In 1915 the First World War saw the founding of the Inland Water Transport section of the Transportation Service, a division of the Royal Engineers, which operated barges on the canals in France and Mesopotamia. Initialy the base was at Longmoor camp.
In January 1916 because of congestion at Longmoor Camp, the Royal Engineers Inland Water Transport Section established a stores and personnel Department at Richborough, Kent, primarily to relieve Dover of this class of transport. The site chosen was of an expanse of marshland through which the Stour flowed. The work of construction was under the control of the Inland Waterways and Docks Section of the Royal Engineers, and involved the draining of the swampy marshland, the widening and deepening of the waterway, the construction of a dock and jetty nearly a mile in length, equipped with powerful cranes and of docks for the building and repair of all kinds of craft, the erection of acres of buildings and warehouses, and the laying of railway sidings. The work was pushed forward, and at one time 20,000 people were employed forming a small town with all amenities. In the beginning steam ships and barges were used to carry the war material across the channel, until the French ports became congested; then special barges were introduced to take goods direct into the French canals and then as close to the front line as possible.
By 1918 the need to transport material became extremely urgent, and it was decided to establish a roll-on roll-off service; it came into operation at the beginning of that year, and the hoisting of cargoes by cranes into barges was largely superseded. Three ferries plied incessantly between Richborough and Calais and Dunkirk, connecting the railhead in England with railhead in France. In all, 4,000 barge loads of ammunition, 17,818 guns, and over 14 million tons of other stores were sent across. The ferries, specially designed and built at the works of Sir W. G. Armstrong, Whitworth & Co. of Elswick, were of 363 ft. overall length, 61 ft. beam and 3,654 tons. Searchlights and anti-aircraft guns at Pegwell Bay protected the base. Repeated air raids took place in the vicinity and there were several bombardments from the sea, but Richborough itself was never seriously damaged, the low-lying, featureless character of the marshland probably affording its best protection, more especially at night.
Local Newspaper Extracts.
Hull News September 1915 – ‘Owing to the unfitness and destruction of roads and bridges on the Continent the many canals running throughout France and Belgium have become the medium of transportation of every description. Tugs and barges operate up and down, and the Inland Water Transport Corps., as it is termed, bids fair to become a rival of the well-known Army Service Corps'.
Hull News October 1915 – ‘Recruiting is now taking place at the City Hall for the Inland Water Transport Section of the Royal Engineers. Lieut. A G. H. Miles, R.E. who is in Hull, after six months at the front, obtaining these recruits, told the ‘Mail’ that he is desirous of getting men, such as keelmen and lightermen, accustomed to work on rivers. The work they will be required to undertake will be exactly the same as that at home. They are not required to go into the trenches in France, although they will be given a certain amount of military training before being sent to their work. The pay is very good – 3s 2d a day, with proportionate rises of pay for promotion – with separation allowances the same as in other branches of the Service. The men enlisted may be retained after the termination of hostilities until their services can be spared, but in no case will the retention exceed three months. All recruits must be between the ages of 19 and 40. Tug masters and engineers will be accepted up to 45 years. So far, a most satisfactory response has been made in Hull.’
Hull News October 1915 – ‘Lieut. A.G. Miles, R.E. who has been six months at the front, was in Hull to-day recruiting for inland water transport section of the Royal Engineers for France. Over 40 Hull lighter-men and keelmen were obtained; more are required.’
Goole News February 1916 – ‘A number of local dock labourers have been enrolled during the past few days for the Inland Water Transport. Some of them have already been sent to headquarters. Recruiting is still open for the company, although it may close at any time now.’
Hull News May 1916 – ‘Single Men 41-56. Inland Transport Service. A chance now presents itself for single men between the ages of 41 and 56, and for married men up to 56, to join the Inland Water Transport Section of the Royal Engineers. Preference will be given to those who are blacksmiths, bricklayers, crane drivers, electricians, fitters, motor engineers, motor boat drivers, plumbers, masons, sawyers and telephone repairers. Lieutenant Medd, who is at Hull City Hall this week, will give the necessary information to eligible men, and application should be made immediately. Men will follow their own trades as far as possible, and others will be engaged on transport work. They will have the opportunity of serving abroad.’
Hull News December 1916 – ‘The Imperial Merchant Service Guild have received a communication from the War Office containing the information that merchant service officers and men serving in the Army with certain qualifications are required for service in the Royal Navy and Royal Engineers (Inland Water Transport). Primarily those required are officers qualified for the performance of deck and engineering duties on board ship, holding Board of Trade certificates; also those who have been employed in the merchant service as officers or engineers and who do not hold Board of Trade certificates. These men are required for junior positions in small steamers or harbour craft, or as engine-room artificers.'
The master of each hospital barge was usually a Royal Engineer (RE) sergeant and the barges would be towed by steam tugs.
The hospital barges usually travelled in pairs down the River Seine and the French canals in the British Controlled Zones to the evacuation ports or to casualty clearing stations and base hospitals.
Although hospital barges were slower, it did make for a smoother and more gentle journey, allowing Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service nurses to tend to the injuries of the wounded soldiers.
The hospital barges were not specifically built as hospital transport until a few years into the World War 1. They were converted from general use barges such as coal or cargo barges, and the holds would be converted to carry 30 beds with nurse’s quarters. The barges were heated by two stoves and electric lighting and electric fans were fitted to run in the heat of summer or the hatches lifted off the roofs.
‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary: British and Irish Nurses in the Great War’ by Yvonne McEwen has extracts from the war diaries of nurses's who served aboard hospital barges.