They were working on the railroad – and blunting German attack

Pfc. Cunningham with cooks

Pfc. George F. Cunningham (second from right) of Company B, 14th Engineers, with the cooks of Company I during the First World War.

A few years after the First World War ended, a British commander wrote glowingly of the U.S. Army railroaders who served alongside his troops on the Western Front. The 14th Engineers, he said, were “gallant New Englanders” who not only kept up a lifeline to the Allies but threw themselves into the fight when catastrophe loomed.

I’m connected to one of those gallant doughboys, but he wasn’t from New England and he wasn’t a railroad man.

George Cunningham, circa 1917

George Cunningham, circa 1917

Most of the regiment’s 1,200 men had been recruited from New England railroads and arrived in France in August 1917, just four months after the U.S. declared war on Germany. The Americans did not yet have a command structure in place in France, so the engineers were attached to Britain’s 6th Army Corps and went immediately to the front. Their job was to build, operate and maintain “light” or narrow-gauge railroads.

“At the time the 14th Engineers came under my command, our failure to recognize earlier the urgent need for light railways was being repaired, but the personnel necessary to operate them was lacking,” wrote Major-General Aylmer Haldane, commander of the 6th Corps. “The arrival, however, of our comrades from across the Atlantic speedily changed the aspect of affairs in this respect, and soon in many directions trains were carrying men, supplies and materiel from the railhead at Boisleux-au-Mont to the vicinity of the forward trenches.”

Boisleux-au-Mont is just south of Arras, about 70 miles from the English Channel. The British were holding the line there when, early in 1918, the Germans launched a blockbuster offensive intending to break through, march to the sea and end the war.

AP story about book on 14th Engineers

An Associated Press story about British Major-General Aylmer Haldane’s book on the 14th Engineers. This clip is from The Morning News of Wilmington, Delaware, dated June 30, 1923. I found it on Newspapers.com.

On March 27, 1918, six days after the Germans began their great push, a 22-year-old carpenter from West Chester, Pennsylvania, joined the American Expeditionary Forces in France. He was my great-uncle George F. Cunningham, assigned as a replacement to Company B, 14th Engineers, in the face of the German juggernaut.

In his book “History of the Fourteenth Engineers, U.S. Army, from May 1917 to May 1919,” Haldane wrote: “The oncoming wave of Germans bore down for a time all endeavors to oppose it, and when at length it was brought to a standstill, the light railways in front of the corps, from railhead to the forward trenches, had changed hands. Now was the opportunity for the 14th Engineers, who at the critical moment proved that, while they could operate railways with all the skill required, they could as readily handle a rifle and share in the greater dangers of the firing line.

“I can vividly recall my chief engineer, Brigadier-General Harvey, reporting to me how stubbornly the 14th Engineers had taken part with the British infantry in helping to storm the onrush of the German troops, and my pride in having those gallant New Englanders under my command.”

George Cunningham's binoculars, Paul Fussell's book and Army portrait of George

George Cunningham’s Army binoculars, the Army portrait of him and Paul Fussell’s 1975 book about the British experience on the Western Front

It’s not clear how much of this combat my great-uncle engaged in. So far as I know, he did not leave behind any accounts of his experience in the Great War. But his discharge certificate lists the “battles, engagements, skirmishes, expeditions” he participated in as the Somme Defensive – the push-back against the Germans’ all-out drive — from April 20 to May 20, 1918, and the Aisne-Marne campaign from July 18 to August 6, 1918.

A private first class, he remained with the 14th Engineers in France until April 27, 1919, five months after the armistice. He was honorably discharged in May 1919 at Camp Dix, New Jersey. In June, back home in Chester County, he married Ethyl Mae Pierce, one of my maternal grandmother’s older sisters. He died at age 58 in 1953, the year before I was born.

George Cunningham at 1934 family reunion

George Cunningham with his wife, Ethyl (lower left), at a family reunion August 26, 1934, in Colora, Maryland

From what my older relatives have told me, he was a taciturn soul given to raising pigeons. An aunt told me that she heard he was gassed in France, but his records don’t mention it, saying only that he was never wounded and left the service in good physical condition. I have one item of his that he gave to my grandfather: Army-issue binoculars that got nicked when I dropped them down concrete steps some 50 years ago.

Haldane’s book was privately printed in Boston in 1923. I first saw it in 1997 at the U.S. Army Military History Institute (now the U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Recently, while mining the research website Newspapers.com, I found an Associated Press story that was written when Haldane’s work was published. It ran in newspapers across the country.

The 14th Engineer Regiment was transferred from the British 6th Corps to the U.S. Army in August 1918. According to the AP story, it was led by a railroad executive from the Midwest, Lt. Col. Albert T. Perkins. His battalion commanders were Maj. B.W. Guppy, bridge engineer of the Boston & Maine Railroad, and Maj. D.S. Brigham, trainmaster of the Boston & Albany Railroad.

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