Shortly after the United States entered World War I, British and French commissions arrived in Washington and stated that their most immediate need was for engineer units to build and maintain railway lines supplying the Western Front. The War Department quickly responded to the Anglo-French request, and in May 1917 it directed that nine railway engineer regiments be organized in major cities from Boston to San Francisco. COL Curtis R. Townsend, a Regular Army engineer officer stationed in St. Louis, was tasked to organize and command one of these regiments, which began as the 2d Reserve Engineers before being redesignated the 12th Engineers (Light Railway).
The regiment comprised 1,000 officers and men in a headquarters and two battalions, each with three companies (lettered from A to F). The officers were mainly civilian engineers from the Officers’ Reserve Corps, and the men were recruited from the railroads entering St. Louis from the south and southwest. They were distributed among the six companies based upon their skills, so that each unit had roughly the same capabilities.
The 12th Engineers began recruiting in St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri (which provided Company D). The new recruits later reported to Camp Gaillard, on the grounds of the Chain of Rocks Water Works, just north of St. Louis. There they were housed on fourteen government quarter boats moored on the Mississippi River’s west bank. After several weeks of basic training with outdated arms and equipment, the 12th was ordered overseas. Six of the railway engineer regiments would arrive in France before the first American combat division was fully deployed, and all of them would be on French soil before the end of August.
The regiment traveled to Jersey City, New Jersey, and sailed to England on RMS Carmania, a 20,000-ton former Cunard liner that had begun the war as an armed merchant cruiser. On 12 August, the Carmania docked at Liverpool, and the engineers took trains to a camp in southern England. Three days later, the 12th and three other engineer regiments paraded before King George V and Queen Alexandra in London–the first time that American troops had marched in England. Shortly thereafter, the 12th and 14th Engineers boarded two ships at Southampton and sailed across the English Channel to Boulogne, France. At a nearby British base, the engineers were fitted for helmets and “respirators” (gas masks) and instructed on the dangers of gas warfare.
The 12th established its headquarters at Montigny Farm, near the Somme River in northern France. The engineers were amazed at the tremendous devastation produced by three years of war, and some had trouble sleeping because of the sounds of battle coming from the front lines, less than five miles away. Until February 1918, the regiment operated and maintained light railways of the British military railway system in the area behind the Third Army’s front. Its work began at standard-gauge railheads, where munitions and supplies were transferred to light railways, with a gauge of about two feet. The Americans did not like the British rations and thought that the British supply officers were shortchanging them, but they did take pride in the fact that they were nicknamed the “American R.E.s,” which was short for “Royal Engineers.”
The 12th began supporting the British Fifth Army in March. When the Germans began their long-awaited Somme offensive on 21 March, the British Army retreated, and the 12th was barely able to save its personnel and equipment. Company D’s PVT Joseph B. Fraher earned the British Military Medal for continuing to maintain communications after a shell blew him off a telephone pole.
After supporting the British for just over eleven months, the 12th transferred back to American control on 25 July 1918. One veteran later recalled the contrast of joining “a new army where the lack of experience was everywhere apparent. For a while the cry was ‘I want to go back to work for King George V, but I want American rations.’”
The regiment initially was assigned to support the American First Army. In the days before September’s St. Mihiel offensive, one battalion constructed seven kilometers of main line and nine spurs–three for hauling ammunition, and two each for guns, rations, and water. The regiment also supported the Meuse-Argonne offensive and was preparing to support a Second Army offensive against the fortress city of Metz, when the Armistice was declared on 11 November. During almost fifteen months of operations, the 12th Engineers had participated in eight campaigns–more than any of its sister railway regiments.
After Christmas, the 12th was involved in salvaging large amounts of ammunition and engineering material. In mid-February 1919, the unit was relieved from railway duties, and in early March it loaded onto “40 & 8” boxcars (so named because each could hold forty men or eight horses) to travel to Bordeaux, in southern France. On 14 April, the regiment finally sailed from the nearby port of Bassens on the USS Cape May, but it had to remain at the mouth of the Gironde estuary for two long days, waiting for a heavy storm to subside in the Bay of Biscay.
The Cape May finally dropped anchor in New York harbor on 27 April, and the engineers eagerly disembarked and proceeded to Long Island’s Camp Upton. A group of about 600 men from Illinois, Kansas, and Missouri traveled from Camp Upton to St. Louis. The “Gateway City” staged a handsome welcome for the engineers, presenting them with locally produced medals, a stand of colors, and a dinner at the Terminal Hotel. A few days later, Kansas City also staged a big welcoming ceremony for several hundred soldiers of the 12th.
Today, the railway engineers’ significant contribution to the ultimate Allied victory is largely forgotten. Nevertheless, the light railways’ strategic importance was well summarized in the American Expeditionary Forces’ Historical Report of the Chief Engineer, which said: “The lines increased steadily in scope and importance during the war and were a vital part of the supply system for the Armies. It is difficult to see how without them the Armies could have functioned.”