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Somme Offensive marked by railway

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The rail industry continues its commemoration of the First World War with a series of events to mark the Battle of the Somme in which one million soldiers were either killed or wounded. On the first day alone 57,000 British troops died. The Somme Offensive lasted from 1 July 1916 until November.

Staff from TransPennine Express (TPE) took part in the Somme commemoration parade on Friday 1 July 2016 in Manchester. Matt Strode, a TPE driver based at Manchester Piccadilly, said, ‘I served in the Royal Navy as an Able Seaman Radar Operator for seven years from 1992 – 1999, aboard the HMS Exeter and HMS Glasgow. I served in Singapore, Mombasa and most of Europe too, but on Friday the main reason I was marching is to honour the memory of my great uncle, William John Strode, who was killed at the Battle of the Somme at just 19 years of age.’

We’re here because we’re here

Men dressed as soldiers in First World War uniforms visited trains and stations, sang marching songs and handed out cards with the names of soldiers who fell. Cities visited included London, Belfast, Sheffield, Manchester and Glasgow.

The National Railway Museum (NRM) marked the day by opening a new exhibition featuring the Ambulance Trains used to ferry thousands of seriously injured troops away from the front.

Descendants of ambulance train medical staff gathered with museum experts to mark the anniversary by opening the new display, which explores the little-known story of the trains that evacuated injured soldiers.

Ambulance trains reconstructed

The centrepiece of the exhibition is an historic railway carriage of the type that would have been converted for use in a First World War ambulance train, transformed inside and out to recreate the atmosphere on board these hospitals on wheels.

The carriage has been carefully transformed both inside and out to enable visitors to step on board and move through spaces including a ward, a pharmacy and a nurses’ mess room. Digital projection, sound and historic images, alongside interior fittings, recreated an intense atmosphere of these confined trains.

Jane Sparkes, interpretation developer at the NRM, said the exhibition, Ambulance Trains, not only explores stories of the wounded soldiers who travelled with their harrowing memories of warfare, but also the medical staff who worked tirelessly in claustrophobic conditions to provide comfort and care.

‘It also looks at the railway workers who built the carefully designed trains at incredible speed to keep up with demand, and the wider public who saw the grim reality of the overseas war when these trains pulled into British stations.’

Nurses honoured

Among the descendants of ambulance train medics gathered to open the exhibition was Caroline Stevens, whose ancestor Kate Evelyn Luard worked on an ambulance train in France for the entirety of the First World War. Caroline Stevens said, ‘My great-aunt Kate Evelyn Luard worked on First World War ambulance trains for the first year of the war.

‘From 1915-1918, she also served in a field ambulance and as sister in charge of casualty clearing stations on the Western Front. She carried out her duties with unfaltering composure and dedication to those in her care under difficult and often dangerous conditions and was one of the few nurses to be awarded a Bar to her Royal Red Cross. We are delighted to be at the opening of the National Railway Museum’s new exhibition which has been inspired by people like her and which features extracts from the numerous letters she sent back to her family from France.’

Barbed wire

The Battle of the Somme was an attempt by the French and British to break the emerging stalemate on the Western Front. The attack was launched on a 20-mile long front, from north of the Somme river between Arras and Albert. An eight-day bombardment failed to destroy German positions or barbed wire entanglements. British troops running across open ground were often caught in the barbed wire and mown down by machine gun fire. Allied commanders continued to send French and British troops over the top all summer.

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Railways on battlefields

A further exhibition, now on tour at stations around the country, highlights the role played by railways in the Somme Offensive.

Jeremy Higgins, customer service director of CrossCountry Trains and author of Great War Railwaymen: Britain’s Railway Company Workers at War 1914-1918, said, ‘The Somme is rightly remembered for its unprecedented loss of life. With military stalemate on the horizon, the railway stepped in to support the delivery of vital supplies to the Western Front: thanks to the leadership of senior railwaymen such as Sir Eric Geddes, new rail developments helped change Britain’s military fortunes, leading to eventual victory in 1918.’

Reginald and Gerald Wilkinson

Organised by the Rail Delivery Group the exhibition tells the story of how Britain’s railwaymen revolutionised military operations by building battlefield railway lines. By 1917, over 2,000 miles of track had been laid on the Western Front. This helped ensure ammunition and supplies reached the frontline. Approximately 1,000 railwaymen were killed at the Somme.

The exhibition features the story of two of them – Reginald and Gerald Wilkinson, brothers from Yorkshire who had worked for the North Eastern Railway. Both men were killed on 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The exhibition will be at York station until September when it moves to Swansea until October then Birmingham New Street through till December 2016. In the new year it moves to Glasgow Central for January and February 2017. ‘Their name liveth for ever more.’

Photos courtesy of the National Railway Museum.