Rail played vital role in war effort

PREDECEASED...young John Thomas Horsman died in 1916.
PREDECEASED...young John Thomas Horsman died in 1916.

AWAY from the drama and tragedy of the battlefield, war is also a massive logistical exercise.

How do you physically move thousands of troops, as well as weaponry, and also supplies?

Rob Langham's book on the North Eastern Railway.

Rob Langham's book on the North Eastern Railway.

Well that was where the North Eastern Railway came into its own, especially during the First World War.

During the war years, the NER, on which so many folk here worked, and which physically shaped parts of our South Tyneside landscape, transported an astonishing 12 million troops, as well as 134,000 horses, and more than five million tons of goods.

I’ve been hearing, you see, from Rob Langham, author of the absorbing North Eastern Railway In The First World War.

Rob was interested in my recent piece on the Horsman family in Shields.

There are lovely glimpses into railway life, ranging from a little look at railway allotments to even the existence of a goat club, as well as illuminating details of how the system coped with the challenges it was set, including the loss of workers to service at the Front and whose places were taken by women.

You may remember John Thomas ‘JT’ Horsman, who was an engine driver at Tyne Dock and – or so it seems – a regular contributor to the Gazette’s letters to the editor from an address in Station Cottages.

All but one of his five sons followed him on to the railways.

JT died in 1918, while still only in his 50s.

But it has been interesting, if sad, to learn from Rob that his son, also called John Thomas, and who we saw in NER uniform, had himself died two years earlier, in the 
spring of 1916, although it’s not clear how.

It seems he had started his career with the NER at Newcastle, then worked in the district superintendent’s office at Sunderland, before becoming stationmaster at Wear Valley Junction.

It was noted by an edition of the Northern Eastern Railway Magazine that he came from a railway family, his grandfather having worked on the North Midland line during its construction.

To return to Rob’s book, it’s a wonderful celebration of the old railway company, which was the only one, apparently, to have its own battalion during the First World War, the 17th Bn Northumberland Fusiliers (there was also a reserve 32nd Battalion).

There are lovely glimpses into railway life, ranging from a little look at railway allotments to even the existence of a goat club, as well as illuminating details of how the system coped with the challenges it was set, including the loss of workers to service at the Front and whose places were taken by women.

There were tragedies and losses. One section is devoted to a very good exploration of the disaster at St Bede’s Junction, on the South Shields to Newcastle line in December 1915, in which 19 people lost their lives and more than 80 others were injured.

n The North Eastern Railway in The First World War is published by Fonthill Media (www.fonthillmedia.com).