This blog is written by Dr Robert Demaine, one of our archive volunteers who is researching railways and the First World War. This post continues the stories behind our updates to the fallen railway workers list.
The casualty lists published in railway company magazines during the First World War offer a wealth of fascinating detail which can often set the researcher on the trail of the stories behind the columns of names.
Take this example from the Great Central Railway Journal for March 1918:
How did a group of Great Central Railway employees come to drown in Egypt?
Three of those above were serving in the 96th Light Railway Operating Company, Royal Engineers, raised at Longmoor in 1917. Light railway operating companies had been introduced in 1916 to transport men and materials to the front line over narrow gauge track laid by Royal Engineers construction teams. While predominantly used on the Western Front some were deployed to other theatres such as the Middle East.
On 2 December 1917 the 96th Light Railway Operating Company, numbering around 200 men, embarked on the former Royal Mail steamer Aragon at Southampton, with over 2000 other troops bound for the port of Alexandria on the coast of Egypt.
After an uneventful voyage which included a pleasant Christmas stopover anchored off Malta the Aragon approached the Egyptian coast on 30 December 1917. Accounts differ as to the reasons why the steamer failed to secure a safe haven in the harbour – some say she was kept out at sea as no berth was available, others that she was warned off due to the suspected presence of mines. Whatever the reason the Aragon found herself at anchor within a few miles of Alexandria, but without an escort.
A terrible price was paid for this decision when she was torpedoed by the German submarine UC-34 and sank within minutes. To add to the tragedy the destroyer HMS Attack, coming to the rescue of survivors, was herself torpedoed and sank with yet more loss of life. A total of 610 soldiers and crew from the Aragon were lost.
According to Commonwealth War Graves Commission records some 76 men of the 96th Light Railway Operating Company died that day. It is estimated that about half of these were railway employees, with at least ten different railway companies being represented.
The very next day the railway operations of the Royal Engineers in Egypt were to suffer further misfortune when another troopship, the Osmanieh, struck a mine in the same area and sank with the loss of 199 lives. Among the casualties were 54 men of the 98th Light Railway Operating Company, including Great Central man George Walter Houghton, listed above.
There is another and far happier story to tell about the loss of the Aragon, and one with a local York connection. Two sisters, Eve and Kit Dodsworth, the daughters of York solicitor Ralph Dodsworth, were on board the ship as volunteers in a 160 strong contingent of nurses. They and the other nursing staff were all saved thanks to the gallantry of Captain Bateman and his crew. A collection of their private papers, among them Kit’s graphic account of the sinking, is held at the Imperial War Museum.