World War 1 & the Railways

From Hoole History and Heritage Society

At the September 2019 meeting of Hoole History and Heritage Society, Phil Cook described how intertwined the railways and the war effort became during the First World War. He described the contribution which railways and the railway men made to the war effort; the railway industry during the war; and how the industry kept the country functioning whilst the network was stretched to the limit. He also highlighted the special honour bestowed on the railwaymen of Great Britain and Ireland at the end of the Great War.[1]

1911 “Railway Manual (War)”

In 1911 His Majesty’s Stationary Office published a pocket-sized booklet called “Railway Manual (War)”. This booklet gave the military all the information they needed to take control of the railways in the event of war. It gave tips on planning the movement of supplies, including the amount of wagon space needed for a given tonnage of various items.

The main message of the booklet was that running the railways was too complicated for the military to manage alone. Being such a complex matter, railway management that would ensure the efficient operation of railways could only be ensured by “the cordial cooperation of railwaymen, combined with the strictest obedience of regulations by the troops.”

For railways to reach their military potential, soldiers had to bow to the experience of the army of railway workers who knew all the tricks of their trade. Servicemen who might forget this and interfere in matters they did not understand would experience the chaos that would surely follow.

Little did the authors of this publication realise quite how intertwined the railways and the war effort were to become.

Plans for Mobilisation

From 1912 onwards top managers of the biggest railway companies served on a secret Railway Executive Committee, poised to take over the running of the network should conflict break out. By the start of 1914 Britain, along with France and Germany had plans in place to mobilise millions of men by rail.

1914 Pre-war

Before mid-summer 1914, thoughts of war were far from the minds of most people.

On 14 March 1914 King George V and Queen Mary visited Chester to perform the official opening of the new wings of the infirmary and to bestow on it the title of “Royal Infirmary”.

They arrived by Royal Train and the band of the 5th Earl of Chester’s Territorial Army Battalion played outside the Queen Hotel and soldiers lined City Road. Several other military groups were also on parade. The 22nd Cheshire Regiment, however, were not on parade. One brigade was in Londonderry, due to Irish ‘troubles’, and the other was in India.

In May, Chester Races attracted large crowds. The Hooton Park Steeplechase meeting saw special trains running from Chester to the local station.

On 31 July, however, when the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, was due to visit Chester, he had to remain in London due to the tense political situation. Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been shot the previous month and it appeared that Europe was heading rapidly along a path to war.

1914 War declared

War was declared on 4 August 1914. The next day, the government took control of the railways under Clause 16 of the Regulations of the Forces Act 1871. It was considered advantageous for them to do so, for the welfare of the country, in a state of emergency. At this time, the country had some 23,000 miles of railway and employed over 700,000 staff, about 13,000 being women.

On 5 August detachments of army reservists reported for duty and then marched, four abreast, from the Chester Castle to the railway station, en-route to Londonderry. More left the city over the next two days, along with equipment and stores. On each day the troops were cheered along the streets by crowds. They were being sent to Northern Ireland to allow the 1st Battalion of the 22nd Cheshire Regiment to go to France.

On Sunday 10 August a train left Waterloo, quite early, as it arrived in Southampton Docks at 08.15 and it was the first of many. In just the first four weeks of the war trains travelling to Southampton transported 118,454 army personnel; 37,649 horses; 314 field guns; 5,221 vehicles; 1,897 bicycles; and 4,557 tonnes of baggage. Some other trains ran to Dover.

It was in this movement of troops and equipment that cooperation between the railways and the military worked beyond expectation. At Southampton, a troop train arrived, on average, every 12 minutes and within 15 minutes men, horses, weapons and supplies had been unloaded. Within 40 minutes of arriving at the docks the empty train was ready to depart.

Once in France, the troops and equipment were taken in trains of 50 standard covered vans, each taking 40 men and 8 horses towards the front line. Although statistics for this period vary, it is certain that vast numbers of men, horses and equipment were moved.

Before August was out, many hundreds of men from all over the county had converged on Chester to enlist.

Soldiers being seen off at Chester 1914

On 31 August 150 men from Winsford marched from the Northgate Station behind the Winsford Prize Band, accompanied by men from Sandbach and other parts of the county. That evening, still led by the band, they marched around the city and local men joined them. Within a month of war breaking out, over 7,000 recruits had enlisted. Many were billeted on the Roodee with many others accommodated at the American Skating Rink on Northgate Street (where the First Bus depot stood until quite recently).

On 3 September, the Welsh Border Mounted Brigade and the Cheshire Yeomanry left Chester, along with their horses, in 13 special trains, for an undisclosed destination. One train carried members of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

In 1915, Eric Geddies, the deputy General Manager of the North Eastern Railway, was asked by David Lloyd George, the Minister of Munitions, to help to co-ordinate the whole rail network, along with the docks and canals, to enable a more efficient and faster transit of essential war materials.

Each soldier required 4,000 calories a day to survive; about 20 trains a day operated to the Channel Ports with food supplies. Feed for the horses also had to be transported. The network was crowded to overcapacity.

Port Sunlight

On 7 September 1914, 700 men, from the Lever Brothers’ Works at Port Sunlight, travelled by train to Chester, to enlist in the 13th Battalion of the Cheshire Regiment. The station at Port Sunlight had only been opened earlier that year.

Before leaving Port Sunlight they had been given a stirring speech by General Sir Henry Mackinnon, who had sanctioned the raising of this PALS Battalion. This was the largest number of volunteers from any factory or works to volunteer to serve King and Country.

Huge crowds were reported at both Port Sunlight and Chester to see them depart, some never to return. At the time, the workers were told that time spent serving King and Country would be counted as part of their employment service at the company with regard to benefits and years of service.

On Sunday 7 September 2019 this piece of military and local history was recreated in Port Sunlight and in Chester. Photographs of the 2019 Re-enactment of 1914 Enlistment are here.

Ambulance Trains

In 1912, when the British government was secretly preparing for war and the Railway Executive Committee was formed to run the railways during the anticipated conflict, plans for 12 ambulance trains to be used in Britain were draw up. They were constructed in railway workshops. When war was finally declared, the trains were ready to transport casualties away from the channel ports.

On 9 July 2016 an ‘Ambulance Trains’ exhibition was opened at the National Railway Museum on the 100th anniversary of what has been described as the busiest day of the Battle of the Somme.

In one corner of the turntable building was a coach, built in 1907, for the London and South Western Railway. It was of a type that would have been converted for use in ambulance trains, in which a ward, pharmacy and nurses’ mess room had been recreated.

On the two corner walls there were numerous small display panels and a few pictures. Some of the information contained in this article was taken from the numerous photographs which Phil Cook took on a research visit to the Museum on 14th July 2016.

The exhibition had been designed to explore stories of wounded soldiers, who travelled with their harrowing memories, and of the medical staff, who tried to comfort them.

The museum’s interpretation developer said the display shed some insight into what historians have usually overlooked - the crucial role that ambulance trains played in the First World War. The mass casualties of this conflict called for evacuation of the injured on a scale never seen before.

By the outbreak of war, the Royal Army Medical Corps had been founded and they became trained stretcher bearers. Triage was devised at this time so that the seriously wounded could be separated from the “Walking Wounded” and those in most need of treatment received it first.

During the course of WW1, many ambulance trains were operated, both at home and on the continent, by the railways. When abroad they were hauled by British locomotives driven by British crews. The Great Western Railway (GWR) operated 62 such special trains to Chester and 134 to Birkenhead. A total of 160 ambulance trains were dealt with at Chester during the war, and, in addition to the Birkenhead trains, many others may well have passed through the station. In the two months after the end of hostilities, a further 10 such trains were dealt with at Chester.

There were four railway sidings at the east end of Chester Station which all terminated behind the Queen Hotel, just where the slightly raised portion of car parking space stood. It was here that ambulance trains were unloaded. Until they were removed, they were always referred to as Flanders Sidings by railwaymen. They are shown on a railway plan circa 1890 but do not appear on a 1911 Ordnance Survey map. It is possible they were unused and reinstated for dealing with ambulance trains.

The first ambulance trains do appear to have used the main station platforms. Most trains were designed to carry up to 400 patients and staff, but in reality, carried numbers which usually far exceeded this. Some 2.6 million troops were moved around Britain by ambulance trains during the war, mostly from south coast ports to locations close to where they could be hospitalised. There were three military hospitals in the Hoole area of Chester and several others in the wider Chester area.

Lady Grosvenor, in a Red Cross nurse’s uniform, was present when ambulance trains arrived, and she and other volunteers assisted in the unloading of wounded men. Once all the casualties had been off loaded each train had to be cleaned and restocked before heading back south to a channel port.

General Sir William Henry Mackinnon was General Officer Commanding at Western Command (in Watergate Street) from 1910-1916 and his official residence was Government House, the former Dee Hills House. He became involved in the transport of wounded soldiers from the ambulance trains to various hospitals in the area and he also carried out nursing duties.

In 1915 the railways were carrying nearly 15% more traffic than before the war, and ambulance trains formed a significant part of the wartime traffic. In total 1,234,248 wounded soldiers came home through Southampton alone, carried on 7,822 trains to 196 different receiving stations. In one week, ending 9 July 1916, 151 trains brought home 30,000 men, following the carnage at the opening of the Battle of the Somme.

Several Chester-based London & North Western Railway (LNWR) men who had enlisted were killed in action. Nine members of the GWR based at Chester were also killed whilst on active service. There were Chester area men in the Railway Operating Division (ROD) including, it has been reported, some from the Hoole area.

As the war went on, government demands of the railways grew continuously. Overstretched and under attack, the French railways struggled to cope with the movement of injured soldiers. As a result, Britain built Continental Ambulance Trains for use in France. These trains were organised by the Royal Army Medical Corps and were used to evacuate more than 100,000 British casualties from the battlefield of Flanders in just one month in 1914.

'Hospitals on Wheels'

The first trains used on the Western Front were simply empty French wagons with straw laid on the floor. Twelve trains of converted French stock were soon in use and this situation improved a little with the arrival of the first purpose-built ambulance trains in November 1914.

The design of these trains, both British and Continental, evolved as the war went on and each new train was better than the previous one. By 1918 twenty such trains had been built for use in Britain and 31 for the Continent. These “Hospitals on Wheels” were built at an incredible speed in railway workshops, with all the facilities of a hospital squeezed into the confined space of a train. They included wards, pharmacies, operating rooms, kitchens and staff accommodation.

New trains were often exhibited at stations across Britain to reassure the public that the wounded were getting the best of care; reality was often a lot different. Railway companies made sure that their work on these trains was advertised and was not forgotten after the War. They added memorial plaques to coaches and sold brochures at exhibitions and had photographs taken.

The clean spacious layouts of these hospital wards on wheels were a far cry from what became the reality, and, although official photographs showed lots of nurses, often there were only two caring for a complete trainload of wounded men.

Four Continental Ambulance Trains were run by the Friends Ambulance Unit, a Quaker organisation which allowed conscientious objectors to play an active role in the war without fighting. After the war staff would meet up for reunion dinners and the menu would include dishes named after places on Ambulance Train routes.

The first few ambulance trains to arrive in Chester carried about 150 to 200 patients, many of them with frostbite in addition to their other injuries. Railway workers volunteered to unload these trains, often working through the night before returning to their day job in the morning. Once they were unloaded British Red Cross volunteers often gave patients chocolates, pillows, and other comforts before they were moved on.

Trains bringing the wounded home were often packed with men scarred by both their wounds and their memories. The men were cared for by a small army of doctors and nurses who worked long hours under intense pressure. In France, the situation became so bad that even horse boxes were used to convey the wounded.

The Advisory Committee on Ambulance Trains on 20 March 1915, recorded a recommendation that “Carrying capacity be increased to the utmost; it is better to carry many patients with some discomfort, than to delay evacuating a Casualty Station.” When these trains reached stations in Britain, the true horror of the conflict was brought home to the public.

Three tiered bunks had to be introduced to cope with the ever-increasing number of injured and extra medical equipment was carried to treat injuries not previously experienced.

Ambulance trains carried millions of sick and injured soldiers to safety. Nobody expected so many men to suffer from the psychological effect of war. The effective treatment of mental illness was in its infancy and many men were locked in secure compartments or padded cells.

Converted passenger liners brought the wounded across the Channel or the southern end of the North Sea, though some were sunk by enemy submarines. Initially trains would take the men to locations near the south coast but as the war dragged on the trains went further and further west and north, reaching as far as Strathpeffer in the Scottish Highlands. Many country houses were converted into hospitals and convalescent homes.

Working on ambulance trains was difficult, dirty, and often dangerous. Staff regularly worked through the night to ensure their patients were given the best care that was practical. They were in constant danger of catching lice or infectious diseases and of being bombed or shelled.

Faced with many horrific sights and a heavy workload any free time between journeys was precious. Staff would use this time to try and bring a little normality and light-hearted relief back into their lives, albeit temporarily. They were overworked and were unable to give more than basic attention to any one man.

One nurse wrote: “Imagine a hospital as big as King’s College packed into a train. No outside person can realise the difficulties except for those who did try to work it”.

A journey on one of these trains was relief or a nightmare. Most soldiers were pleased to be away from the battlefield and closer to safety. Often filled with men straight from battle or the trenches trains soon became smelly and filthy. The small bunks were claustrophobic and men with broken bones felt every jolt. On joining a train, patients were separated into lying down cases, who would take the bunks, and the walking wounded who were given seats. A soldier recorded: “My back was sagging, and I could not raise my knees to relieve the cramp, the bunk above being only a few inches away.”

A ‘Lying Down’ coach full of badly wounded and fracture cases was just like a cattle truck with mewing cattle….they were yelling and shouting with pain.” So wrote an orderly.

Staff produced magazines that poked fun at the terrible conditions on some trains. However, they found ways to make even the most basic trains feel homely. One nurse had Harrods cake sent over by her family and one train even acquired a gramophone.

An orderly wrote that “In 1915 I learned that it is possible to work for twenty-four hours or more at a stretch….and to use my strength in helping others rather than merely in playing games.

On ambulance trains the war was also ‘put on hold’ at times. Wounded German Prisoners of War travelled alongside allied troops. As soldiers shared their experiences, animosity was put to one side. For non-English speaking patients being on a British ambulance train was just as foreign as fighting in France. They were far from home and language differences often made effective treatment challenging.

Ambulance trains are usually associated with the army, but there were also at least 6 Naval ambulance trains, five of which were built and equipped by the LNWR. These trains usually operated from Wick or Thurso via Invergordon, Aberdeen and Grangemouth, to the naval bases in the south of England. The navy used canvas cots rather than stretchers to convey its wounded and the trains were adapted accordingly. A sixth train worked between Fleetwood, Hull, Liverpool and back to Fleetwood.

A typical ambulance train consisted of 16 coaches formed as follows: Brake Van with stores; Kitchen Car; 4 Ward Cars; Pharmacy Car; 4 Ward Cars; Staff Car; Kitchen Car; Personnel Car; Car for infectious diseases; and a brake van with 2 infectious wards. All coaches were 56ft long and 9ft wide, with a pair of double doors on each side, giving ample space to manoeuvre stretcher cases in and out. Each train had a staff of about 50.

The pharmacy car was usually fitted with cupboards and shelves, a folding table and a hot water system and sink. Next to it was a treatment room with an operating table, portable electric lamp and sterilizing tank. The door leading into the treatment room had a clear opening of 8ft to allow a standard army stretcher to pass through. One of the features of an ambulance train was that a patient could be carried on a stretcher from any of the eight ward cars into the treatment room, the minimum gangway width being 2ft 6in wide, or be carried from the outside of the coach direct into the treatment room. This coach had a water tank with a 300-gallon capacity. The office was provided with a table, chairs, cupboards, sofa and other necessary fitments.

The cots in the ward cars of continental trains were arranged in three tiers as compared with two tiers on trains operating in Britain. Owing to the variations in the cases received for transfer to the hospital base the cots were designed so that the centre tier could be hinged down to form a back to allow the bottom cots to be used as seats. This doubled the accommodation and still allowed the top tier to be used as beds.

All mattresses were filled with wood fibre and one flock and one feather pillow was supplied for each cot. The floor was covered in linoleum and all corners were rounded, and this applied to all coaches, for hygienic purposes.

There was ventilation. A large number of air extractors were fitted into the carriage roof. Toilet and cupboard accommodation were provided on each coach. All interiors were finished in white enamel and each ward car had a 158-gallon water tank with a 6-gallon tank of drinking water at the centre of each coach. There were fixed and portable fans for use on patients affected by gassing. Two straps were fitted to each cot to safeguard patients whilst the train was in motion.

Wounded men who had been discharged from hospital to their own homes to recover, had to submit a telegraph signal stating that a doctor’s certificate had been obtained which confirmed continuing incapacity. The railways were used as an agency for sending these messages rather than the General Post Office (GPO) because they had direct links to the various military establishments. Later this was refined so that only ‘known malingerers’ were required to produce a sick note at a police or railway station for examination.

In the 1920s the railway historian Edwin Pratt wrote that Dover and Southampton between them dealt with almost 2½ million casualties on some 14,000 ambulance trains over the course of the war.

At its best the system was very efficient. For example, on 7 June 1917 at Messines, near Ypres, men who were injured at dawn had arrived by ambulance train at London’s Charring Cross station by 2.15pm that same day.

Richmond House, in Boughton, was used as a hospital for wounded Belgian soldiers at the start of the war. This facility was later moved to Hoole House. The Ursuline Convent in Union Street was also used for the same purpose.

Between late August 1914 and May 1915 some 250,000 Belgian refugees came to Britain, the largest influx of political refugees in British history. There were about 5,000 Belgians in Chester during the war. Some stayed in a house in Eccleston, donated by the Duke of Westminster. The Village Hall stands on the site today. Other Belgians stayed in a house on Eaton Road, and at Oakfield Hall in Upton, which later became the home of the Mottershead family.

Rolling Stock and Infrastructure

Very early in the war, the ROD requisitioned about 600 standard gauge locomotives from 13 different British railway companies, because the French and the Belgians refused to allow their engines anywhere near the war zones.

During the course of the war, a considerable amount of British rolling stock and infrastructure, including over 1,000 locomotives and 20,000 wagons, and, in some cases railway track, was moved abroad, some of it to Turkey and Palestine.

At the outbreak of war, Britain had an official policy favouring the use of motor vehicles over light railways for the transportation of men and supplies to a war zone. These vehicles, however, were mechanically unreliable and unsuitable for the task. At the start of the war the existing French railway system managed to fill the transportation gap until the static nature of trench warfare highlighted the inadequacies of both road vehicles and the existing railway system.

Rolling stock being loaded on to a vessel at Richborough

In 1916, the Royal Engineers constructed a new port at Richborough, south of Ramsgate, to ease the pressure on Dover and Southampton. It was known as ‘The Secret Harbour’ and all the buildings were camouflaged to make them blend in with the low landscape. From here heavy supplies, field guns, horses, railway engines and the first tanks were moved by barges, some of them capable of carrying up to 1,000 tons, deep into the canal system of north east France and south west Belgium. It covered some 2,000 acres and employed 20,000 people.

By 1918 the port was dealing with 30,000 tons of traffic a week, almost all conveyed to the port by rail. It was after this port was built that the first roll-on roll-off train ferries were created, allowing a much easier and quicker flow of supplies across the Channel. Once this service started operating in February 1918 734 tanks reached the Continent from this port. Today there is almost nothing left to be seen to the untrained eye.

Holyhead became a Royal Navy destroyer base during the war, and this all added to the amount of freight and service personnel travelling through Chester.

Tank being loaded on to a railway flatbed

During WW1 the railways also developed special wagons for transporting tanks, or mobile gun platforms. The size and the weight of both were problems. They usually exceeded the loading gauge and some parts often had to be removed for transportation by rail. Their weight meant that special wagons had to be developed. A modified and strengthened bogie wagon was developed by the GWR and some of these were used to move tanks and coastal motorboats to Avonmouth Docks.

Various other designs were developed until, in 1918, a wagon with a shallow central well, between sloping ends, was designed. This became the commonest form of tank carrying rail vehicle. The sponsons on each side of the tanks, where the guns were, had to be removed to keep them within the Loading Gauge.

Contributions of the canals

The contribution that canals made to the war effort is not generally realised. They were a vital lifeline on the Western Front, saving millions from starvation, carrying tens of thousands of wounded to safety and even taking injured horses in the holds of barges for medical treatment. They were used to carry horses towards the front line and canal water was served up as drinking water for troops.

They made a very useful addition to numerous light railways and there is little doubt that the two would have worked in conjunction with each other when circumstances permitted. Parts of the Canal du Nord, begun in 1908, but on which work was halted when war broke out, was sometimes used to billet troops as it was close to the valley of the River Somme.

By 1915 some large barges in France had been converted into makeshift floating hospitals of about 30 beds which were staffed by members of the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Nursing Service. They were painted grey on the outside and white inside and had large red crosses on sides and on top. The skipper of each barge was usually a Royal Engineer sergeant. The barges were towed by steam tugs. Although slower than ambulance trains, they offered a smoother ride.

At Fontinettes, on the outskirts of Calais, large stores were built. Supplies were distributed by canal and the stores were eventually staffed by large numbers of Chinese labourers in order to release men to fight on the front.

Another large storage site was set up at Abencourt, which was at a junction of lines leading from the coast towards the Somme. When fully operational, this held non-perishable supplies to last at least a month and it was replenished every day. From here, about 22 trains departed daily to various distribution points and then transferred supplies to light railways, usually, which were close to the front lines.

The tin can changed how armies could be fed and over 180 million of them were used to send food to the front lines in the First World War. The importance of vitamins had not been realised but keeping a soldier fed was recognised as vital to the war effort.

In this country canal boatmen were regarded as an important occupation by helping to move heavy goods, especially iron and coal. They were classed as being a Reserve Occupation, like train drivers and other grades of railwaymen.

Light Railways

Light Railway Company (LRC)

The first Light Railway Companies (LRCs) were formed in February 1916. These new LRCs had a nominal strength of 200 men, mainly former railway workers, commanded by an army captain. In all 27 LRCs operated on the Western Front, with others dedicated to training, recovery and repair. Some of them were established, staffed and run by South African, Canadian and Australians. By 1917 more than 600 miles of track had been laid.

A working party was drawn together by the War Office to quickly come up with the specific requirements for suitable locomotives and rolling stock for use on a 60cm gauge light railway. Three types of locomotive were used, steam, internal combustion (petrol or gas) and a hybrid using an internal combustion engine and electric motor.

U.K. manufacturers, Hunslet and Hudson, along with American firms, Baldwin and Barclay, were the main suppliers. Steam locomotives moved large amounts of supplies from the main, standard gauge, railheads, onto the light railway depots. Nearer to the front line, the internal combustion engines took over for the final stage of delivery. A lot of this work was done under cover of darkness, in order to avoid observation and shelling. Troops were also moved by these trains.

The Motor Rail & Traction Company of Bedford had experience in India of converting horse drawn trams into self-propelled vehicles powered by petrol engines. This responded to the War Office requirements for light tractors for the front-line railways. The outcome was a long line of Simplex Rail Tractors of 20 and 40hp. Three versions of the latter were made – open, protected (that is resistant to shrapnel and small arms fire) and armoured, which were fully enclosed. Only 27 armoured ones were built but many of the protected variety, of which over 200 were built, were converted to armoured ones. After the war, many were sold as war surplus and used on industrial and quarry railways in Britain and France.

The first real test of the light railway came in April 1917 when it helped to supply 88,000 tons of shells to the artillery during a five-day barrage that preceded the Battle of Arras.

The principal British spheres of activity were centred on Ypres, in the north, and the Somme, in the south. The rail systems continually evolved to meet the operational needs of the British Army. Being light railways, they could be lifted quickly and re-laid on a different route as circumstances demanded. By 1917 there were about 2,000 miles of railways serving the front lines.

Horses and mules

At the start of the war the British army had some 26,000 horses and within two weeks that figure had increased to 140,000, these being commandeered from farmers, businesses, livery yards and private owners. It was soon obvious that more were needed and during the war many tens of thousands of horses were imported into Britain from North and South American. They arrived via the ports of Avonmouth, Liverpool and Southampton. Near these ports were established large Remount Depots where the horses were tamed and trained before being sent to France, the one at Shirehampton (near Avonmouth) had facilities to train up to 5,000 horses at a time.

Mules were also imported through Avonmouth and many of these were taken by special trains to Minehead. Here they were driven through the local streets to Brattan Farm to be trained. If looked after, a mule could do the same work as a horse and needed less food but could be more temperamental.

At Liverpool, horses were landed at Canada Dock or Riverside Landing Stage. Many were taken by train to Skelmersdale and transferred to a specially built narrow-gauge railway to the estate and ancestral lands of Lord Latham near Ormskirk. Some were “drove on the hoof” all the way from the docks.

The Park was divided into squadrons of 500 horses and each had a superintendent, an assistant, 6 foremen and 150 grooms and rough riders. To support them there were blacksmiths and experienced rough riders for the more awkward horses. Between September 1914 and November 1917 215,000 horses and mules passed through Latham Park. Any animals that failed to make the grade were sold to farmers, hauliers, and individuals as Hacks.

The first Commanding Officer at Latham Park was Colonel Lloyd of the Royal Artillery, a former secretary to the Duke of Westminster. By June 1915 the civilian personnel had been enlisted into either the Army Service Corps or the Army Veterinary Corps.

When the horses had been sufficiently trained and were fit to be of use, they were sent on to numerous smaller depots, where soldiers learned how to ride them. At Chester a small depot was set up near to the racecourse (Linenhall Stables) and a group of women did all the cleaning, grooming, exercising and training of these horses, which were for the use of officers. There was another depot on Leadworks Lane with space and stables for up to 250 horses, (possibly on the land between the road and the canal). This may have replaced the Linenhall Stables depot and was used as a convalescent home for horses.

One of the last British Army cavalry charges was on 14th July 1916 against High Wood, a German strong point during the Battle of the Somme. Some Germans did surrender when faced with charging horses in woodland, but the British lost 103 men and 130 horses. Two months later, the tank was introduced for use in the battle so the days of the cavalry in battle were numbered.

Almost 1 million horses and mules were serving in the army by the end of the war and an estimated 484,000 were killed whilst working for the army. After the war the army sold nearly 900,000 horses and mules, with many of them ending up in the human food chain as horse meat.

The Army Postal Service

The history of the Army Postal Service can be traced back to the Napoleonic Wars in 1799.

The Post Office worked with the army in Crimean War (1854-55), but it was not until the Egyptian Campaign of 1882 that the British established their own Post Office Corps. In February 1913, the War Office authorised the formation of a Military Postal Unit, and, at the outbreak of war, the Royal Engineers Special Reserve Postal Section (REPS) had a staff of 300. This was, initially, sufficient to serve an expeditionary force of 6 Divisions and a small postal depot in London.

Soon gigantic wooden sheds covering an area of several acres was erected in Regent’s Park and employed some 2,500 staff, mostly women, to sort the mail into the various military units. It was then taken by train to Southampton or Folkestone where ships would take it to the Army Postal Service Depots at Le Havre, Boulogne, or Calais.

Trains ran back and forth from these depots, usually under cover of darkness, and the mail would be dropped off at the nearest point to where a particular regiment or platoon was serving. Paymaster Post Orderlies would then sort it further, before taking it to the front line for delivery. The aim was to hand over letters at the same time as the evening meal. It is said that no matter how tired or hungry the soldiers were, they always read their letters before eating.

At the start of the war, every letter sent back home was opened and read by a junior officer and then opened again in London, to ensure it contained no reference to casualties or troop movements. Later in the war, men could opt for an “Honour Envelope” which meant that the letter would only be read in London, saving the embarrassment of having personal endearments read by a censor they knew.

For Christmas 1914 the Princess Mary’s Fund supplied gifts, usually a pipe, tin box of tobacco and cigarettes to every man in the armed forces. This was an additional workload on the railways and postal service. By the next Christmas, many battalions had made their own cards for sending home.

At its peak, this operation was delivering 12 million letters and 1 million parcels a week. It took just two days for a letter to travel from London to the Front Line. A letter from home or from a loved one was a vital morale booster. For many, reading and rereading a letter could be a welcome distraction from the horrors of the trenches.

Postal services in Chester itself increased considerably during the war due to the city being a military centre. There were also many letters and parcels being sent to troops on the Front Line and letters received back. The munitions factory at Queensferry also generated a lot of additional work. By 1915 the Post Office had started recruiting women. By the end of that year 93 men from the Post Office had joined the army and four had enlisted in the navy.

[As an aside, when the British took control of Palestine, they quickly established a postal service, and the first Postmaster General was a member of the Chester sorting office who was serving in the Royal Engineers.]

Local Industry and the War Effort

The railway sidings at Dundas, a little west of Sandycroft, were substantially expanded during WW1 to cater for increased traffic from the Admiral Dundas colliery, the local chemical works and the HM Munitions factory at Queensferry which was built in 1915, some 300 yards east of Dundas Sidings Signal Box, and at that time it was called the Royal Navy Guncotton Factory by the War Office.

Royal Navy Guncotton Factory, Queensferry

This was on the site of the former engineering works of Williams & Robinson, boilermakers, between the railway and the river. At the beginning of the war, there had originally been a detention camp here for Germans who had been living in this country.

There was concern about the use of hazardous materials that could seriously damage the river in the event of an accident. A major worry was that even a moderate explosion might breach the river embankment and cause flooding in Saltney, Queensferry and Shotton. The government paid little or no heed to these concerns and a vast array of buildings and chimneys soon appeared and the complex, covering 298 acres, became fully operational early in 1916. Three eight-mile-long pipes crossed the Wirral and pumped waste into the Mersey. Another pipe delivered 4 million gallons of water a day to the site.

Empty and loaded wagons for these concerns would have passed through Chester. By 1917 this munitions factory was employing some 7,000 workers, about 3,000 being women and produced 1½ million tons of TNT, tetryl, nitrocellulose and gun cotton during the course of the war. This was a highly flammable compound and dangerous to store and was moved in specially sealed and temperature-controlled wagons.

There was an on-site hospital to deal with the many accidents that took place, some 19,000 from opening to the end of 1917. The nearby small hospital at Mancott dates from this time. Some of the workers died from toxic jaundice and many had yellow skins.

Two jetties were built very soon after the munitions works started production. The Admiralty placed restrictions on all shipping using the river at night unless it was using these jetties.

By 1917 over 50 million shells a year were leaving this site, some from the jetties and others by special trains, which would have had to pass through Chester to a south coast port or to Holyhead for onward shipment.

Many of the workers had come to live in the already overcrowded city and they thus needed transporting to and from here on a daily basis, by train. A pair of 600-foot-long timber platforms served trains bringing in these workers to the munition’s factory, with access to them being from a road over-bridge.

A new community soon grew up at nearby Mancot to cater for emergency and other key workers. 160 houses were built, along with six hostels for single workers. The site had its own police force, welfare, and medical staff.

In 1916 Crosville provided an elaborate route system, using a small fleet of buses, to suit the various shifts at the factory. These were regulated by the Chief Supplies Officer and the Traffic Manager at the factory and were exempt from the petrol rationing that applied during the war.

Due to the proximity of the munition’s factory, the station became one of the first to be lit by electricity, to avoid any possible explosions from the gas that was still the usual form of lighting. One fear was that any explosion here could have a devastating effect on the area.

At least 108 men and boys were killed when fire broke out in a wooden shed and ignited 15 tons of TNT and 150 tons of ammonium nitrate at an explosives loading centre near Faversham in Kent on 2 April 1916, and there were others, but, fortunately, not at this depot. In total some 600 munitions factory workers were killed in industrial accidents during the war.

Another concern was the sulphurous fumes that could be smelt over a wide area, depending on wind direction. The smell that emanated from Cluttons Manure Works on the Saltney Estate in the late 1960s early 1970s, which could reach the Curzon Park & Lache areas with the wind in the right (or wrong) direction, was a strong reminder of these fumes during the first world war.

Munitions traffic had priority over all but essential food supplies. Almost all of the rail-borne traffic from this complex would have had to pass through Chester.

By the middle of the war recycling was taking place. Empty shell cases were returned to Britain and taken to various railway works where they were repaired and refilled. An estimated 29 million 18-pounder shell cases were re-formed and refilled over the course of the war.

In May 1917, the King and Queen were again in the Chester area, this time without the pomp. They visited the munitions plant and Mancot and then went on to Henry Woods Chain Factory in Saltney, where many anchor chains for naval vessels were manufactured. Then a visit was made to the Chester Castle before calling at the Hydraulic Engineering Works. After Chester, they travelled on to Birkenhead, continuing a tour of the North West in order to help bolster morale.

The King and Queen in Chester 1917. Inspecting Henry Woods Chain Factory

In mid-1915 the authorities went cap-in-hand to the railway companies asking them to cease all but essential repair and construction work and to turn their facilities over to war work. By the end of the year the main railway works were turning out almost 5,000 six-inch shells every week.

The Chester Shell Factory, located in part of the Electricity Works in New Crane Street, made nearly 100,000 shells between August 1916 and November 1918. It operated 24 hours a day, until a shortage of steel early in 1918 led to the night shift being discontinued.

Almost all the work at The Hydraulic Engineering Company on Egerton Street was war-related and included hydraulic presses for shell manufacture. The company also made equipment for the Admiralty, Woolwich Arsenal and Coventry Ordnance Works.

Following the end of the war, Dundas Sidings, near Queensferry, were used to store approximately 190 ROD 2-8-0 locomotives, some of which had seen service in France. These had been designed by George John Robinson, born Bristol 1856, but educated at Chester Grammar School. He spent a short time working for the GWR at Chester. He is best remembered for being the Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Great Central Railway and these locomotives were probably one of his finest designs. They would have passed through Chester to reach and leave Dundas Sidings.

After the war, the government tried to sell the locomotives at Dundas, but, without boiler certificates, the railway companies were not really interested in them. It was only when the prices were dropped to bargain basement levels in late 1921 that the GWR and London North East Railway (LNER) companies purchased some of them.

During the Great War of 1914-18 the “Dreadnought” class battleships of the Royal Navy required coal for their steam turbine boilers, each ship having bunkering space for about 3,000 tons. The coal used was Welsh Steam Coal from the Rhondda Valley in South Wales and most of it was conveyed by rail to Grangemouth on the Firth of Forth (and some other northern ports) where it was transferred to coastal colliers for onward delivery to Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.

The Royal Navy was very specific about the quality of coal it required. It had to have a high calorific value, have a low ash content and above all else it had to be ‘smokeless’. The various coalmines in the Rhondda produced such coal. Most of these coal trains came via Hereford, Chester, and Warrington, then either via Carlisle, or over the Pennines to York, on to Scotland.

Locomotives were changed at either Chester or Warrington. Mold Junction (Saltney Ferry) men worked them through to Carlisle if the change was made at Chester. Several LNWR G1 Class 0-8-0 heavy freight engines, usually referred to as Super D’s were based at Mold Junction especially for these duties, which would have been crewed by men from that depot for the 137 miles journey as far as Carlisle.

If one of these was not available for any reason, then the shed master would have had a difficult task in trying to find suitable motive power. The overall journey took about 48 hours. The trains ran at no more than 30mph because the braking controls were primitive, and friction created by speed could damage the axle boxes of the wagons. At places where locomotives and crews were changed the axle boxes were examined for possible damage. This was also done at certain other locations.

During the war several loaded trains ran every day. Although working timetables for the war years exist in the National Archives at Kew, the timings of these Admiralty trains do not appear – they were ‘ex-timetable’ and issued on a strict “need to know” basis. The wagons used were simple 8- or 10-ton capacity, wooden- planked, with only simple hand brakes.

The infrastructure at most of the collieries and ports prohibited the introduction of more modern rolling stock, a situation that lingered on well after the war was over. By 1918 fifteen trains were being run every day of the week. They had priority over most other traffic.

From 27 August 1914 to the end of the war, 13,631 ‘coal specials’ carried an estimated 7,425,400 tons of coal. Each train consisted of about 50 wagons, conveying some 500 tons. From about 1917, some of the empty wagons returned to South Wales via North East England where they were loaded with coal from the Durham coalfields that was suitable for converting into coal gas. This was considered a suitable substitute for petrol, which was of course in short supply, for the early road vehicles that were being used. Other wagons were loaded with iron-ore for the South Wales steel works. By the end of the war hardly any wagons were returning empty to South Wales.

The Chester Station Coffee Tavern was a popular refreshment stop, and, during 1918, a ¼ million cups of tea and coffee were served, as well as 400,000 cakes and pies, to, on average, 500 soldiers passing through the station each day. Thanks to the generosity of staff and public donations most of these were free or just a nominal sum was requested from them. Groups of volunteers set up free or low-price buffets at many stations up and down the country, serving tea, sandwiches and cakes at any hour of the day or night.

Almost everything and everybody that went to the war front was transported by rail to the channel ports, crossed the channel by railway operated ships, then taken to the front from strategic supply points by narrow gauge railways. Petrol driven engines, then in their infancy, were used close to the front lines so that any smoke from a steam engine did not reveal the location of a line. At the start of the war the Royal Engineers had about 700 men, but, by 1917, this number had risen to about 40,000. Many of these were railwaymen who were able use their own particular talents and skills.

The shortage of labour caused by so many men enlisting into the military was solved by recruiting women. The railways had until, until the war, been an almost exclusive male occupation. About the only jobs that women did not eventually do was to fire and drive locomotives. In 1914 about 13,000 women worked on the railways, but, by 1918, this number had increased to over 50,000.

Visits to the Battlefields of France and Germany

Today many people visit the battlefields of France and Belgium, but in fact, visits have taken place ever since the Great War ended. As early as 1920, the Times newspaper was advertising Tours to the British battlefields of France, arranged by the South Eastern and Chatham Railway in association with the Societé Française des Auto Mails. The daily tours from London were aimed at the well-heeled. The cost included hotels and first-class travel. In 1923, the charitable organisation, St Barnabas Hostels, began arranging subsidised and free (for those in need) tours, taking up to 930 people at a time by train.

Railway Employees

Poster for 'Over by Christmas' performance at Chester Station 2014

Railway employees were initially treated as having a Reserved Occupation. Despite this, 100,000 out of a total of over 700,000 employees signed up for military service. By the end of the war 20,000 of these volunteers had lost their lives.

The railway industry became one of the first in the country to allow women to work in almost all departments. This was necessary to replace the men who had voluntarily enlisted.

Many people thought that the war would be over by Christmas. On 14 September 2014, the Theatre Quarter, in a performance in front of Chester Station, captured the spirit and optimism of those leaving their loved ones, perhaps never to see them again. A choir, dressed as soldiers, nurses and families, sang many well-loved songs, accompanied by musicians. Performances were made at 23 other stations in the North West.

Railway Service Badges

A Railway Service Badge was introduced in 1915, to be worn by employees who had every intention to enlist, but who were not given permission to, because they were needed to work the railways.

It was a blue and white enamel badge with gold lettering, denoting the Railway Company the employee was working for, along with a crown. This badge went some way in preventing men doing an essential job of work from being attacked by ill-informed people who thought they were ‘dodging their responsibilities’. These badges are now very scarce.

Seven lady ticket collectors at Chester Station

The railway industry was one of the first in the country to allow women to work in almost all departments. From mid-July 1915, anybody not travelling by train who wished to enter Chester Station had to buy a platform ticket. This helped to improve security, which was the intention behind the change of arrangements, but it was considered a nuisance by the many Hoole residents who used the long footbridge from the Hoole Road station entrance as a short cut. Seven lady ticket collectors were employed at the time.

After the war ended, the railways had to return some 2 million troops and their equipment back home from the channel ports in France. The organisation of this and all the other troop trains, special trains and additional freight trains throughout the war are often overlooked and forgotten about. Without the dedication of all railwaymen and women this would not have been possible, as it was usually the staff on the ground that ensured things got done.

Although not fighting at ‘The Front’ railway workers were proud that they were ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort. As well as building the trains, the railways also built stretchers, guns, shells and vehicles.

The Railway Men of Great Britain and Ireland are honoured – 14 May 1919

Without the railways, the movement of troops, supplies, food and equipment from Britain to North East France, would have been much more difficult and protracted. The railways also allowed the injured to be removed from the Front Line and brought back home far more easily. Horses, many thousands of them, and early road vehicles supplemented the railways, but both quickly became defeated by the mud and numerous craters in the vicinity of the front lines. It is doubtful if this war could have continued for so long without the use that both the British and the Germans made of railways as the main means of supplying their Front Lines, and in the use of light railways in getting close to the troops in the trenches. It has been called the first true Railway War.

The railways worked tirelessly for four years in helping to keep the country functioning, with the network stretched to the limit. At the end of the war the government did not properly recognise this enormous contribution to the war effort and failed to provide any assistance in repairing all the damage which the companies and the industry had incurred.

The first Armistice Day commemorations in Britain took place in November 1919. Before this, in May, however, the railwaymen of Great Britain and Ireland were honoured.

Their own memorial service was held at St. Paul’s Cathedral on 14 May 1919 in the presence of King George V. The hierarchy of the railways were there along with bereaved families and ordinary railway workers and the music was provided by an orchestra of railway employees.

Each member of the congregation was presented with an Order of Service that contained the details of the ceremony and a complete alphabetical list of the 18,957 men known to have been killed in the line of duty along with brief details of their pre-war railway grade and their military rank.

The following account of this service was published in the South Western Railway Magazine in June 1919. “Our comrades were men who had remained at their posts faithful to the end, our brother railwaymen who had booked their last train, waved the last flag, and steamed away from this railway into eternity. Slowly we filed out into the afternoon sunshine, to the warm, real world, to the roar and animation of the city life, and then, back to the railway stations we bent our steps.


  1. Article researched and written by Phil Cook and Linda Webb, November 2019, Hoole History & Heritage Society