100 Days Centenary Countdown: Case study- Railways at war
Railways played a vitally important role during the First World War. They were responsible for everything from transporting soldiers to the embarkation points on the coast, transporting munitions from factories, transporting coal for the navy and returning wounded soldiers for treatment in hospitals throughout the UK.
The next time you are travelling by train, you can check our Map of Sites to see if the stations you pass through had a function during the war. You may be quite surprised by what you find!
Women and the railways
As more men were called up to join the forces, women took on many of the roles that had traditionally been the reserve of a male workforce. The railways were no exception, with women taking on work as porters, station masters, signal operators, ticket clerks and even maintaining locomotives, rolling stock and railway infrastructure. The female workforce was key to ensuring things on the Home Front ran smoothly.
Hospital Train receiving stations
The train network was vital to the evacuation of wounded soldiers from the Western front. Once evacuated from the front-lines and ferried across the channel, a soldier could expect to be transported to a local hospital by hospital train. These trains consisted of converted or purpose built carriages kitted out with bunks and medical equipment. Operations were only to be conducted in an emergency and the vast majority of wounded soldiers were stabilised before being earmarked for evacuation by hospital train.
Hospital train receiving stations were selected and equipped to receive the wounded soldiers at their final destination. The wounded would then be sent to nearby hospitals to start their treatment and eventual recovery. These stations could be found right across the country, with the most northerly receiving station at Strathpeffer in the Highlands.
According to Pratt’s British Railways and the Great War Vol. 1 on the 7 June 1917, men wounded in an offensive against Messines Ridge were arriving in Charing Cross station by 14.15 hrs on the afternoon of the same day.
The hospital trains were in essence a precursor to today’s MEDEVAC system.
Find out more about the hospital train network in this article by Historyanswers.co.uk
The majority of the hospital train receiving stations can be found on our Map of Sites using the search term ‘RECEPTION CENTRE’.
Soldiers’ and Sailors’ buffets and YMCA huts
Soldiers and sailors returning home on leave would use the railway to return home as it was the quickest method of transport at the time. To provide food to travelling servicemen, buffets and canteens were established at many stations across the country.
A notable buffet was established in Preston station. The Preston Soldiers’ and Sailors’ buffet was established in the waiting room on the main platform in August 1915. A team of 400 female volunteers staffed the buffet at all times of day, often working 12 hour shifts. The Preston station buffet eventually closed in November 1919, after serving 3.5 million servicemen.
More information about the Preston Station Soldiers’ and Sailors’ buffet can be found HERE
Hostels and reading rooms were also frequently established to provide a place for stranded servicemen to sleep, or provide somewhere for them to rest between journeys. The image below shows YMCA huts for servicemen outside King’s Cross station.
The missing railway track
A large section of track from what is now the North Yorkshire Moors Railway was removed during the war as part of a programme of ‘capacity reduction. This left a single line between Levisham and Pickering. The line was never reinstated as a double track and it is unclear where the removed rail ended up. Some sources state it was sent to the front line, or sank while being transported across the channel. The truth is still unclear.
Over to you!
You can discover more about the railway network in wartime by searching for sites on our Map of Sites. You can record any unrecorded sites through your local Historic Environment Record HERE.