Front-line soldiers cannot fight effectively unless they are fed, clothed and equipped properly and have sufficient ammunition and gear to face the enemy. And they cannot hold their lines for long if they are not supported by solid military logistics.
Canadian military logistics is a dimension of the history of the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) that is often overlooked. Yet just a few days after Canada’s entry into the First World War, it was obvious that there was no way of ignoring it. When huge numbers of military and civilian volunteers showed up at Valcartier, near Quebec City, in August 1914, logistical support services, which had only recently been established, were soon put to the test. Clothing and equipping the members of the first contingent turned out to be a real headache. Manufacturers had to be found and contracts drawn up in a hurry for the production of uniforms, boots, belts, weapons, vehicles and so on. From a logistical standpoint, mobilizing the first contingent destined for Europe was a nightmare.
Throughout the Great War, the Canadian Expeditionary Force’s logistical support system was an immense, complex operation. Of all the support services, the Canadian Army Service Corps (CASC) was the most diversified. Its main responsibilities were transporting combat troops, delivering equipment and materials, and providing the troops with fresh supplies. In addition to these essential tasks, the CASC also evacuated the wounded (ambulance drivers belonged to the corps), salvaged equipment that had been captured from the enemy or left behind on the battlefield and delivered mail. The CASC worked closely with the Canadian Ordnance Corps, the Canadian Army Medical Corps, and the Canadian Artillery Corps for the transportation of specialized ordnance.
The CASC operated from seaports located hundreds of kilometres from the battlefield, all the way to just behind the front lines. Its replenishment system could supply not only small groups of just a few men but also formations the size of an infantry battalion (approximately 1,000 men).
Resupplying front-line units was a multistep process. From ports and depots, supplies were first taken by railway to railheads. From there, CASC units were responsible for moving the supplies by truck or light railway to supply dumps. These operations took place in the third line of supply. Thanks to their small size, light railways could run and reach areas closer to the front lines more easily. It was also harder for enemy artillery to pinpoint them. The administrative area behind the front lines was crisscrossed by light rail lines that were built and maintained by Canadian railway troops.
From the supply dumps, the CASC’s divisional train and ammunition supply column, both of which were horse-drawn, were responsible for bringing supplies closer to the front lines, to their respective divisions or individual units. This was the second line of supply.
Lastly, operations to supply front-line units constituted the first line of supply. These units had to come back to the rear to get their own supplies of gear, ammunition, weapons, technical and communications equipment, water, medication and food. These supply expeditions were carried out chiefly at night so that the soldiers could not be seen by the enemy. But assigning combat troops to this task meant that a battalion’s defensive positions at the front would be short of manpower for a time and so vulnerable to enemy attack.
Toward the end of the war, however, a Canadian officer from Montreal proposed using the tumpline system — the method that Canada’s aboriginal people and coureurs de bois had used to carry large loads on foot. Before the introduction of this system, infantryman had to carry supplies in their arms, thus limiting the quantity of materials due to their size and weight. The tumpline system, which involved the use of a head strap, allowed the soldiers to carry more weight and freed up their arms, thus giving them more freedom of movement. With this system, each soldier was able to transport a greater quantity of supplies and so fewer men were required for the job, leaving more troops to ensure the defence of the front lines.
Besides regularly providing drivers and vehicles to other units, the CASC also maintained and repaired its vehicles. It also had to make sure that the troops were fed, which meant that fresh and hard rations had to be allocated and distributed properly; its military cooks oversaw the operation of field bakeries and butcheries.
The CASC was not the only logistical support corps to play a key role in the CEF. The Canadian Ordnance Corps was responsible for procuring, storing and distributing uniforms, boots, equipment, weapons, ammunition and shells to combat troops. Specialized supply depots, located in the second line of supply, helped ensure more effective distribution.
The Canadian Ordnance Corps’ other major role was to maintain equipment in the field. The repairmen in the specialized ordnance mobile workshops could get closer to the deployed units and repair their weapons, both light and heavy, as well as their equipment. If the mobile workshops were not able to do the repairs on site, the weapons and equipment were shipped to heavy or stationary workshops at the rear, where virtually anything could be reassembled or rebuilt. The small detachments of the Ordnance Corps worked closely with the various units of the Army Service Corps.
Despite the gradual mechanization of the war, horses remained a vital component of the CEF. The cavalry, the artillery and, of course, the Army Service Corps used huge numbers of horses right up to the end of the war. At one point, Canadians were using as many as 24,000 horses and mules in their overseas operations. Horses could often manage in places where motorized vehicles could make no headway! Inevitably, some horses suffered injuries or fell ill. The Canadian Veterinary Corps operated mobile sections to take care of horses; it also ran veterinary hospitals for horses, advanced remount depots and specialized basic provisions depots.
Other logistical support services also played a crucial role in enabling combat troops to get on with their job. The Canadian Postal Corps, for instance, helped maintain the morale of soldiers at the front, at the rear and also those convalescing in hospitals. Army chaplains, who constituted the smallest organized support group, provided religious services to Canadian soldiers of different faiths and offered moral support at difficult times. Lastly, despite the enemy’s efforts to maintain a naval blockade by submarines, the Canadian Forestry Corps ensured that Great Britain, France and the Canadian Expeditionary Force obtained all the timber they needed to carry out their military operations.
Thousands of men served in these various organizations. The Army Service Corps, for example, counted over 17,000 officers and non-commissioned soldiers in its organization. Even if these units were not combat troops, many of them, including the Army Service Corps, played important roles in all military actions. One hundred and four members of the CASC were killed, and 363 were wounded.