Wilfred Owen: Tracks to the Trenches
Part Two: The Tracks
THE LOCOMOTIVE DEPARTMENT MEMORIAL
Shrewsbury Station’s own links to the First World War are equally moving. The most intimate, in that it is from their workmates, is located in the staircase of the Arriva offices. Although it is not normally accessible to the public, thanks to the untiring efforts of Philip Morris you can read not just the names of the fallen from the Shrewsbury Locomotive Department but their mini biographies. http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Shropshire/ShrewsburyLocomotiveDepartment.html
The brass plaque was unveiled, by Captain Beames, Chief Mechanical Engineer (at Crewe) of the London & North Western Railway, in December 1920 and “subscribed by the workmates of the above heroes from this shed.” It was erected “in memory of the following heroes who gave their lives in the Great War that we might have freedom.” “Altogether 149 men from this shed gallantly fought in the same cause.”
THE GREAT WESTERN ROLL OF HONOUR
At the head of the same staircase is “A Roll of Honour of the employees of the Great Western Railway who fell in the First World War. The numbers of Great Western men who joined His Majesty’s Forces was 25,479 representing thirty three per cent of the Company’s staff.”
What makes Shrewsbury station a microcosm of the railways in the First World War are the jobs of the individuals on the three memorials. There are cleaners, porters, shunters, booking clerks, a ticket collector, a carter, a fireman and a signalman. They were at stations in Chester, Dorrington, Ellesmere Port, Hereford, Leominster, Ludlow, Port Sunlight, and Wellington.
Altogether about 187,000 railwaymen enlisted. Their jobs were filled by women. Prior to the War, women had performed only the ‘domestic’ jobs; waitresses, chambermaids, and laundry in the railway hotels. They accounted for just 3% of the workforce. By 1918 this had quadrupled and women were ticket collecting, working on the platforms, cleaning engines and carriages, working lathes. The LNWR employed 6,584 women in place of men.
The GWR Roll of Honour spells out the sacrifices; 2,524 employees gave their lives in the war. At Shrewsbury station the losses mount up from one department to the next; 11 from the Traffic Department, 11 from Locomotive & Carriage, 6 from Engineering, 5 from Goods, and 4 from the Signal Department. Most died on the Western Front but there are deaths in captivity as a Prisoner of War in Germany, death of malaria in Salonika, killed in Jerusalem, Gallipoli and Israel.
The grandest of the three memorials is consigned to the obscurity of Platform 3 which happily enjoys its own staircase and lift. A bronze bas-relief designed by Sidney Hunt depicts a soldier and sailor – between them are the names of 42 men of the London and North Western Railway and Great Western Joint Railway “who made the supreme sacrifice”. The memorial was unveiled on 7th April 1923 by the Marquis of Cambridge and dedicated by the Bishop of Hereford. It was restored and re-dedicated in 2010. http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Shropshire/ShrewsburyRailwayStation.html
THE TRAINS DURING THE WAR
Perhaps the most strategic loads were upwards of 16,000 special trains conveying steam coal from the mines of South Wales to the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow.
And those deserving of priority and the tenderest care were the ambulance trains. The wounded men were classified as “cot” cases and “sitters.” The Shrewsbury Volunteer Medical Corps supported by the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance Brigade must have been particularly proud when an ambulance train of 142 patients including 106 stretcher cases was cleared within an hour, as the last man left for one of the many hospitals in Shropshire.
Perhaps the most unusual passengers were the German PoWs. By 1918 the country was desperate for food. The Parent PoW camp in Shrewsbury had agricultural labour camps in Bromfield, Clee Hill, Cleobury Mortimer, Corfton, and Ellesmere. It was planned to house the prisoners in groups of 15-20 men. PoWs were also used in ones and twos, where a farmer could provide a dormitory and kitchen. Work details of 10 men with two guards could also leave by train from Shrewsbury to convenient stations.
THE END OF THE WAR AND AFTER
Until I began these researches I had no inkling of the irony of the location chosen in the Compiègne forest for the signing of the Armistice. The site was chosen by Foch for its remoteness. The sidings were originally built to house a giant French rail-mounted gun.
The War had worn out the railways of this country. The 120 railway companies were a legacy of railway mania. They were almost bankrupt and could not afford fresh investment. It was resolved to retain the benefits derived from a government-controlled railway during the Great War. The Railways Act 1921 [so-called Grouping Act] consolidated the companies into four giant groups.
The London and North Western Railway had always described itself as the Premier Line. It was formed on 16 July 1846 and embraced the pioneering Liverpool & Manchester Railway of 1830. Before World War I, it employed 111,000 people and was the largest railway with a route mileage of 1,807 miles. It disappeared into the London, Midland and Scottish Railway grouping. The war memorials of Shrewsbury station also record its passing.