The Men Who Came Home – A Memorial Part Eight – The Labour Corps

Another of those Daily Mail postcards I showed you during the daily/weekly postcard series of 2020, here we see a British labour battalion in action. 

Now, Algy had one thing, and one thing only, that he wanted to tell Lil.  He really, really, really wanted to make sure Lil knew where he was.  And thus his precious postcard home from the front contains the following message; ‘Dear Lil. Have got as far as_____. With the best of love from Algy’.  Oh, Mr. Censor.

You might be unaware of this, but the Labour Corps was not officially formed until 1917.  Before then, the well-established Army Service Corps supplied men for manual labour companies, unloading ships at the docks, and likewise trains at the stations, while the Royal Engineers raised eleven labour battalions early in the war for primarily manual work, and each infantry division also created a pioneer battalion with full infantry training who would normally, however, be engaged in labouring work.

As the war progressed, many officers & men who had been injured or wounded, and had recovered enough to return to service, although not enough to be considered fighting fit, would join the labour battalions.  Two of the men above are examples, the man on the left shot in the head while serving with the Rifle Brigade, the man on the right sustaining a compound fracture of his right arm whilst with the Queen’s; both would later return to duty with the Labour Corps, although both would be discharged before the end of the war.  From early 1916 conscripted men, trained but considered unfit to fight, would be assigned to the labour battalions, and in February 1917 the Labour Corps would be officially formed by the amalgamation of the aforementioned labour companies and battalions, the addition of several Blighty-based labour companies, and seven other battalions, essentially raised from five regiments – the Devonshire Regiment, the Durham Light Infantry, the King’s (Liverpool Regiment), the Middlesex Regiment & the Royal Scots Fusiliers – that would be transferred a few months later.

The Labour Corps’ duties ranged from road & railway construction and establishing camps, hospitals & dumps (the Divisional Salvage Companies being absorbed into the Labour Corps in 1917), to cooking, cleaning and staffing stores behind the lines, where they also ran cinemas and theatres for the troops’ entertainment.  They helped to evacuate the wounded, and they buried the dead.

Thus the men of the Labour Corps on the Western Front could find themselves working in one of the stores at Etaples, on the Channel coast, far from the fighting, or repairing roads, such as the men above on the Hazebrouck road near Bailleul, just a few miles from the front linesAnd when they needed to fight, they did, in particular during the German offensives in the spring of 1918, when every man who could fire a rifle was needed as the Allies attempted to stem the German tide. 

By war’s end, the Labour Corps would number not so far off 390,000 men, of whom well over 200,000 served in various theatres abroad, the rest doing their bit back in Blighty.  And I have seen it written that some 9,000 of them died, although don’t quote me on that.  Fortunately, the dozen men whose faces are pictured in this post were not among them.

They are some of the men who came home.

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11 Responses to The Men Who Came Home – A Memorial Part Eight – The Labour Corps

  1. Alan Bond says:

    I wonder how it affected there status was soldier in a Labour battalion thought less worthy than one in a regiment fighting in the line.

  2. Nick Kilner says:

    Absolutely. Perhaps we can combine efforts with the WFA project. My good friend Bruce was actually president of the WFA many years ago, so should still have some pull.

    • Magicfingers says:

      If there is a reason there isn’t one, I wouldn’t mind betting that he might well know why.

      • Nick Kilner says:

        If I had to guess, I’d say one of three reasons. Either the powers that be didn’t value the labour corps sufficiently, feeling they unworthy of a memorial (unlikely, but not impossible). Secondly, they may have felt they were already represented on the memorials to their original regiments and those of the RE. Thirdly, they may have felt that a labour corps memorial would have necessitated a Chinese labour corps memorial, and didn’t want to go down that road. Fourthly (yes I know I said three reasons), they may simply have been unable to decide on a suitable location for one, and that’s something that will need some serious thought. There was no one place where the corps was begun, no ‘central command’, and the men of the labour corps were pulled from the four corners, working at home and abroad. Finding a defining location is quite a challenge. I wonder if anything they built still remains in its original form? If so, then I would suggest that is as good a location as any.

        • Magicfingers says:

          Yes, that all makes very good sense. I have no idea off the top of my head whether anything they built still survives. How do we find out, I wonder? I mean, many things, bunkers etc, that do survive, were RE built, as you suggest.

          • nicholas Kilner says:

            Therein lies the problem, and just to add to it, the labour corps were not required to keep war diaries and so what does exist is very sparse and a bit vague. There are some available through the National Archives, which would certainly be worth viewing. I’m emailing you a copy of one now, for your viewing pleasure.

  3. Magicfingers says:

    Youse a gent.

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