, Official History of the Great War,1917, Vol. 1, Military Operations: France and Belgium, The German Retreat to the Hindenburg Line and the Battles of Arras, (1940; 1992), p. 130.
  47. The Institution of Royal Engineers: Bridging (1926) p. 47. This text was written in specific sections each section covering water, bridging and so on. For the purposes of clarity, the relevant section title is included.
  48. Edmonds (1940; 1992) p. 130.
  49. The Institution of Royal Engineers: Bridging (1926) pp. 27-28.
  50. TNA, WO 95/451 - Headquarters Branches and Services: Commander Royal Engineers, War Diary, July 1916-February 1919 – Appendix 3A, Report on the work of the R.E. in the Fourth Army, 1916-1918, p. 2. This document is a mere four-page summary of the experience of Fourth Army engineering from its inception in 1916 until the cessation of hostilities in November 1918. The specific mention of heavy bridging at the Somme in 1917 in this document is indicative of the importance of that experience.
  51. The Institution of Royal Engineers: Bridging (1926) p. 10.
  52. See: Simpson (2006) for an outstanding analysis of the devolvement of operational command within the BEF and the evolving role of corps C2 at the operational level. Simpson argues convincingly that the post-1916 devolvement of C2 was consistent with the pre-war Field Service Regulations (1912) ‘doctrine’ of ‘Johnny on the spot’, the principle that the commander dealing with the problem is the best person to make the required decisions.
  53. TNA, WO 95/716 - Headquarters Branches and Services: IV Corps General Staff, War Diary, Jan-Dec 1917 – Entry for 21/03/17.
  54. The Institution of Royal Engineers: Bridging (1926) p. 44.
  55. Simpson (2006) p. 173.
  56. TNA, WO 95/534 - Chief Engineer Fifth Army, War Diary - Fifth Army Circular No.26: Bridging, undated.
  57. History of the Corps of Royal Engineers: Volume V (1952) p .167.
  58. History of the Corps of Royal Engineers: Volume V (1952) p .164.
  59. Sambrook, J, With the Rank and Pay of a Sapper, (1998) p. 230.
  60. The Institution of Royal Engineers, ‘The Royal Engineers Journal’, Vol. XXX, No. 4 (October, 1919) p. 169.
  61. The Institution of Royal Engineers, ‘The Royal Engineers Journal’, Vol. XXX, No. 4 (October, 1919) pp. 177-178.
  62.  The Institution of Royal Engineers, ‘The Royal Engineers Journal’, Vol. XXX, No. 6 (December, 1919) p. 264.
  63. The Institution of Royal Engineers, ‘The Royal Engineers Journal’, Vol. XXX, No. 6 (December, 1919) pp. 263- 264.
  64.  The Institution of Royal Engineers, ‘The Royal Engineers Journal’, Vol. XXX, No. 6 (December, 1919) p. 264.
  65. The Institution of Royal Engineers, ‘The Royal Engineers Journal’, Vol. XXX, No. 6 (December, 1919) p. 265.
  66. Beadon, RH The Royal Army Service Corps: a history of transport and supply in the British Army, Vol. 2 (1932) p. 49.
  67.  Taylor, M. G., Land Transportation in the late War, Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, 66 (1921.) pp 701-22, p. 706.
  68. Fay, S, The War Office at War, (1922) pp. 593-595.
  69. XXX
  70. Beadon (1932) p. 138.
  71.  The issue of the state of the rail system on the Western Front is a complex one. The interrelated issues and problems involved far more than just the BEF (France) and stretched well beyond the Western Front. For an explanation of some of the problems at the higher strategic level that had an effect upon rail transport in-theatre see: TNA, CAB 24/43, 73, - Major-General Sir PAM Nash, Report on the General Transportation on the Western Front, 20 February, 1918.
  72. Young, M, Army Service Corps 1902-1918 (2000), p. 105.
  73. TNA, WO 95/39 - Branches and Services: Quarter-Master General - War Diary, June – August 1918, Explanatory Review, August 1918, p.1.
  74.  Interestingly Clarke’s policy exactly mirrored that suggested by General Paul of the Army Service Corps in his memo to the General Staff in 1910. See: Beadon (1932) p. 52.
  75. Beadon (1932) pp. 139-140.
  76. Beadon (1932) p. 139.
  77. NAC, RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5021, File: 788 – War Diary, 14/04/1918 – 31/03/1919. Entry for 14/04/1918.
  78. Young (2000) p. 105.
  79. Beadon (1932) p. 139.
  80. Divisional MT companies consisted of HQ and five sections (80 lorries). Corps troops MT companies had a HQ and two sections (32 lorries), while army troop MT companies had a HQ and four sections (64 lorries). GHQ reserve MT companies consisted of HQ and six sections (96 lorries). See: Young (2000) p. 105 and Beadon (1932) p. 139.
  81. Beadon (1932) p. 139.
  82. Duties of Corps SMTO quoted in Young (2000) pp. 105-106.
  83. NAC, RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5021, File: 788 – War Diary, 14/04/1918 – 31/03/1919. Entry for 17/04/1918.
  84. Beadon (1932) p. 146.
  85. Henniker, AM, Official History of the Great War, Transportation on the Western Front 1914-18, (1937) p. xix.
  86. NAC, RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5011, File: 730 – 1st Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops - War Diary, October 1918. Entry for 19/10/18.
  87. NAC, RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5011, File: 730 – 1st Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops - War Diary, October 1918. Entry for 26/10/18.
  88. NAC, RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5011, File: 730 – 1st Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops - War Diary, October 1918. Entry for 26/10/18.
  89. NAC, RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5011, File: 730 – 1st Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops - War Diary, October 1918. Entries for 30-31/10/18.
  90. NAC, RG9, Militia and Defence, Series III-D-3, Volume 5011, File: 730 – 1st Battalion, Canadian Railway Troops - War Diary, October 1918. Entries for 01-10/11/18.
  91. See: Simpson (2006) passim.
  92. See: Thompson, R, Mud, Blood, and Wood: BEF Operational and Combat Logistico-Engineering during the Battle of Third Ypres in Doyle, P and Bennett, MR (Eds.),’Fields of Battle, Terrain in Military History’, (2002) passim for a critique of BEF logistics and engineering during Third Ypres, 1917.