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Lest we forget: Hundreds gather to commemorate railway workers who died during World War One

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Railway colleagues from all grades gathered at Southwark Cathedral to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice fighting in the Great War.

Estimates put the number of rail staff who enlisted to fight at around 186,000 – a significant proportion of the 700,000-strong workforce – and it is believed at least 20,850 of those died defending their country.

In 1919, with peace brokered and His Majesty King George V in attendance, a ceremony was held at St Paul’s Cathedral with some 7,000 people joining to honour railway workers from Great Britain and Ireland who lost their lives during the war. One hundred years later on November 6, the industry organised the Railway Workers Centenary Memorial Service, held at Southwark Cathedral, to once more pay its respects – and royalty was again present, this time in the form of HRH The Duke of Gloucester.


Senior railway bosses, Railway Chaplains, BTP officers, members of the Orange Army, train and station staff as well as the families of those who fought in the conflict were among the hundreds of guests from the railway family, many of whom wore their work uniform.

During the one-hour ceremony, representatives from some of these companies took to the lectern to recite a poem, share a story or read from the bible.

Ian Parker, a senior engineer at Network Rail, was part of the industry steering group that helped to organise the service. After an introduction from the Reverend Canon Michael Rawson, Ian spoke to the congregation about his great uncle William Charles Lane. William was working as a porter for the South Eastern and Chatham Railway when he answered the call to fight. He trained as a military medic, joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was deployed to the Western Front.

Ian said: “Uncle Bill, as I knew him as a young lad, was like many of his generation, an unassuming and quiet man who responded to the call of war with unassuming and quiet distinction.”

The sounding of the Last Post brought the cathedral to two minutes of silence, although this was briefly broken by the roar of a passing train – an apt disturbance under the circumstances.

Bravery, strength and resilience

Former Royal Engineer Simon Higgens MBE, a director at ISS Labour, recited the war poem ‘In Flanders Field’ and BTP officer Wayne Marques, who tried to stop the terrorists during the London Bridge attack in 2017, read from the Bible as part of a moving ceremony.

Rolling stock engineer Lee Paine provided a further reminder that many service leavers now turn to and succeed in the rail industry after time in the military. Lee works for Govia Thameslink Railway and helps with the Young Rail Professionals’ ‘Into Rail’ programme, to encourage youngsters to think about a career on the railway. A little over a year ago, however, he was a serving infantry soldier in the British Army’s Princess of Wales’ Royal Regiment.

In his speech to industry colleagues, a first for him, Lee reflected on the efforts of the railway family at home who helped to transport troops, equipment and kit during the war.

He said: “The bravery, strength and resilience of those on the frontline was matched by the determination, strength and selflessness of those railway people who struggled on the home front. Their contribution was every bit as important as those who fought with bayonets on the frontline.

“They provided a firm foundation from which great things have been built. That’s why events like today are so important for keeping these railway workers’ memories and sacrifices alive. It is their legacy and it’s an incredible legacy to have left behind.”

A fitting tribute

The inclusion of London’s Transport Choir and the Guild of Railway Ringers, who rang the cathedral’s bells, as well as a collection for the Railway Benefit Fund, which helped the children of many railway workers killed in the war, were fitting touches to the service.

Another was the strong presence of the Railway Mission, which has offered confidential pastoral support to railway workers for more than 100 years.

Addressing the audience, Reverend Liam Johnston, the Mission’s executive director, said: “Our industry, our railway family, has always been an agent of connection, creating links and friendships beyond these shores. However, today the railway can carry a message of love, and peace and reconciliation to every part of the United Kingdom, into Europe and beyond.

“The railway industry was instrumental in helping the Allies win the Great War but my message to you today is simply this: that through love and reconciliation, today’s railway family can help bring peace to a troubled world.”