Military planning influenced the construction of railways in Europe in the second half of the 19th Century. Some lines built had little commercial justification, but were needed to ensure soldiers and their equipment could be readily moved in the event of war. Plans to counter a potential German attack on France included an agreement with the British that the French would provide all railway transportation needed for the British Army in France.
By the end of 1915 the French were struggling to meet the ever-increasing demands for railway capacity: they asked the British for help. As a result, Britain took over railway construction, maintenance and operation in much of the area in France and Belgium that was then under British control. Men from the various British railway companies were recruited into the army to operate these railways as part of the newly created Railway Operating Division (the ROD).
As the transportation needs continued to increase during 1916, Britain asked both Australia and Canada to provide railwaymen to the ROD. Australia responded by raising six railway companies. One of the companies, the 6th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company (6thABGROC), was made up of volunteers from the New South Wales Government Railways.
The 6thABGROC formed in Sydney in December 1916. It was made up of three officers and 266 other ranks. In command was Captain William James, a locomotive inspector from Eveleigh Depot in Sydney. They sailed in February 1916 and after a period of training in Britain, arrived in France in May 1917. After a period working at the main ROD base at Audruicq (near Calais), in July 1917 they took control of the locomotive depot and exchange sidings at Bergues Exchange that was supporting the Ypres area.
The Belgian town of Ypres remained in Allied hands, but with the Germans holding the land to the east the only railway available to the Allies was the single track line running from Hazebrouck to Poperinghe and then to Ypres. Despite the line being duplicated in 1915 it was still unable to handle the required traffic. A new double-tracked line was built from Bergues, where it branched off the line from Hazebrouck to Dunkirk, ran through Proven to Boesinghe (north of Ypres). Another three additional single tracked lines soon followed.
Bergues is an ancient town south of Dunkirk. Bergues Exchange was a locomotive depot and exchange sidings where trains operated by the French railways were handed over to the British to be worked forward towards the front.
Most trains arriving at Bergues Exchange from the west were hauled by French locomotives with French crews. The trains were placed into the sidings where they could be remarshalled before being worked forward by the 6thABGROC using their locomotives that had been borrowed from various British railway companies and the Belgian state railways. From February 1918 the locomotive fleet would include large new engines that were built for the war effort. The 6thABGROC included fitters, blacksmiths and boilermakers who maintained the locomotives at the depot.
A typical day at Bergues Exchange would see the operation of troop trains, bringing men to and from the front, as well as ambulance trains evacuating the sick and wounded from the casualty clearing stations at Mendinghem, Dosinghem and Bandaghem. Ammunition trains mostly served the large ammunition dump at Swiss Cottage and other trains handled supplies, stone (for road and railway construction) and other material. Up to 50 trains per day were run in each direction.
The 6thABGROC took control of Bergues Exchange at the start of the Third Battle for Ypres (31 July 1917 – 10 November 1917). This was a major British offensive intended to push through the German lines and reach the Belgian coast. Bad weather waterlogged the battlefield and combined with determined resistance resulted in little more than the capture of the village of Passchendaele and about 300,000 casualties on each side.
When the line from Bergues to Boesinghe was built, the Allies believed the Germans could be defeated within months. The immediate transport need resulted in the line being constructed with sand ballast that was now failing. Despite needing to maintain supplies for the major battle being fought at the end of their line, the 6thABGROC was being restricted by the poor state of the line and the constant need to close sections of tract for upgrading works. Despite these limitations the 6thABGROC continued to run increasing numbers of trains, with Major General Sir Sydney Crookshank (the British Director General of Transport) later commenting to Captain James:
I well remember the great difficulties you overcame during the autumn of 1917, when the line between Bergues and Boesinghe gave way under the exceptionally heavy traffic and the abysmal weather conditions prevailing at the time.
The excellent relations between the French Army under General Anthonie and the ROD, and the good results resulting, were brought about because the work performed by your Company was of a high standard of efficiency, which was thoroughly maintained throughout.
As the battle ended, winter began and the weather deteriorated further. Neither side would be able to mount a major offensive until the spring. The 6thABGROC had their operations expanded with another line coming under their control. It branched to the north from their line at Proven and then ran parallel to the town of Noordhoek. Numerous members of the 6thABGROC were trained to run trains over the French controlled lines. Australians could then be found crewing trains over much of northern France.
With spring the Germans mounted a major offensive. A treaty with the Russians allowed the Germans to move their Eastern Front troops to the Western Front. The Americans had entered the war, but had yet to arrive in significant numbers. This gave the Germans an opportunity to win the war. Using new tactics, they attacked the line from Arras to Saint Quentin on 21 March 1918, intending to drive the British forces north of the Somme back to the sea and separate it from the French. Despite significant gains, by 5 April the German advance had been halted before reaching Arras and Amiens.
The Germans then shifted their forces north and attacked from north of Ypres to the Lys on 7 April. Here again they made significant gains without being able to achieve a decisive victory. The Allies held Ypres, but lost ground especially to the south. This forced the evacuation of the locomotive depots at Borre and Peselhoek, and limited operation on the more southern lines to Ypres. Despite being on standby to evacuate Bergues Exchange, the 6thABGROC was called on to carry the bulk of the transport needs for the defence of Ypres.
Material stored at sites along the line was now too close to the front and was moved to safer locations. The ammunition dump at Swiss Cottage was now too close to the front and was moved to Watou. Shelling of the line became more regular and better targeted. Three members of the 6thABGROC (Peter Dunne, Wilfred Stumbles and Laurie Muggleston) were decorated for bravery under shell fire during the recovery operations.
Again Major General Crookshank was effusive in his praise:
The work done by your main line crews during the Spring of 1918 calls for special mention, and it was largely due to their efforts that such excellent results were achieved in the quick movement of large bodies of troops, to which great importance was attached.
The 1918 Spring Offensive had exhausted the Germans. Large numbers of American troops began arriving and the balance shifted in favour of the Allies. When the Allies attacked Amiens in August 1918 German resistance crumbled. On 28 September the German lines facing Ypres were attacked and yielded 10km on the first day. With the Germans in full retreat, the Allied advance was only limited by the supply lines.
The railway from Ypres to Roulers and Courtrai was required to support the Ypres advance. A British operating company replaced the 6thABGROC at Bergues Exchange to allow the Australians to move further into Belgium as each section of track was repaired. Construction trains to support the repairs added to the railway effort. They initially moved to Ypres, but by 14 October were operating beyond Passchendaele to Vierkavenhoek. The line was open to Roulers on 22 October and Heule on 29 October. Courtrai opened on 7 November, and the 6thABGROC were based there when the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.
Major General Crookshank’s comments to Captain James again praised the Australians:
During the advance in the winter of 1918, I heard nothing but praise for the splendid way you and all ranks overcame the difficulties which resulted from a rapid advance over lines which were damaged by the enemy. The RCE has told me that he was able by the assistance given by all ranks under your command to keep to his scheduled time.
Despite the end of the war, the workload of the 6thABGROC continued. Supplies were needed for the troops still in the field until they could be moved back for repatriation and the needs of the civil population needed to be met as they began the task of rebuilding. Reopening the railway to the Belgian capital, Brussels, was a priority, which was achieved on 6 December.
The unit was rested on 1 January 1919. Its individual members had taken leave, but this was the first time the whole of the 6thABGROC had been stood down since arriving in France. Only 11 days later they were called back to Bergues Exchange and by the end of the month they had returned to Roulers, although their time there would be brief.
The Australians began handing over the Belgian railway system on 5 February. The Belgians took full control on 21 March and the 6thABGROC left a week later. They returned to England on 2 May. While waiting for transport home, the 6thABGROC was formally disbanded on 22 May 1919.
In November 1917, the 6th sent a Christmas card back home to their NSW Railway Chief Commissioner, James Fraser. A grandson of Commissioner James Fraser donated the Christmas card to the Australian Railway Historical Society in 2012 after it had been held in the family for over 90 years. Each of the nine pages of the card is magnificently illustrated. The first page of the card features the Australian badge with the British and Australian flags, a scroll with the unit name* and a Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Class 27 locomotive, one of the ROD classes used by the 6th. All nine pages of the card are decorated with botanical specimens in watercolour. The card carries the signatures of 281 members of the company.
* The 6th had several name changes during its existence: In January 1917 it formed as Railway Unit No. 1 Section. In April 1917 it was renamed 60th Company (Australian) Railway Operating Division RE. The ‘RE’ signified the unit was attached to the Royal Engineers. In August 1917 it was renamed 60th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company and in March 1918 was renamed the 6th Australian Broad Gauge Operating Company.
Research by Trevor Edmonds