In 1913, the North Eastern Railway (NER) had become one of Britain’s largest. However, when the Great War broke out, like all other railways in the country, it came under Government control. That meant additional wartime demands, not helped by losing men to the Front. Indeed, the NER saw about a third of its staff enlist. The 17th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers, (Railway Pals) was formed by the NER in Hull to allow its men to serve with their pals. The Officers of the NER Battalion had their quarters on the SS Rievaulx Abbey, alongside the King George V Dock warehouses where the men were housed and trained. (The SS Rievaulx Abbey was sunk on 3rd September 1916 after hitting a mine laid by U Boat UC10 off the Humber Estuary). As the 17th Northumberland Fusiliers were well acquainted with working the railways it was soon made an important Pioneer Battalion in France and Belgium. Just four months from the outbreak of war, on 16 December 1914, 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 was also the threat of air attacks, with 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.
18,339 members of NER staff, or 34% of the workforce, were released for military service - 2,236 of those 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. Not only would it have been a shock to see women doing such work, 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 Railway Pals
The 17th Battalion Northumberland Fusiliers was raised by the North Eastern Railway at Hull in September 1914 and became a 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