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The Lines Behind The Front

cover illustration
The Lines Behind The Front
The railways in support of the British Expeditionary Forces in the Great War

William Aves

180 pages. 275x215mm. Printed on gloss art paper, casebound with printed board covers.

ISBN13 : 9781911038078


description & sample pictures for this book »


Introduction Page 6

1. The Railway Operating Division Page 9

2. In the Beginning – the Siege of Antwerp Page 11

3. Shipping Locomotives and Rolling Stock Across the Channel Page 13

4. The Train Ferries, Terminals and Their Operation Page 17

5. The Southampton-Dieppe Ferry Page 25

6. Getting the Supplies Across the Channel and the Main BEF

Depots and Yards in France Page 31

7. The Railheads and Logistic Facilities Nearer the Front Page 43

8. The Railway Construction Companies (RCCs) Page 51

9. ROD Locomotives at Work During the War Page 65

10. Former ROD Locomotives Back in the UK After the War Page 75 

11. ROD Locomotives Which Never Ran in England Page 83

12. The BEF Locomotive Workshops Page 93

13. The Railway Operating Division at Berguette and St. Omer Page 99

14. The 6th (Australian) Broad Gauge Operating Company at Bergues Page 105

15. Yet More ROD Activity Page 119

16. The Movement of Tanks by Rail Page 127

17. Rail-Mounted Artillery on the Continent and at Home Page 131

18. The 6th (Australian) BG Op. Co. at Courtrai After the War Page 137

19. The ROD in Egypt and Palestine Page 141

20. The WD Light Railways, During and Post-War Page 149

21. The Ambulance Trains Page 161

22. The Headquarters Staff Trains Page 175

Further Reading Page 178

Postscript Page 179


In the present half-decade, from 2014 to 2018, we are remembering the First World War and the enormous loss of life, injury and expenditure of effort over the four years three and a half months of conflict, not just in the Front Line itself but also in the support provided to those fighting men. In particular, as in no other war before or since, railways played a crucial role. The scale and duration of that contribution was never fully appreciated by those not involved, either at the time, or more particularly by military and railway historians since. Certainly it is a subject not familiar to the general public and one which has received precious little attention in the past.

The history, role, operations and locomotives of the Railway Operating Division (ROD) of the Royal Engineers (RE), in support of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) on the Western Front, from its establishment early in 1915 until its activity ceased in the months following the Armistice of 11th November 1918, were described in my book R.O.D. (ISBN 978-1-900289-993) published by Shaun Tyas in 2009. In compiling that book, a surprising number of photographs and other illustrations became available. Not all were used at the time and, in the months which have followed publication, many more have ‘surfaced’, overlooked or long forgotten, both in official and private collections. 

The publication of this ‘sequel’ provides a fitting further tribute following the centenary of the foundation of the Railway Operating Division. Although mainly concerned with the ‘broad’ or ‘standard’ gauge railway operations behind the British/Imperial forces on the Western Front, its scope has been widened to cover, in addition to the roles and activities of the ROD in France and Belgium, the efforts of the other British and Imperial Royal Engineer Railway units, especially the Railway Construction Companies (RCC) and the War Department Light Railways (WDLR). A few photographs have also been included illustrating the parallel operations in Egypt and Palestine – and we should not forget that the railways also played a part in the campaigns in Salonika and Mesopotamia, although, regrettably, these seem to have escaped the attention of the cameras.

 On the outbreak of war, the strength of the Royal Engineers stood at 24,000 (including Territorials). By the time of the Armistice, this figure had grown to 280,000, employed on the very extensive range of ‘Military Engineering tasks’. Quite apart from the skilled personnel of the RE Railway Construction Companies, of which there were forty-five dedicated primarily to the standard gauge lines, there were also 29,000 men in a variety of labour units employed on railway construction. The ROD (first formed in January 1915) eventually comprised sixty-seven companies and some 18,400 men, with no less than 1,500 locomotives in service with the BEF on the Western Front by the end of the war, while there were more than forty WDLR companies working on the light railway system. Both the standard gauge and the light railways had well-found workshops, each employing several thousand more men, ensuring that the motive power and rolling stock of their respective rail networks were always available and in good order. It is difficult to arrive at a figure for the number of soldiers employed by the railway units supporting the BEF on the Western Front but it must have been approaching 100,000 – and it should also be remembered that Imperial troops from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa made particularly significant contributions to the ‘railway task’. It should also not be forgotten that a number of British railway engineers, who were working abroad in India, South America and elsewhere, returned home on the outbreak of hostilities to serve with the Royal Engineers on the Western Front for the duration of the War.

It must also be noted that large numbers of men from units being ‘rested’ from the trenches and from Pioneer battalions, together with Colonial troops – especially from the West Indies – and indeed a sizeable Chinese labour force, were increasingly employed as the war went on; in laying track, building workshops and storage facilities, and the hundred and one other tasks related to the direct support of the logistic railway task, as well as manhandling vast quantities of supplies of all kinds conveyed by rail, as will become clear from the many activities illustrated in the photographs included in this book. 

I am particularly indebted to a number of organisations for their assistance: The National Railway Museum/SSPL (notably for  the photographs of the Southampton-Dieppe ferry); the Imperial War Museum; the National Library of Scotland (Haig Archive); the Tank Museum at Bovington; the Industrial Railway Society; ECPAD (of the Ministry of Defence in Paris);  Edition Cabri (for ex-ROD locomotives in SNCF service); and the Locomotive Club of Great Britain (for those from the K.A.C.R Nunn collection). In addition, several most helpful friends, notably Niall Ferguson, David Westcott, John Alsop, Edward Talbot, Brian Stephenson, Campbell & Janice McCutcheon and Richard Casserley, plus John Simons in Holland and those named in individual attributions, who have provided pictures from their own collections.

A very special mention must be made of various friends in Australia – the Australian railwaymen who served in the Broad Gauge Operating Companies took a surprising number of photographs which have survived. My thanks are especially due to Trevor Edmonds and to Jeff Mullier; Lyn Keily of Newcastle (NSW) University and to the Australian War Memorial. In particular, Trevor traced the grandsons of Hyla Cockram, the Second in Command of the 6th (Australian) BG Op. Co., assembling a remarkable collection of photographs and archive material compiled by their grandfather and others at the time. As a result we now have invaluable material from descendants of Australian railwaymen who served on the Western  Front.

The photographs are broadly grouped under specific topics, with introductions describing the roles performed by the various railway units of the Royal Engineers. There are numerous pictures of the work of the Railway Construction Companies of the Royal Engineers, showing them building and maintaining track and, increasingly towards the end of the war, repairing the damage inflicted by the Germans wherever the enemy withdrew. The photographs of the WDLR at work show how the narrow gauge lines complemented those of the ROD, closer to the front line. The opportunity has also been grasped to include pictures taken after the war, of locomotives which had worked with the ROD – requisitioned engines back in service with their parent companies and others built new for the War Department in second ‘civilian’ careers. Perhaps inevitably, many of the photographs of ROD locomotives are ‘posed’ with their crews, rather than showing them hauling trains; however, at the risk of boring the general reader, they are included, both as a tribute to the railwaymen seen in them and for the railway enthusiast. And often, what can be seen in the background is also relevant. 

In a very few cases it has not been possible to identify or contact the copyright holders of the illustrations used. For this I apologise and request that they should contact me.

Finally, I should stress that this is not intended as a comprehensive history of the Royal Engineer Railway Units which served so effectively in the Great War but as an illustrated and often anecdotal survey of the many aspects of their activity in support of the troops in the Front Line. As with other units of the BEF, the Railway Companies of the Royal Engineers were required to keep War Diaries. However, while most of those of the Railway Construction Companies and the Ambulance Trains have survived, and are held in the National Archives, those of the Broad Gauge Operating Companies of the Railway Operating Division have disappeared – possibly as a result of ‘the Blitz’ in World War Two – with the exception of those of the three Australian and two Canadian units. Consequently, detailed information on many of these units, largely comprising railwaymen from the home railway companies who had volunteered for service on the Western Front and in other theatres is, regrettably, lacking. We are, nevertheless, greatly indebted for the full accounts which we do have, containing a surprising amount of what is now archive material, kept at the time and preserved by later generations, of the Imperial military units. 

I am, as ever, indebted to my wife, Gwen, for her continued support in what she still regards as a somewhat eccentric obsession! And also for the help of other members of the family (including, notably, my 12-year old grand-daughter, Madeleine), who have pointed a ‘computer illiterate’ in the right direction, whenever he was in difficulty, not that he was always able to remember what they had said!  I also owe a very particular debt of gratitude to Neil Parkhouse for his continuing advice and support, in setting out the finished book and also for the provision of a number of invaluable photographs.

The book is divided into an introduction and twenty-three chapters, each covering different aspects of the railway support of the Imperial Forces of the BEF. Each illustration is accompanied by an explanatory caption but the nature of the activity of the different railway units was, inherently, so varied that the subject matter contained in each chapter inevitably overlaps and relates to other parts of the book. A complete read thus potentially provides a more complete picture!

I end this Introduction on a more personal note. My wife’s father, Sgt Reginald Miller, of the 29th London Regiment, was attached to the 6th South Wales Borderers, one of the British battalions sent south to reinforce the French around Reims in May 1918. He was badly injured near the village of Fismes on the first day of the third Battle of the Aisne, on 27th May, and taken to a French Casualty Clearing Station (CCS). His subsequent moves, recorded in his diary and culminating in his arrival at a war hospital outside Northampton on 12th June, illustrate the reliance placed on ambulance trains to evacuate the wounded: 28th May from CCS to French hospital at Dormans on the Marne. 29th May, probably by ‘English’ AT to Coulommiers, east of Paris. 31st May-2nd June by French AT to Troyes French Canadian hospital. 5th June by ‘English’ AT (made up of converted French carriages, i.e., one of the original ATs, No’s 1 to 11) to Rouen. 11th June, by AT Rouen to Le Havre. 12th June, HM Hospital Ship Carisbrooke Castle to Southampton and thence by Home AT to Northampton. 

Sadly, this is not of course an isolated example but it demonstrates the scale of the task of caring for the many, many members of the BEF who were wounded in action. Sgt Miller’s Diary makes clear the excellent care at all levels he received once he was ‘in the system’ – admittedly relatively late in the war when the medical services had built on the experience of long years of trench warfare, interspersed with occasional major attacks on a large scale. However, his evacuation – just one of approaching a million British and Imperial soldiers – involved at least five moves by Ambulance Train in a matter of two weeks.