The Railway Operating Division’s contribution to the war effort in WW1

It’s fascinating what you can learn from attending one of the lectures on military history at the Royal Logistic Corps Museum in Deepcut.

Interviewing Niall FergusonLast night we listened to Niall Ferguson’s talk on Aspects of the Railway Operating Division, Royal Engineers 1850-1918. The title Railway Operating Division is one I’d never heard of, nor have I previously considered the contribution of railway companies and their workers to the war effort in World War One. It did help that, like the speaker, I share a fascination to do with all things steam railway related.

I interviewed Niall after his lecture, as I was interested to know more about him, and where it was possible to learn even more about the Railway Operating Division. The photograph of Niall speaking to me is courtesy of Alan Meeks

In the interview Niall mentioned a book by William Aves, details of which can be found HERE. He also said that only two standard gauge railway engines survive from use in the WW1, being a 2-6-0, now preserved at Didcot, and Maude, preserved by the SRPS at Bo’ness in Scotland, and now on loan to the National Rail Museum at York

For railway buffs, here’s some information on both of these locomotives. Firstly about Maude, from a National Railway Museum newsletter article, and then from Didcot Railway Centre’s life history of the GWR’s 2-6-0.

Sole Survivor to Tell Tale of Scottish Rail: No. 673 Maude took pride of place among the railway legends in the Museum’s Great Hall. The locomotive was built at the North British Railway Company’s Cowlairs Works, in 1891, and its design was so successful at keeping the wheels of Scottish industry turning that 168 of its type had been assembled by 1900.

In 1917, No. 673 was sent to the Western Front to work supply trains for the war effort. To commemorate this service it was named after a famous military leader of the day, Lieutenant General Sir Fredrick Stanley Maude. Maude returned in 1919 and spent the remaining portion of its 75 year working life hauling goods trains on Scotland’s tracks, until it was withdrawn from Bathgate shed in July 1966. Thanks to an appeal by the Scottish Railway Preservation Society (SRPS) the locomotive was saved from the scrap heap and is now the sole surviving example of a ‘typical’ Scottish freight loco. Maude is pictured [click to enlarge] on the Turntable at the National Railway Museum.


“The GWR’s 2-6-0: During the Great War, 5322 was one of twenty GWR 2-6-0s built in Swindon in 1917 and sent when new to France. This was in response to a call from the army in the summer of 1917 for the British railways to supply a further 160 locomotives to help with transporting supplies from the Channel ports to the front line.

Frank Potter, General Manager of the GWR, reported at the time to his board of directors that these locomotives, “should as far as practicable be of one type, ie 0-8-0, and of high power, and arrangements were therefore made for them to be supplied by as few Companies as possible, these Companies in turn being allocated engines from the stock of other Railway Companies. In the case of the Great Western Railway, we have no engines of the 0-8-0 type, and it was impossible to release any of the 2-8-0 class as they are employed exclusively on the Admiralty coal traffic.

It was therefore decided that the GWR would supply 2-6-0s, which Frank Potter explained: “The Great Western type of 2-6-0 engines is in point of power and efficiency practically equal to other Companies 0-8-0 engines. Nevertheless, the GWR drove a hard bargain, as Frank Potter continued: “The whole of our stock is, however, badly needed for traffic work in this country, and it was, therefore, stipulated that the materials should be supplied by the Government to enable new engines of the class to be built, an output of five per month being aimed at.

A serving officer with the ROD, C E R Sherrington, recalled an encounter with 5322 in France in 1918. He wrote an article about it for the Great Western Echo in 1973:

That night nearing the level crossing at Pont des Briques, where one turned off for the Mess, an eastbound train was rapidly overtaking me. A glance at my watch led me to hope that it was RCL* 21 running on time from Calais (Riviere Neuve) to St Omer, Hazebrouck and one or more railheads. There was no mistaking the type of locomotive – by the beat of its exhaust – a GWR Mogul, thus confirming that it was, almost certainly, one of the 53s doing such splendid work on those supply trains for the II Army.

She overtook me at the Pont des Briques crossing, with its metal rolling gates, and it was easy to see her number in large white letters on the tender – ROD 5322. Behind her were the customary 44 or so wagons, the supplies for two divisions. The gross load was some 770 tons: the wagons were not vacuum fitted, but, of course, had the French screw couplings.

The Great Western Moguls were admirable locomotives for this work: their predecessors on it, the Beyer Peacock 4-6-4 tanks, which were built for the Netherlands but never got there, were splendid machines but had inadequate brake power, being designed for suburban passenger trains. The LNWR class 27 0-8-0s, though fine pullers, had small diameter wheels for this work, and were more suited to heavier, slower, trains.

* RCL stood for Ravitaillement Calais – Ligne


5 thoughts on “The Railway Operating Division’s contribution to the war effort in WW1

  1. Maude and 5322 are the only standard gauge locos left that actually ‘served’ in France during the Great War, at least in the UK, but examples of types used by the ROD survive, which, if not the actual locomotives used, are identical to ones that were. Another GWR loco, ‘Dean Goods’ 2516, is kept at Swindon Museum; the type was used in France, as was 63601, an ex-Great Central 2-8-0 preserved in running condition on the Great Central Railway at Loughborough. 3 more of this type survive in Australia, and these are actual ex-ROD engines, numbers 1984, 2003, and 2004.


  2. “only two standard gauge railway engines survive from use in the WW1”

    Just being pedantic… The statement above is true for Britain, but we have three Robinson 2-8-0 ROD locomotives preserved in Australia, where they worked on a private coal railway. ROD 2004 is at the Richmond Vale Railway and ROD 1984 and ROD 2003 at Dorrigo Railway Museum.

    Trevor Edmonds
    Researching the 6th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company

    PS Maude (as ROD 673) was briefly on the 6ABGROC register. It arrived at their depot at Bergues for storage on 8 January 1918 and was sent to Verquigneul three weeks later.


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