Armistice: the railway’s role
Down the close, darkening lanes they sang
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay. Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath
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.