“Coal is everything for us, and we want more of it to win victory.”
David Lloyd George, Minister of Munitions, July 1915

Had you been standing on the Dana footbridge of Shrewsbury station on August 27th 1914, almost a year earlier, you would be forgiven for overlooking the strategic importance of the coal train which rumbled and clanked beneath you. And yet the Great Western 2-8-0 locomotive belongs with the Dreadnought, the Mark IV tank, the Sopwith Camel, the Maxim machine-gun for its contribution to the war effort. It was our “Iron War Horse”. The train heading north from Shrewsbury was doing more than pull a hundred odd coal waggons, it was hauling Shropshire into the front line of the First World War.

The train had begun its journey at Pontypool Road [now on the Welsh Marches line between Cwmbran and Abergavenny]. For most of the war its destination would be Grangemouth on the Firth of Forth, where their coal was transferred to coastal ships. What had cast Shropshire, so many miles from the battlefields, in this strategic role? In fighting the Germans, the French and the Russians were to shoulder the main burdens of the war on land. The unrivalled Royal Navy would throttle Germany’s economic lifeline with a blockade. And so, the newly christened Grand Fleet sailed through the Straits of Dover, leaving Portsmouth and the channel ports behind.

… squadron by squadron, scores of gigantic castles of steel … eighteen miles of warships running at high speed and in absolute blackness through the narrow Straits …
Winston Churchill World Crisis

Their destination was secret, even the Cabinet had not been told. The Prime Minister and the First Lord of the Admiralty knew. Captains and flag officers had been told. It was the 126 square miles of natural harbour at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. There was only one snag and boy, was it a million ton whopper! 35 to 40 of our largest capital ships were still coal-burning. There were no onshore storage facilities for coal at Scapa Flow. The fleet of colliers, which in peacetime had carried supplies from Cardiff docks, was conscripted for Scapa Flow to act as floating bunkers of coal.

In the early months of the war, the Grand Fleet was ready at 2 or 3 hours notice to repel a German invasion. A battleship under steam but in port burns 25 tons of coal a day. When it took to the high seas, consumption soared to 250 tons. At that rate it wouldn’t take long to burn their way through the 100 waggons heading through Shrewsbury. As Lloyd George’s rhetoric gets up steam, “We cannot do without coal. In war it is life for us and death for our foes. It bends, it moulds, it strengthens. It fills weapons of war. Steel means coal. Rifles mean coal. Machine guns mean coal. Cannons mean coal. Shells are made with coal, shells are filled with coal. The very explosives inside them coal, and coal carries them right into the battlefield to help our men.” I can hear heading north the “Jellicoe Specials” as they were christened after Admiral John Rushworth Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet.

Coal was such a key resource the priorities were precisely ranked. The Admiralty had first call above the railways, the munitions works and coal for the allies. Domestic and general industrial consumption ranked last of all. Once under way, the trains had absolute priority; labels denoted their importance, they were specially signalled for the whole journey. This up to 600 ton Admiralty coal train steaming through Shropshire was to be the first of some 13,500. These specials would carry over 5 million tons of Aberdare and Rhondda coal from Pontypool Road, where the trains were marshalled, to Grangemouth, where they would arrive 48 hours later. Most of the trains would enter Shropshire at Woofferton, pass through Ludlow, Craven Arms, Church Stretton en route to Shrewsbury and then via Wem and Whitchurch to Warrington. GWR 28xx class engines worked the South Wales to Lancashire section of this round-the-clock service. The surplus capacity created by the haphazard development of our railways finally proved useful. When the main route was congested, trains might take the Mid-Wales Railway via Talyllyn Junction, Builth Wells, Llanidloes, to Gobowen, Chester and on to the north.

The Great Western’s Chief Mechanical Engineer, G J Churchward, was responsible for the adoption of the ultimate heavy freight locomotive – the 2-8-0. Churchward’s prototype appeared in 1903. He wanted a locomotive to haul waggons in and out of coalmines and yards with infamously tight curves. With eight coupled driving wheels it developed maximum traction. During two years of trials, the first of many modifications and improvements were introduced; weight distribution was improved, larger diameter chimneys and superheating incorporated. It had an efficient firebox, which burnt coal in a white-hot furnace but was easy to feed.

On 26 February 1906, No. 2808 had hauled a train from Swindon to Acton. The trainload of coal was made up of 20 twenty ton, 6 twelve ton, 78 ten ton, 2 nine ton and 1 eight ton capacity coal wagons. Assembled at Swindon, the whole train totalled 2012 tons. The inspector reported “in the working of this train I found the engine was completely master of the load and, in my opinion, a load 25% more could have been taken.” This record stood during the steam era for a production locomotive. It was beaten only by the prototype G.W.R. locomotive The Great Bear. It was said you couldn’t break it even when pushed to the limit. The war effort had found its Dreadnought-on-rails. One of the very few survivors of this class of outstanding freight locomotives is No 2857 on the Severn Valley Railway.

“The trenches are not all in Flanders. Every pit is a trench in this country – a labyrinth of trenches.When you see the seas clear and the British flag flying with impunity from realm to realm, and from shore to shore – when you find the German flag banished from the face of the seas, who has done it? The British miner, helping the British sailor.” Lloyd George

This piece was largely taken from Abbey Lines the Winter 2014 Newsletter of the Shrewsbury Railway Heritage Trust.