In November 1998 Gloria Gray, an English and drama teacher at Carleton Place High School asked her husband, Larry to assist with a project. Gloria was responsible for the school’s Remembrance Day services and she was looking for more than a just a reading of names from the local cenotaph. Gloria wanted to put faces to the names. Larry thought this was a terrific idea and started to work.

What started as a simple list of biographical information became the book “We Are The Dead”, published by General Store Publishing House in 2000. Over the course of thirty one chapters, Larry Gray tells the story of the war and the forty-six young men and one woman who are commemorated on the cenotaph in Carleton Place Ontario. Using their own words, from letters, poems, newspaper articles and military files, Larry provides the setting of the war years.

One of those thirty one chapters tells about Railroaders and William Fraser. With the author’s permission, that chapter is reproduced here.

We are the Dead
Larry Gray
Chapter twenty-one
Railroaders

In 1914, Canada, foreseeing problems in the transport of supplies over a broad front, offered to raise railway units for service in France. The offer was rebuffed by the Imperial General Staff. However, when they learned, slowly, that their motor transport was not capable of the job, they condescended to let Canada raise two railway battalions complete with rails for service in France.

The Canadian Overseas Railway Construction Corps was composed of 540 selected volunteers from the Canadian Pacific Railway. Recruiting was completed by May 15, 1915. All the men were experienced construction workers. Each had to pass a test as to his technical ability. This nucleus was to grow to thirteen battalions of Canadian Railway Troops, three battalions of Skilled Railway Employees, Railway Bridging Companies and Railway Company drafts and depots. In the last year of the war, there were 8,000 men in active construction work and another 4,000 on repair duties. These soldiers were responsible for the construction and maintenance of railways of all gauges, including light railways, in France and Belgium. Some were formed as Royal Engineer units but after the formation of the Corps of Canadian Railway, they became the responsibility of the Officer Commanding the Royal Canadian Engineers, although there never part of the Canadian Engineers military structure.

The equipment these troops brought with them had never been seen in Europe. Steam shovels, graders, cement mixers and thousands of specialized construction implements helped the corps lay 1,169 miles of heavy track and 1,404 miles of light track during one six-month period. They also built cement gun emplacements that could not have been constructed with manual labour. The expedited the delivery of supplies and manpower and eventually controlled all railway marshalling yards in France and Flanders. [1]

One of these railroaders, a man from Carleton Place, was Sapper William Fraser. The railroad troops adopted the rank structure of the Canadian Engineers, hence the rank of sapper.

WILLIAM FRASER

William Fraser joined No. 1 Section of skilled Railway Employees (SRE) in Ottawa on January 4, 1917. This was a railway construction battalion. He gave his trade as “roundhouseman” and his qualifications as a machinist’s helper. On enlistment he gave his address as Pakenham and his next of kin his wife, Laura Elizabeth. He was assigned the regimental number of 2124809.

William was born in Dundee, Scotland, on September 2, 1872. At age forty-four, like most of the SRE, he was considerably older than the infantry enlistees. Being Scottish, he was also a staunch Presbyterian. At his enrollment medical examination he was found to weigh 121 lbs, stand 5’6” tall with a dark complexion, light brown eyes and dark hair. He wore a full mustache.

These specialized troops needed no trades training. Nor was there a requirement for them to practise or perform rifle drill. They needed only to endure some military foot drill. They were paid their normal civilian working pay plus military pay of one dollar a day for engineers and yardmasters, 80 cents for firemen, 90 cents for conductors and mechanics and 70 cents for brakemen. The men of No. 1 Section SRE were transferred to No. 2 Section and on March 1, 1917, Spr William Fraser was given a credit balance of $10 as a uniform allowance for the months of January and February.

No. 2 Section of the SRE, along with No. 13 Light Railway Operating Company which had been mobilized in Montreal on January 27, 1917, boarded His Majesty’s Troopship, the S.S. Grampian in Halifax on April 16, 1917. They sailed two days later, and arrived in Liverpool on April 29. They were sent to Burfleet but, by May 7, 1917, were residents in camp at Aldershot. The entire unit was sent on leave from 4:00 p.m. on May 11, 1917, to 9:00 p.m. on May 17. When they returned for duty with the Royal Engineers of the British Expeditionary Force, there were credited with six days allowance of one shilling, nine pence, in lieu of rations.

At home, William’s wife moved. On June 1, he officially changed her address to Carleton Place. On June 9, the Operating company went to France aboard the S.S. Viper, but William was transferred to the Railway Troops Depot to take instruction in the operation, maintenance and repair of petrol-electric locomotives and petrol tractors. These courses were conducted at the school in Apple Pie Camp, Longmoor, Hants. Fraser went to France on July 9 and caught up with his unit on the 10th.

To follow William’s activities in Flanders, reference is made to the War Diary of the No. 13 Light Railway Operating Company. They were at Coxyde, Belgium at the time of writing in August 1917:

23.8.17 – Things running smooth. A game of baseball was played today between our boys and the 1st Canadian Casualty Clearing Station and we lost to the tune of 15 to 3. The first game of amusements since landing in France.
25.8 – track blown up
26.8 – Engine 1276 derailed. Track in bad condition … shelled very badly this date. 14 cars ammunition moved up to Coxyde for safety.
27.8 – heavy shelling at Coxyde. Track blown up.
29.8 – Enemy shelling Coxyde very badly at 10 p.m.
30.8 – Everything very quiet.
31.8 – Still no broad gauge train in. engine 1214 over on its side near aerodrome … shelled. Derailed one repair car and engine 1300 – one shell dropped in front of the tents.
1.9.17 – 1:30 a.m. Month started very badly for this unit. A shell struck a dug-out at Oost Dunkirk where there was four of our men in. killing three and the fourth was badly shell shocked … Rained during the day. The three men were buried in the afternoon at Coxyde.
2.9 – Fine day. Quiet as regards work.
9.9 – 125 men sent to XV Corps rest station and they need it for there wasn’t much sleep to be had in the last camp owing to the continual bombardment each night.
10.9 – men ordered back from rest camp owing to us having orders to move out to another area.

The Almonte Gazette of September 21 noted that, “Mrs. J.A. McIntosh received word last week that her brother, Pte. Wm. Fraser, had been killed in action. Pte Fraser was living at Packenham [sic] previous to enlistment.”

Spr. William Fraser was listed as killed in action on Saturday, September 1, 1917, at Rouen. The official commemoration has him belong to the 13th Canadian Light Railway Operating Company, Canadian Railway Troops. He would not have recognized the name since the unit was reorganized in September, after his death, and the word “Canadian” was added only in November 1917. Fraser died while asleep in a dugout at Oost Dunkirk. He and two comrades were instantly killed when an enemy shell made a direct hit on the dugout.

Coxyde was about ten kilometres behind the front line. The cemetery had already been begun by French troops when they were relieved by the British in June 1917. The village was used for rest billets and was occasionally shelled, but the cemetery was found to reasonably safe. It was used at night for the burial of the dead from the front line. There were over 1,500 1914-1918 war dead commemorated at this site.

After his death, William’s widow and five of their six children moved to 171 Frank Street in Ottawa and it was so that address his medals were sent. By then the oldest boy, Lawrence, was in England with a signals regiment training for action at the front. Laura received a special pension bonus of $80 and a gratuity of $100 for the loss of her husband.

[1] Stewart, Charles H. “Overseas” The Lineages and Insignia of the Canadian Expeditionary Force 1914-1919.  Toronto: Little & Stewart, 1970. p. 149

Larry Gray served twenty four years in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a navigator. During that time he had an interest in Military History and has had the opportunity to tour World War I battlefields, including the Vimy Ridge Memorial.

The book “We are the Dead” is still available from the publisher General Store Publishing House  http://gsph.com/index.php?route=product/product&path=60_64&product_id=278

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