Phil Marsh collection

Wartime Railways in August and September 1914

Published: 2nd August 2014

Millom remembers World War One troop trains and injured returnees

The outbreak of the World War One in August 1914 marked a serious change in society and our railways – which themselves had changed society.

But how did the declaration of war affect our railways 100 years ago? has researched the immediate ramifications for the railways of the war declaration.

There were no major roads or heavy vehicles available so the military effort absolutely depended on the railways to deliver munitions, supplies and the armed forces to sea ports and mainland military establishments. There was no air transport available at this time to move anything long distances in a hurry either!

The August 4, 1914 Railway nationalisation declaration

The railways were acknowledged as absolutely vital to the war effort and were immediately nationalised being brought under Government control via the Requisition of Forces Act 1871. They were run by The Railway Executive Committee (REC) whose membership was made up of the 13 larger railway companies’ General Managers. The Chairman of the REC was the President of the Board of Trade and the chairmanship was taken up by Sir Herbert Walker who was GM of the London & South Western Railway.

The declaration said that the REC had been formed for some time and had pre-prepared plans to facilitate the provisions of the act in case of war. It was stated at the time that railway facilities for other than naval or military purposes may be for a time somewhat restricted, the effect of the powers would be to co-ordinate the demands on the railways of the civil community with those necessary to meet the special requirements of the Naval and Military Authorities.

The announcement also said that “More normal conditions in due course be restored and it is hoped that the public will recognise the necessity for the special conditions and will in general accommodate themselves to the inconvenience involved”

On September 15 1914, a further announcement was made to the effect that full compensation would be paid to the owners (the 100+ train companies) for any loss or injury they may have sustained thereby, to be settled by arbitration as necessary.

The Government and railways agreed that the compensation should be paid based on receipts from 1913 compared to the receipts received while under Government ownership. However, if these were less for the first six months of 1914 compared to 1913, then the compensation should be reduced by the same proportion.

Millions moved

Millions of troops were moved by rail from August 1914 and the planned summer holiday timetables were altered from the declaration of war. In fact, winter timetables were introduced from September as this was a reduced service to the summer months. Ambulance trains were quickly built by the various railway companies to carry wounded or sick members of the armed forces to and from ports.

Ambulance Trains

These trains were built by the larger railway companies and included a pharmacy, hot and cold water, electric lighting and day and night accommodation. Officers and men’s carriages were provided as were medical staff carriages. They also had a kitchen and pantry car plus staff compartments. The trains were steam heated and some carriages had lead floors.

Carriages were equipped with sliding doors so stretchers could be used on and through the trains. These were often made from requisitioned parcels vans or at Wolverton, from Picnic Saloons which did not have many internal fittings to remove hindering conversion.

Large 1000 gallon water tanks and toilets were installed for staff and patients use. These trains were about 500 feet long and places like Wolverton Works could turn out one train every week. A total of 17 such trains were built in the first month of the war.

The wounded were returned to Southampton by ship where they were met by 12 of these trains under the command of the Surgeon General. He received lists of wounded twice a week and hospital bed availability and thus was able to arrange suitable trains from Southampton around the UK to these hospitals. Each train could convey around 96 casualties plus four wounded officers plus staff and carried red crosses on the side of the carriages.

As the toll increased, ambulance trains were sent to France to bring home the more seriously wounded using train ferries to cross the Channel. Three of these ships were commandeered by the Admiralty while three Great Central Railway steamers had been interned at Hamburg along with their crews. Thousands of British railwaymen operated the railways in France using UK locomotives exported by the army.

Railway Works also armour-plated several locomotives which were used on coastal lines on special trains.

The Great Eastern Railway ran 870 military trains in the first six weeks of the war moving 20,000 vehicles including wagons. Wagon sheets were requisitioned at Newmarket and fixed to iron posts and used as a bathing facility by the army.

The Trade Union Agreement with the railways which was to expire in November 1914 was extended until further notice because of the war and that no new agreements would be introduced in the meanwhile.

Train alterations

Many summer dated holiday services were suspended from August 4 and the winter timetable was implemented in many areas to save resources. This was necessary because staff shortages quickly became apparent as an estimated 55,000 railwaymen joined up in the first few months. In fact it was reported at the time that the recruiting authorities should not enlist railwaymen unless they presented a letter of assent from their superior officers.

The Westinghouse Brake Company reported that 118 or 28% of its staff had enlisted and that they were paying these men 50% of their wages and held their jobs open for them until the end of the war.

The millions of men who signed up for the Army obviously could not go on holiday or operate trains so families could not go away to resorts by rail and had to make do with the odd day out rather than a proper holiday. Railways like the Great Central Railway did not alter their services too much as they did not serve seaside resorts.

The London & North Western and Great Northern Railways advertised railway day rambles in the Chilterns and suburbs while the Great Western Railway advertised daytrips to places on the Thames like Maidenhead for boat cruises.

Autumn changes

But the Autumn brought a relaxation on leisure travel for a few months with excursion tickets being reintroduced albeit on scheduled trains. The typewriting compartment service was withdrawn from the LNWR City to City Express and on the Southern, ‘The Southern Belle’ resumed operations and after the war became the ‘Brighton Belle’. The only traffic seriously disrupted were the cross channel rail-sea services which most were suspended.


The LNWR ‘Experimental’ class 4-6-0 engine was renamed Belgic from Germanic and the GWR renamed No.4017 Knight of the Black Eagle to Knight of Liege thus removing reference to the Prussian Empire!

Many of London’s electric railways withdrew general free travel for the forces. The government ordered that bright illuminations be banned in case enemy airships on reconnaissance duties flew overhead.

Commemorative events

There are many rail and WW1 themed events across the UK and to illustrate these, the Cumbrian town of Millom has arranged a community rail themed event on August 9. The Lord Lieutenant of Cumbria Mrs Claire Hensman will be present when a symbolic re-enactment of the ‘Millom Volunteers’ departing for war by train in 1914.

Many local Millom community groups have joined together and have organised a parade at 130pm from Lapstone House through the town to the station where they will join a Northern train towards Barrow. They will be accompanied by the St Andrews Pipe Band and Army Cadets. The day will also remember those who returned physically and mentally injured.

The British Legion was formed in 1921 to help these people and they will be selling Union Jacks to help raise funds for today’s needs highlighted annually by the Poppy Appeal.

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