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World War I: railroaders.

In 1914, the Canadian government, foreseeing problems in the transport of supplies over a broad front, offered to raise railway units for service in France. The offer was rebuffed by the Imperial General Staff. However, when they learned, slowly, that their motor transport was not capable of the job, they condescended to let Canada raise two railway battalions, complete with rails and full equipment, for service in France.

The Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps was composed of 540 selected volunteers from the Canadian Pacific Railway. Recruiting was completed by 15 May 1915. All the men were experienced construction workers and each had to pass a test as to his technical ability. This nucleus was to grow to 13 battalions of Canadian Railway Troops, three battalions of Skilled Railway Employees, Railway Bridging Companies and Railway Company Drafts and Depots. At the end of the war there were 8000 men in active construction work and another 4000 on repair duties responsible for the construction and maintenance of railways of all gauges, including light railways, in France and Belgium. Some were formed as Royal Engineer units, but after the formation of the Corps of Canadian Railway, they became the responsibility of the officer commanding the Royal Canadian Engineers, although they were never a part of the Canadian Engineer's military structure.

The equipment these troops brought with them had never before been seen in Europe. Steam-shovels, graders, cement mixers and thousands of specialized construction implements helped the Corps lay 1169 miles of heavy track and 1404 miles of light track during one six-month period. They also built cement gun emplacements that could not have been constructed with manual labour. They expedited the delivery of supplies and manpower and eventually controlled all railway marshalling yards in France and Flanders.

Typical of these railroad soldiers was a man from Carleton Place, Sapper William Fraser. The railroad troops adopted the rank structure of the Canadian Engineers, hence the rank Sapper, rather than the infantry rank of private.

Will Fraser joined No. 1 Section of the Skilled Railway Employees (S.R.E.), a railway construction battalion, in Ottawa on 4 January 1917. He gave his trade as "roundhouse-man" with the additional qualification as a machinist's helper. He and his wife, Laura Elizabeth, were living in Packenham when he enlisted. He was assigned regimental number 2124809.

Born in Dundee, Scotland, on 2 September 1872, he enlisted at age 44 -- considerably older than most infantry enlistees. These specialized troops needed no trades training, nor were they required to practice or perform rifle drill, having only to endure a minimum of military foot drill. They were paid their normal civilian working pay plus military pay of one dollar a day for engineers and yardmasters, 80 cents for firemen, 90 cents for conductors and mechanics, and 70 cents for brakemen.

The men of No 1 Section S.R.E. were transferred to No. 2 Section S.R.E. which, along with No. 13 Light Railway Operating Company (mobilized in Montreal on 27 January 1917), boarded HMT S.S. Grampian in Halifax on 16 April 1917. They sailed two days later arriving in Liverpool on 29 April. Sent to Burfleet, by 7 May 1917, they were residents in the camp at Aldershot. The entire unit was sent on leave for over six days while army senior officers tried to determine what to do with them. When they returned for duty with the Royal Engineers of the British Expeditionary Force, they were credited with six days allowance of one shilling, nine pence, in lieu of the rations not provided by the army while they were away.

On 9 June, the Operating Company went to France aboard the S.S. Viper, but Will was not with them. Left behind, he was transferred to the Railway Troops Depot to take instruction in the operation, maintenance and repair of petrol-electric locomotives and petrol tractors. These courses were conducted at the school in Apple Pie Camp, Longmoor, Hants. Fraser went to France on 9 July and caught up with his unit the next day.

To follow Will's activities in Flanders, reference is made to the War Diary of the 13 Light Railway Operating Company. They were at Coxyde, Belgium at the time of writing in August 1917:

23.8.17 -- Things running smooth. A game of baseball was played today between our boys and the 1st Canadian Casualty Clearing Station and we lost to the tune of 15 to 3. The first game of amusements since landing in France.

25.8 -- Track blown up

26.8 -- Engine 1276 derailed. Track in bad condition ... shelled very badly this date. 14 cars ammunition moved up to Coxyde for safety.

27.8 -- Heavy shelling at Coxyde. Track blown up.

29.8 -- Enemy shelling Coxyde very badly at 10 p.m.

30.8 -- Everything very quiet.

31.8 -- Still no broad gauge train in. Engine 1214 over on its side near aerodrome ... shelled. Derailed one repair car and Engine

1300 -- One shell dropped in front of the tents.

1.9.17 -- 1:30 a.m -- Month started very badly for this unit. A shell struck a dug-out at Oost Dunkirk where there was four of our men in. Killing three and the fourth was badly shell shocked ... Rained during the day. The three men were buried in the afternoon at Coxyde.

2.9 -- Fine day. Quiet as regards work.

9.9 -- 125 men sent to XV Corps rest station and they need it for there wasn't much sleep to be had in the last camp owing to the continual bombardment each night.

10.9 -- Men ordered back from rest camp owing to us having orders to remove out to another area.

The Almonte Gazette of 21 September noted that "Mrs. J.A. McIntosh received word last week that her brother, Pte. Wm. Fraser, had been killed in action. Pte Fraser was living at Packenham(sic) previous to enlistment."

Sapper William Fraser was listed as killed in action on 1 September 1917, at Rouen. The official commemoration has him belonging to the 13th Canadian Light Railway Operating Company, Canadian Railway Troops. He would not have recognized the name since the unit had been re-organized after his death, and the word "Canadian" wasn't added until November 1917. Fraser and three comrades died while asleep, when their dugout at Oost Dunkirk was hit by an enemy shell. Will Fraser had been in France for seven weeks.

Coxyde was about ten kilometres behind the front line. The cemetery had already been begun by French troops when they were relieved by the British in June 1917. The village was used for rest billets, and was occasionally shelled, but the cemetery was found to be reasonably safe. It was used at night for the burial of the dead from the front line. There are over 1500 World War One dead commemorated at this site.

After his death, William's widow and five of their six children moved to Ottawa and it was there that his medals were sent. By then, the oldest boy, Lawrence, was in England with a signals regiment training for action at the front. Laura received a special pension bonus of $80 and a gratuity of $100 for the loss of her husband.
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Author:Gray, Larry
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Date:Feb 1, 2002
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