The North Eastern Railway Pioneers were unique – the only complete battalion raised from the employees of one Company, a distinction which it maintained throughout the Great War. Many army units had details of their war service published in the 1920’s, but Pioneers, less glamorous than the Royal Engineers, or even the Royal Army Service Corps did not receive much attention.
The unique nature of the NER Pioneers, who did not just dig latrines and dug outs and trenches, build roads, railways and workshops, often facing considerable danger in forward areas but at times were engaged in actual fighting, earned the respect of many, from Field Marshal Haig downwards.
The force behind the formation of the unit was the energetic and highly ambitious Deputy General Manager of the NER Eric (later Sir Eric Geddes), who after a somewhat racketty youth, which included working as a lumberjack and as a railway clerk in the USA and then as manager of a narrow gauge railway in India,, matured as a top class and imaginative administrator. Based in York, he was to some extent left to his own devices, but with a considerable burden of routine work because his chief, General Manager Alexander (later Sir Alexander) Butterworth preferred to work from the Company’s London Office, concentrating on legal, Parliamentary and financial business. This was also convenient for meetings of the Railway Clearing House General Manager’s conferences and meetings of the Railway Companies Association.
It has been suggested that Geddes was rather bored and taking advantage of the flood of eager volunteers for army service, amongst NER staff, he went to the War Office, offering a fully trained (at the expense of the NER) battalion of professional railwaymen, perhaps in the hope that he would be invited to command it. He was told, not quite that “it would all be over by Christmas” but that “military personnel were competent to deal with the situation in France” and that “professional railwaymen” were not wanted. The retreat from Mons and the lack of asistance from our dis organised and uncooperative gallant French Allies soon began to change that attitude.
Formal approval for the formation of the battalion was given on 11th September 1914 and recruiting started three days later. Over 2,000 NER employees had already volunteered for the Army and Navy, but it was felt that many more would welcome the chance of joining a unit comprising only NER men. Within a few days 1,100 men had been signed up, the Company undertaking to keep their jobs open and ensure that their families did not suffer financially. Indeed, all the railway managers and chief officers “loaned” to the Government had their posts kept open for them and continued to be paid by their Companies. Amongst other functions railway officials ran Woolwich Arsenal and The Royal Aircraft Establishment. Geddes himself ended the war as a Major General, Member of Parliament, First Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the War Cabinet.
The War Office, with the formation of the NER Pioneers, offered all aid short of any actual help. Uniforms and boots were not forthcoming – after the style of “Dad’s Army in 1940, the men paraded and drilled in “civies” – until supplied and equipped by the NER Stores Dept. The Company also provided a training base at the recently completed King George V dock at Hull, where the Railway’s Architect’s Dept. converted two transit sheds for use as barracks. After extensive training exercises and periods of normal army service, the battalion was embarked for France in 1915. What they achieved is described and illustrated in this book. Unfortunately many of the photographs are quite small probably taken on an illicit “Vest Pocket” Kodak – private use of cameras in forward areas was forbidden, lest they fall into enemy hands, when the undeveloped film might give away vital information. This book commands a hefty price in good condition, but beware! Many copies are lacking one or more of the folding maps (all present and intact in this copy) the reprint to order versions from India and the USA lack maps and in some cases, illustrations.
An interesting feature for genealogists is the complete list of men, and their fates, who served with the NER Pioners from 1914 to 1919 ( someone had to stay behind to start clearing up the mess)!