This blog is written by Harriet Steers, one of our archive volunteers who is researching railways and the First World War.
We recently started a project to enhance the NRM’s list of 20,000 railwaymen who died in the First World War. We have now updated the records of over 1100 men that served, providing more invaluable data for those that worked for the Great Central Railway (GCR) as well as the London and North Western Railway (LNWR).
During the last few months we have found so many stories of these railwaymen and their time during the war. Of course many of these tales highlighted the true horror of the Western Front but we too, found stories that provided happier endings for the soldiers and their loved ones.
Private H Pike, Great Central Railway
‘H. Pike’ worked as a Booking Clerk for Lutterworth station, at the Great Central Railway Company. He was reported to have been killed in action in the November 1916 issue of The Great Central Railway Journal (which can be accessed in the open shelves of Search Engine.) It could be believed that he may have been one of the estimated 420,000 British casualties suffered at the infamous Battle of the Somme.
However, in the April 1917 issue of the same GCR journal, it was said that although Pike was reported as a casualty and added to the Roll of Honour, that he was not entitled to be there. This was due to a letter that was received a short time after stating that H. Pike was in fact still alive, and ‘still in the fighting line’.
We are still yet to find any evidence proving that ‘H. Pike’ did not survive the war.
Lance Corporal Clifford Williams, Great Central Railway
Not all reports were fortunate enough to be proven wrong, with families learning on most occasions that they had lost a loved one on the front line. Clifford Williams worked as a Junior Clerk in Liverpool, also for Great Central Railway Company. A Lance Corporal for the South Lancashire Regiment, he fought at the Battle of the Somme, where he was sadly killed in action.
The really sad aspect of this is not only that he died, and in one of the most notorious battles of the war, but that he was one of an estimated 250,000 men that fought for Britain that were under-age. The official government policy was that you had to be 18 to sign up for the forces, but aged 19 to go overseas. Williams was neither, as he died at the age of 17, too young to be in the military and definitely too young to be fighting in France.
Captain George Newton Ford, London and North Western Railway
Alongside Pike and Williams, who were deemed excellent workers for the GCR, we have also found accounts for excellent men that fought from the London and North Western Railway Company (LNWR). One story in particular grabbed our attention, and that was the miraculous survival of the popular Superintendent for the Southern Division of the London District.
Captain George Newton Ford of the London Scottish Guards was sent straight to France in the very early stages of the war, being present at the Battle of La Bassee. Ford was unfortunately wounded in the trenches, where the extent of the injury could have been fatal; a bullet entered his right cheek just under the eye, where it exited underneath his jaw.
Due to the course of the bullet, his life was spared resulting in being sent back to London for treatment. Many at Euston Station, where Ford was based, were overjoyed to hear of his survival and of his great recovery (more information about Captain Ford can be found in the London and North Western Railway Gazettes available in Search Engine.)
These three stories from the great number that we have currently found highlight just some of the different experiences of those that went to fight. From being fatally wounded, killed in action or even being incorrectly reported as dead, these were regular occurrences during 1914-1918 for all that fought in the conflict. For every positive account, there would have been countless more with heart-breaking outcomes; as the awful truth of the Great War was that millions of men died, with hundreds of thousands more being left mentally or physically damaged.