The problem with Railway History, is that any mention of ‘railways’ or ‘trains’ always has people jumping to conclusion, frequently of the anorak-wearing type. But railways are just as much about social history as they are about technology, as Sandra Gittins has shown. And this social history really came to the fore in 1914.
I found this book a real eye-opener in more ways than one. I hadn’t realised just what an impact railways had had on the war, but also what an impact the war had on the railways. An iconic image in British military history is the eponymous train pulling away from the station loaded with waving troops. More humbling is the spectre of trains pulling back into the same station carrying scores of wounded men.
If the First World War was the first truly industrialised war, then the Railways seem to have been a real force multiplier. The combustion engine had not been developed quite enough to be as significant as it would later become. The German state had built – in a typically German fashion – a complex system of railways that would speed their armies to the western front to enact the Schlieffen Plan, and then across Germany to fight the Russians in the east. The French and British took much longer to perfect their rail networks nearer the front, and the immediate importance of the Great Western Railway was in ferrying troops around country – principally to the embarkation ports for France, and also to the training camps on Salisbury Plain.
Other aspects of the GWR’s war I was quite unaware of. It comes as something of a surprise to read that the GWR’s engineering works were making munitions and artillery pieces for the Army. The GWR was also crucial in transporting coal from the Welsh mining areas to coastal ports, from where it could be taken to fuel the Royal Navy, which was still overwhelmingly coal powered. The company’s ferries were also pressed into service. There were so many train services running on Government service, and so little rolling stock left, that passenger services were seriously curtailed.
As the western front stagnated into static warfare, so infrastructure grew up to service the men and materiel flowing towards the trenches. An important component of this was the rail network. Initially the GWR sent a number of engines and rolling stock, and then built more specificially for the Government for service abroad. Some of these were of completely new designs, to transport aircraft and tanks. Eventually, GWR men were sent to France to both operate the existing rail networks, and to build new ones.
As with most large companies (in 1914 GWR employed in the region of 80,000 people), many employeed joined the forces. Some of these were on an individual basis, but the GWR also contributed men and officers to several Royal Engineers Railway Companies, and also some volunteer infantry units. This was very much in keeping with the ‘Pals’ ethos; that men who worked together and joined up together would be allowed to fight together. The absence of young men to work the railways led to the employment of women in many roles, and also not a few retired GWR employees.
Sandra Gittins has also included a very impressively researched Roll of Honour, in which most names have been discovered in the CWGC database. I’m working on a similar project at the moment, and its very inspiring to see that someone has gone into such depth. There are also some gallant tales, such as the sergeant and the private who managed to take prisoner 250 Germans between them, form them into a column and march them back to the British lines.
Overall, we are left with a couple of impressions. Firstly, that Railways were such a huge part of life in early twentieth century Britain, and for a large and prominent company such as the GWR, this must have been even more so. Also, we are given a sense of community – not only did companies form the heartbeat of the community, but also that these communities suffered so much from the human cost of war.