Welcome to this month’s Guest Feature, How on earth has it come to December already?
I’m immensely happy to be joined this month by fellow enthusiastic Amateur Historian Sandra Gittins who many of you will know from twitter @ypreswoman . Sandra regularly posts amongst other things information on employees of Great Western Railway lost in the Great War & also enjoys sharing the latest additions to her incredible postcard collection of original images of stations & railways on the Western Front, which I’m rather envious of I must say!!
So it’s over to Sandra with a great feature on the Railways on the Western Front & she shares some fantastic information that you may not have previously known.
I was surprised, and somewhat flattered, when Wayne asked me to put together something for his guest feature so here goes.
Although I live in Devon I was born near Orpington Kent, and brought up listening to stories of Kent life during WW2, and I have had an interest in the Battle of Britain ever since. Other periods of history I find fascinating are the Tudor period and the English Civil War, but the First World War has taken precedence which came about, as it has with many others, by tracing my family history. When I was a Pharmacy Technician at the Welsh Regional Burns and Plastic Surgery Unit at Chepstow a colleague and I worked on our respective family histories, and both of us had relatives who served in the First World War, which began our lifelong interest in the Western Front. At this point I should add that my head of department was an active member of the Monmouthshire Railway Society, and it was through him that I was introduced to the world of railways. It was during this time that I found details of relatives who had been employees of the Great Western Railway, and served in France and Belgium in the infantry and the railways.
My deep interest in the railways on the Western Front grew after writing the history of the Great Western railway in the First World War as so many of the men were working on the railways out there, but it wasn’t only the GWR as many employees of all the home railway companies found their way into the railway companies of the Royal Engineers.
At the start of the war the Royal Engineers had two regular railway companies and three reserve companies, which was considered sufficient prior to hostilities, but after the first couple of months it was realised that this was woefully inadequate, and there was no capability for expansion, coupled with the pre-war agreement with France that they would be responsible for the upkeep and running of the railways. In October Kitchener sent Sir Percy Girouard, who had been the Director of Railways during the South African War, to France to report on the situation and see what could be done to rectify the problem. Space here does not permit me to go into the outcome of the report and the negotiations with the French, suffice it to say that this was the beginning of what would be a fascinating period of railways and engineering.
On the 15 December 1914 Cecil Paget, Superintendent Midland Railway, was serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the Royal Naval Air Service, and was transferred to the Royal Engineers becoming Deputy Assistant Director of Railway Transport; his RNAS Commission wasn’t terminated until January 1915.
He was influential in the birth of the Railway Operating Division (ROD), and became the commanding officer of this often overlooked and efficient unit, and although he would eventually be commanding over 18,000 men, he declined any promotion above the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
When the ROD first went to France in May 1915, they only had 35 Belgian engines that had been rescued and in an appalling state, and machinery to repair these was thin on the ground, so Paget went back to England and ‘borrowed’ what he could from the Midland Railway. Those were the early days, and by the end of the war depots and workshops had been built to service and build locomotives, of which there were 1,205 together with 54,000 wagons, and maintain ambulance trains, light railway tractor units, locos and wagons on the Western Front. The Broad Gauge (what we know as Standard gauge) traffic consisted of troop trains, leave trains, the transportation of Tanks, water, coal, horses and the running of Ambulance Trains. Divisional Supply Trains ran daily, with each one carrying all the supplies for two divisions, which amounted to around 40 wagons containing food, forage, petrol, coal/coke, ordnance and mail, and reached 30 of these supply trains running every day in the latter half of the war
There was a considerable amount of railway construction carried out during the war, which was not foreseen at the beginning as, again, the French were to carry out all of the work but as the war progressed the number of French railwaymen available diminished owing to their enlistment into the military, plus the expansion of British Military Lines, especially in Belgium, meant that many more lines had to be constructed for future engagements. The BEF also found themselves in a similar situation to the French, as it was becoming difficult to release any more experienced railwaymen from home without having a detrimental impact on the railways in the UK, and even with the arrival of Canadian construction companies more men were urgently needed. In February 1916 the Adjutant-General sent out some 6,000 application forms to railwaymen serving in the Army, and suitably qualified men such as platelayers, riggers, carpenters, blacksmiths, fitters, rivetters, electricians and machinists were transferred from regiments to the Royal Engineers. At the same time volunteers from the home railway companies were called for to form civilian companies of platelayers to work in France for three months, although the eight civilian companies raised, with an average of 250 men in each, were not sent to France until March 1917; some Irish companies also went to France. To give you some idea of the manpower required in the construction of a new railway line, in April 1916 the 110th Railway Company employed 1,350 infantrymen while constructing a line from Bray sur Somme.
The question of transportation on the Western Front came about after the Battle of the Somme when many weak areas needed urgent attention, and Lloyd George sent a three-man team headed by Sir Eric Geddes to investigate. Geddes had been the Deputy General Manager of the North Eastern Railway before leaving to become Deputy Director General of Munitions, and had a reputation of getting things done. Geddes arrived in France on the 7 August 1916, and with his knowledge, influence and power, things were done, and it was the ideal opportunity to tackle the pre-war French railway agreement, and the outcome, basically, was that the BEF would help and assist the French during their time of difficulty by supplying locomotives, and the BEF would repair and improve lines, and build all their own military lines within their area of control.
Geddes established various Directorates, one of which was the Director of Light Railways. Light railways were proving themselves indispensable by diverting heavy loads away from the crumbling roads, and although originally the domain of Corps commanders, this was to change. At this point I might add that, as far as I am aware, that there is no comprehensive list of the men of this directorate. The higher ranks are easy to find, but whenever there is a mention of one of the lower ranks in a war diary it is usually as ADLR etc, followed by a number and infrequently by a name, and I took on the challenge to list every man of the directorate…. Well, as many as I could find which is around 45 so far, but this is very much an on-going project.
Each Army was allocated an Assistant Director of Light Railways, who was responsible for the running and maintenance of the light railways within his allocated Army. The First Army one was known as ADLR 1, Second Army ADLR 2 and so on.
Most ADLR’s moved around within the directorate, or left to be replaced by lower ranks. The ranks below ADLR were Deputy ADLR, and Assistant Deputy ADLR. Some of the Army areas were divided into north and south, and when this happened two ADLR’s were allocated.
From the 26 August 1918 the responsibility for light railway construction and maintenance, in all Army areas, was transferred from ADLR’s to officers of the Canadian Railway Troops.
Light railways were important to carry ammunition, stores, troops etc forward towards the front line, and casualties and troops on the return trips, and connect to the broad-gauge lines to have continuous lines of communication from the rear to the front. As indispensable as these were it was calculated that, financially, the cost was nearly four and a half times of that incurred on broad-gauge lines.
Geddes ensured that locomotives, wagons and track, of both gauges were arriving in France; Metre gauge lines were common in France and Belgium before the war, and some were used during the war, together with the upkeep of rolling stock and track.
1917 was a year of rapid railway expansion on the Western Front, and was a contributory factor in the success of operations that year, but the spring of 1918 found the construction companies having to destroy many lines and bridges to stop them being of any use to the advancing Germans.
When the Germans retreated it meant that all the destroyed British lines had to be rebuilt, and rebuild the German’s own railway lines as the BEF advanced. 1918 was the most intense year for railway work, and the total lines rebuilt or new lines built amounted to 1,298 miles of Broad-Gauge track, compared to 789 miles in 1917. In contrast, the miles of 60cm Light Railway track in 1917 was 1,022, and 768 miles in 1918, but 580 miles were reconstructed during the months of July to December.
It was often said that life in the railway companies was an easy one, and compared to Front Line infantry it was probably true, but railways are dangerous places, and in war time even more so. Railways were a target for enemy bombing and shelling, and many sappers laying lines during shelling suffered from shell-shock as they were working in the open and easily observed, with nowhere to take cover, and deaths in comparison to the infantry were low, but these were railwaymen doing railway work, and that was their mission. A sad example of enemy attacks, and there are many, was that of Albert Gainsford. Employed as a shunter with the South Eastern and Chatham Railway, was wounded while at Mons, gunshot wound and suffering from gas exposure in 1915, and in January 1918 transferred to the ROD, and was with the 47th Broad Gauge operating company. In July he was working on the line to St Pol, which was frequently shelled, and unfortunately Gainsford died of a bomb wound to the chest on the 18th.
Enemy damage and accidents that occurred is another area I have been working on, and they give a good idea of what it was like to work on the railways on the Western Front, and here is a small example:
The engine driver of this train must have been astounded when he stopped at the destination and found what had happened:
The story of railways on the Western Front isn’t just about locomotives, it’s about the phenomenal engineering which was carried out quickly and under difficult conditions. The British RE’s were not alone as they worked alongside Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Portuguese and Americans, as wells as the Pioneer and Labour Battalions, which all makes for a multinational and complex history, but they are all unsung heroes of the First World War.
EDITORS NOTE: Well wasn’t that a brilliant article, being a Railwayman myself I find that incredibly fascinating & one of those subjects not often discussed despite it’s importance.
My thanks to Sandra again for being my guest and if you’d like to learn some more then Sandra has two books out which you can see below & are available on Amazon or other retailers
Also maybe of interest to you Leger Holidays Battlefield Tours have a new railway themed tour planned for 2021 ( Covid-19 Permitting!) Click for details War by Timetable | Leger Holidays
Thanks for joining me again and till next time keep researching & engaging everyone!!