Westminster Abbey by Richard Jenkyns

Westminster Abbey by Richard Jenkyns

Author:Richard Jenkyns
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Profile



The strategic importance of the railways in wartime had been realized as early as 1855 in the Crimean War when the army shipped out 900 navvies to build the Balaklava Railway, which ultimately played a key role in the fall of Sebastopol by providing a supply line that was far more efficient than the roads. Plans to create a circular railway around London to enable armoured trains with artillery to protect the capital were even mooted in response to invasion fears CJ) and later the railways also played a significant part during the Boer War in South Africa at the turn of the century. It was inevitable, therefore, that in the event of a major war the government would want to control the railways. Provision for such a takeover had been made as early as 1871 through the Regulation of the Forces Act and, as the situation in Europe deteriorated, in 1912 the government formed the Railway Executive Committee, consisting of nine (later eleven) managers of the biggest railway companies, to run the railways in the event of war.

As soon as war against Germany was declared on 4 August 1914, the government exercised this power and the Railway Executive Committee took immediate charge of the railways.1 The committee was immediately confronted with a huge military task: the despatch through Southampton Docks to the European mainland of the thousands of troops making up the British Expeditionary Force. The difficulties of this massive undertaking – which was supposed to be kept secret from the public – were exacerbated because the war had rather inconveniently been declared on the Tuesday of a Bank Holiday week when Territorial Army reservists were being sent to train at their annual camps and enormous numbers of holidaymakers were also cluttering up the railway system. Eight trainloads of reservists had already arrived that weekend at Wareham in Dorset and a further ten were about to be sent there when the order came for the operation to be reversed so that troops could be sent to France.

Fortunately, as part of the government’s preparations for the long-anticipated war, emergency timetables for major troop movements had already been drawn up and the operation passed off remarkably smoothly. The British Expeditionary Force timetable was an amazingly detailed document, envisaging that special trains would arrive at Southampton every twelve minutes, for sixteen hours per day. Any train not keeping to its allotted arrival time would lose its place, but in the event all were on schedule. Remarkably, by the end of August, 670 trains had carried 118,000 men, along with 37,650 horses, 314 large guns, 1,800 bicycles, as well as thousands of tons of baggage2 to Southampton for boarding ships to the Continent, and all these trains had arrived on time or early.3 Apart from the cancellation of a few special holiday trains, this huge movement of men and matériel was undertaken without disruption to the normal traffic.

This first military task for the railways was achieved with such remarkable efficiency that it transformed the status of the railways overnight.


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