Tuesday, December 24, 2019

A brief history of the Fourteenth Engineers, and William A. Murphy

Railroading under fire was a test of a man’s nerves. For the most part it had to be done at night—with uncertainty as to whether the road ahead had been blown up by the enemy. With a car load of high explosives the truck was doubly dangerous. 

“Railroad Regiment Daredevils,” Portsmouth Herald, February 5, 1919

I still remember him, from my childhood: A kindly old man, quick to laugh, who liked his peanuts, and The Wide World of Sports, and his easy chair. He loved my brother and sister and I, his grandchildren, and took an interest in our board games and action figures. He kept old books about the house and when I took a particular interest in Life Goes to War and its amazing pictorial history of World War 2, he gave it to me. I still have it.

My dad was a dutiful son and loved his parents, and so we used to take many trips on Sundays after Church to their home in Brighton, Massachusetts, where William and his wife Irene lived on the first floor of a two-story tenement home.

But I was too young to ask my grandfather about his own experiences with war. William A. Murphy (1893-1983) died on June 5, 1983 when I was just nine years old. He was 89, 10 days shy of his 90th birthday.

I knew he served in World War I as an engineer, but that was about it. Until now. My dad was recently given a copy of The History of the 14th Engineers (1923), which I just finished reading. It’s an absolute gold mine, a unit history written by a handful of men who served in the unit five years after they returned home from the War to End All Wars.

I’m glad I can now share his story here, and that of the “Railroad Regiment Daredevils,” as dubbed by the Portsmouth (NH) Herald. I never knew how close he was to the front line, and can now say he was pretty darned close. As in, right on top of it in many instances. The 14th Engineers were the first troops of the United States to arrive at the Front, and among the last to leave. They spent most of their service attached to the Sixth British Corps, who formed an unbreakable bond with these men from New England.

William Murphy (right) holding his son--my father.
It’s amazing how near we are to history, and how short time really is. I once sat on the lap of my grandfather, a man who wore a uniform stained with the mud of Flanders Fields. My grandfather could recall parades through the streets of Boston, with men in Civil War uniforms filing past—veterans of that war, so long ago. But not really, as time in the universe is counted.

Readers of this blog can find a two-part article I wrote about the World War 2 service of my grandfather on my mother’s side, Donald Teschek, here and here. I am proud to have the blood of both these amazing men, and veterans, in my veins. I never had to serve in the military or in combat, thank the Lord, and I have their service and sacrifice to thank for the blessed peace in which I have lived my life and raised my family.

Thank you men, and rest in peace.


After declaration of war between the United States and Germany on April 6, 1917, the United States and Britain conferred to discuss immediate needs. The beleaguered British needed help along the western front with railways, which served as reliable transportation for ammunition, fuel, supplies, and men. On May 8, 1917, Major William P. Wooten and First Lieutenant Layson Atkins of the U.S. Corps of Engineers arrived in Boston to raise and organize the “Fourth Reserve Engineers.” These men were not draftees, but heard the call and enlisted. Among them was my grandfather, William A. Murphy, who was one of 1,168 men to volunteer for service for the 14th. Murphy was at the time working for the Boston and Albany Railroad, which later became the New York Central.

On June 25, 1917 the men of the 14th arrived at Rockingham Park in Salem, NH (about 20-25 minutes north from my home) for training. Dubbed “Camp Rockingham,” the horse race track’s grand stand served to billet the men. There they were organized, drilled in close order marches, and equipped and given uniforms.

On July 25 the men boarded trains for New York and departure across the Atlantic. The transport “Adriatic” left under steam on July 27, 1917. It stopped at Halifax, Novia Scotia to form up with a convoy of three other ships for protection against submarines, and departed on August 1 for the final leg of its journey. The Adriatic and the 14th Engineers arrived in Liverpool harbor, England on August 11.

The reception in England was tremendous. The 14th was paraded through the streets of London past Buckingham Palace to wild applause, mainly from crowds of women. The men of course were at the Front. Bands broke out in the “Star Spangled Banner.” They marched past the palace where the King, Queen, Prime Minister and other dignitaries acknowledged the salutes of the marching soldiers. A week later on August 18 they crossed the English Channel into France.

The 14th was billeted in an English camp, St. Martin’s Camp, with 14 men each to the British conical tents. They were given instructions in quickly donning gas masks. Soon they were put to work on the light, narrow gauge railways used by the British soldiers. Their first stop was Arras, “a dead city battered by shells.” It was a sobering look at the face of war. From the book:

“Things were smashed up a bit, for it was the country that had been devastated in the bitter Somme battles; villages marked only by signs and little heaps of rubble, a sere countryside without trees or fresh grass, rusty barbed wire and old trenches starred with the red, white and blue of poppies, daises and cornflowers, as if the spirit of the gallant dead were pushing up again.”

The 14th had a long record of service, about two years (May 1917-May 1919) during which they worked long days and nights making deliveries of rations, water, and ammunition. Often their return cargo was wounded men from the front.  They were continually repairing breaks in the line caused by shelling and building new railways as ground was taken and lost. The History of the Fourteenth Engineers is full of these details, including daily engine and crew schedules, tonnage shipped, and maps of railways built all along the western front in northern France.

I never knew how much danger my grandfather was in until I read the accounts from the book. There were some casualties and KIAs: Two men wounded by shrapnel in February 1918, several men gassed when their tractor hauling ammunition received a direct hit from a gas shell. Enemy airplanes flew overhead, occasionally dropping bombs. No visible lights were permitted at night. Again from the book: “In this work they had to endure, night after night, long hours of duty, exposure to the elements, shell fire and gas.” An Oct. 14, 1917 letter home from one of the men of the 14th describes the scene as one of monotony, dreariness, and low fear:
“This war is a tremendous industry—each link important. England has countless locomotives here, bully roads, steam rollers, repair shops, in fact everything imaginable, but, it is all a business, a dreadful business. It is like a hideous unbelievable nightmare. You go for miles and miles through ruined villages without a roof or a wall left standing; through acres of ground with pitiful little rude white crosses, with their brief ‘R.I.P.’ or ‘Hier ruht in Gott.’ You pass hundreds of mules and horses, and don’t notice them. Here you see forty odd covered trucks all crudely painted with trees, etc., so they’ll look like the landscape, seen from the aeroplane above, and you’ll see the aeroplanes themselves, flying in diamond shaped wedges, and scarcely glance at them—so common are they. You notice a tiny grey dot way up high in the air, small white clouds puff-puffing about it, and though you know what it means and what is going on up there, in a moment you’ll forget about it, because it’s so common a sight. Here there’ll be a tangled mass of barbed wire stretching as far as the eye can carry. You’ll see unwieldy ‘tanks’ lumbering along over mounds as high as your piazza-roof, and again you’ll find them upturned and abandoned, with gaping shell holes through them. And troops you’ll see, thousands and thousands of them, and you’ll salute the officers at the head and—immediately forget them, because—they’re so common, and—well, I could go on this way forever. It’s the same thing over and over—this side of war. Grey, monotonous, depressing. It makes a man long for green hills, for buildings that are whole, for everything that’s good and pure and wholesome, and as God intended it should be, but—most of all, does it make one long to be again with those he loves.”
The men broke the tension with frequent games of baseball, vaudeville shows organized by the British, and occasional trips to Arras, Doullens, or Amiens for R&R.

Narrow gauge track, loaded with men.
In December 1917 the Germans launched an assault that forced rapid evacuations. Members of the 14th went from relative safety working amongst the ruins to being in an active combat zone. “The War is on. No longer do we hold the quiet front,” wrote one member of the 14th, in a letter home dated Dec. 12, 1917. “On December 8, the change was made known to us in a manner that could not be mistaken. From the numbers of bombs dropped all around us there was no mistaking the fact that Boche meant to start something.” The letter goes on to describe the man leaving before daybreak with a tractor to salvage some reinforcement rods in the midst of shelling and German planes flying overhead. “Before we got back home Boche started shelling like mad and kept it up all day. Now the report comes in that three of our men were gassed at Pelican Dump and that the track is shot up 100 feet at Heninel, a tractor received a direct hit and its driver struck on his tin hat with shrapnel. I am going to bed, something tells me that I shall need all the sleep that I can get before long.”

The diary of a sergeant in charge of battery deliveries gives a vivid account of the work of these light railway troops operating on the front lines in December 1917:

Tuesday, Dec. 11—Work at 3:40 P.M. Firing has been going on quite heavy and when we arrived at Heninel with ammunition for batteries B-160, A-160 and C-152 about midnight, Fritz was shelling just ahead of us. Soon he changed his range and began to shell all around us. Gas shells were mixed with his other H.E.’s and we expected to find track blown up but all was O.K. and we arrived back at Henin.

Friday, Dec. 21—Work at 3:40 P.M. Fritz turned machine guns on us at Cuckoo Dump but his range was a trifle high.
Yes, that says “a trifle high.” Badass.

Saturday, Dec. 29—Work at 3:40 P.M. While at Cuckoo Dump, machine gun bullets were flying all around us. We headed back to Pelican and arrived there just in time to see a lad shot in the back by a machine gun. On our trip up the hill with ammunition to 206 and 266 batteries, gas shells landed all around us, forcing the men of 206 battery to leave for their billets further back. Luck favored us and we stuck to it getting back O.K. after delivering the “goods.”

The Germans launched another offensive in March 1918, in which the same sergeant nearly lost his life:

Friday, March 8—Work at 4:15 P.M. Came near getting mine at Pelican when a sniper’s bullet passed close by my helmet and imbedded itself in the car.

During this latter offensive the 14th ran ammunition one way and trains full of wounded soldiers the other. Night brought no rest as the track men were kept busy repairing breaks in the line caused by shell fire, with over forty breaks repaired in a single night of March 21, 1918. The men had to abandon sections of the railway due to the German advance. From the book, “The men of the Fourteenth worked right up in the thick of the shell-fire; in many cases British troops were killed and wounded right beside them.” Miraculously the 14th suffered no casualties in this offensive, with the exception of four men behind the lines wounded by long range shell-fire. On March 24 the rapid advance of the Germans led to a desperate retreat at Bazentin that was nevertheless made in good order, with railway power and equipment run to the end of the line and then blown up and burned lest they fell into enemy hands.

“The work of the men running the trains is beyond all praise, as, under these terrific conditions, they were on duty as high as seventy or eighty hours continuously in a great many cases.” Their efforts prompted several post-War letters of commendation, which are included in the appendix of the book.
The following month the 14th received “strenuous preparations” to render the regiment fit for combat, including training in rifle practice and bayonet work under the British officer Captain C.C. Forster. But the German attack had ground to a halt.

After nine months working without rest on the front line, the 14th was finally relieved on May 19, 1918 and sent to a base at Calais for rest. “Thus ended the connection of the regiment with the British light railways. They had been the first American troops of any kind to take up work, as a unit, on the front line, and, after a continuous service of nine months on the line of battle, at no time out of range of the enemy’s ordinary artillery, they were the last of the American Railway regiments to leave the British front.” Colonel Wooten was awarded the Cross of St. Michael and St. George and two other men were decorated.

At Calais the men resumed work building railways and rail yards. This work continued for a few months. They again played a lot of baseball, including a game on July 4, 1918 before thousands of onlookers. An influenza epidemic that infected nearly 70% of the camp claimed the life of one of the 14th.

A map of their efforts.
By late September 1918 the 14th was called back to duty at the front as the allies launched a major counteroffensive against the Germans. The book describes the 14th laying railway connections over recently claimed No Man’s Land, a tremendous feat of engineering given the mud and shell-holes. Hundreds of car-loads of ballast had to be quarried and laid down to give the tracks a proper foundation. On October 6th a group of men were constructing a ration dump just south of Montfaucon when the Germans started shelling them, wounding six men of the regiment.

On Nov. 11, 1918, an Armistice brought an end to the war, sweeping up the 14th into the wild celebrations. From the book, “Who is competent to analyze and put into words the mixed feelings of the millions of men for whom the events of that day had such vital meeting? The writer of these lines has certain vivid, if disjointed, memories—of little groups of French and American soldiers rolling down the Verdun road and crying ‘Finie la guerre,’ happily and a little dazedly.”

But the 14th’s duties did not end on Armistice Day. Light rail construction continued for a few weeks, and my grandfather spent December cleaning battlefields and shipping salvage. Morale finally began to flag as the men understandably longed for the job to be done and to rejoin their families and civilian life. “The Fourteenth had been in France for a year and a half and had experienced a fair share of the war, and it is not surprising that they had little spirit to put into the work of cleaning up old battlefields.”

Home on the S-S Dakotan
On February 25, 1919 the 14th finally received the orders it had been patiently waiting for: A telegram ordering the regiment to prepare for movement to Base Port for embarkation back to the United States. On March 28th the officers of the 14th received a banquet in their honor at Bordeaux. On April 8 the men received orders to move to the embarkation camp at Bordeaux, and finally, on April 17, 1919, the 14th boarded the S-S Dakotan for the United States. It was a scene not unlike the gray ships passing out of Middle-Earth, “In the afternoon the hawsers were cast off and the ‘Dakotan’ passed down the ever-widening estuary of the Gironde. With the setting sun the shores of France faded away like the memory of a dream.”

On the evening of April 26th the men spied the twinkling lights of Boston Harbor. A little after 8 a.m. the little fleet was greeted by band-playing, cheering, singing, and the shrieks of all the ship and factory whistles within five miles. The some 1500 men deboarded in less than half an hour and boarded three trains for points home. Celebrations ensued at every stop. “The trip across country was in the nature of a triumphal procession, for at almost every station there was a welcoming contingent.” In the following few days the regiment was mustered out of service.

From a letter dated Feb. 25, 1919, from the office of the Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces:
Without detracting in the least degree from the accomplishment of our gallant troops who were directly engaged in combat with the enemy, the records, in due time, will show that the successful outcome of the war would not have been achieved had it not been for the singleness of purpose, the unity of effort, the loyalty and the self-sacrificing devotion to duty of those manning the all-important services of transportation, construction and supply behind the firing lines. When the chronicles of these services are written, no page will be more brilliant than that recounting the work of the Light Railways.
General Aylmer Haldane, who commanded of the Sixth British Corps while the 14th was attached to it and whose spirits were buoyed incalculably by their arrival in France in August 1917, added:
In May, 1918, I regretfully bade goodbye to the 14th Engineers, who left my Corps to serve on the Marne, at St. Mihiel and in the Argonne. Thereafter several divisions of American troops were temporarily attached to my command; but, much as I admired their soldier-like qualities, which made me hope that we should stand shoulder to shoulder in the battles still to come, the first place in my heart for American troops will always be held by the gallant 14th Engineers or, as my men—who shared my admiration for the New England Regiment—used affectionately to call them, ‘the 14th American R.E’s (Royal Engineers.).
Murphy was discharged from the army on May 7, 1919, promoted to Sergeant. The 14th left 13 men in the fields of France.

Four of the fallen from the 14th.
This is helpful link to learn more about the 14th Engineers, albeit from a New Hampshire perspective: http://www.cowhampshireblog.com/2018/02/19/new-hampshire-wwi-military-railroad-regiment-dare-devils/

Here is a thread that shows their regiment insignia, a head-on view of train with wings: http://www.usmilitariaforum.com/forums/index.php?/topic/264285-14th-15th-aef-engineer-regiment-insignia/

Find of all finds, here is a digitized copy of the History of the Fourteenth Engineers, which has now passed into the public domain: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015039648525&view=2up&seq=1&size=150

1 comment:

Narmer said...

Fascinating. I had no idea.