Published 1st July 2016
Europe is commemorating the centenary of the bloodiest battles this year perhaps culminating with The Somme on July 1, 1916. The focus is quite rightly on those killed and injured but how many people are aware of the vital importance of railways to these bloody battles? Here is a brief history of how railways became a vital art of any war effort.
The first recorded instances of railways being involved in war operations date back to 1855 when railway engineer Thomas Brassey constructed the Grand Crimean Central Railway. This seven-mile railway was used to force an end to the siege of Sevastopol by bringing in army supplies and taking out casualties on the first Ambulance Trains. Railways also featured heavily in the American Civil War for transporting military supplies and troops on both sides.
These experiences brought more wartime railways into use and General Kitchener ordered one in the Sudan in 1896. Everything needed to build and run a railway was exported from the UK and was used to re-instate the Sudan Military Railway for use as an Army supply route crossing the desert. The railway had been dissed for 10 years or so and needed rebuilding.
The railway was used to supply itself and its workforce with coal, water, track components, water and food – and whisky and cigarettes! Trains also conveyed the army, horses and gunboats in kit form to be assembled at the required destination.
The strategic Hedjaz Military Railway was built over several decades providing a direct line from Turkey to the Middle East and Asia. This network was built by various ‘investors’ such as the French, German & British Governments who all recognised the importance of such a route offering the quickest way of moving armies and equipment via the Suez Canal and on to Asia and East Africa.
The first real major use of war trains took place in The Boer war between 1899 and 1902 with armoured and ambulance trains being used to provide attacking and evacuation options. Naval guns were mounted on wagons and had a range of five miles and crews and ammunition were protected by iron platework.
The locomotive crews were also similarly protected bringing what would have been intolerable working conditions. In fact, Winston Churchill was taken prisoner from one armoured train while working as a war correspondent. From 1900, military trains included travelling post offices and shops albeit with a limited range of goods on offer.
When World War 1 broke out, having learnt how important railways were in waging warfare, the UK railways were brought under Government control being run by an executive committee instructed to by the Board of Trade to co-ordinate the requirements of the military and ordinary trains.
A huge part of railway works’ production was turned over to augmenting the military effort and as a large proportion of railwaymen went to France and Belgium, women were ‘allowed’ to fulfil the vacant jobs in railway works.
Their output was diverted to constructing new military trains or converting existing trains to help the war effort including many long ambulance trains. These were used to convey the thousands of wounded servicemen back to the UK and direct to towns with hospital capacity.
Specially designed wagons were built to convey army and navy equipment and fuel. This was because these workshops were large and had the tools and equipment to be able to manufacture whatever was required.
The largest Works was at Wolverton which employed over 5000 people in 1914. Wolverton’s men joined up, as did tens of thousands of other railway staff and were replaced by a large contingent of women who manufactured munitions.
Ambulance and hospital trains were built there, many by public subscription and then before entering service were inspected by the public.
A very special train was built at Wolverton and was equipped with a generator, telephones and a locomotive boiler for heating and hot water. It was used by Sir Douglas Haig the Commander-In-Chief and had 10 carriages converted from Picnic Saloons and sent to France used by Haig as his mobile base.
As the battle fronts moved, so did the rail network. Narrow gauge lines were laid as required by the army to supply the front line and for casualty evacuation purposes. These lines were designed for maximum portability and power rather than speed of the journey.
The Government created the Rail Operating Department (ROD) in WW1 and sent over 700 locomotives abroad and also operated around 250 Belgian steam locomotives. Some of these were brought back to England for repairs. The ROD’s troop and supply trains were given priority over all other trains. Privately owned wagons were commandeered by the ROD for military and coal traffic.
And for the record, it was in WW1 that the railways were first bombed, next to Farringdon station being thrown from a Zeppelin.
...apart from at the World’s oldest continuously open standard gauge railway works.
Every railway company erected a war memorial to their fallen colleagues after the war ended in 1918. These can still be seen today across the rail network and many have been cleaned, repaired and rededicated. There was one major omission.
This was at Wolverton Works where 213 men from there died in WW1. At the Battle of the Somme, 1 died on July 1 1916 and another 36 died of their wounds sustained at that battle.
The owners of Wolverton Works. St Modwen, have said that it is up to their tenants Knorr-Bremse to erect a WW1 Memorial that has been languishing for six months waiting for the go-ahead.
Knorr-Bremse has helped fund the Memorial but are equally reticent in making any arrangements in erecting the memorial.