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WWI and the railway

Photograph of women cleaning the smoking compartment of a steam locomotive.

The railway played a vital role during WWI.

When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, trains efficiently moved huge numbers of troops and equipment between the Home Front and France.

Trains also transported rations, water and coal across Britain and continental Europe in a way not previously possible during conflict.

This year we mark the 100th anniversary of the end of WWI by joining The Royal British Legion in saying thank you to all who served, sacrificed and changed our world.

Network Rail supports the Legion’s Poppy Appeal, which provides lifelong support for the armed forces community – serving men and women, veterans, and their families.

A drawing of a railway war memorial in York

A huge industry

In 1914, the country had 23,000 miles of rail track and 4,000 stations, according to industry body Rail Delivery Group. Passenger numbers had reached more than 1.5 million.

The railway had become one of Britain’s biggest employers with more than 700,000 workers. Of these, more than 100,000 enlisted when war broke out, leading to a substantial skills shortage at home when the railway was under great pressure than to deliver forces and supplies to the front line.

By the end of the war, 20,000 railway staff had tragically lost their lives. The railway remembers them in memorials across the country.

The first deployments

Britain declared war on 4 August 1914 and by the end of the month, the railway had transported almost 120,000 servicemen to Southampton, where they would board boats to France.

The first train carrying members of the original expeditionary force left Waterloo station on the morning of Sunday 10 August, arriving into Southampton station at 8.15am.

Over the next three weeks, a train full of troops would reach the docks every 12 minutes, 14-hours a day.

A fire brigade train. Image credit – The National Railway Museum
Image credit – The National Railway Museum

Women and the railway

About 13,000 women worked on the railway in 1914, mostly in domestic jobs such as cleaning, washing and waitressing. With 100,000 men enlisted, women stepped in to fill essential functions.

In fact, more than 1.6 million women took on traditionally male jobs, with more than 100,000 working in various forms of transport, particularly as engineers.

Many remained in their new positions at the end of the war. The number of women working on the railway has never fallen below pre-WWI levels.

Ambulance trains

Trains transformed into mobile hospitals – in Britain and abroad – treated injured personnel. During the war, these trains moved about six million wounded servicemen.

Ambulance trains, which became the primary mode of transport for the sick and injured, even had operating theatres and tiled floors, walls and ceilings for better hygiene. Surgeons would perform emergency operations mid-journey, despite the movement of the train.

Image credit – The National Railway Museum

The secret railway

A new station, line and port were built in Richborough in Kent as Dover reached capacity during the war. Known as The Secret Harbour of 1916, it transported tonnes of materials required for the war on train wagons rolled from the track to ferries.

This infrastructure significantly cut the amount of work and time needed to move supplies. Between 1916 and 1918 it carried more than 1.2 million tonnes of supplies and munitions.

The Secret Harbour itself was camouflaged and all its buildings painted to match the background of a low-lying area.

Welcome home

Troops coming home after long periods abroad received a rail ticket to see their loved ones. Tired from service, they were often greeted by volunteers providing free refreshments paid for by donations. The free buffet at Waterloo station fed more than eight million sailors and soldiers between 1915 and 1920.

Armistice Day, London Paddington Station, 1921. Image credit – The National Railway Museum

Find out how Network Rail supports former armed forces personnel

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