It is easy to overlook the myriad of unglamorous but vital tasks necessary to keep an army in the field. One such job is that of ensuring that there is an adequate supply of safe drinking water available for the troops.
On the Western Front, the Royal Engineers had a responsibility in this field, and on the Somme, for example, the Chief Engineer of the Fourth Army had on his staff a water supply officer with three assistants, whilst at each corps there was a water officer. An extensive system of water mains was installed throughout the Army area, pumping water from springs, boreholes and the Somme; water trains were also run each day.
The REs had a number of specialist companies for well-boring and pipe-laying. The Army Service Corps was also involved and included four water tank companies in its line-up. Each had eighty-nine 150 gallon and sixteen 500 gallon tank lorries in addition to lorries for purification plant and spares.
The purity of the water was, however, the responsibility of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Each major unit* had a water duties section comprising an NCO and several privates of the RAMC. IWM photo Q8890 shows water about to be drawn from the River Authie at Auxi on 7 June 1918. After being treated by the 'depoisoning and sterilising plant' seen in the background it would be pumped into a canvas 'pure water' tank (IWM photo: Q8889). The vehicle belongs to No. 2 Water Tank Company, but among the personnel seen there is at least one RAMC man, presumably responsible for supervising the actual purification process.
*The term 'unit' is often used loosely to describe any group of soldiers. Strictly, however, it is homogeneous group, the commander of which has 'commanding officer's powers' regarding discipline, promotions, etc. A grouping formed by a number of units is a 'formation'. Thus a battalion (or artillery brigade in the Great War) is a unit, but an infantry brigade (consisting of several battalions) is a formation, as are divisions, corps, etc.