Saturday, 1 April 2017

Railway lines and trains for the Battle of Vimy Ridge

Here in Canada, we're preparing for the 100th anniversary of the Battle at Vimy Ridge on April 9. This battle, that is regarded as the turning point in Canadian history, paved the way to Allied victory in the Great War. The Vimy Ridge Foundation has this about the importance of this battle. The upcoming anniversary got me to wondering again about any part my grandfather may have played in it.

My grandfather, John Matheson (1884-1964), was a sapper in the Canadian Railway Construction Corps (RCC) of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. His full personnel file was digitized last year by Library and Archives Canada. I wrote about his file and him here, for Remembrance Day 2016.

John Matheson service record
Honestly? I'm disappointed that his personnel didn't reveal more information about where he was posted--much of the file deals with pay and medical and is silent on which RCC battalions he served in or where, more specifically, he served. So I got to researching and was rewarded to find a 1919 nine-page government report summarizing the RCC's activities.

A key statement caught my eye:

"…the Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps proceeded to France in August, 1915. This Unit was made up of 500 picked men from the construction forces of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Each man before enlisting was required to pass a test as to his technical ability before he joined the unit which was the pioneer Canadian Railway Construction Unit in France."

This corresponds with what I know. My grandfather signed his attestation papers in March 1915, and spent three months training in Canada before shipping out to England in June 1915. Within days of my grandparents' London marriage, he was shipped out to France on 25 August. He spent the next two years there and in Belgium, with short annual leaves back to my grandmother in England.

There were ten Railway Construction Troop batallions on the British Western Front by 1917, and according to the report I found, they played a key supporting part in the Battle at Vimy Ridge. During the German retreat after the Battle at Somme in late 2016, government report referenced above notes that the railway construction troops "were able to push forward standard gauge and railway lines with surprising rapidity in spite of the obstacles and difficulties imposed by atrocious weather and the thoroughness of the destruction left by the enemy in the wake of his retreat......the Canadian Railway Troops had laid steel to within a short distance to the front line" at Vimy.

I found more specific details about the work of the RCC in this 1993 Canadian Rail article.

Today, the Battle at Vimy Ridge is memorialized in a stunning monument unveiled and dedicated in July 1934. Remarkably, it was untouched during the Second World War despite ferocious bombing and fighting all around it. Over the years though, wear and tear and a patchwork of repairs occurred. The memorial was restored and rededicated in 2007, on the 90th anniversary of the Battle.

I could not end this post especially without a link to one of Historica Canada's iconic Heritage Minutes about Vimy Ridge.

I am so thankful that my grandfather survived the war, and am happy to learn about his contributions towards Canada's success at Vimy Ridge.

The never ending story continues....

© Margaret Dougherty 2016-2017 All rights reserved

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