In 1914, there were some 120 separate, railway companies in Britain.
The North Eastern Railway (NER) in Hull, saw about a third of its staff enlist, with 18,339 railwaymen or 34% of the workforce, released for military service. Of these, 2,236 of these men died during the war, and 300 received military decorations. With the large number of men joining the forces, the NER recruited large numbers of women to replace them. Before the war 1,470 women were employed by NER, mostly in clerical positions. By the end of the war, 7,885 females were employed by the NER, working as platform porters, clerks, warehouse workers, engine cleaners, carriage cleaners, motor bus conductresses, policewomen and in other roles. At the time it was a shock to see women doing such work, and their attire also caused a stir; because skirts were not practical in an engine shed they wore trousers, something rarely seen before the war. The North Eastern Railway (NER) had become one of Britain’s largest. When the Great War began, all these private railways came under Government control. Priority was given to moving troops and materials for the war effort. Many little used stations were closed and normal passenger services were disrupted. Special express trains, like the ‘Jellicoes’ (named after the admiral of the fleet), were created to transport steam coal to the fleets. This meant extra work for the railways, not helped by losing men to the Front. Key railway jobs became ‘reserved’ occupations, exempt from military service and staff vacancies were filled by female workers.
The Railway Pals
The 17th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers (Railway Pals) were formed in Hull, by the North Eastern Railway, in September 1914. Within a month over 1000 employees of the NER had joined 17th Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers and were beginning training in Hull. Many saw this as a ‘Great Adventure. The Officers of the NER Battalion were stationed on the SS ‘Rievaulx Abbey’, alongside the King George V Dock. The men were housed and trained in the nearby warehouses, along the King George V dock.
On 16 December 1914, just four months from the outbreak of war, the North Eastern Railway came under attack from the Imperial German Navy during the Bombardment of Whitby, Scarborough and Hartlepool, resulting in damage to North Eastern Railway buildings, track and rolling stock, and resulting in the deaths of two members of staff. There were also Zeppelin raids at Goole, York and Hull. The NER formed special fire brigades as part of the air raid defences at twenty-seven different locations, and also provided air raid shelters for both company staff and the general public, including using arches under railway lines at Hull.
On St George’s Day, 1915, the 17th (North Eastern Railway) Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, held a sports day at King George Dock, Hull, with the men and Officers wearing red and white roses on their caps. Activities included the high jump, tug of war, hurdle race, hammer throwing, relay race and one mile race. B Company camefirst at the end of the day with 21 points, C Company coming second with 17 points.
As the 17th Northumberland Fusiliers were well acquainted with working the railways, it became an important Pioneer Battalion in January 1915. In June 1915, the battalion moved to Catterick, where it joined 32nd Division, as the divisional pioneer battalion. The division embarked for France in November 1915 and the next six months were spent in the Somme sector around Albert, Bouzincourt and Meaulte. The battalion took part in the opening battle of the Somme at Thiepval. In October 1916, it left the division and joined GHQ Railway Construction Troops until the end of August 1917. It then rejoined the division at Nieuport on the North Sea coast for a couple of months before again joining the Railway Troops. In May 1918 the battalion was transferred to the 52nd (Lowland) Division, which had just arrived on the Western Front from Palestine, and remained with it as Pioneer Battalion to the end of the war. Below are some Hull Railway men stories from the local press.
Many thanks to Glen Hopkins for the contributions above and his work on the NER Railways in WW1