– the work of the Railway Companies

The contribution to the war effort, especially on the Western Front, of the designated Railway Construction Companies of the Royal Engineers is largely overlooked and/or not researched in most accounts of the conflict. Given the fact that the earliest troop movements gave rise to the phrase “war by timetable” and that the railway was the primary means of movement of men, munitions and supplies, the important if unglamorous role of this military function cannot be underestimated.

 After the realisation that the war would not be over by Christmas, the British Army set in motion plans to expand upon the remaining rail network still in Allied hands in France and Flanders. The first specialist Railway Companies of the British Army landed in France in August 1914; by October of that year, it was seen that these units would not be sufficient and the Director of Railway Transport was instructed to organize additional railway construction units.  The Railway Executive Committee in England was charged with recruitment.  Large numbers of employees of British Railway companies were volunteering in 1914, and men for the specialist Railway units were recruited from them.

One of these was an Old Boy of Lady Hawkins’ School – Walter Miles Chambers, who attended LHS in 1903-4.  He was the son of Walter G. Chambers, a railway contractor.  Born in 1892 in Shrewsbury, in 1911 he was an engineering apprentice at Crewe.  The LHS roll gives him as a Lieutenant in the 2nd Cheshires; his military record shows that he served with the Railway Operating Division of the Royal Engineers.  He was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in May 1915 and served in Western Europe from July 1915.  He was awarded the 14-15 Star.


Railway construction

In France, those recruited  would be assigned to a Construction Train, of which there were eight in operation in mid-1915. These trains enabled the men to be mobile, and carry their equipment for track laying and maintenance as required.  These teams were assisted by Royal Engineers Labour Companies and also by the use of Chinese labour to prepare the ground for track laying.

Miles of track criss-crossed the area behind the front.  There were spurs for the howitzers, ambulance train sidings, tank enablements and bridges to be constructed.  Standard gauge railways were taken as far to the front as possible, to lessen the demands on light railway systems, horse drawn transport and manpower.  Work continued round the clock, particularly to re-instate any lines cut by shell-fire.  Work in progress was always a potential target for enemy artillery and also the German air force.  There were as a result many casualties.

Railway work was also undertaken in other theatres of war, including Egypt and Salonika by the end of the war.

By the end of 1917, out of 180,000 enlistments from English railway companies, about 40,000 were serving in RE Railway units.

FOR FURTHER DETAILED INFORMATION, SEE, a site compiled by Chris Baker, from which some details have been taken for this article.  We are very grateful to him for his detailed research on this topic.