The Labour Corps

A number of my family ancestors served in the Labour Corps, so I decided to write this piece on the history of that organisation and help to position the contribution my ancestors made to World War One.

The Need

An Army requires an extensive support organisation in peacetime and in wartime the need for support increases dramatically.

When the British Expeditonary Force landed in France & Flanders, Belgium at the start of the war in August 1914 they discovered an existing network of steam raailways, many of which were narrow gauge connected to the portds and leading towards the soon to be determined front line. They also needed to make use of steam engines and tracked vehicles for haulage, barges for river & canal traffic and horses & mules for distribution of stores.

Add to this the construction & repair of buildings & roads, creation of camps, first aid stations & hospitals and stores dumps plus the installation & maintenance of telephone & telegraph systems. Another requirement was for prisoner handling - the building & maintenance of prisoner camps.

In August 1914 there was no formal, formed body of troops specifically designed for these tasks. In the infantry, manual work near the front lines was carried out by the Pioneer Battalions which were added to each Division. Some infantry regiments formed labour companies and works battalions for work on the lines of communication and at home, but the organisation of manpower was haphazard until the formation of the Labour Corps.

The labour units expanded rapidly and became increasingly well-organised. However, despite adding large numbers of men from India, Egypt, China and elsewhere, there was never enough manpower to do all the labouring work required. The total number of men engaged on work in France and Flanders alone approximated 700,000 at the end of the war, and this was in the labour units alone. In many cases the men of the infantry, artillery and other arms were forced to give up time to hard effort when perhaps training or rest might have been a more effective option.

Army Service Corps Labour Companies

The ASC Labour Companies originated to provide manpower to unload British ships and operate the docks in France. Two railway labour companies were also formed.

The ASC was organised into Companies, each fulfilling a specific role. Some were under orders of or attached to the Divisions of the army; the rest were under direct orders of the higher formations of Corps, Army or the GHQ of the army in each theatre of war.

  • Base Depots
  • Horse Transport Companies (including Companies in Divisional Trains, Reserve Parks and Small Arms Ammunition (SAA) Trains)
  • Mechanical Transport Companies (including Companies in Divisional Supply Columns and Ammunition Parks, Companies attached to the heavy artillery, Omnibus Companies, Motor Ambulance Convoys, Bridging and Pontoon units and Workshops)
  • The Army Remounts Service (Companies involved in the provision of horses)
  • The ASC Labour Companies

Royal Engineers Labour Battalions

The RE raised 11 Battalions for labouring work, mostly associated with railways.

Infantry Pioneer & Labour or Works Battalions

An early solution to the vast demand for labour was to create in each infantry Division a battalion that would be trained and capable of fighting as infantry, but that would normally be engaged on labouring work. They were given the name of Pioneers. They differed from normal infantry in that they would be composed of a mixture of men who were experienced with picks and shovels (i.e. miners, road men, etc) and some who had skilled trades (smiths, carpenters, joiners, bricklayers, masons, tinsmiths, engine drivers and fitters). A Pioneer battalion would also carry a range of technical stores that infantry would not. This type of battalion came into being with an Army Order in December 1914. In early 1916, a number of infantry battalions composed of men who were medically graded unfit for the fighting were formed for labouring work. They had only 2 officers per battalion. Twelve such battalions existed in June 1916.

Non Combatant Corps

After the passing of the Military Service Act in early 1916 it was decided to form a Non-Combatant Corps of conscientious objectors for work on roads, hutments, timber work, quarrying, sanitary duties and handling supplies. Eight NCC Companies existed by the middle of June 1916.

The Labour Corps 1917 - 1918

Formed in January 1917, the Corps grew to some 389,900 men (more than 10% of the total size of the Army) by the Armistice. Of this total, around 175,000 were working in the United Kingdom and the rest in the theatres of war. The Corps was manned by officers and other ranks who had been medically rated below the "A1" condition needed for front line service. Many were returned wounded. Labour Corps units were often deployed for work within range of the enemy guns, sometimes for lengthy periods. In April 1917, a number of infantry battalions were transferred to the Corps. The Labour Corps absorbed the 28 ASC Labour Companies between February and June 1917. Labour Corps Area Employment Companies were formed in 1917 for salvage work, absorbing the Divisional Salvage Companies. In the crises of March and April 1918 on the Western Front, Labour Corps units were used as emergency infantry. The Corps always suffered from its treatment as something of a second class organisation: for example, the men who died are commemorated under their original regiment, with Labour Corps being secondary. Researching men of the Corps is made extra difficult by this, as is the fact that few records remain of the daily activities and locations of Corps units.

Overseas Labour

With the shortage of manpower for labouring work continuing, Sir Douglas Haig requested an increase in the force of an additional 21,000 men. This demand was filled by importing men from China (where the British followed a French lead and signed an agreement with the Chinese for a supply of men), India, South Africa, Egypt and other places within the British Empire. Demand continued and by the wars end a total of approximately 300,000 such workers had been engaged, of which 193,500 were in France and Flanders. By the end of 1917 there were 50,000 Chinese workers in France, rising to 96,000 by August 1918 (with another 30,000 working for the French). 100,000 Egyptians were working in France and the Middle East, alongside 21,000 Indians and 20,000 South Africans, who were also in East Africa. They were kept on lines of communication and other work well behind the fighting line, and as a force were rather immobile due to the decisions to segregate them - many of these workers were black - and provide special camps. Indian labourers were more often used closer to the front lines, on fortification work. Many Indians were also used in Divisional Ammunition Column work, as drivers as well as in the manual tasks. The South African Native Labour Corps came to France early in 1917 and established a base at Arques-la-Bataille.

Entrenching Battalions

Formed from the small surplus of men left after the break-up of many infantry battalions in early 1918, and the re-allocation of their strength to bring other units up to establishment. Men were all regarded as fit and ready to replace losses in fighting units at any time. There is some evidence that some Entrenching units were also formed in 1916.

Use of enemy prisoners of war

Until mid 1916, German prisoners were sent to England. From this time onward, prisoners were initially sent to Abbeville. Men with useful skills, notably forestry and engineering, were drafted into companies of about 100 men each, for use in POW Forestry Companies and ASC and RE workshops, respectively. 47 such POW labour companies were attached to the Labour Corps when it was formed.

Women's Auxiliary Army Corps

Formed in March 1917 after a proposal by the Army Council was welcomed by Sir Douglas Haig. Women would be used on the Lines of Communication and at GHQ, on tasks that did not require heavy labour. Initially called the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAACs), they eventually took the formal title of Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps. The women enlisted for a year or duration, whichever was longer. They were used on a wide variety of tasks, principally in clerical, canteen, motor transport, storehouses and telephone and postal roles. Approximately 10,000 WAACs saw service, most in France and Flanders.