Feature

Coraki digger who kept the trains on their tracks under fire

SOLDIERS at Westhoek Ridge waiting for Decauville light railway to be repaired.
SOLDIERS at Westhoek Ridge waiting for Decauville light railway to be repaired.

THE more one researches the people who went to the First World War the more one learns about the history of the War itself, especially the animals and machines which were used to transport equipment and sometimes men.

Usually, of course, men had to walk. Road transport often got bogged down so horses and mules were used. Motor vehicles were new to warfare, and rather primitive tanks were not there initially. Most Generals still preferred the foot-slogger anyway!

There were railways of course but these were often blown up by shells and were difficult to repair.

However, there was one railway which had proved itself excellent for military work and that was the Decauville Light Rail or Tramway.

This was invented by Paul Decauville, a Frenchman, and consisted of ready-made sections of light, narrow gauge track fastened to steel sleepers. The track was light enough to be carried easily from place to place and could be dismantled and moved if necessary.

The Decauville Manufacturing Company also built engines and cars to run on the railway and, from 1875, it had been exporting the system to many countries.

By the end of the 1880s the French military had become interested in the system and began using it for moving artillery and ammunition during military exercises and campaigns, especially in its colonies.

However, it was in the First World War that the system was truly tested, at first by the French and British, but later also by the Germans. The tracks could also be laid through trenches and apparently thousands of miles of track were laid in this way.

Men of the Pioneer Battalions (as part of the Engineers) normally looked after the building and maintenance of these tracks and we see a little of what they had to do from one of our local soldiers who fought in the First World War.

This was Sergeant Robert Leslie Busteed, who, before enlisting, was a shop assistant at Coraki.

His mother had married again and was a Mrs E. Gully. The family apparently ran the Commercial Hotel at Coraki for some time.

Sgt Busteed had been born at Croydon in Sydney in 1891 and enlisted in 1915.

Initially he was attached to the 20th Infantry Battalion but later transferred to the 5th Pioneer Battalion. It was here that he became involved with the Decauville railway.

As a senior NCO he had to make sure that his men kept the railway repaired as it provided a vital link in communications as well as bringing in much needed supplies.

On 20 October 1917 Robert Busteed earned himself a Distinguished Service Medal as well as several mentions in despatches. Apparently he was in charge of a party repairing two breaks in the line caused by enemy shelling.

This was near Westhoek, east of Ypres, Belgium.

The party was forced to withdraw three times because of particularly severe enemy shelling but Busteed persevered and returned to the work, taking with him as few men as he could possibly use.

The line was repaired finally.

It is said that he had displayed exceptional coolness and set a splendid example to his men under the most trying conditions.

Robert Busteed returned to Australia in October 1918 and in 1920 he married Annie Johnstone Napthali. They had three children. He died in 1932 aged only 41.

Topics:  anzac-centenary history light rail


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