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The engines of war

16 September 2016

Britain’s railways, and the men and women who worked on them, are unsung heroes of the First World War. Rob Langham tells their stories

North Eastern Railway Magazine

Workhorse: the Great Western Railway 43XX class locomotive 5322, built in 1917, worked for the Railway Operating Division on the Western Front

Workhorse: the Great Western Railway 43XX class locomotive 5322, built in 1917, worked for the Railway Operating Division on the Western Front

BRITAIN’s entry into the First World War, at midnight on 4 August 1914, meant that its railways came under government control for the first time. For the individuals whose lives intersected with the railways, their stories would take an unexpected turn. Many railway workers went to fight: men such as Leslie Turner, in Newcastle, who was a clerk for the North Eastern Railway, and joined his local infantry regiment, but was killed by a German naval shell at Hartlepool just a few months later.

Typical of the thousands of women who joined the railways at the time was Annie Quinn; she was working in domestic service at the outbreak of war, but, by 1916, she was an engine cleaner. The man she was later to marry was among those railway workers who had left to fight. After the war, he returned to work at Shildon Wagon Works.

As early as November 1912, the Railway Executive Committee had been formed, which was to manage railways in Britain in the event of an emergency such as war. An incredible 130 railways came under government control (only 18 companies did not), from large well-known lines such as the Great Western Railway, South Eastern & Chatham Railway, and the Great Northern Railway, to more obscure lines such as the Knott End Railway, and some of the small narrow-gauge lines, such as the Ffestiniog, in north Wales, and the Lynton & Barnstaple, in Devon.

The railways were vital means of transportation, as long-distance travel by road, either by horse-drawn or motor vehicles, was not possible. Trains were used to move soldiers and sailors, their equipment, weapons, horses, vehicles, and the endless other items needed to fight a war. Special timetables had already been devised, in case of war, to move men to their postings: in the first fortnight, 1408 special trains ran, particularly to Southampton, from where the troops would sail to France.

Trains for servicemen continued throughout the war, not just for the Channel Ports but also to Avonmouth, where ships left for the Middle East, and also for Scotland, for the men of the Royal Navy based at Scapa Flow. Indeed, the naval specials introduced in 1917 to transport naval personnel on the Highland Railway were known as “The Misery”, owing to the time it took to get there on just a single-track line, and the uncomfortable conditions on board.


MANY men left railway service immediately at the outbreak of war, which put a strain on an infrastructure that was needed more than ever: 184,475 men left Britain’s railways to serve in the war, 49 per cent of whom were of military age. To deal with the reduced workforce, some 400 stations were closed, and older members of staff were brought back. But still more workers were needed; so, in 1915, women were employed in larger numbers than ever before.

Women had worked on the railways for many years already, but mainly in offices, restaurants, and hotels. From 1915, they became platform porters, guards on London Underground trains, locomotive cleaners, and even railway policewomen. At the start of the war, there were just over 13,000 women working for railway companies in Britain; by the end, there were 68,000. When the men returned, however, the numbers dwindled to pre-war levels — that is, until the outbreak of the Second World War, when women were drafted in again.

The men who continued to work on the railways were concerned that they would be seen as shirking military service while not visibly on railway duty, perhaps fearing being given a white feather of cowardice. As a result, they were issued with small enamel badges to be worn on the lapels of their jackets, displaying the name of the company they worked for, the King’s crown, and the words “Railway service”.


THE First World War was fought not just on foreign shores: the destructive power of modern warfare was brought home many times. Britain came under attack from air and sea; the first naval raid on Britain was on Great Yarmouth, in November 1914, although little damage was caused. In the later bombardment, by German warships, of the Hartlepools, Scarborough, and Whitby, on 16 December 1914, however, 150 men, women, and children were killed. It also significantly damaged the railway. A German naval shell smacked through the wall at West Hartlepool Station, narrowly missing a train and killing three railway workers.

Naval raids were a rare occurrence, but, from 1915, raids by Zeppelin airship, and, later Gotha and Zeppelin-Staaken Giant “R” type planes, became a constant threat. London was targeted: Liverpool Street Station was hit by three bombs on 13 June 1917, damaging a train about to leave for Hunstanton, and destroying two carriages that were being used as a medical centre for men joining the armed forces. Railway staff were killed.

The army officer and celebrated war poet Siegfried Sassoon witnessed the event. He later wrote that “in a trench one was acclimatised to the notion of being exterminated, and there was a sense of organised retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky.”

The question what to do on the railways in an air raid took almost two years to decide. Air raids, or the threat of them, often stopped railway traffic for many hours, which could cause almost as much damage to the war effort as a Zeppelin-load of bombs. It was finally decided that trains would run at reduced speeds, but still operate after an air-raid warning; and work in goods yards would continue unless bombs physically stopped the work.

Trains were easy targets, particularly at night: the sparks from the chimney and the opening firebox door could be seen from above, and even the windows of passenger trains were clearly visible. There were warnings of fines for those who left window blinds open on passenger trains, although these threats usually went unheeded.


THE railways fought back against the enemy raiders. Two armoured trains were specially built for home defence: one based on the north Norfolk coast, and the other on the east coast of Scotland. The North Eastern Railway also fitted 12 six-inch naval guns to railway wagons, which were used against Zeppelins; and the Great Northern Railway converted naval searchlights for use as anti-aircraft searchlights.

Perhaps the most famous trains of the war were the “Jellicoe Specials” (named after Admiral Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet), which transported vast amounts of coal from the south Wales to the Royal Navy’s main base in the Orkney Islands. In peacetime, it was cheaper to ship coal most of the way, but, when war broke out, the threat from U-boats meant severaly curtailed coastal trade, and coal trains began to travel the length of the country.

The first Jellicoe Special left Pontypool Road at 12.35 a.m. on 27 August 1914 for the 375-mile journey to Grangemouth. The journey took just under 24 hours, and travelled at an average speed of under eight miles per hour. Although to the modern eye this would appear extremely slow, the constant procession of trains ensured that enough coal was available throughout the war. By 1918, 109 Jellicoe Specials were running per week, carrying 44,100 tons of coal.


RAILWAY disasters were relatively commonplace during this era, and the war exacerbated some of the problems that led to them. The worst ever railway disaster in Britain was at Quintinshill, on 22 May 1915. Owing to a signalling error, a troop train carrying men of the Royal Scots on their way to Gallipoli ran into a stationary passenger train. As the survivors were climbing out, an express train ploughed through the wreckage that was fouling the adjacent line. Fire from the severely damaged locomotives spread, aided by the leaking gas-lighting system used on the carriages, causing a horrific inferno. More than 200 were killed, and at least as many more were injured. The total number of dead was never known, as the fire consumed many bodies, and the battalion roll was lost in the flames.

Ambulance trains had been used by the British in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) to move the wounded rapidly from the battlefield to hospitals. For this reason, plans to convert existing carriages, and construct new ones for use as ambulance trains, had been made even before the war broke out. Trains were also used for transporting wounded men home to British hospitals, and were a vital link in the medical evacuation chain.

For example, on the first day of the Battle of Messines Ridge, in June 1917, men wounded in Belgium that morning arrived at Charing Cross in London by mid-afternoon. From the outbreak of war until 1919, a total of 2,680,000 sick and wounded arrived in Britain on hospital ships, and were then transported onwards by ambulance train, including many men from Allied forces — Americans, French, Belgians, Indians, and Italians — as well as some 46,000 Germans and Austrians.

As the Battle of the Somme raged through the summer of 1916, it was quickly realised that the transport system for supplying the British Army in the field had to be radically improved. The railways became heavily relied on, increasing the use of narrow-gauge as well as standard-gauge railways.

Besides this, the French could not continue to run the standard-gauge railways behind British lines; so there was a large increase in numbers in the Railway Operating Division (ROD) of the Royal Engineers Corps. They needed engines, and fast; so they turned to Britain’s railways, which responded generously: heavy-goods locomotives, although sorely needed on Britain’s own railways, were handed over for the duration of the war. These proved vital for the offensives of 1917 and 1918, and most returned at the end of the war to re-enter service. A handful survive to this day.


THE increased use of railways by the British was one of the logistical success stories that supported the British Army in the field, and resulted in the defeat of the German army in 1918. When the time came for the men who had fought to return home, the railways ran thousands of special trains, just as they had done at the outbreak of war. Men employed on the railways were demobilised more quickly than others, owing to their important peacetime work.

Not all of those who had left the railways returned, however: more than 20,000 railwaymen were killed during the war. The railways were justifiably proud of these soldiers, and memorials can still be seen today at stations across the UK.

Britain’s railways had kept the war effort going, but, by the end of the war, they were in a perilous state. Government control of the railways continued, and the Railways Act of 1921 grouped together most of the railways into four main companies: the Great Western Railway; the Southern Railway; the London, Midland & Scottish Railway; and the London & North Eastern Railway. It was these four railways that were in operation during the Second World War, when the railways provided as vital a service as they had from 1914 to 1918.


This article is adapted from a special lecture given at Durham Cathedral last month.

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