Outside of Government, Military and Transport Circles, few people realised the extent to which the railways of Britain contributed to the eventual Allied Victory. The railways may not have won the Great War, but they went a long way to ensuring that it was not lost. Please bear in mind the fact that unlike continental lines the railways in Britain were neither State Owned, nor subsidised, except for a very few rural light railways. They had been built by private enterprise, and were owned by private and corporate shareholders, who relied on the dividends for their ncome, as pensions, or as backing in institutional shareholders fo insurance, loans and other fiancial services. Legislation had long been in place for the railways to come under state control in the event of war, the mechanism of administration being by a Railway Executive Committee, chaired by a Government Minister, and comprising the General Managers of the leading railway companies. In peace time, meetings were held as required. During the War in times of crisis they were held three times a day, morning, afternoon and evening. Full meetings were supplemented by sub-committees which met as required under the chairmanship of one of the full members.
The basic arrangement subject to some detailed adjustments, was that the railways would be guaranteed an income equal to the receipts of the last normal year of trading, all Government, Military and Naval traffic was to be dealt with free of charge. As it turned out, no Government Minister was able to attend the frequent meetings, so the Deputy Chairman, Sir Herbert Walker, the outstanding General Manager of the London & South Western Railway took the meetings.This fortunate cicumstance had the result that the running of the railways was left to the professionals for the duration, with minimum Government interference
Walker’s place at the head of the table was to some extent inevitable because when in 1912, planning began for the event of a European war, it was decided that any British Expeditionary force would embark from the new facilities at the LSWR docks at Southampton, so Walker’s staff were responsible for one end of a mammoth operation. Small groups of timetable experts on each railway, were responsible for planning the entraining of the troops, horses, guns and transport from army depots on their systems in accordance with War Office requirements. There was a specified time slot in the operation for each special train to arrive shipside for speedy embarkation. Timetables were drawn up with the railways consulting between themselves to achieve the required arrival time. In the months leading up to the outbreak of war, these plans were the subject of constant checking and revision. Consequently in August 1914 the plans worked like clockwork. Not a special train missed its slot through being delayed, not a single soldier, horse, gun or wagon was lost or injured. The BEF arrived safely in France, in good time to participate in the retreat from Mons…
Please do not scoff, but the fact is, that taken as a whole, the major railways were the best managed enterprises in the country. The managements were highly trained, and from the 1890s onwards, delegations were sent to the USA to learn about the application of the latest management techinques (statistical collection and analysis, critical path planning, cost/benefit studies etc.) Leading General Managers and Chief Mechanical Engineers earned between £3,000 and £5,000 p.a. and staff trained by them were in demand from railways all overthe world – even the USA. Consequently, when comparatively early in the war, senior Government officials and armyofficers were found wanting the Railways were approached for help. They responded magnificently, and patriotically.
Here are just a few examples. Sir Guy Granet, GM Midland Railway, appointed Controller of Imports, subsequently Director General of Movements at the War Office. Guy Calthrop, GM LNWR, appointed Controller of Mines. Sir Sam Fay, GM Great Central Railway, served on REC, then as Deputy to Granet, before succeeding him as Drector General of Movements, with the honorary rank of Major General, and a seat on the Army Council. Henry Fowler, Chief Mechanical Engineer, Midland Railway, became head of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, later Directorof Aircraft Production at the Ministry of Munitions. Vincent Raven, Chief Mechanical Engineer, North Eastern Railway was appointed Supt. of Woolwich Arsenal.
So where did the patriotism come in? All these men, and dozens of others of equal or lesser rank were loaned to the Government, their parent railway paying their salaries and keeping their jobs open for them to return. (There were one or two exceptions, like Eric Geddes, Deputy GM North Eastern Railway whose meteoric career after being loaned, soon took him out of the NER’s orbit. He became First Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the Cabinet). It will have been noted that apart from the “movements” jobs at the War Office non of the appointees had special knowledge of the fields to which they were appointed It was usually “specialists” who had been found wanting and had to be replaced. What the country needed in key posts like these was absolutely first rate managers and organisers. The railway companies made them available
And do not think that these jobs wee sinecures. Sir Sam Fay, in his early 60’s worked late at he War Office, or at the REC five days a week, sleeping at his club in case an emegency arose during the night so he could reach the War Office in minutes. On Saturdays he invariably worked until lunchtime, the war and weather permitting, he then had a round of golf and spent the night at home with wife and family. Sundays at home, but closeted with his deputy from the GCR, dealing with railway matters, before returning to central London.
Patriotism. In August 1914, railwaymen in their thousands volunteered – so many in fact that resrictions had to be placed on how many could go, or the railways would have ground to a halt. Eric Geddes, the dynanic deputy GM of the NER, sought the permission of the War Office to raise a battalion conposed entirely of NER men. This was granted, the Company made a new transit shed at Hull Docks, available as barracks during training, provided uniforms and equipment and paid the difference between railway pay and army pay to the soldiers dependents.
The Admiralty, always short of auxiliary vessels, requisitioned the best of the turbine and triple expansion steamers owned by the railways for use as hospital ships, transports and even seaplane carriers. Almost to a man, the railway captains, officers and crews volunteered to go with them. Where a route had lost all its ships, a vessel was loaned by one of the other railways to cover at least part of the service. The war office “borrowed” hundreds of locomotives for service abroad, but always at the discretion of the railways on the basis of what could be spared without damage to the war effort, even if ordinary passengersevices would have to be reduced. At one point there was a desperate need for rails in France to repair damaged track and lay much needed extra sidings. As usual our “gallant allies” had promised all aid short of actual help. Within hours, every spare rail stocked by the railways of Britain had been earmarked and was on its way to France. On another occasion track materials were urgently required and several miles of secondary line in Yorkshire were reduced from double to single track.
Finally, there were the millions of pounds worth of munitions and other war materials (everything from Ambulance Trains to Aeroplanes) manufactured in the railways workshops. Every single item was supplied at cost, plus a small percentage for overheads. Not a penny of profit was made. Compare that record with those of Armstrong, Beardmore and others supplying identical materials.
Here then is a brief resume of the “Great Eastern’s Great War”. The other major companies will be covered in due course.
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