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Canadian Light Railway Section 1

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Year
1918

Running Time
08 min 03 s

Producer
Canadian War Records Office, Ministry of Information

The clips begins with images of a group of US Army engineers in open hilly country, followed by scenes of US and Canadian Army engineers rebuilding a destroyed bridge and making use of a temporary bridge. Another segment shows work teams preparing a railway bed with mule-drawn scrapers. This is followed by men laying track and of soldiers replacing existing tracks on a battlefield. We then see a segment illustrating the construction of a corduroy road, where lumber is laid over rough or muddy ground to create a passable surface. The final clip shows men digging a drainage ditch, while military traffic travels along the adjacent corduroy road.

The bridge-building sequence at the beginning of the clip probably dates from “the 100 days,” the period in 1918 book-ended by the August 8 Battle of Amiens and the November 11 Armistice. During this time the Germans were mainly in retreat and the Allies were in pursuit. The footage was probably shot in the region between Cambrai and Valenciennes, where the retreating Germans have destroyed a bridge over a canal. A temporary bridge for light traffic has been erected over the ruins, and the engineers are in the process of building a full-sized replacement bridge alongside. Engineers are in particular demand during a pursuit, when their job is to clear the enemy’s obstacles — craters, minefields, booby-traps and barricades — and to smooth the passage for their own troops by building bridges, bypasses and so on.

Railways were essential in the war effort. Always important for transporting troops to the front, standard gauge or light-rail tram lines were also used for logistical support, often to areas just behind the front line trenches.

At the outset of the war, the French were responsible for all railway construction and maintenance in Belgium and France. However, the first Battle of the Marne, in which Allied forces recaptured lost ground, also placed them at a considerable distance from the closest rail connections. The French realized that they needed help in bridging the gap.

In the spring of 1915, Canada responded to a call from the British Army Council for a corps of skilled railway construction workers. The first Canadian unit was in France by June 1914, working alongside Belgian forces, laying light rail tracks. Over the next two years the demand for Canadian railroaders grew, and by the end of the war, what came to be known as the Corps of Canadian Railway Troops had over 19,000 men. About 16,000 were in France, with the remainder posted in England and one company serving in the Middle East.

The Corps of Canadian Railway Troops would lay 1880 km (1169 miles) of broad gauge rail and 2275 km (1414 miles) of light track. They contributed to the mobility and thus success of the Canadian Corps in the Battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917, where light rail lines shunted ammunition and supplies right up to the front lines. They also played an important role in the Battle of Passchendaele in the fall of 1917, in the Battle of Amiens in August 1918, and in the final pursuit of the Germans to Mons during the closing months of the war. Members of the Corps would win some 490 honours and decorations, and 1,977 would lose their lives.

This clip shows a construction team working with mule-drawn scrapers. They are preparing a rail bed over which pre-fabricated sections of light rail would be installed.


Pieces of History

Engineers on the Western Front

Military Logistics of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, 1914–1919


Images

A Bridge is Built on the Scheldt River, 1918 Canadian Engineers Repair a Bridge Destroyed by the Germans The Canal du Nord Showing the Construction and Cutting Across,  [ca. 1918] « The Mechanical Bug » A Light Railroad Truck with Wounded on Board, [ca. 1918]

Teaching Materials

Warfront: Building Bridges