Armistice: the rail­way’s role

Steam Railway (UK) - - COMMENT - Nick Brodrick, Ed­i­tor


Down the close, dark­en­ing lanes they sang

their way

To the sid­ing-shed,

And lined the train with faces grimly gay. Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath

and spray

As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a ca­sual


Stood star­ing hard,

Sorry to miss them from the up­land camp. Then, un­moved, sig­nals nod­ded, and a lamp Winked to the guard.

So se­cretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went. They were not ours:

We never heard to which front these were sent. Nor there if they yet mock what women meant Who gave them flow­ers.

Shall they re­turn to beat­ings of great bells In wild train­loads?

A few, a few, too few for drums and yells, May creep back, silent, to still vil­lage wells Up half-known roads.

In 1918, poet Wil­fred Owen wrote that “English Po­etry is not yet fit to speak of them.” He was re­fer­ring to the mil­lions who per­ished and the many ca­su­al­ties of the First World War. He vividly de­scribed the sol­diers’ fear of jour­ney­ing to the Front in the verse above.

Po­etry, films, plays and doc­u­men­taries have played an in­te­gral part in keep­ing the me­mory alive. But rail­way preser­va­tion has also helped re­mem­ber the fallen, and with supreme rev­er­ence.

Wit­ness the Kent & East Sus­sex Rail­way’s beau­ti­fully re­stored ‘Cavell Van’; the SECR ve­hi­cle that trans­ported the bod­ies of Nurse Edith Cavell, Cap­tain Charles Fry­att and the Un­known War­rior from the English coast to the cap­i­tal. There’s also the un­der-con­struc­tion ‘Pa­triot’, which will

be­come the na­tional me­mo­rial en­gine, the reg­u­lar gather­ing of nar­row gauge front­line lo­co­mo­tives at Apedale, and the NRM’s re-cre­ation of an am­bu­lance coach.

Else­where, there is in­creas­ing recog­ni­tion of the role of the Rail­way Op­er­at­ing Di­vi­sion, which pro­vided a vi­tal artery of sup­plies. Re­mark­ably, two Robin­son 2-8-0s will dis­play their in­signia on Novem­ber 11 – on op­po­site sides of the world.

Given that, and the thou­sands of other events be­ing held across the world to mark the cen­te­nary, it is per­haps in­evitable that in­ter­est in the con­flict has never been greater.

And yet, it is hard to see the cur­rent level of grat­i­tude di­min­ish­ing any time soon. The ‘Great War’ may now be al­most be­yond liv­ing me­mory, but be­cause we have the ben­e­fit of view­ing it through the prism of 21st cen­tury life, we can truly ap­pre­ci­ate the in­cred­i­ble sac­ri­fice made by so many, even if the true hor­ror can never be fully con­tem­plated.


The Great Cen­tral Rail­way marked the 70th an­niver­sary of the Lo­co­mo­tive Ex­changes, fea­tur­ing Wither­slackHall (pic­tured) in Oc­to­ber. On Novem­ber 10/11 it will mark the cen­te­nary of the Armistice, with Robin­son ‘O4’No. 63601, com­plete with ROD brand­ing.

Thomas Bright Staff Writer

Toby Jen­nings As­sis­tant Ed­i­tor

David Wil­cock Con­trib­u­tor

Nick Brodrick Ed­i­tor

Julie Cox Ac­count Man­ager

Jane Skin­ner Ed­i­to­rial As­sis­tant

Tony Streeter Con­trib­u­tor

Chris Leigh Con­sult­ing Ed­i­tor

Mandy Brett Art Ed­i­tor

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