ROB LANG­HAM re­lates how the Rail­way Op­er­at­ing Di­vi­sion of the Royal Engi­neers kept the Western Front sup­plied in the First World War.

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Lo­gis­tics were a piv­otal fac­tor for the Al­lied vic­tory in the First World War. A stag­ger­ing amount of sup­plies were needed for the enor­mous armies dur­ing the stale­mate that typ­i­fied much of the war on the Western Front, let alone ad­di­tional needs dur­ing pe­ri­ods of fight­ing. Rail­ways were cen­tral to this, and as the guns were ever-hun­gry, there was the con­stant need for trains to feed them, as well as the men, an­i­mals and mo­tor ve­hi­cles used by the Bri­tish Army.

The Army Ser­vice Corps’ fleet of horse-drawn and mo­tor ve­hi­cles was well-equipped to send sup­plies to the Front, but the ma­jor­ity of the jour­ney from the Chan­nel ports was to rail­heads which were used as dis­tri­bu­tion cen­tres. Bri­tish rail­way­men joined the armed forces in large num­bers to ‘do their bit’ for the coun­try and, as the war dragged on, many of their home com­pa­nies’ lo­co­mo­tives would even­tu­ally join them. The Rail­way Op­er­at­ing Di­vi­sion was set up as part of the Bri­tish Army to op­er­ate rail­ways sup­ply­ing the Front, and be­fore long it was a vi­tal part of the army’s lo­gis­tics sys­tem. Its story echoes that of the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force (the Bri­tish Army on the Western Front); start­ing small, and heav­ily re­liant on the French and Bel­gians, but be­com­ing larger and more self-suf­fi­cient as the war pro­gressed.


Since the BEF first set foot on French soil in Au­gust 1914, it was agreed that the French rail­ways would not only pro­vide the rolling stock for the trans­porta­tion of men, ar­tillery, horses and the other end­less sup­plies needed for an army in the field, but would also op­er­ate them in what was known as the ‘French Zone’. North of the ‘French Zone’ (marked roughly by a line drawn south-west from Haze­brouck past Lille, Va­len­ci­ennes and Maubeuge) the rail­ways

were also run by the French, but us­ing a pool of mainly Bel­gian lo­co­mo­tives, in­clud­ing those that es­caped the Ger­man forces who now oc­cu­pied most of Bel­gium.

Ini­tially, there was only one rail­way unit in the BEF, in the ex­pec­ta­tion that the rail­ways be­hind the Bri­tish lines in Bel­gium and France would still be op­er­ated by their peace­time com­pa­nies. It did not take long to re­alise that more men would be needed, even just to act as go-be­tweens for the Bri­tish Army and the rail­ways, but as the war be­came a stale­mate over the win­ter of 1914 and the de­mands on the French rail­way sys­tem in­creased, it be­came clear that the Bri­tish would have to take more re­spon­si­bil­ity for the rail­ways sup­ply­ing their forces.

The first units to op­er­ate rail­ways in Al­lied-held ter­ri­tory were set up in Jan­uary 1915, ar­riv­ing in April that year but not tak­ing over their first line – from Haze­brouck to Ypres – un­til Novem­ber. Head of the ROD was Ce­cil Paget, pre­vi­ously su­per­in­ten­dent of the Mid­land Rail­way and cho­sen for his ex­per­tise in lo­co­mo­tives and rail­way traf­fic man­age­ment.

Ini­tially, the ROD used Bel­gian en­gines, and by the end of the year it had just un­der 700 men and was in charge of 59 lo­co­mo­tives. In prepa­ra­tion for the Bat­tle of the Somme of­fen­sive, 55 miles of stan­dard gauge rail­way had been laid, over a third of which were sid­ings. Over 400 miles of track had been laid in 1916, not just new lines but sid­ings for am­bu­lance trains and rail­way guns (the lat­ter had very lim­ited tra­verse and so re­quired curved sid­ings).

As the war pro­gressed, it placed an im­mense strain on the French rail­ways which had their own, much larger, army to move and sup­ply, as well as run­ning ser­vices around the rest of the coun­try – hav­ing lost 83 en­gines and 45,000 wag­ons and car­riages in the Ger­man in­va­sion. Mat­ters wors­ened in Fe­bru­ary 1916 when the Bat­tle of Ver­dun com­menced, as the Ger­mans at­tempted to bleed the French dry in a bat­tle of at­tri­tion. By the time the Bat­tle of the Somme started in July 1916, it was clear that the Bri­tish would have to be re­spon­si­ble for more of the rail­ways be­hind their lines: which meant sourc­ing mo­tive and man­power.

In June 1916, the War Of­fice had con­tacted the Rail­way Ex­ec­u­tive Com­mit­tee (which was in over­all con­trol of most of Bri­tain’s rail­way com­pa­nies for the du­ra­tion of the war) re­quest­ing 200 lo­co­mo­tives to be dis­patched to the Western Front for the ROD, as it was un­likely the French would leave enough lo­co­mo­tives for the Bri­tish to con­tinue to deal with rail­way traf­fic. Ow­ing to the Bat­tle of the Somme and ad­di­tional traf­fic in mov­ing war ma­te­rial (es­pe­cially am­mu­ni­tion) to the Chan­nel ports, the strug­gling rail­way com­pa­nies of Bri­tain would be need­ing their lo­co­mo­tives more than ever. The Min­istry of Mu­ni­tions was un­able to sup­ply new lo­co­mo­tives at short no­tice as the rail­way work­shops were al­ready busy with ex­ist­ing or­ders, and upon ex­plain­ing this sit­u­a­tion to the War Of­fice, the num­ber re­quested was re­duced to 70. The LNWR was to sup­ply all of these, the first ar­riv­ing in Novem­ber 1916. These were the first ROD ten­der en­gines sent to France, all of the 0-6-0 ‘Coal En­gine’ class in­tro­duced by Webb in the 1870s.

This wasn’t the first time a Bri­tish rail­way com­pany had sent its lo­co­mo­tives over­seas dur­ing the war – as early as 1915, the South Eastern & Chatham Rail­way had sent two ‘P’ class 0-6-0Ts to Boulogne, re­placed later by ‘T’ class 0-6-0Ts, as the docks there were worked for a while by the SECR to take the strain off the Gov­ern­ment. In the ab­sence of the el­derly ‘Coal En­gines’, other com­pa­nies ar­ranged to send lo­co­mo­tives to aid the LNWR, but it was agreed that they would not be sent un­til the LNWR was al­lot­ted ma­te­ri­als to build re­place­ment lo­co­mo­tives (raw ma­te­ri­als to man­u­fac­ture new lo­co­mo­tives were also in very short sup­ply).

It was es­ti­mated, in ad­di­tion to re­plac­ing the 70 LNWR lo­co­mo­tives sent to the Front, that across all of the com­pa­nies in the REC, 230 new en­gines would be needed in 1917 to deal with ad­di­tional traf­fic, mainly mu­ni­tions. Mean­while, the ROD was get­ting des­per­ate for these 70 en­gines, strug­gling to get just 20 re­leased, or even just six needed most ur­gently. This ex­as­per­at­ing sit­u­a­tion changed with the ar­rival of Sir Eric Camp­bell Ged­des.


Ged­des, who had joined the North Eastern Rail­way in 1904 and swiftly rose to the rank of Deputy Gen­eral Man­ager, was made Deputy Direc­tor Gen­eral of Mu­ni­tions Sup­ply by Min­is­ter of Mu­ni­tions David Lloyd Ge­orge af­ter the cre­ation of the new min­istry in early 1915. Lord Kitch­ener had asked in 1915 for Ged­des to in­spect the trans­port sit­u­a­tion in France and Bel­gium, but ow­ing to Ged­des’ work in the Min­istry of Mu­ni­tions, Lloyd Ge­orge re­fused. In Au­gust 1916, how­ever, it was Lloyd Ge­orge him­self, by now Sec­re­tary of State for War, who or­dered Ged­des to in­ves­ti­gate the BEF’s trans­porta­tion sys­tem, not just on the Western Front but also at home.

His in­ves­ti­ga­tion showed that the lo­gis­tics sys­tem from Chan­nel port to front­line trench needed to be im­proved rapidly – not just the rail­ways, but also the roads and use of wa­ter­ways. Ged­des’ tem­po­rary loan from the Min­istry of Mu­ni­tions be­came a com­plete trans­fer, to the new role of Direc­tor Gen­eral of Mil­i­tary Rail­ways.

Not long af­ter, he was made Direc­tor Gen­eral of Trans­porta­tion in France, where he set up a cen­tral of­fice three miles from the gen­eral head­quar­ters of the BEF, the large col­lec­tion of huts be­com­ing known as ‘Geddesburg’. With Ged­des able to go di­rect to the Sec­re­tary of State, the pre­vi­ous re­fusals for as­sis­tance re­ceived by the Army from Bri­tain were com­pletely re­versed.

By the end of 1916, not much more than a year af­ter the first stan­dard gauge line had been taken over by the Bri­tish Army, there were 244 en­gines and 5,419 men in the ROD. How­ever, only 62 lo­co­mo­tives had been brought over from Bri­tain, as well as the 198 Bel­gian en­gines in use. With Ged­des’ ap­point­ment, this state of af­fairs soon changed in the New Year of 1917.

The ex­pan­sion of the ROD’s area of op­er­a­tions cre­ated an un­usual prob­lem – that of civil­ian (French and Bel­gian) pas­sen­ger traf­fic, es­pe­cially across the French-Bel­gian bor­der. This was still al­lowed as long as pas­sen­gers had a per­mit for travel, and bilin­gual civil­ian book­ing clerks were em­ployed. Goods traf­fic also re­quired per­mits and oc­ca­sion­ally it could be sus­pended. What could have been an un­nec­es­sary headache for the ROD, and a dis­trac­tion from the main func­tion of sup­ply­ing the Bri­tish Army was found, within a few months, to work well.

7,000 new wag­ons were or­dered from var­i­ous work­shops, in­clud­ing those of Bri­tain’s rail­ways, and 20,000 ex­ist­ing wag­ons were req­ui­si­tioned from Bri­tain. 1,200 miles of track was also req­ui­si­tioned, not just newly built but also taken up from ex­ist­ing lines, such as the Bas­ingstoke & Al­ton Light Rail­way (not re-laid un­til the 1920s) and one of the two tracks from Pick­er­ing New Bridge to Le­visham (which was never re­in­stated).

It was not just a case of find­ing the lo­co­mo­tives, rolling stock


and track; at the out­break of war, many rail­way­men had joined fight­ing units where their peace­time skills were per­haps not put to best use. A comb-out gar­nered 11,000 rail­way­men for the ROD, while oth­ers were re­cruited di­rectly from Bri­tain’s rail­ways or other trades or units still in Bri­tain, in­creas­ing the to­tal num­ber of men in the ROD to 76,000. Although blur­ring the lines re­gard­ing the use of non­com­bat­ants, 13 com­pa­nies of civil­ian plate­lay­ers from Bri­tain’s rail­ways were re­cruited for three months with the of­fer of a high wage, and worked un­der civil­ian engi­neers. By the time Ged­des left France in May 1917 to join the Ad­mi­ralty, where he was made First Sea Lord, he had made a huge im­pact on the Bri­tish Army’s lo­gis­tics.


The 645 en­gines be­long­ing to the French, but work­ing solely for the Bri­tish, were re­quested back, not only to run their own ser­vices but in the hope that they would be needed for in­creased op­er­a­tions, es­pe­cially if planned of­fen­sives in 1917 cap­tured enemy ground.

The in­dus­trial might of the USA and Canada was able to pro­vide new lo­co­mo­tives quicker than Bri­tain’s hard-pressed fac­to­ries, just as they had for the nar­row gauge War Depart­ment Light Rail­ways. Bald­win, which was also pro­duc­ing the ‘10-12-D’ class 4-6-0T for the WDLR, built three tank en­gine types for the ROD – 70 0-4-0STs with huge sad­dle tanks that made the en­gine look out of pro­por­tion, es­pe­cially on its small wheels; 50 0-6-0PTs; and 75 huge 2-6-2STs. They also built two ten­der en­gine types, 150 2-8-0s and 70 4-6-0s. An ad­di­tional 40 2-8-0s, sim­i­lar to the Bald­win de­sign but with a smaller boiler, were built by the Cana­dian Lo­co­mo­tive Com­pany.

The call for en­gines from Bri­tain was an­swered in ev­er­in­creas­ing num­bers through late 1916 and 1917. The North Eastern Rail­way sent its en­tire 50-strong fleet of ‘T1’ 0-8-0s (later ‘Q5’ in LNER par­lance), which were said to be pop­u­lar with the crews, ow­ing to their typ­i­cally large NER cabs with side win­dows, as well as the screw re­verser. To re­place them, the Gov­ern­ment al­lot­ted ma­te­ri­als to the NER for a new batch of 40 ‘T2’ (later ‘Q6’) 0-8-0s, the first be­ing com­pleted at Dar­ling­ton North Road Works in May 1917. One of this batch, No. 2238, sur­vived un­til the end of steam in the North East and is main­tained by the North Eastern Lo­co­mo­tive Preser­va­tion Group in its Bri­tish Rail­ways guise as No. 63395.

Be­fore the ‘T1s’ were dis­patched, from late Oc­to­ber 1916

22 ‘P’ class 0-6-0s (later ‘J24s’) were taken out of ser­vice, fully over­hauled and pre­pared for over­seas ser­vice, in­clud­ing the fit­ting of side chains on the buffer­beam, and stored at Bor­ough Gar­dens shed in Gateshead await­ing the call to go abroad. The call never came, and by March 1917 they were re­turned to ser­vice. Pre­sum­ably the 50 ‘T1s’ were con­sid­ered suf­fi­cient; the NER cer­tainly needed the ad­di­tional en­gines, es­pe­cially as much of the coal traf­fic which, pre-war, went to the near­est NER dock and was sent by coastal ship, but was now trav­el­ling by rail ow­ing to the U-boat threat.

Along­side the ‘T1s’, 26 of the LNWR ‘G’ class and 16 of the Great Cen­tral Rail­way’s ‘8A’ class (later ‘Q4’) made up the 92 0-8-0s sent to the ROD in 1917. The Great Western Rail­way re­sponded to the call for eight-cou­pled lo­co­mo­tives by say­ing that their ‘28XX’ 2-8-0s were al­ready busy on vi­tal war work, haul­ing the ‘Jel­li­coe Spe­cials’ – mov­ing an­thracite from the South Wales coal­field to Scot­land for the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow (see pages 60-62). How­ever, with the GWR’s usual flour­ish, they de­clared that their ‘43XX’ 2-6-0s were “the equal of other com­pa­nies’ eight-cou­pled en­gines”, and sent 11 of these abroad in­stead.

Hun­dreds of 0-6-0 ten­der en­gines were sent by var­i­ous com­pa­nies, mostly de­signs dat­ing from the late 19th cen­tury and those con­sid­ered more ex­pend­able, the old­est be­ing the Mid­land Rail­way’s Kirt­ley dou­ble-frame 0-6-0s of the early 1870s.

One L&YR ‘27’ 0-6-0 was fit­ted with an un­usual ex­ten­sion to the chim­ney – turn­ing it back­wards 90º to­wards the rear, in an ex­per­i­ment to keep the ex­haust as low as pos­si­ble and make it less ob­vi­ous. Pre­sum­ably this wasn’t pop­u­lar with the crews! An­other at­tempt to make the en­gines less con­spic­u­ous was con­dens­ing gear fit­ted to some of the GNR ‘J5’ 0-6-0s.

Other ROD en­gines in­cluded 14 Dutch 4-6-4Ts req­ui­si­tioned from an or­der of 34 built by Beyer Pea­cock, one of which was crewed by a driver and fire­man who had joined up from the NER.


Mid­land Rail­way ‘700’ 0-6-0 No. 2764 shares space with a Bald­win lo­co­mo­tive at the Ex­pe­di­tionary Force works at St Éti­enne-du-Rou­vray on March 9 1918.


ROD 4-6-4T No. 6 af­ter fall­ing into a canal on the Western Front, and be­ing re­cov­ered. It was one of 14 from a batch of 40 built by Beyer Pea­cock & Co. for the Dutch State Rail­way in 1913-17 that were not de­liv­ered to Hol­land. Af­ter the war they were sold to the CF du Nord, ul­ti­mately be­com­ing SNCF class ‘232TB’, with this en­gine be­ing the last to be with­drawn in 1952.


The Royal Engi­neers ‘flam­ing grenade’ in­signia and war ser­vice chevrons ap­plied to the cab­sides of the NER ‘T1’ 0-8-0s on their re­turn from France.


by fol­low­ing its re­cap­ture from the Ger­mans Mid­land Rail­way Kirt­ley 0-6-0 No. 2717Bri­tish forces in Novem­ber 1918.


ROD troops board a train hauled by a Great Eastern ‘Y14’ 0-6-0.ROD 0-6-0PT No. 683 at an un­known lo­ca­tion on the Western Front, circa 1918. It was one of 50 built by the Bald­win Lo­co­mo­tive Works in the USA which ar­rived in France in 1917-18. Af­ter the war it was one of 38 taken over by the Bel­gian State Rail­way, lat­terly as No. 58.023, and it sur­vived un­til 1960.


Still in LSWR liv­ery, ‘0395’ 0-6-0 No. 510 meets a camel in the Mid­dle East.

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