The ‘other’ citizen soldiers: recruiting technical experts on the Western Front

The term ‘citizen soldier’ evokes a particularly powerful image in Britain. The poignant histories of the ‘Pals’ Battalions’, raised utilizing the attraction of geographical and occupational connections, have contributed greatly to the lasting public impression of the conflict. Names such as the ‘Accrington Pals’, ‘Glasgow Tramways’ and the two ‘Football Battalions’ have been documented in many forms – both fact and fiction – since the end of the conflict, and the frequently tragic stories of their involvement in the trenches on the Western Front are now relatively familiar.

There was, however, another citizen army raised during the First World War. Not based on location and not destined for the front line, these soldiers were enlisted with the specific intention of applying their technical skills to the industrial challenges thrown up by the Western Front. In few areas was this process more pronounced than in the sphere of transportation, critical to the maintenance and sustenance of the armies in the trenches. This post looks at just one of the directorates formed during the war to supervise, organize and manage the logistics network on the Western Front, the Directorate of Inland Water Transport [IWT].

At the outbreak of the war, the British Army had no organization to take advantage of the canal networks of France and Belgium. This changed in December 1914 when Commander Gerald Edward Holland was authorized by the War Office to investigate the potential use of IWT as a supplement to the road and railway networks. As the rank suggests, Holland’s background was not army, but navy, having joined the Royal Indian Marine in 1880. Having seen service in Burma and South Africa, Holland retired from service in 1905 and took up the post of Marine Superintendent of the London and North Western Railway at Holyhead. It was in this capacity that Holland was employed until 1914.

Holland’s diary of the first few months of the IWT directorate’s existence remains, and demonstrates both the duties of a ‘chateau general’ on the supply chain, and the type of men Holland required to populate the new service. Unfortunately, as with so many unofficial diaries, the detailed, enthusiastic entries of the initial months eventually diminish into perfunctory statements before the diary abruptly ends in May 1915. So the diary does not give a full account of the development of a transportation service, however it does offer an insight into the course of action followed by Holland in the first weeks of 1915.

Arriving in France just after Christmas 1914, Holland’s first days were spent inspecting the canal network in France, talking to local barge owners and sketching out a potential policy for the use of canals to supply the expanding British force. Much of January was then given over to the familiar business practice of interviewing potential applicants for commissions in the new directorate, many of whom had little or no military experience.

What they did have were desirable skills. Obvious examples include those with previous boating experience such as Horace Pitman, a ten-year veteran yachtsman, albeit with ‘bad sight in one eye’, a man with six years’ experience operating transports on the Gold Coast, and a boat builder with knowledge of the French and Belgian canal network (and, significantly, knowledge of the French language). Alongside these men were a large group, some fifty in all, hand-picked from Holyhead and the London and North-Western’s Marine Department.

Not all were boating experts, however. Gerald Douglas, a civil engineer, was appointed as a Lieutenant; a trained Lloyd’s Surveyor who had enlisted in the infantry after the outbreak of the war was re-employed as an Inspector of new barges, a former civil servant from the Nigerian government arrived to use his organizational talents to the newly emerging directorate, and a Private R.H. Williams, curiously described as ‘intelligent looking’ by Holland, was transferred from the Public Schools Battalion thanks to his previous experience working for the London and North-Western.

These men were soldiers, each were sent to the Royal Engineers’ training camp at Longmoor prior to their posting in France, but they were not primarily occupied with the same challenges as those members of the ‘fighting services’; infantry, artillery and cavalry. Instead, their challenge was to introduce, adapt and develop their business talents to a problem familiar to any manufacturing business, that of moving goods from one place to another. Their motivation was not profit for their employers, but quite literally a matter of life and death for those who depended entirely upon an efficient, reliable supply of food, arms and myriad other goods.

Their sacrifice may not have been the ‘ultimate’ one which will be forever linked to the civilians of ‘Kitchener’s Armies’, but the contribution of the IWT – one among many of the ancillary services which were crucial to the ‘military machine’ – was of direct importance to the war effort, and the work of the ‘other’ citizen soldiers deserves to be the subject of further understanding and future commemoration.

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About Christopher Phillips

I am a Lecturer in the History Department at Leeds Trinity University, with a research specialism in the railway industry in Britain, 1870-1970. My doctoral research focused upon the influence of civilian business methods in the management of the British Expeditionary Force’s logistics network on the Western Front, and has been shortlisted for the Coleman Prize in 2016. I have published material from my thesis in a range of academic and public-facing media, including 'War & Society', the 'British Journal for Military History', and 'The Historian'. I also worked as an academic consultant for the BBC2 series 'Railways of the Great War', which first aired in August 2014 as part of the corporations' commemorations of the Centenary of the outbreak of the war.
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