“Yes, it was called a ‘Rest Camp’ and no one was troubled with oversleep in the least. If the man who invented the name ‘Rest Camp’ has not been killed in the war he had better sleep with one eye open from now on.” –E. Kemper Carter, 518th Engineers
Rest Camps during World War I were military-run camps where soldiers were supposed to be able to recuperate after battle or traveling long distances. In the meantime, the companies were to be reorganized, equipment sorted out, and new orders received. But rest, especially for companies of military engineers, was often the last thing on the agenda.
One especially notorious rest camp was located by Pontanezen Barracks, near Brest, France. After disembarking from the ships that carried them across the Atlantic, American engineers eager for rest after being at sea for two weeks were instead put to work. They unloaded ships, dug ditches, did construction, and performed other tasks around the camp, at the docks, or in the city. And to add insult to injury, it was often raining, turning the field where they camped into a muddy swamp.
The following are a few soldiers’ remarks about the rest camps:
Being inexperienced in the Expeditionary Forces phraseology, the term “Rest Camp” had an inviting sound to it after long days aboard ship. Anticipation as usual proved greater than realization, for it was soon learned that it was called a rest camp because rest was out of the question. –Merl Breese, 303rd Engineers
The writer arrived with his company at Brest on July 13th, and marched to the rest camp at Fontenzen [Pontanezen] Barracks, where they performed two tours of guard duty and furnished a fatigue detail of 100 men in four days, the appellation of “rest camp” being a comparative term. –John Pritchard, 26th Engineers
The troops disembarked at Brest on March 6th and marched to the rest camp at Pont-a-Nessin [Pontanezen] Barracks—better known to the enlisted men as Camp Napoleon. The reason for the prowess of Napoleon’s troops was evident—it was a cinch they would rather fight than rest. –George Throop, 24th Engineers
Three days were spent at the “Rest Camp” at which place the reports of “Sunny France” proved to be far fetched. The sojourn at the above named place gave all a splendid opportunity to adjust themselves to the slush and mud. –Egbert Ozbirn, 806th Pioneer Infantry
After spending anywhere from a day to a month at the rest camps, engineers were often relieved to receive their new orders and escape the monotony of what one soldier termed “hard rest.”
Read more about the experiences of engineers in World War I in Fold3’s WWI Officer Experience Reports-AEF.