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One of the biggest challenges faced by the War Office during World War I was transporting thousands of troops and supplies from Britain to mainland Europe. The transport system was the key to determining the outcome of the 1914-18 war, as getting supplies from Blighty to the main conflict zones on the Western Front wasn’t easy.
While railways had the capacity to carry people, equipment, rations, munitions and medical supplies, it was a different matter getting them off our island to the troops in the trench warfare zones in France and Belgium. War supplies would arrive at the British ports on the south coast and were taken by ferry across the Channel.
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Dangerous transport run
After arriving at one of the Channel ports in France, supplies would be loaded on to trains and transported to the main supply areas behind the British lines. At this point, the new objective of taking them to the heart of the combat zones was a bigger challenge for the War Office.
There were around two million British soldiers serving on the Western Front, requiring some 1,000 tons of supplies daily, such as food, blankets, bullets, bandages and artillery batteries. The main problem was that the supplies must be taken across seven miles of rough and exposed ground to reach the front.
Anyone embarking on the transport run would be targeted by long-distance artillery shelling. While horse-drawn vehicles and pack mules were used for transporting some supplies (and even dogs would carry small items around the trenches), it was too hazardous for them to carry the main equipment and munitions on a 14-mile round trip.
The items in the railway storage areas had to be transported to the troops in large, reliable, motorised vehicles. It was a dangerous job for both the mechanics, who kept the vehicles properly maintained, and the drivers who risked their lives to undertake the hazardous missions.
At the start of the war, the War Office had requisitioned more than 1,000 civilian lorries to bolster the military vehicles already lined up for transporting people and goods. The lorries were taken by ferry across the Channel.
In addition, London buses were also requisitioned and remained in service as transport vehicles until the war ended in 1919. Still more vehicles were needed, so the war office ordered thousands of HGVs from British and American manufacturers.
When the Somme campaign began in July 2016, the weather and road conditions caused new challenges for the drivers. Poor road surfaces and torrential rain made the journey even more precarious for the over-laden HGVs, with their solid rubber, narrow tyres. They frequently got bogged down in the mud and it was hard to free them again.
The mechanics and drivers had to keep the transport links going, as they were supplying the British artillery with a total of 28 million shells for the Somme conflict. The drivers were carrying 20,000 tonnes of supplies daily along the 12-mile long front, so it was a continual challenge to keep the army up and running.
One of the most common heavy goods vehicles used during the Great War was the US-built FWD Model B truck. It was used by the Americans, the British and the Russians. Many of the trucks were of such a high quality that they were used again during the second world war.
Built by the Four-Wheel Drive Auto Company to military specifications, most of the 17,500 trucks were taken into military service. More than 14,000 were used by the American troops, 3,000 by the British and around 80 by the Imperial Russian forces.
Interviews with veterans
The research project, Voices of the First World War, compiled a series of historic interviews with veterans and posted them online. One such interview was with Walter Williams, who answered an advert in 1915 to join the Army Service Corps as a driver. He said in those days, the drivers were highly valued, as it was a rare skill.
He passed his medical examination at the recruiting office in Oxford Street, Weston-super-Mare, before being sent to Aldershot Barracks for basic training. This was followed by learning to drive three-ton lorries.
Walter recalled he had been used to driving a Ford car with two simple pedals. He thought to himself, “We’ll never get used to driving these lorries!”
However, he soon mastered the HGVs and was ready to be shipped out to France. Walter was luckier than some of the drivers, in that at least he received basic training and a crash course in lorry-driving. Other new recruits received no training whatsoever.
Fellow veteran Tom Bromley enlisted in the ASC’s Motor Transport Section in London – and eight days later was in Rouen, France, where he had to sit a driving test, without any training. “It was a sort of test course,” he recalled, going up and down hills. He struggled with even the basics, such as changing gear and steering! After he failed the test, he remembered the officer in charge was annoyed with him and “said some rude things”.
London bus driver George Gwynn remembered when the government asked the drivers of London General Omnibus Company if they would take their buses to France to transport the troops in October 1914. “The next morning, 300 of us turned up at Westminster and said we’d do just that,” George responded.
While the troops travelled in the buses and lorries, it was a little different for the officers, who had the relative comfort of being transported by car. Private Alfred Stammers’ job was to drive officers round the Western Front: something he described as a “baptism of fire” for the new officers.
He picked them up at night, at Bray on the Somme, driving them towards the frontline. They stayed there all night to learn exactly what was going on. Alfred recalled how smart the officers looked when they first arrived, adding, “They didn’t come back spick and span.”
In 1917, the Allied Labour Corps (made up of new recruits from British Empire countries, including India) was launched. Its purpose was to keep the supply chain going for the rest of the war, until the conflict ended on 11th November 1918.
People across the world are preparing to commemorate the end of World War I, with special services at churches and cenotaphs on Remembrance Sunday, 10th November. Lest we forget.