Nos. 2 & 3 Railway Companies in World War 1
from Low & Everett’s history of the Regiment

These were original R.M.R.E. Companies. Both Companies, after spending some ten weeks at Longmoor, embarked on 10th November 1914 in the same transport at Southampton. They landed at Le Havre the next day, exactly four years before the Armistice. On 15th November both Companies entrained, and arrived at St. Omer next day and marched to billets in a village and farms five miles east of the town. Until February 1915 the Companies were employed under C.R.E., G.H.Q. Troops, constructing portions of a reserve position which ran southwards from near Dunkirk and passed east of St. Omer. Billets were changed from time to time as location of work required. During these months the weather was very bad. Trenches filled with water as they were dug. Boots were at the time in short supply, billets were poor, and being chiefly barns it was difficult to dry wet clothing. There was much sickness.

During this period No.2 Company was sent to First Army for three weeks to construct a “Barrage" across the La Bassee canal near Givenchy. The object was to protect a pair of lock gates from shell fire. If these gates had been demolished serious flooding of our support lines and gun positions would have resulted. This difficult work could only be carried out at night as it was in full view of the enemy. The operation consisted of building a wall of sandbags in the lock at the rear of the gates. The greater number were dropped from the “duck walk" fixed to the lock gates. The work was successfully completed with the wounding of one officer (H. H. Cowie) and five other ranks. Cowie who was 6ft. 5in. tall, was wounded in the foot! Sgt. Fitzmorris was awarded the D.C.M., the first R.M.R.E. decoration, but it was not gazetted until a year later.

On 17th February 1915, both Companies started for Ypres by route march. One night was spent at Cassel, the next at Abele, and Ypres was reached on the third day. Owing to months of wet weather and poor boots the men's feet were in a bad way. Marching over miles of pave from Cassel to Ypres was a painful proceeding.

On arrival at Ypres, billets were found in the town in what before the onslaught of the Germans had been quite good houses in the rue de Lille. Both Companies were employed under C.R.E. 28 Div. on completing a second line position on the south of the town from Zillibeke reservoir to Elzenwalle, working at night.

The weather continued to be very bad and trenches rapidly filled with water, and owing to the water-logged state and flatness of the ground, drainage was impossible. A double apron barbed wire obstacle was erected in front of the line of trenches. Interference by the enemy was not serious, and both Companies suffered only a few casualties (wounded). Officers reconnoitred each night's work and marked it out the previous day. They were sometimes spotted and sniped by field guns. Sgt. Butler of No.3 Company was wounded and was awarded the D.C.M. (He was later killed in action while serving with No.6). Sickness also took its toll, and by 9th March No.3 Company had only two officers left [Lts. Low and Crawford-Clarke]. While at Ypres both Companies received some excellent reinforcements from Monmouth. On 12th March 1915, both Companies left Ypres and marched to Abele where they entrained for Abbeville. The build-up of the British Army in France was now getting under way. Fresh divisions of Territorials and New Army were beginning to arrive. This involved large extensions to installations at the Bases and on the lines of communication. This in turn required many new miles of railway sidings to serve them, and to regulate the flow of rail traffic between the bases and the army areas. On arrival at Abbeville, both Companies in addition to two new Army Companies just arrived from England, were grouped under a R.C.E. (Railway Construction Engineer), a Lt.-Col. who had an Adjutant and a small H.Q. Companies were frequently moved from one R.C.E. to another as circumstances required. The summer of 1915, until about October, found the Companies in various places from Calais to Rouen.
The work was hard and hours were long and tended to become monotonous, but living conditions were on the whole fair. At times the Companies were housed in railway wagons fitted with wooden bunks. It was also possible to arrange bathing facilities. In October 1915, both Companies were sent to join the newly formed IV Army in the vicinity of Albert. Many small jobs, e.g. enlarging railheads, were carried out, but no major work. A detachment of each Companies in turn, No.2 under Chandler and No.3 under Low, were loaned to C.R.E. 51 Div. for experimental work in trench tramways - so called for getting supplies and ammunition forward by night. The tramway did not of course run in trenches, but on the surface. Mule haulage was used and experiments were made with wooden “rails" - in theory to reduce noise. In fact when covered with frozen mud, they were far noisier than the standard contractor's steel rail, so the experiment was not a success. The new year 1916 found both Companies back on the lines of communications again at Abbeville, Rouen and Abancourt. After the opening of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916, both Companies were back with 4th Army and remained so until the end of the war, except that for a while 4th Army was withdrawn and 5th Army took its place. Railway construction in Army areas now became a major operation. To keep the heavy concentration of Artillery supplied with ammunition and other requirements of the army as a whole - R.E. stores, rations and fodder etc. - short branch railway lines were built as rapidly as possible to railheads situated "out in the blue", depending entirely on the military situation of the moment. The summer was wet and the ground was heavily cut up by shell fire, but although conditions were bad, they were not comparable with the terrible conditions experienced at Paschendaele in the year following. Nevertheless such was the difficulty of keeping motorised and horse transport moving that it was generally advantageous to push railways through the mud, and so reduce the length of road haul. Lines constructed under these conditions required heavy maintenance to keep them in use. There was also damage from enemy shell fire to make good. As the battle proceeded and the front advanced many of these lines could not be extended and were abandoned owing to topographical reasons. About this time heavy artillery on railway mountings began to appear - several 12" Howitzers, two 12" guns and later 9.2" guns. These required special "spurs" to be constructed in suitable positions. The actual firing positions were very solidly built. Nevertheless after a piece had been in action for a time it was generally necessary to haul it off its fire position and "remake its bed". It was the gunner's job to fire his gun, but it was the sapper's job to put him where he wanted to be, to move him when he wanted to move and keep him supplied with his particular brand of ammunition, which was large and heavy. These points were mostly settled at high level. The foregoing is the general pattern of the tasks of Nos. 2 and 3 Companies (in conjunction with other Railway Companies R.E.) until the end of the war. In March 1918, in the great German attack and retirement of the Allies, the Railway Companies were responsible for the demolition of railway installations, including bridges and track. This was a colossal task but it was not very successful as explosives were not available in sufficient quantities to the railway organisation. In its War Diary, No.3 Companies records some exciting incidents in its efforts to salvage valuable items. Although the two Railway Companies did not suffer many battle casualties the turnover in all ranks for various reasons was large. O.C. No.3 Company records in his War Diary that in November 1917, when the Company had been in France for three years, there were only 1 officer (himself) and 53 other ranks of the original Company present. When the Companies landed the establishment was 5 officers (1 Capt, 4 Subalterns) and approximately 150 other ranks. In 1915, the establishment of 8th and 10th (regular) Companies and the Special Reserve Companies was increased to 6 officers and 250 other ranks, to conform with the new Army Companies which were by then joining the RE.F. The officers were two Captains and four Subalterns. This anomaly was later adjusted and the Companies became Majors' Commands. No.2 Company had five fatal casualties. It was disbanded in France in 1919. No.3 Company had four fatal casualties and was disbanded in France, 6 May 1919.