Naval Railway Battalions During the First World War
Naval Railway Battalions During the First World War – Naval Reserve Sailors on the Western Front
by James L. Leuci, ITCM, USN
On 11 November 1918, U.S. Naval Railway Battery No. 4, commanded by a Naval Reserve Force officer and manned by Naval Reserve Sailors fired the last round of American-made artillery on the Western Front — two minutes before the Armistice took effect. Ironically, on 6 September 1918, U.S. Naval Railway Battery No. 2 fired the first American shell, from an American gun, manned by Navy Reserve gunners on the Western Front.
When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the German Army had been using long-range heavy artillery that had greater range than allied artillery. The U.S. Navy solution was to mount 14-inch naval guns
on railway cars. The guns and railway cars were shipped, unassembled, to St. Nazaire, France.
Rear Admiral (then Captain) Charles P. Plunkett, USN, became commander of the naval railway batteries. Five-hundred enlisted men and thirty officers, 90 percent Navy Reserve Sailors, volunteered to man the batteries. Many Sailors came from the Michigan State Naval Militia which included Lieutenant Joseph Ralston Hayden, USNRF commanding officer of Battery 4 and Lieutenant J.L. Rodgers, USNRF Commanding officer of Battery 5.
In early summer of 1918, the Naval Railway Battery crews began arriving in St. Nazaire to assemble the five battery trains and a staff train. Each battery train consisted of fifteen cars including the locomotive. The staff
train included eight cars. In August 1918, the naval batteries began deploying to the Western Front.
Prior to the arrival of the U.S. Naval Batteries, U.S. Army artillery units were supplied with French made guns and ammunition. Naval Battery 2 fired the first American made artillery shell from a U.S. made gun, on September 6. The guns were in high demand during the final months of the war firing 782
rounds at strategic targets such as railway centers and troop concentration areas. On 11 November 1918, Battery 4 fired the last American shell two minutes before the Armistice went into effect.
Rear Admiral Plunkett spoke to the assembled Battery crews after the Armistice stating: “…there never will come again in my mind any question in regard to the American manhood (Naval Reserve Sailors) meeting any situation. When we started out on this thing, the Navy Department told us that we could not have any Regular Navy people. They said: if you are going to make this thing through, you are to make it with people that you make yourself and that you can find somewhere, and I must admit that I had some misgiving at one
time; but after we finished the “Battle of St. Nazaire” I was satisfied that this outfit would go to Berlin and there was nothing that could stop them.”