MEN & MACHINES
ROB LANGHAM relates how the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers kept the Western Front supplied in the First World War.
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
THE CALL FOR ENGINES FROM BRITAIN WAS ANSWERED IN EVER-INCREASING NUMBERS
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.
ANsWeRING THe CALL
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.