Malvern man won Croix de Guerre in 1918

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This article, written for the Central Ontario Branch Western Front Association, features Malvern graduate Charles Frank Szammers.

frrank szammers

MCI grad Capt. Frank Szammers served with the Canadian Engineers during the First World War

While much has been written about the quality of the Canadian infantry in the First World War, far less has been said about the excellence of other units whose expertise was equally admired by the Allied general staff.  The stereotype of wild, young Dominion men imbued with a rustic fighting quality was more characteristic of the Canadian Railway Troops, Engineers and Pioneer Battalions who did acquire their expertise in the hinterlands, building thousands of miles of rail over terrain that often resembled a war zone. Once they reached the Western Front, they were to prove their worth and help conquer the many logistical challenges that lay behind the tragic failures of the early campaigns and contribute significantly to the success of the war’s final days. Captain Charles Franklin Szammers, a Toronto boy from the Beach whose father was a foreman for the Grand Trunk Railway, was one of them. His career path in the Canadian Expeditionary Force led him to Amiens, where the work of his men in the 1st Tramway Company, Canadian Engineers, earned him the French Croix de Guerre and a share of the honours given to all Canadians who were part of the “100 Days”.

Like many of his comrades, Frank Szammers was singled out for duty with the Pioneers because of his construction experience. After completing his senior matriculation at Malvern Collegiate Institute and graduating from the University of Toronto with a diploma in Applied Science in 1911, he worked for six months with the Royal Canadian Engineers on a surveying crew for the Temiskaming and Northern Ontario Railway – later to become the Ontario Northland. His daughter, Betsy McCrea-Kuipers, said it was then that her father learned that, despite his shyness, he was made of stern stuff. One winter, he became separated from his crew and spent many hours finding his way out of the bush by dog team.[1] It taught him a lesson in endurance and perseverance that would later stand him in good stead on the Western Front.

On July 12, 1915, Szammers joined the 30th Battalion, Canadian Field Artillery, at Niagara Camp, but by October was transferred to the 2nd Canadian Pioneer Battalion.[2] The need for troops with construction and railway experience was recognized as early as October 1914 in proposals to include them with the CEF’s Second Contingent.[3]  Szammers’ time in the bush made him a perfect fit for the Pioneers, who were initially mobilized in Guelph with men from four recruitment areas: ‘A’ company at London; ‘B’ and ‘C’ companies in Toronto, Ottawa and Sault Ste. Marie; and ‘D’ company in Northern Ontario: Sudbury, Cobalt and Porcupine.[4] By December the Pioneers were on board the SS Orduna bound for England. They landed at Winchester and spent the next two months in training at Hazeley Down Camp before shipping out for France. Within a few days of arriving in March, a man from ‘B’ company was wounded; two days later the battalion was in Flanders where two members of the battalion were killed at La Clytte (De Klijte). It was a grim reminder that, although the Pioneers were not infantry, they too would face enemy action. In fact, men of the Pioneer battalions in both the British and Canadian armies were called on to “stand to” and perform as infantry during emergencies. More often, however, they suffered losses while working at the front, where they would stay for weeks at a time, unlike the infantry who could look forward to being rotated out of the line.

The work of the Pioneers was unglamorous: building trenches, stringing barbed wire or, more gruesome still, clearing captured trenches of the dead and converting them to new front-line positions, which were already registered by enemy guns.[5] Szammers, who was made Lance Sergeant after a field promotion two weeks before, went with his unit to Dickebusch, West Flanders, as the Canadian 2nd Division prepared for its first action at the St. Eloi Craters. During the battle, men of ‘D’ company were caught in the forward area where they were trying to make defensive positions out of the confused moonscape left by previous British mine explosions. The Pioneers’ war diary reports that while the infantry dispersed under heavy shell fire, their crews remained, waiting to complete the work – a common occurrence for a Pioneer. In a fight where even Maj. Howard Bodwell, second in command, was wounded, the Pioneers’ bravery won the respect of the 19th Battalion, whose commander sent a note of thanks, saying “It would be difficult to find more trying conditions, under constant shell, bomb and rifle fire.”[6] Although Szammers’ exact movements during this time are difficult to trace, his work – probably on the construction of tramway lines – earned him another rapid promotion to Acting Lieutenant. We do know that on April 25, he was with his company in the front line and saw death close at hand:

“On the night of the 25th/26th two platoons from ‘A’ Coy. under Lieut. Petrie and A/Lieut. Szammers met Lieut. Weatherby 6th Field Coy. Canadian Engineers at LA BRASSERIE. This party worked with the 4th Bde. in 15 and 16 reclaiming trench and repairing parapet and parados. One casualty occurred, Pte. Collings was shot and killed by a Hun whom [sic] Lieut. Petrie reports approached to within 15 feet of our own parapet.”[7]

A few days later, ‘A’ Company experienced its first gas alarm during an attack where the men were also ordered to “stand to” and repulse the enemy on the right flank.

Many soliders during the First World War worked for service battalions, such as these engineers on a narrow gauge railway.

In August, Szammers was chosen to become part of a new unit, formed in May, dedicated to the specialized task of building narrow gauge rail lines – it was a direct response to the events of that summer. After St. Eloi, the 2nd Pioneers were sent from Ypres to the Somme and took part in the battle that began there on July 1. After the appalling losses that sent shock waves through the British government, the recrimination aimed at the generals and their tactics overshadowed logistical problems that had contributed to the disaster. The General Staff realized assaults needed to be supported quickly or ground gained would be lost due to a lack of supplies, particularly for the guns. “Ammunition trains began to run at a rate of seven per day to the railheads, and then [shells would] have to be moved to the guns…each division [would] have on the ground the equivalent of the loads of 36 miles of motor lorries.”[8] These massive quantities of ordnance needed to be shifted by carrying parties using horses or mules and crudely laid trench tramways. The Staff’s response was to gather men like Frank Szammers, with experience in building narrow gauge rail lines, into a composite company attached to the Canadian Engineers that could help speed the flow of shells to forward areas. Sir Eric Geddes was appointed Director General of Transportation and looked to the Canadians to supervise and direct the construction of these light railways.[9] The men were selected from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Pioneer Battalions, the Canadian Overseas Railways Construction Company and various infantry battalions, and organized into construction and operations teams tasked with pushing “the end of the steel” to forward positions all along the Canadian line. By the end of 1917 the Canadian front would be better served by light railways than any other sector of the British front.[10]

On Aug. 1, 1916, Szammers and the 2nd Pioneers were taking advantage of a new rotation policy that had come down a few weeks before: each company would receive one week per month in a rest area. It was recognition of the fact that, although the Pioneers weren’t infantry, they too suffered from the stress of being in the line and the desperate acts that could result, such as that of Pnr. Thomas E. Gibson, 409059, who shot himself in the foot at Voormezeele on July 18. He was sentenced to two months’ field punishment.[11] But even in the rest areas, the men weren’t completely out of harm’s way, as the war diary illustrates with several entries about shelling of the billets at Mic Mac Camp.[12] On Aug. 22, the Pioneers were on the move, this time 62 kilometres to the rear for a period of training at Serques, west of St. Omer. In addition to turning in their Ross rifles for Lee-Enfields, the battalion said goodbye to Lieut. Szammers, who was being transferred to the Composite Company. On Sept. 3, he and the rest of the men selected joined the 2nd Division at Albert where they worked on laying tramway lines to Becourt Wood and Pozières, before returning to Ypres on Oct. 26.[13]

Lt. Frank Szammers

A young Lt. Frank Szammers, Canadian Engineers, who fought at Vimy.

In spite of growing demand for the Composite Company’s tramway lines, there were still growing pains as the Chief Engineer noted in the war diary’s monthly report for December: “The shortage of heavy rail, rolling stock and petrol tractors is delaying to a dangerous degree, extensions to this important system – the existence of which is, apparently, not admitted by the Department of Transportation who seem determined to treat it as a light trench tramline system.”[14] To make their case, the Canadian Engineers put a special effort into light rail preparations for the assault on Vimy Ridge and the success of that battle was due, in part, to the excellent flow of supplies that allowed the infantry and artillery to consolidate their newly won positions. The work “included the laying of 5,000 yards of track, making a total of 20 miles of line under Corps control. 15 sidings were built to gun positions and dressing stations” and a further 5,000 yards of track was gathered to permit an immediate extension of the line on Zero Day.[15]

By August 1917, Acting Lieutenant Szammers was working on tramway lines in support of the Battle for Hill 70. In addition to carrying needed supplies, the narrow gauge trains were returning full of wounded men. Once Hill 70 was captured on Aug. 15, the Composite Company received letters of thanks from the Canadian Army Medical Corps for helping to save lives by quickly evacuating the casualties.[16] Szammers was given 10 days’ leave in September and returned to hear of more changes and a promotion. Following on these and other successes, in September, the Chief Engineer’s War Diary mentions a proposed new formation dedicated to light rail construction and operation.[17] On Nov. 10, 1917, the Composite Pioneer Company became the Canadian Light Railway Operating Company and was organized into Headquarters, Operations, Maintenance and Construction sections based at Lens. The maintenance camp was located at Cité de Caumont with smaller sub-camps at Kootenay, Petit Bois and Whizz Bang Corner near Lievin Square.[18] Szammers was promoted to Temporary Lieutenant on Nov. 9, in anticipation of him joining the new formation’s Operations section. On Feb. 1, 1918, the name of the Company was changed to 1st Tramways Company, Canadian Engineers, and a second unit, the 2nd Tramways Company was also formed.

Throughout the winter of 1917-1918, the companies perfected their skill at extending the end of the steel and traffic grew as they began to regularly transport troops. “This grew to considerable dimensions, sometimes two battalions would be brought up, and two others brought back, in a night. Regular night trains were run to take work crews to their positions on the defense lines, the regular schedule handling 1200 men per night. In addition, hospital trains were run on a regular schedule to and from the forward dressing stations.”[19] Acting Lieutenant Szammers received word he was to be made Temporary Captain on March 4 and his promotion was gazetted on May 17.[20] In April, word of the success of the tramways companies was spreading and an official photographer from the Canadian Corps came to take both still and moving pictures of them at work. (See pages 20-21 and back cover.) As an operations man, Szammers’ work was becoming more challenging coordinating the various dispatches of trains along an increasingly complex system of branch lines, spurs to gun pits and switch lines leading to the rail heads. Men of the company were being recognized with awards for bravery and devotion to duty. “Military Medals were awarded to Sappers P. Plourde, J. Hilton and J.R. Forrest for ‘Conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during hostile shelling on April 8, 1918.; These men repaired the track during this heavy bombardment, and thus enabled the ammunition to pass, and wounded cases to be cleared.”[21] And the Corps was finding new and innovative ways of using the lines to advantage. Special trains carrying gas cylinders were used to prepare a gas attack[22] and in one notable case, an 18-pounder gun was successfully fitted to a narrow gauge rail car so it could be fired and quickly moved.[23]

In August 1918, the 1st Tramways Coy. was at Amiens immediately after the battle, which ended on Aug. 13, to extend the tramways deep into captured territory. From Domart-sur-la-Luce to Cayeux and from Caix to Rosières, the company worked quickly to repair broken track and link it to captured enemy lines, which were often booby-trapped or badly damaged by shelling. By Sept. 2, their work was done and the company moved back to the Arras sector. As new lines were built, the company moved further forward and turned them over to other new units tasked with operating what had become essential lines of communication. When the armistice was signed on Nov. 11 and people celebrated, for the men of the 1st Tramways “work carried on as usual”.[24]

Capt. Szammers remained with his company into January 1919 and learned that his work, which also benefitted the French 3rd Army fighting on the Canadians’ right, south of the Amiens-Roye Road, had earned him the French Croix de Guerre. It was given, noted the company diary, “for work done in opening up tramway communications in the Amiens show at Caix in Aug. ’18.”[25] Although the war was now over and the tramways units were being demobilized, Szammers’ ordeal of war wasn’t over. He contracted Spanish Flu during his trip back to England and was admitted to the Prince of Wales Hospital, Marylebone, after complaining of feeling unwell. His stay in hospital was to last several months, but he survived to be included in the general demobilization of May 31, 1919. The announcement of his Croix de Guerre appeared in the London Gazette on June 7.

Civilian Szammers went into construction after the armistice and married Mildred Florence Ross in 1929. By 1933 he was working for Ontario’s Department of Northern Development, later to become the Department of Highways, based in Bancroft and Sudbury. As head of the section, Szammers was responsible for the construction of 570 of miles of new road, including Highway 17 between North Bay and Ottawa.[26] He and his family lived in Peterborough and Sudbury until he moved to the department’s head office in Etobicoke in 1952. He retired in 1957 to a life of reading history, playing bridge and listening to both opera and sports, and died on Oct. 17, 1984. Mildred died in 1992. He is survived by his two daughters, Betsy and Anne. Betsy’s daughter, knowing the history of the Ontario Northland Railway and her grandfather’s role in it, was among the passengers for its final run on Sept. 28, 2012.[27]

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2013 issue of The Maple Leaf, the magazine of the Central Ontario Branch Western Front Association.

[1] McCrea-Kuipers, Elizabeth (“Betsy”), Interview with the author, December 2012.
[2] All references to Szammers’ service are from his personnel file, Library and Archives Canada
[3] Jager, Maj. George, CD (Army Directorate of Conceive and Design), “Sinews of Steel: Canadian Railway Troops on the Western Front, 1914-1918” in Canadian Army Journal, Vol. 10.3 Fall 2007, p. 66.
[4] War Diary, 2nd Canadian Pioneer Battalion, Library and Archives Canada, Oct. 28, 1915.
[5] Mitchson, K.W., Pioneers Battalions in the Great War: Organized and Intelligent Labour, Leo Cooper, 1997, …]
[6] War Diary, 2nd Pioneers, April 10, 1916, and Appendix 1. Maj. Bodwell was decorated for his actions on this occasion and again later for his work on narrow gauge rail lines. He died in St. John, NB, in 1919 of Spanish Flu and complications from being twice wounded. (http://home.earthlink.net/~bbodwell/treepg/Howard881.htm)
[7] War Diary, 2nd Pioneers, April 25, 1916. Pte. Harry Collings 166493, age 28, was the son of Son of George and Adeline Collings of Brighton, England. He is buried in Voormezeele Enclosures No. 1 and 2.
[8] Jager, “Sinews”, CAJ, p71-72.
[9] Angus, Fred, “The Canadian Railway Troops in World War 1”, Canadian Rail No. 437 November-December 1993, pp. 191-214.
[10] Ibid.
[11] War Diary, 2nd Pioneers, July 1916, Appendix 3.
[12] War Diary, 2nd Pioneers, numerous entries.
[13] War Diary, Chief Engineer, Canadian Engineers, Sept. 3, 1916.
[14] War Diary, Chief Engineer, January, 1917, Appendix 2. The trench tramways were crude rail systems built for small carts pulled by men or horses unlike the 60cm gauge heavy steel track used for the light railways.
[15] War Diary, Chief Engineer, April 1917, p. 7
[16] War Diary, Chief Engineer, August 1917, pp. 8-9
[17] War Diary, Chief Engineer, September 1917, Appendix A
[18] War Diary, 1st Tramways Coy., Canadian Engineers, Nov. 23, 1917.
[19] Canadian Rail, No. 437.
[20] London Gazette, May 17, 1918, p. 5847
[21] War Diary, 1st Tramway Coy. April 17 and June 5, 1918.
[22] War Diary, 1st Tramways Coy. May 18, May 23, 1918. The cylinders were kept at Lens Junction ready for a change in the wind, which came on May 23.
[23] War Diary, 1st Tramways Coy. April 26, 1918, and Canadian Rail, No. 437.
[24] War Diary, 1st Tramways Coy. Nov. 11, 1918.
[25] War Diary, 1st Tramways Coy. Jan. 7, 1919.
[26] Ontario Department of Highways newsletter, January 1958, p.7
[27] Betsy McCrea-Kuipers, interview.

Author: David Fuller

MRBS Webmaster and parent of two MCI graduates (2011 & 2015) and another very bright son. Decade representative for 1903-1939 and Service Personnel.

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