by Bill Stewart
In the Hundred Days campaign of 1918, the Canadian Corps had significant advantages over comparable British formations. One advantage less noted was its tramway organization that was instrumental in sustaining its high operational tempo. Tramways were a form of light rail running on narrow tracks. Uniquely, the Canadian Corps controlled its own tramways, and GHQ exempted it from the mileage restrictions. Further, the Canadian service was far more efficient. It carried almost twice the tonnage per mile as systems elsewhere and was four times more productive in terms of personnel employed. Without the tramways, the corps could not have maintained its program of multi-divisional attacks on every day of the campaign but one.
Bill Stewart received his PhD from the University of Birmingham in 2012, under the supervision of Professor Gary Sheffield, and is the author of numerous scholarly articles on the First World War related to the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF). In 2015, his reconsideration of the reputation of the controversial Canadian general Sir Richard Turner was published as The Embattled General: Sir Richard Turner and the First World War by McGill-Queen’s University Press. His research focus is on the tactical, operational and administrative developments in the CEF, as well as the CEF’s senior command levels.
In the Hundred Days campaign of 1918, the Canadian Corps had significant advantages over comparable British formations. Many of them, such as an extra battalion per brigade, three engineer battalions, more machine guns, trucks, and field artillery brigades are well known to military historians. One advantage less noted was its tramway organization that was instrumental in sustaining its high operational tempo. Tramways were a form of light rail running on narrow tracks. The General Headquarters (GHQ) of the British Expeditionary Force controlled the tramways system, except with the Canadian Corps. Shortages of trained personnel meant GHQ limited the number of maintained rails to 320 kilometres across the front. Uniquely, the Canadian Corps controlled its own tramways, and GHQ exempted it from the mileage restrictions. Further, the Canadian service was far more efficient. It carried almost twice the tonnage per mile as systems elsewhere and was four times more productive in terms of personnel employed.[i] The Canadian exception was especially important at the Second Battle of Arras as rail lines poorly served the corps’ forward area and there was only one all-weather road. Without the tramways, the corps could not have maintained its program of multi-divisional attacks on every day of the campaign but one.
The battle lasted from 26 August to 3 September and featured the Canadian Corps punching through 15 kilometres of defenses, including the formidable Drocourt-Quéant Line, to reach the Canal du Nord and capture Cambrai. GHQ tasked the corps with its most critical operational assignment of the war and was more important than its Vimy, Passchendaele, and Amiens campaigns. If successful, the corps would outflank the Hindenburg Line, and the Germans would have no choice but to retreat or be surrounded on a broad front. Hard fighting on every day but one, fierce counterattacks and successful operations characterized the battle. A key element of the battle was its intense tempo of daily multi-divisional attacks. In contrast at Passchendaele, there were four to seven day pauses between the corps’ major actions. The result was a severe strain on the supply system to provide the necessary matériel to keep the offensive going.
Three rail-based systems supplied the front. Steam-powered standard rail under GHQ’s command brought supplies to the corps’ supply head. During Arras 1918, this supply head was initially 15 kilometres on the west side of Arras and did not reach Arras until the end of the battle. Light rail under the control of the army reached to within 8,000 metres of the front and ran in daylight. Beyond that was the tramways system under the Canadian Corps’ direction. It operated on narrower tracks and smaller cars than standard rail. It could not carry as much as standard rail, but it required much less time and effort to construct and maintain.[ii] In addition, it could approach much closer to the front. At its peak during the battle, the system carried 1,800 tonnes of supplies a day.[iii] For context, the capacity of the standard horse-drawn General Service (GS) wagon used close to the front was 1.36 tonnes, but was reduced by one-sixth when the movement distance exceeded 24 kilometres.[iv] Tramways, therefore, represented 1,200 GS wagon loads or 1,440 given the great distance the horse transport had to travel. The latter number was approximately the number of wagons the corps employed. At those distances, the wagons could only make one or two trips per day, so the tramway system played a critical role in supplying the front.
The Canadian tramways organization comprised No. 1 Company for construction and No. 2 for operations, each 383 strong.[v] The construction company remained at Amiens, which handicapped the service.[vi] In its place, the corps assigned two or more engineer battalions to push the lines forward each day. On 30 August, the Chief Engineer assigned four engineer battalions on 30 August or one-third of the corps’ engineering resources.[vii]
The Canadian Corps fought over terrain already lacerated in the intense fighting of April-May 1917 and March 1918. This resulted in ruined villages, deep belts of barbed wire, vast trench systems, and chewed up ground littered with battle detritus. The area had poor road infrastructure with only the damaged Arras-Cambrai Road being all weather. Troop, artillery, and supply movements already overload routes badly scarred in the fighting. Unlike Amiens, the terrain was so cut-up with defences and damage that horse-drawn and mechanical transport had to remain on roads.
Adding to the issue was persistent gridlock. The combination of too much traffic, not enough road space, inexperience with rapid advances, inadequate staff work, and not enough personnel assigned to controlling it, all conspired to slow progress to a crawl. For instance, the 4th British Division commented on poor traffic control and that at one-point vehicles were banked four deep from the congestion.[viii] Sustained fighting exacerbated the issue with battles on every day but one. There was not enough of a break to recover from the strain.
The corps fired an average of 95,000 shells per day, with a peak of 173,476 rounds on 2 September.[ix] For instance, the Canadians expended 11 trainloads of ammunition on 29 August amounting to over 3,600 tonnes of shells. It received more rounds than it could clear from the supply heads.[x] The 1st Division’s administrative report described the chaos of 70 lorries trying to unload their rounds at a shell dump while horse transport from eight Field Artillery brigades jockeyed to fill their wagons with shells.[xi]
Value of Tramways
The 1,800 tonnes brought up by the tramways system was instrumental in keeping the offensive going. By the mid-point of the battle, the 1st Canadian Division complained about ammunition shortages and the need to be judicious in firing shells.[xii] With the tramways system extended to Wancourt by 30 August, the supply system greatly improved. Tramways delivered just under half of the rounds dumped at the battery positions for the 1st Division’s artillery for the 2 September attack on the Drocourt-Quéant Line.[xiii] The artillery plan for 2 September called for stockpiling 450 rounds at each of the corps’ 360 18-pounder guns.[xiv] The total weight of these shells was little more the 1,800 tonnes or the daily peak capacity of the tramways system. Without the tramways system, the corps would have had to scale back the scope of its offensive or delayed its execution to build up supplies. Either option would have benefited German Forces and made the operation more difficult than it was already.
Another important aspect was the evacuation of the wounded. With roads clogged with troops, wagons, and guns and often interdicted by German artillery fire, the tramways accelerated the transfer of wounded men to the rear for treatment. This avoided the build-up of cases as at Amiens.[xv] According to the official medical history of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, it saved the situation. The corps’ Quartermaster General did call the deputy-director on the carpet for evacuations using so much tramway capacity.[xvi]
While many studies relegate logistics to the background when discussing battles, the corps’ ability to sustain its torrid operational intensity was critical to its success. Pauses of days between attacks as in 1917 would have given German Forces sufficient time to recover and rebuild their defensive arrangements. With daily attacks, the corps kept them off-balance and unable to respond effectively. The tramways system, while a small unit, was a crucial element of this improved logistics capability.
[i] WJK Davies, Light Railways of the First World War: A History of Tactical Rail Communications on the British Fronts, 1914-18, (Newton Abbot (Devon): David & Charles, 1967), 56-7.
[ii] Tramways in the Canadian Corps, [December 1917], 20/3, RG9 III-C-5 v4390, LAC.
[iii] A.E. Kemp, Report of the Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, 1918, (London: Printed by authority of the Ministry, Overseas Military Forces of Canada, 1919), 148.
[iv] War Office General Staff, Field Service Pocket Book, 1914, (London: His Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1914).
[v] Tramways Companies War Establishment, No. 1911, Part XVI, RG24 v22003, LAC.
[vi] No.1 and No.2 Tramways War Diaries, August 1918, RG9 III-D-3 v5006, LAC.
[vii] CE Canadian Corps, Engineers Instructions No. 1, 28 August 1918, 3/12, RG9 III-C-5 v4226, LAC.
[viii] 4th British Divisional Artillery War Diary, Narrative of Operations of 4th Divisional Artillery From 26th August to 4th September, 1918, WO 95-1460-4/5, TNA.
[ix] Canadian Corps AAQMG War Diary, Appendix D, September 1918, RG9 III-D-3 v4821, LAC.
[x] First Army AQ War Diary, August 1918 Summary, WO 95-188-3, TNA.
[xi] 1st Division AAQMG War Diary, Report on Administrative Arrangements for Operations East of Arras, August 28 – September 4th, 1918, RG9 III-D-3 v4840, LAC.
[xii] 1st Division AAQMG War Diary, Report on Administrative Arrangements for Operations East of Arras, August 30th, 1918, RG9 III-D-3 v4840, LAC.
[xiii] 1st Division Artillery War Diary, 1st Division Artillery Report on Operations 28 August to 4th September, 1918, RG9 III-D-3 v4959, LAC.
[xiv] Ammo Loads by Vehicle, Ammunition, MG30 E81 v4, Morrison Fonds; LAC.
[xv] Assistant Directory of Medical Services, 1st Division War Diary, 2 September 1918, RG9 III-D-3 v5025, LAC.
[xvi] Arthur Evans Snell, The C.A.M.C. With the Canadian Corps During the Last Hundred Days of the Great War, (Ottawa: Canadian Army Medical Corps, 1924), 128-30.