The War Office at War, by Sir Sam Fay, 2nd edition, 1937, Hutchinson [ebook]


Hard cover book, blue cloth binding, 5.75”x 8.75”, pp.288, 16 B&W Illustrations.


Visitor in Whitehall to policeman “Excuse me constable, could you tell me which side the War Office is on?

Policeman “Oh my God! Ours, I hope!

An old joke, but as Fay’s memoir of his years “on loan” to the Government during the Great War show, with more than a grain of truth in it. Long before it became obvious even to the optimists that it would not be “over by Christmas”, it became apparent that the British systems for running the war, from the Ordnance Factories and the Royal Aircraft Establishment, through the Civil Service and the Adjutant General’s Department to even the Admiralty, which had started out rather well were “NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE”.

The one major success of the early months of the war, had been the assembly from all over Britain of the British Expeditionary Force at Southampton, its embarkation and shlpping to France,ad unloading without a single casualty to humans or animals and absence of any loss or damage to guns or stores. This remarkable feat was the result of two year’s planning, with constant revisions, by the Railway Executive Committee, in conjunction with Army Experts. The REC was composed of the General Managers from eight or nine leading British railway companies, supported as required y their staff, and charged with running the railways on behalf of the Government, and providing services for military traffic as a priority over civilian services. It would be difficult to find a more talented group of men sitting around the same table anywhere in the Kingdom. They included engineers and lawyers, but the majority were “Operators”, typically joining the industry as boys in their mid teens and acquiring some further education through evening classes. Beginning at small stations and depots, they attracted the attention of superiors by sheer hard work and ability, perhaps enjoying a small measure of patronage for an important first promotion to Head Office, where they daily came under the notice of senior managers who could appreciate their qualities, and further the young men’s careers, arranging their appointments to a wide variety of posts of increasing responsibility. It was a bi t of hit and miss system perhaps, but coupled with a willingness to learn from American methods, it produced potential General Managers of wide experience and outstanding talent.

Just such a man was Sam Fay.

Samuel Fay was born on 30 December 1856. He was the second son of a farmer, and educated at Blenheim House, Fareham. At the age of 15½ Fay joined the London & South Western Railway as a junior clerk at Itchen Abbas. moving to Stockbridge.. After a 12-month period spent on the relief staff at various stations, Fay was appointed to a post at Kingston on Thames., where in 1882, he launched he” South Western Gazette” and two years later, published “”A ROYAL ROAD” a history of the LSWR, adorned as a frontispiece by a large portrait of the General Manager!

In 1884, Fay was transferred to Head Office at Waterloo as second clerk in the Traffic Superintendent’s office. After a few months he was promoted to chief clerk. He was subsequently considered for manager of a small Irish railway, but turned the job down as having poor prospects. In 1891, he was appointed Asst Stores Supt.. at Nine Elms. In early 1892, Fay was seconded to the Midland & South Western Junction Railway as Secretary and General Manager; at the time, the railway was in a poor condition, almost bankrupt and in the hands of a receiver. Within a period of twelve months, he had turned the situation around and restored the company to solvency, taking the place of the receiver.

In 1899, Fay returned to Waterloo as the L&SWR’s Superintendent of the Line. It was from here that he was head hunted by financier Sr Alexander Henderson,, Chairman of the Great Central Railway, as General Manager of the line in 1902. The Great Central was at that time in a precarious financial position due to the costs of constructing its London Extension, Fay and Henderson proved to be an energetic partnership, in developing the Great Central as an effective railway, they were unable completely to turn round the financial position of the company, but oversaw major innovations like the new docks at Immingham, and the vast marshaling yard at Wath to handle South Yorkshire coal traffic more effectivelyThis was marked by the publication of ”Per Rail” just before the Great War.

Some railway officers joined the colours on the outbreak of war (Beames of the LNWR and Paget of the Midland for example) by virtue of previous military service, or family connections, but from 1915 oniwards, largely at the initiative of David Lloyd George the Government sought the loan of engineers and railway operators. And loan it was. Salaries continued to be paid by the railway companies, partly out of patriotism but also because they wanted these men back when peace was restored! The North Eastern for example loaned about 50 Chief Officers, Senior Managers and various specialists. By 1917, both the First Lord, and the Comptroller of the Admiralty, were both North Eastern men.

Sam Fay had, in 1911, been invited to join the Ports and Transit Executive Committee bringing together the railway managers of six principal railway companies to examine the problem of feeding London in the event of enemy action on the south coast. Upon the outbreak of the Great War, Fay together with the eight other managers of leading railways became part of the Railway Executive Committee chaired by the LSWR GM Herbert Walker, In 1916 Fay took over as DIrector of Movements at the War OffIce, with the honorary rank of Major General, although he refused to wear military uniform, or to shave off his beard. In March 1918 he succeeded Sir Guy Granet the Midland Railway GM as Director-General of Movements and Railways, with a seat on the Army Council.

Throughout this period, Fay slept at his Club, Sunday to Friday, to be available in emergencies. Work load and weather permitting he played a round of golf on Saturday afternoon, before going home to Gerrards Cross, spending Sunday dealing with Great Central business with his assistant E.A. Clear.

“The War Office at War” is very well written, with some humorous moments, but it also graphically describes the tensions caused by shortage of ships, military reverses and half baked political ideas about moving large bodies of troops from one theatre of operations to another, with no consideration as to how they are to be supplied. Fay viewed the campaign waged waged by Sir John French to undermine Sir Douglas Haig, whom Fay admired and was in frequent contact with. Fay clearly disliked Lloyd George, and distrusted Churchill, but was on good terms with Lord Derby. As for our “Gallant Allies” the French, they are largely portrayed as duplicitous, incompetent and unreliable.  Perhaps it is not surprising that “The War Office at War was not published until 1938!



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