Edwin A. Pratt.

British railways and the great war ; organisation, efforts, difficulties and achievements online

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These trains comprised from fifteen to twenty gangwayed vehicles.
Eleven other vehicles were sent for pharmacy cars and for supplementing,
as required, the accommodation in the standard trains. Two coaches
were also forwarded to France to help in the making up of trains for use
in the repatriation of British prisoners of war then in Switzerland.

Three of the ambulance trains were exhibited to the public at Padding-
ton, Birmingham, Bristol and other large stations on the Great Western
system. A charge was made for admission, and the proceeds, amounting
to close on £2,600, were divided between the Red Cross funds, the G.W.R.
fund for providing comforts for the Railway Troops, and various railway

Of ambulance trains conveying sick and wounded the number passing
over Great Western lines was about 6,000. Allowing for a similar number
of empty trains in the reverse direction, the mileagerun was approxi-
mately 1,000,000. The 5,000 loaded trains included 2,848, which left
patients at forty-five Great Western stations, as follows : —

Stations at which Ambulance
Trains were dealt with.

No. OF

Avonmouth, Royal Edward

Dock 49

Aylesbury 2

Baschurch 2

Berrington 69

Birkenhead 134

Birmingham 200

Bridgnorth 5

Bristol (T.M.) 395




Cheltenham (St. James) .





Exeter (St. Davids)


Hereford ......



Much Wenlock ....









Stations at which Ambulance No. of

Trains were dealt with. Trains

Newbury 9

Newport 51

NewLon Abbot 7

Oswestry 9

Oxford 154

Paddington . . . . . .351

Plymouth (N. Road) .... 239

Paignton 99

Portland . , • 36

Reading i^Q

Shrewsbury 42

SouthaU I

Stourbridge 75

Stratford-on-Avon .... 33

Taplow 116

Torquay 49

Torre 39

Truro 46

Warminster 18

Whitchurch 2

Winchester 38

Windsor 4

Wrexham s


From the time of the outbreak of hostilities, members of the Great
Western Railway Ambulance Centre, which extends to the whole of the
company's system, willingly gave their services in every department of
ambulance work where the knowledge gained by them in the classes held
could be utilised for the benefit of their fellow-men and the successful
prosecution of the war.

No fewer than 282 members of the Centre served with the various
medical units in the Army and Navy, and some of them gained military
awards for their devotion to the wounded and general efficiency in the
department for which they were equipped by reason of their railway-
ambulance training.

Those remaining at home did excellent work in the transport of
wounded to and from ambulance trains. Information received from all
divisions throughout the line showed a great and continued sacrifice of
leisure on the part of ambulance men, the work being done by them
(gratuitously) in their spare time, and often under conditions which
involved the loss or the curtailment of their night's rest. The total
number of ambulance trains attended by the Great Western staff to the
end of 1918 was 2,658.

No figures are available as to the average number of men on duty
for each train or the total number who assisted in the unloading of
wounded ; but the information concerning those in attendance shows that
the men were engaged for an average of from thcee and a half to four hours
on each occasion. Much >vas also done by the members of the Centre as
orderlies, or otherwise, in hospitals.

Great Western Railway men rendered most useful public service,
also, in connection with the enemy air raids in London. Members of the
G.W.R. Division of the St. John Ambulance Brigade went on duty on the
occasion of each and every one of those raids, reporting either at Padding-
ton Station (twenty-two occasions), at the St. John Ambulance Head-
quarters, St. John's Gate, or at the Westbourne Park PoUce Station
(on from fifty to sixty occasions). In this way they were able to deal
with many casualties. Their worst experience, perhaps, was in connec-
tion with the dropping of bombs on Warrington Crescent, Maida Vale,
about three-quarters of a mile distant from Paddington Station. On that
occasion four houses were wrecked and a number of people were killed
or wounded ; but the members of the G.W.R. Division were quickly
on the scene and were able to render valuable assistance, in the form of
first aid, to the sufferers.

War Manufactures, etc.

During the war the company carried out a vast amount of work in
their workshops for the War Office, the Ministry of Munitions, Woolwich
Arsenal, the Admiralty and a number of private firms who were under
contract with the Government. Such work included the manufacture
of gun parts, shell parts, shells and bombs, ammunition fuses and cases,


spare parts for engines and rolling stock in use overseas, and an almost
endless variety of other essentials to modem warfare. A mere catalogue
of the items would extend over many pages ; but the following may
convey some idea of the extent and variety of the work undertaken : —
Completion of 327 6-pdr. Hotchkiss guns, the forgings (rough turned
and rough bored) for which were suppUed to the company ; 682 guns of
the same type, rifled only, at Swindon ; forty travelling carriages for
6-in. naval guns sent to Swindon for conversion into land use ; carriages
for twelve 8-in. howitzer guns, undergoing Uke conversion ; sets for
4-5-in. howitzers, as follows : — 338 (involving 27,662 parts) for the gun
carriage ; 1,078 (126,004 parts) for the ammunition wagon ; 1,078
(53.854 parts) for the limber ; and 338 (17,249 parts), for the carriage
hmber ; 17,825 hemispherical pressings (mine work) ; unloading, sorting
and reloading of steel billets from America ; rolhng of billets -for shells ;
reforging of large proof shot to smaller sizes ; roUing of 9-2-in. bars to
3-in. diameter to make i8-pdr. shells ; manufacture from the billet of
265,652 tons of forgings for 6-in. high explosive or howitzer shells, the
output thereof being 2,500 shells per week ; or a sum total of 103,127 ;
graze fuses complete with adapters, 240,000 ; fuses without adapters,
11,210 ; cast-iron fuses, 45,108 ; gaines, 428,248 ; nose stampings,
144,665 ; fuse body stampings, 83,437 '• ^^-se plate stampings, 76,484 ;
fuse adapters, 74,493; base adapter forgings, 5,572; copper bands,
1,863,000 ; cartridge cases (i8-pdr.), reformed, 5,329,000 ; ditto, brazed,
43i328 ; general service wagons, 1,100 ; water tank carts, 50 ; picketing
postsf 3,850 ; picketing pegs, 38,000 ; ambulance stretchers, 2,950 ; and
a wide range of other items, far too numerous to mention in detail.

Road Motor Vehicle Department.'

It was in 1903 that the Great Western Railway Company began the
use of road motor vehicles as an adjunct to their rail facilities, and the
experiment was found so great a success that it eventually developed
into a special organisation which had charge of some 230 mechanically-
operated vehicles, comprised, generally, within the following classes : —
(i) Passenger road-service motors, ' forming a hnk between the railway
and outljdng villages or places of interest the construction to which of
branch lines of railway would not be practicable, while these services
were so greatly appreciated that in the last pre-war year (1913) they
conveyed, apart from luggage and mails, 1,590,000 passengers, doing a total
mileage of close on 945,000 ; (2) three-ton motor lorries carrying goods
and parcels traffic between railway stations and certain country towns ;
(3) parcels vans for transfer and collection and delivery work in large
cities ; (4) goods lorries and tractors for heavier weights under like
conditions, and (5) electric platform-trucks at Paddington Station.

An essential feature of the special organisation thus set up was a
central depot both for repairs and for the stores which would require
to be distributed among the numerous outstation depots established in


all sections of the Great Western system. The said central depot was
located at Slough, and, by arrangements made between the company
and the Ministry of Munitions, the staff employed at Slough undertook,
from the early days of the war, the repair of Army Service Corps motor
lorries and engines, in addition to their other labours. An extension
of the premises thus becoming necessary, an existing open shed was
converted into a four-bay chassis erecting shop, in which much useful
work was done, various types of British and U.S.A.-made chassis and
engines being overhauled for the Army Service Corps. Among other
services rendered by the staff was, for instance, the overhauling of ten
Bema chassis which were next sent on to the company's works at Swindon
to have G.W.R. charabanc-type bodies fitted to them, the vehicles being
eventually used for the conveyance of munition workers in various parts
of the country. In addition to heavy chassis of such makes as Pagefield,
Maudslay, Bema and Kelly, a set of Ught Sunbeam chassis — to be used,
it was understood, for the conveyance of Ministry of Munitions or other
officials about London — were put through the Slough shpps in 1917.

While serving as engineer in charge of the company's road-motor
department during the war, Mr. George Bulkeley also acted as consulting
engineer to a committee of the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries set up
for the purpose of providing paraffin engines to a large number of fishing
vessels utilised for war service, individual propellers being, also, designed
for each in order that the greatest propulsive efficiency, when trawls were
being towed, could be obtained.

Rolling Stock.

In anticipation of the need that was certain to arise for a greater
amount of rolling stock suitable for the transport of horses, lorries,
guns, limbers and carts, steps were taken by the company immediately on
the outbreak of hostilities to adapt a number of their ordinary trucks
to these particular requirements. Those so adapted were —

For horses :

High-sided open wagons . . . . . . .410

For guns, limbers, carts, etc :

Unfinished open wagons . . . . . . .101

Sets of twin timber trucks ....... 61

Bogie 45-ft. rail and timber trucks ...... 82

Total 654

Down to the end of 1918 the company had allocated 216,350 of their
wagons exclusively to naval and military movements in this country,
included therein being a large number of 45-ft. bogie trucks, each of which
was equal to three open trucks. In addition to this, the company set
aside 638 passenger coaches to meet the requirements of new services
run for munition workers.


For use overseas, there were furnished 95 engines, 105 tenders, 6,567
wagons, and 238 coaching vehicles.

Railway Supplies.

In addition to the rolling stock just mentioned the company provided,
at the request of the Government, and also for use overseas, more than
forty-nine miles of permanent-way complete, with an addition of 50,000
sleepers and spare parts, the aggregate weight thereof being over 15,000

A large amount of permanent -way materials was also found for use
in connection with Government factories, military camps, etc., in this

Requisition of Horses.

Under the Army Horse Reserve Agreement, the company were liable
to supply the War Office with 221 horses at cost price, plus 50 per cent.
These were taken early in August, 1914. In addition, forty other light
draft horses were specially requisitioned, and twelve were commandeered
at Birmingham, making a total of 273.


The number of Great Western men who joined the Colours during the
course of the war was 25,479, °^ 32'6 per cent, of the pre-war establish-
ment. Of those who thus joined up, 2,129 lost their Uves, or about 8 per
cent, of those who enlisted.

Three Companies of Constructional Railway Troops, attached to the
Royal Engineers, and including twelve ofi&cers, were formed from the
staff of the Engineering Department. The first of the three was raised
for service in Egypt. The two others were sent to France.

Two civilian companies, numbering 287 men, were recruited in 1917,
also from the Engineering Department, for railway work to be done in
France under the War Office.

Employment of Women and Girls.

On August 4th, 1914, the Great Western Railway Company employed
a total of 1,371 women and girls, namely, 497 on railway work proper and
874 in other capacities, such as waitresses, hotel staff, charwomen,
washerwomen, waiting-room attendants, etc. The 497 on railway work
proper included 278 who were engaged on clerical duties — mainly
typists, shorthand writers, telegraphists and telephone operators.
Women and girls had been employed in these particular capacities by the
Great Western since 1909.

With the steady depletion of aU grades of male workers through
enUstments there was brought about a substantial increase in the employ-


ment of women and girls as substitutes. By August, 1918, the number
in the company's service had attained a maximum of 6,345, namely,
5,214 on railway work proper and 1,131 in other capacities. The number
engaged on clerical work of various kinds had by then increased to 2,900,
or 55'4 per cent, of the total clerical staff, as compared with 37 per cent,
when the war began. Other typical grades showed that the comparative
totals of women and men employed by the company at the date mentioned
were — Porters, 346 women and 1,346 men ; ticket-collectors, 323 women
and 155 men ; goods porters, 616 women and 777 men ; carriage cleaners,
594 women and 153 men ; messengers, iii women and 495 men.


On the outbreak of hostilities the Great Western Railway Company's
fleet of steamships consisted of the turbine vessels St. David, St. Patrick
and St. Andrew, which were employed on the Fishguard-Rosslare service ;
the Great Western, Great Southern, and Waterford, by which the Fishguard-
Waterford service was conducted, and the Ibex, Reindeer and Roebuck,
which, together with the cargo boats Lynx and Gazelle,- were running the
Weymouth and Channel Islands service.

Of these eleven vessds, seven, namely, the three turbines and the
Roebuck, Reindeer, Lynx and Gazelle, were speedily commandeered by the
Admiralty. The turbines were converted into hospital ships, and the
four others were attached to the Navy and utilised for various purposes
in connection with the Fleets.

The equipment of the turbines for the discharge of their new duties was
carried out by the company's Marine Factory staff, at Fishguard. It
included the making of provision on each ship for 200 cot cases and the
construction of lifts by means of which the cots and the patients occupying
them could be transferred readily to or from the main and lower decks.
When ready for service, the hospital ships, or " ambulance transports "
as they were subsequently called, collected sick and wounded at various
French ports, such as Rouen and St. Nazaire, and brought them to
the ports here from which they were to be distributed among
hospitals throughout the country. The total number of patients so con-
veyed by them was, approximately, 380,000 and this great and beneficent
task was accomplished in a way that met with the highest commendation
from the naval, military and medical authorities. The three vessels
naturally had some narrow escapes from submarine and aircraft perils
when crossing the English Channel ; but the only untoward incident
in the record of their services was the sinking of a destroyer by the St.
David, though even then there was no loss of life. Subsequent to the
signing of the Armistice, the turbines were converted into troopships and
used in connection with the demobilisation of the British armies in France.

Of the four other vessels commandeered by the Admiralty, the
Roebuck, renamed by the Admiralty the Roedean, was lost at Scapa Flow in
January, 1915, owing to collision (during unfavourable weather conditions)


with a French battleship. The Reindeer, the Lynx and the Gazelle were
sent to the Mediterranean and were there used for mine sweeping in the
Dardanelles at the time of the attack by the British Fleet, for patrol
work, for the chasing of submarines and for a great variety of other naval
or military purposes. The Lynx further distinguished herself by ramming
an enemy submarine with, it was believed, the desired result.

Though retained on her normal Channel Island service, the Hex still
did some useful war work. She sank an enemy submarine by gun fire —
an achievement for which she was handsomely rewarded by the Admiralty;
she was used for a short time as a troopship when, in March, 1918, rein-
forcements were being rushed to France to stem the great German advance,
and on the cessation of hostihties she helped to bring troops back from
France for demobilisation.

The five tenders owned by the company at Plymouth were also requisi-
tioned by the Government on the outbreak of war. They were used in
the examination of ships approaching the port of Plymouth and for the
embarkation and landing of troops, the. aggregate pumber they thus
transferred between shore and ship, or vice versa, being about 250,000.
One of the five, the Atalanta, was also equipped for salvage purposes and
rendered good service in connection with the submarine campaign.
Another, the Smeaton, was loaned to the U.S.A. authorities at the time
of the arrival of the American Forces in France.

Notwithstanding the depletion of their fleet, the company maintained
all their steamship services during the war (although on a very reduced
scale compared with their pre-war services), and they were, happily,
able to do so without loss. Some of their vessels, nevertheless, had
exciting experiences and narrow escapes, the Pembroke, for example,
put on to assist in the service between Weymouth and the Channel
Islands, being on several occasions subjected to gun fire from enemy
submarines. The continuation of the services, notwithstanding the
difficulties and the dangers of the situation, was of great public advantage
in regard to the maintenance alike of communications and of the country's
food supply.


The anxiety of the company to encourage the members of their
staff in the cultivation of allotments, with a view to ensuring an increased
food supply, was shown by the issue of the following notices, under the
dates mentioned, and all bearing the name of the late Mr. Frank
Potter, then General Manager : —

Paddington Station,

December, 1916.
The company ofier their stafi tenancies of garden ground alongside the railway
at an annual rent of ■^d. or /^d. per rod (or perch) according to locality.

In the case of any tenancies arranged not later than March 25th next, the
land will be granted RENT FREE for two years should it not have been previously



March, 1917.

It has been brought to notice that in some districts the land alongside the railway
within the fences is not suitable for cultivation, or is insufificient to meet the applica-
tions which have been made by the staff for garden ground.

In such cases, where the company own land outside the fences, and such land
has been let for purposes other than cultivation, endeavours will be made to obtain
possession in order that allotments may be provided. Where this is possible, the
land wiU be let to the company's servants RENT FREE for two years in cases of
applications received not later than the 31st instant, at the expiration of which
period the rent charged will be that prevailing in the respective localities for allot-
ments provided by the Local Authorities.

January, 1918.

In view of the continued necessity for home food production, the Directors
have decided to renew the offer of uncultivated land alongside, or adjacent to, the
line for use as garden ground on the basis of a rent free period for two years as from
the 1st instant, the annual rent thereafter to be ^d. or ^d. per rod (or perch) in the
case of land within the fences, and the rents prevailing in the respective districts
for allotments in the case of land outside the fences.

Each notice gave instructions as to where applications for land were
±0 be made, and the last of the three further stated that arrangements
had been made with a firm of seed merchants to supply Great Western
Railway employees with collections of vegetable seeds — on, presumably,
special terms.

The issue of these notices had excellent results. In the pre-war
period the number of Great Western men who had taken up allotments
on the company's land was 7,653. In the war period this figure was
increased by 13,059.

Newport Docks and Railway.

During the first year or two of the war, the West Coast was, practically
speaking, out of the war zone, inasmuch as the activities of the German
submarines did not then extend so far. Consequently great use was made
of certain western ports for traffic which, in pre-war days, had been
received at ports on the East Coast, one of the results thereof being a
great increase in the amount of rail traffic requiring to be handled by the
Great Western Railway Company. A detailed account of all that occurred
in this connection cannot here be given, but some reference should be made
to the experiences which the Alexandra (Newport and South Wales)
Docks and Railway Company and the Great Western Company mainly
shared in common, though the Alexandra Railway Company's Hne to
Pontypridd also connects with the Brecon and Merthyr, Rhymney and
Taff Vale Railways.

Only three weeks before the outbreak of the war, the great sea-lock
entrance to the Newport Docks was opened by Prince Arthur of
Connaught, together with the remaining section of the large new dock.
The entrance lock, which is 1,000 ft. long and 100 ft. wide, and allows of
the largest class of vessel being dealt with, is claimed to be the largest
sea-lock in the world, while the new dock extension of seventy-five
acres of deep water increased the area of the Newport Docks to 136


acres. Once more, therefore, one finds how opportunely important
extensions of transport faciHties by private enterprise came in for use by
the Government on their going to war. Full advantage, in fact, was
taken by the Government of the increased accommodation at Newport,
where the ordinary commercial traffic from South Wales and the Midlands
was soon being more and more ' displaced by what was essentially war

From Newport Docks, for instance, there were shipped, more especially
in the early days of the war, several million tons of South Wales coal for
Admiralty purposes. Some 2,000,000 tons of iron ore were, from 1914
onward, imported into Newport docks for distribution, mainly by the
Great Western, in the first instance, at least, among the great iron works
of the country, on Ministry of Munitions account or otherwise. In
March, 1918, Newport attained the position of holding the record for
the whole of the United Kingdom in the discharge of iron ore.

Another large traffic brought to Newport on Government account for
like distribution was nitrate of soda. Of this commodity there were
dealt with at Newport between March, 1916, and December, 1918, no
fewer than 197,000 tons. Extensive transit sheds were specially erected
to facilitate the. traffic, and high records for dispatch were attained.

In 1916, the Government decided to establish a large factory at the
Alexandra Docks for the purpose of rectifying i8-pdr. and 45 brass
cartridge cases. Nearly forty acres of land belonging to the Docks and
Railway Company and adjacent to the new lock entrance and South
Quay were taken over by the Ministry of Munitions, and a large ware-
house covering thirteen acres was erected. A line of steamers was put
on to bring the salved shell cases and cartridge boxes from the French
and Belgian battlefields to Newport Docks, where the vessels were dis-
charged and the material transported by conveyers to the Government
factory. There the boxes were repaired and the brass shell cases rectified
by an extensive and specially installed plant, and they were afterwards
sent by rail to filHng factories inland, the G.W.R. being thus once more
concerned in the business. As many as 3,500 women and girls were
employed on the work, and the number of boxes and cases dealt with ran
into many millions.

Apart from the main traffics of coal, pitwood, iron ore, nitrate, etc.,

Online LibraryEdwin A. PrattBritish railways and the great war ; organisation, efforts, difficulties and achievements → online text (page 50 of 82)