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100 Years of Anzac
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100 years on

NSW Railways

The Centenary of Anzac (2014–2018) marks 100 years since Australia’s involvement in the First World War. The NSW RAILWAYS REMEMBER online exhibition has been created to commemorate the centenary of World War I and honour the contribution of the NSW Railways to the war effort both at home and abroad.

Scroll down to discover stories and images from this fascinating period in Australia’s history.
Click on the links below to discover stories and images from this fascinating period in Australia’s history.

Remembering World War I and the service of the NSW Railways

2015 marks 100 years since the first major military action undertaken by the AIF.

The outbreak of war in 1914 had a dramatic impact on Australia with large numbers of men rushing to enlist to serve their country. At the time, the NSW Railways and Tramways Department was the largest enterprise in the state, with 45,000 employees. Over the course of the war, 8,447 men from the department enlisted and 1,210 of these men died as a result of their service.

Some NSW railwaymen were recruited specifically to assist with operating railway lines for the Allied war effort in Europe but most served amongst other soldiers fighting on the frontline. In an era when road transportation and aviation were still in their infancy, the nature and scale of World War I suited the use of railways like no war before or since. Joseph Joffre, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army during the war declared: ‘This is a railway war… if we win this war it will be largely due to the railways.’

This online exhibition tells the important story of the various ways in which the NSW railways contributed to and supported the war at home and abroad.

Preparing for war

At the outbreak of World War I the NSW Railways and Tramways Department was the single largest enterprise in NSW.

In terms of both passenger and freight transport, it was the undisputed age of rail. The railways played a vital role in wartime functions and in preparation for the war.

NSW railwaymen, like other employees from the State Government at the time, did not have to resign to serve in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF). They retained their railway position and were considered seconded to their military duties. Not only were they given leave to join the war, but if their military pay was less than their existing wage, the difference was paid into a trust fund or to their dependants in Australia. Any increments or general pay changes were also accrued to their credit. By the end of the war this policy cost the NSW Railways about £1,000,000.

In February 1916 a riot broke-out at Casula and Liverpool army training camps when 5,000 troops protested against the conditions. The rioting soldiers caused havoc after overtaking the railway station at Liverpool and taking over a train travelling to the city. At Sydney's Central Railway Station armed military guards found a group of over a hundred drunken soldiers destroying a toilet block and demanded they surrender. A shot was fired by a rioting soldier and in response guards returned fire, killing one soldier and seriously injuring eight others. As Australia was in need of more recruits to fight the war, most of the soldiers involved were not punished and were still sent overseas to serve.

NSW railwaymen abroad

German troops attacked Belgium on 2 August 1914 and then pushed into France. They planned to quickly defeat the French and then move troops to the east to face the Russians.

Russia had started to mobilise but was expected to take six weeks to get its army into the field. The ability to move its troops quickly was central to its plans. The reality was vastly different. Instead of a short, highly mobile war, by the end of 1914 the front had become a line that would remain largely static until 1918. The industrial capacity of both sides enabled the war to be fought on a scale beyond anything seen before. Only the railways could meet the demand for land transport. 

A special NSW Railways unit was formed in September 1914, with recruits chosen for their expertise to assist with operating and maintaining the railways of European Allied forces. The special 'Railway Supply Detachment' (RSD) was recruited in September 1914 by Lieutenant Edmund O. Milne. Totalling 65 men, the group departed Sydney for Egypt on 19th December 1914, arriving in Alexandria on 2 February 1915 and then travelling to Cairo by train. Following the initial ANZAC force landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915, the first half of the RSD arrived in Gallipoli on 30 June and the rest on 1 July. They were involved in the construction and operation of the ANZAC Light Railway and were also employed in a range of other activities including off-loading and distributing water and rations. After Gallipoli, the RSD went on to the Western Front.

The NSW Railways internal staff publication, 'The Budget' (renamed the 'Railway and Tramway Magazine' in 1917) carried updates and photos of colleagues at war. Many of these photographs were sent by Captain Edmund O. Milne and helped ensure that the experiences of his men abroad were still the focus of the organisation back home. These images captured the types of work performed by the men such as supply and railway maintenance works in Egypt.

For many serving railwaymen, this was their first time overseas and, despite the tragedy of the war, the photographs sent back home depicted their ‘leisure’ time as an opportunity to explore the world. In contrast to these more peaceful scenes, postcards sent home to loved ones often featured images from official war artists which captured experiences endured on the battlefields.

At Gallipoli another series of photographs was taken by three young NSW railways servicemen: George Downes, Arthur James Cook and Henry James Lowe. The photographs were taken between 1 July and 17 December 1915, before the men went on to serve in France, England and the Middle East. These images present a snapshot of daily life and landscapes from the perspective of the soldier and comprise an album called 'With the camera at ANZAC', held by the Australian National Archives and available to view on their website.

The 6th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company

Railways were first used in warfare in the Siege of Sevastopol (1854 –55) in the Crimean War and then in various other wars prior to 1914.

Military planning influenced the construction of railways in Europe in the second half of the 19th Century. Some lines built had little commercial justification, but were needed to ensure soldiers and their equipment could be readily moved in the event of war. Plans to counter a potential German attack on France included an agreement with the British that the French would provide all railway transportation needed for the British Army in France.

By the end of 1915 the French were struggling to meet the ever-increasing demands for railway capacity: they asked the British for help. As a result, Britain took over railway construction, maintenance and operation in much of the area in France and Belgium that was then under British control. Men from the various British railway companies were recruited into the army to operate these railways as part of the newly created Railway Operating Division (the ROD).

As the transportation needs continued to increase during 1916, Britain asked both Australia and Canada to provide railwaymen to the ROD. Australia responded by raising six railway companies. One of the companies, the 6th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company (6thABGROC), was made up of volunteers from the New South Wales Government Railways.

The 6thABGROC formed in Sydney in December 1916. It was made up of three officers and 266 other ranks. In command was Captain William James, a locomotive inspector from Eveleigh Depot in Sydney. They sailed in February 1916 and after a period of training in Britain, arrived in France in May 1917. After a period working at the main ROD base at Audruicq (near Calais), in July 1917 they took control of the locomotive depot and exchange sidings at Bergues Exchange that was supporting the Ypres area.

The Belgian town of Ypres remained in Allied hands, but with the Germans holding the land to the east the only railway available to the Allies was the single track line running from Hazebrouck to Poperinghe and then to Ypres. Despite the line being duplicated in 1915 it was still unable to handle the required traffic. A new double-tracked line was built from Bergues, where it branched off the line from Hazebrouck to Dunkirk, ran through Proven to Boesinghe (north of Ypres). Another three additional single tracked lines soon followed.

Bergues is an ancient town south of Dunkirk. Bergues Exchange was a locomotive depot and exchange sidings where trains operated by the French railways were handed over to the British to be worked forward towards the front.

Most trains arriving at Bergues Exchange from the west were hauled by French locomotives with French crews. The trains were placed into the sidings where they could be remarshalled before being worked forward by the 6thABGROC using their locomotives that had been borrowed from various British railway companies and the Belgian state railways. From February 1918 the locomotive fleet would include large new engines that were built for the war effort. The 6thABGROC included fitters, blacksmiths and boilermakers who maintained the locomotives at the depot.

A typical day at Bergues Exchange would see the operation of troop trains, bringing men to and from the front, as well as ambulance trains evacuating the sick and wounded from the casualty clearing stations at Mendinghem, Dosinghem and Bandaghem. Ammunition trains mostly served the large ammunition dump at Swiss Cottage and other trains handled supplies, stone (for road and railway construction) and other material. Up to 50 trains per day were run in each direction.

The 6thABGROC took control of Bergues Exchange at the start of the Third Battle for Ypres (31 July 1917 – 10 November 1917). This was a major British offensive intended to push through the German lines and reach the Belgian coast. Bad weather waterlogged the battlefield and combined with determined resistance resulted in little more than the capture of the village of Passchendaele and about 300,000 casualties on each side.

When the line from Bergues to Boesinghe was built, the Allies believed the Germans could be defeated within months. The immediate transport need resulted in the line being constructed with sand ballast that was now failing. Despite needing to maintain supplies for the major battle being fought at the end of their line, the 6thABGROC was being restricted by the poor state of the line and the constant need to close sections of tract for upgrading works. Despite these limitations the 6thABGROC continued to run increasing numbers of trains, with Major General Sir Sydney Crookshank (the British Director General of Transport) later commenting to Captain James:

I well remember the great difficulties you overcame during the autumn of 1917, when the line between Bergues and Boesinghe gave way under the exceptionally heavy traffic and the abysmal weather conditions prevailing at the time.

The excellent relations between the French Army under General Anthonie and the ROD, and the good results resulting, were brought about because the work performed by your Company was of a high standard of efficiency, which was thoroughly maintained throughout.

As the battle ended, winter began and the weather deteriorated further. Neither side would be able to mount a major offensive until the spring. The 6thABGROC had their operations expanded with another line coming under their control. It branched to the north from their line at Proven and then ran parallel to the town of Noordhoek. Numerous members of the 6thABGROC were trained to run trains over the French controlled lines. Australians could then be found crewing trains over much of northern France.

With spring the Germans mounted a major offensive. A treaty with the Russians allowed the Germans to move their Eastern Front troops to the Western Front. The Americans had entered the war, but had yet to arrive in significant numbers. This gave the Germans an opportunity to win the war. Using new tactics, they attacked the line from Arras to Saint Quentin on 21 March 1918, intending to drive the British forces north of the Somme back to the sea and separate it from the French. Despite significant gains, by 5 April the German advance had been halted before reaching Arras and Amiens.

The Germans then shifted their forces north and attacked from north of Ypres to the Lys on 7 April. Here again they made significant gains without being able to achieve a decisive victory. The Allies held Ypres, but lost ground especially to the south. This forced the evacuation of the locomotive depots at Borre and Peselhoek, and limited operation on the more southern lines to Ypres. Despite being on standby to evacuate Bergues Exchange, the 6thABGROC was called on to carry the bulk of the transport needs for the defence of Ypres.

Material stored at sites along the line was now too close to the front and was moved to safer locations. The ammunition dump at Swiss Cottage was now too close to the front and was moved to Watou. Shelling of the line became more regular and better targeted. Three members of the 6thABGROC (Peter Dunne, Wilfred Stumbles and Laurie Muggleston) were decorated for bravery under shell fire during the recovery operations.

Again Major General Crookshank was effusive in his praise:

The work done by your main line crews during the Spring of 1918 calls for special mention, and it was largely due to their efforts that such excellent results were achieved in the quick movement of large bodies of troops, to which great importance was attached.

The 1918 Spring Offensive had exhausted the Germans. Large numbers of American troops began arriving and the balance shifted in favour of the Allies. When the Allies attacked Amiens in August 1918 German resistance crumbled. On 28 September the German lines facing Ypres were attacked and yielded 10km on the first day. With the Germans in full retreat, the Allied advance was only limited by the supply lines.

The railway from Ypres to Roulers and Courtrai was required to support the Ypres advance. A British operating company replaced the 6thABGROC at Bergues Exchange to allow the Australians to move further into Belgium as each section of track was repaired. Construction trains to support the repairs added to the railway effort. They initially moved to Ypres, but by 14 October were operating beyond Passchendaele to Vierkavenhoek. The line was open to Roulers on 22 October and Heule on 29 October. Courtrai opened on 7 November, and the 6thABGROC were based there when the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.

Major General Crookshank’s comments to Captain James again praised the Australians:

During the advance in the winter of 1918, I heard nothing but praise for the splendid way you and all ranks overcame the difficulties which resulted from a rapid advance over lines which were damaged by the enemy. The RCE has told me that he was able by the assistance given by all ranks under your command to keep to his scheduled time.

Despite the end of the war, the workload of the 6thABGROC continued. Supplies were needed for the troops still in the field until they could be moved back for repatriation and the needs of the civil population needed to be met as they began the task of rebuilding. Reopening the railway to the Belgian capital, Brussels, was a priority, which was achieved on 6 December.

The unit was rested on 1 January 1919. Its individual members had taken leave, but this was the first time the whole of the 6thABGROC had been stood down since arriving in France. Only 11 days later they were called back to Bergues Exchange and by the end of the month they had returned to Roulers, although their time there would be brief.

The Australians began handing over the Belgian railway system on 5 February. The Belgians took full control on 21 March and the 6thABGROC left a week later. They returned to England on 2 May. While waiting for transport home, the 6thABGROC was formally disbanded on 22 May 1919.

In November 1917, the 6th sent a Christmas card back home to their NSW Railway Chief Commissioner, James Fraser. A grandson of Commissioner James Fraser donated the Christmas card to the Australian Railway Historical Society in 2012 after it had been held in the family for over 90 years. Each of the nine pages of the card is magnificently illustrated. The first page of the card features the Australian badge with the British and Australian flags, a scroll with the unit name* and a Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Class 27 locomotive, one of the ROD classes used by the 6th. All nine pages of the card are decorated with botanical specimens in watercolour. The card carries the signatures of 281 members of the company.

* The 6th had several name changes during its existence: In January 1917 it formed as Railway Unit No. 1 Section. In April 1917 it was renamed 60th Company (Australian) Railway Operating Division RE. The ‘RE’ signified the unit was attached to the Royal Engineers. In August 1917 it was renamed 60th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company and in March 1918 was renamed the 6th Australian Broad Gauge Operating Company.

Research by Trevor Edmonds

Life of a soldier

Over the course of the war 8,447 men from the NSW Railways and Tramways Department are known to have enlisted for service and 1,210 of these men died as a result of their service.

Of those who returned, many were injured in body and mind and would not effectively resume their careers. Others lived out their lives working for the railways and some even went on to have important roles in the operation of the NSW Railways for many years after. Below is a selection of stories of individual NSW Railwaymen who served during WWI.

Edmund Osborne Milne was born in the station master's house at Bundanoon in 1886. He joined the railways as a probationer in 1901 and was traffic inspector at Goulburn when the war started. He was also a commissioned officer in the Australian Intelligence Corps. He enlisted for the Great War in September 1914 with the task of raising the RSD. He left Australia as a lieutenant and was promoted to captain (March 1915), temporary major (date unclear but probably August 1915) and major (March 1916). He ended the war with a DSO, a Croix de Guerre and four MIDs. Many of the images taken of NSW Railwaymen in service are attributed to Milne, and were sent home to be featured prominently in the 'Budget' during WWI. His WWII service added a MBE and KSJ to his medal bar that carried 15 medals. A portrait of Edmund with his brother, Clarence, and father, Edmond (Snr) featured in the 'NSW Railway and Tramway Budget' magazine on April 1, 1916.

Clarence, Edmund's younger brother, was born in 1891.He joined the railways in 1907 and was a clerk to the Goods Manager when the war started. He enlisted in February 1915 and served in various roles, mostly in the 4th Division until March 1916 when he was promoted and took command of the Railway Supply Detachment (RSD) after Edmund had been moved higher in the logistical structure. He led the RSD until May 1917.

Edmund's and Clarence's father, Edmund (Snr), was born in England in 1861 and arrived in Australia with his parents in 1863. He joined the railways as a probationer in 1876 and rose through the ranks. He was a traffic inspector in Sydney from 1894 to 1906 when he was promoted to district superintendent at Orange. He would become Assistant Commissioner for Tramways in 1915 and Deputy Chief Commissioner to James Fraser on 1 January 1917. His death on 23 August 1917 was unexpected. He did not enlist but is in uniform in the photo because he had been in the volunteer military for decades.

Albert Cecil Fewtrell joined the Railways in 1908 at the age of 23 and by 1914 was Resident Engineer at Goulburn. He was qualified in civil engineering and had a military career in parallel to his railways career. He left Australia as a lieutenant-colonel in command of the No 1 Mining Corps. After arriving in France, the British had a preference to split the Mining Corps into its separate companies. Fewtrell was then given command of the 4th Pioneers. On 8 October 1917 Fewtrell was attached to the Transportation Directorate as the Australian representative.

After returning from service Fewtrell held increasingly responsible positions and by 1932 he had become Chief Civil Engineer of the NSW Railways. As Major General he served the nation again in the Second World War as General Officer Commanding of Australian Lines of Communication. Relieved of this duty in 1943, he then took charge of the completion of the Hawkesbury River Bridge. In 1948, after a fatal accident at Rocky Ponds caused by a broken rail, Fewtrell as Chief Civil Engineer was called before an inquest and in his evidence he sets out his war service:

I have served in two World wars, and on three occasions have been decorated by the King. On two occasions I have been mentioned in despatches.

Albert Fewtrell died in 1950 while still in the position of Chief Civil Engineer.

William James was 41 when he joined the AIF in 1916. By that time he already had 27 years of railway service and was Relief Steam Shed Inspector at Eveleigh Workshops. He became the commanding officer of the 6th Railway Operating Company. Interestingly, the comforts fund organised by the NSW Railways in Sydney was run by Miss James, William’s sister.

During service, James rose to the rank of Major and was mentioned in despatches in January 1919.  He is described as:

A competent Locomotive and Railway Operating Officer of a military Railway. Good disciplinarian, handles men tactfully and is a good trainer of men. Physically fit, and very energetic. Has done exceptionally good work in this Unit, both in Forward Areas under fire and at the Base.

James’ demobilisation was delayed as he was still on military duty in France in the middle of 1919 and did not return to Australia until September. Once back in NSW Government Railway service, James was immediately made Senior Steam Shed Inspector at Goulburn and in 1934 became Divisional Locomotive Superintendent. He remained in that position until he retired in 1940. He died in 1966.

Another man to advance in his career following service was William Matthew Currey who was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for "most conspicuous bravery and daring" on 1 September 1918 at Peronne, France. Private Currey rushed a 77mm enemy field gun under heavy fire and succeeded in capturing the gun single-handedly after killing the entire crew. He later rushed another enemy post, causing many casualties and enabling the advance to continue. He then volunteered to carry orders, again under heavy gun fire, for the withdrawal of an isolated company. He succeeded and returned with valuable information. He returned to Australia in March 1919 and was discharged on 2 April.

On his return to Australia he joined the NSW Railways. He had not been an employee before, but became a storeman at Eveleigh. Currey left the railways and in 1941 was elected to the NSW Legislative Assembly as the Labor Member for Kogarah, the first VC recipient in the NSW Parliament. He retained his seat until his sudden death on 30 April 1948.

Another railwayman to receive a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) medal was Arthur Borlase Stevens. Stevens travelled to London to receive his order from the King and wrote back to the railways recounting his experience and promotion to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel stating that ‘naturally I feel rather proud to think I started as a subaltern, and have gone through all the positions; but at the same time there is sadness; because to get to the top I have lost chums. But I suppose that is the fortune of war’.

For many young men, their service within the NSW railways was only short-lived. Horace Kurnell Weaver was only 15 years old when he commenced work at Orange in 1909 on probation, but within a year he had become employed as a Junior Porter. He joined the AIF on 17 September 1914 and was promoted to Porter 3 days later on his 21st birthday. On the 28 July 1915, only 21 years old, he was shot by a Turkish sniper while on guard duty on the beach and died. He was buried at Gallipoli. NSW Railways Superannuation cards survive from this period and are stored in railway archives at the NSW State Records. Written on Weaver's card in scarlet ink is: Killed in Action at the Dardanelles.

Effect of war at home

Back home, the NSW Railways played a vital role carrying men to and from training camps with their equipment and horses.

Special recruitment trains also travelled across the state taking recruits to Sydney for training before embarking overseas. Hospital cars were fitted out to provide sleeping accommodation for returned servicemen.

The largest internment camp in Australia was established at Holsworthy and was serviced by the main western railway line. Over the course of the war, Holsworthy Camp grew from a collection of tents to a small town of almost 7000 people, complete with theatres, restaurants, small businesses, and recreational activities. It remained open until 5 May 1920 when the last internees and prisoners of war were repatriated.

An attempt was made during the war to manufacture field gun shells using the machinery at the Eveleigh Railway Workshops, but the process was deemed unsatisfactory and too costly. In addition, the war had not reduced the demand for locomotive repairs and it was difficult to accommodate the additional work required to produce ammunition for the army.

During the war, comforts funds provided packages of small goods to those on active service. Packages included letter writing material, tobacco, extra clothing and ‘luxury’ food items. The ‘Railway Unit Comforts Fund’ raised money by seeking regular subscriptions.

Railwaymen enlisted for military service in large numbers which meant that those who remained were called on to work long hours. Growing anti-war and anti-conscription sentiment among government workers in the railway and transport industries fuelled the industrial unrest that culminated in the 1917 general strike.

In addition to effects on the workforce, the war also stalled railway development activities too. By 1915, Dr J.J.C.Bradfield had developed his visionary plan to provide Sydney with a world-class public transport system, including the electrification of the suburban railways, a city underground railway and construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Shortage of funds during the war led to the postponement of the project in June 1917 and work did not recommence until 1922.

As the wounded and permanently disabled men began returning from the battlefields, the railways were there to serve their needs. Twenty-five suburban carriages were refitted as ambulance trains to transport the wounded from ship to hospital or to their home towns. The railways provided a means of reconnecting soldiers with their families and loved ones after a long separation and many stations were decorated with flags and banners to welcome home troops. As soldiers returned home, the train drivers helped make their presence known with special train whistles.

As opened in 1906, the main building of Central Station was only constructed to platform level. Work on stage two of the design to include two additional floors and the clock tower commenced in 1915 but the outbreak of war slowed construction considerably. The clock finally came into operation on 10.22am on 3 March 1921.

The Amiens gun

Early in August 1918 there was a major advance of the front lines near Villers-Bretonneux in northern France.

Australian troops of the 31st Battalion came upon the complete train of a large (11.2 inch) German railway gun just beyond their planned objective. Lt. George Burrows, an officer of the 14th Field Company of Engineers who was attached to the battalion, went forward with two sappers, raised steam on the attached locomotive, shunted some burning vehicles off the train, and then brought the assembly through the front lines.

Burrows was a resident of Penrith and, although not a NSW railwayman himself, was the son of a Penrith railwayman, the brother of two serving railwaymen and the son-in-law of an engineer in the Signals Branch. Burrows was awarded a bar to his Military Cross for his gallantry in capturing the weapon which had been damaging areas well behind the front line for months.

The gun was actually a naval gun, originally used on the battleship SMS Hessen. The barrel alone weighed 45 tonnes and the total unit 185 tonnes. It was claimed as a trophy by the Australians.

After exhibition in Paris and shipment to England on a Channel ferry, it was loaded onto a ship, Dongara, for despatch to Australia. Although the 31st Battalion was a Victorian unit, the gun had to be unloaded in NSW as that was the only state with the same track gauge as the gun’s bogies.

G.D.Delprat, General Manager of BHP, offered that firm’s resources in Newcastle for the unloading, but this offer could not be used as the old Hawkesbury River Bridge could not bear the weight if the gun was moved to Sydney. As such, the gun was unloaded in Jones Bay and brought to Eveleigh Workshops where it was prepared for exhibition.

The ‘trophy’ had always been the property of the Commonwealth and intended to be part of the collection of what is now the Australian War Memorial (AWM), but in 1920 that organisation was in its infancy. At that time, the ‘electric’ platforms at Central did not exist and a siding extension from Sydney Yard was made to what is now the small park at the corner of Elizabeth Street and Eddy Avenue. Here the gun was exhibited and floodlit from 26 March 1920 for a number of years.

By 1923 work on Bradfield’s City Railway was underway and the bridge over Eddy Avenue and its approach embankments were about to be built. At that stage the gun could be removed with relative ease, but once it was hemmed in by the high retaining walls, it would be a very difficult and expensive operation. So the gun was moved to Canberra, with ample stops along the way for inspection at the many towns it passed through.

Initially exhibited near the power station at Kingston and then on a purpose-built siding near the station, it awaited the construction of the AWM and a decision regarding its place in that edifice. It was still at the station in 1942 when the Australian Army decided that they needed its carriage for essential testing of artillery at Port Wakefield in South Australia. The barrel and canopy were removed and left in Canberra and the carriage on its own ten wheel bogies taken to Bandiana, just over the Murray River from Albury.  The standard gauge bogies could go no further, so the carriage was loaded onto Victorian vehicles for the rest of the journey.

At Port Wakefield the carriage of the gun was used for several years by the Army. The Army had agreed that the carriage would be restored to original condition when they had no further use for it, but by that time the AWM had decided that they did not want to exhibit the whole unit. The carriage was scrapped at Port Wakefield in the 1960s and the now useless bogies scrapped at Bandiana.

The barrel and the canopy are now exhibited in the grounds of the AWM in Canberra.


To capture the experience of Australians at war, the Australian Historical Mission journeyed across Asia Minor by train during February and March 1919.

They embarked on an epic 4000km journey over the newly completed Baghdad-Basra railway which had been placed under British control at the end of World War I. The mission, which included the official Australian war artist, George Lambert and photographer, Charles Bean, initially spent time recording scenes of Gallipoli and ANZAC Cove before travelling through Turkey, Syria and Palestine for two months and on to Egypt where the party dispersed. For the train sections, the group was assigned two converted cattle trucks which were used as a mess room/kitchen and sleeping quarters.

The best estimate of modern researchers is that about 180 New South Wales Government Railways men died at Gallipoli, with most of the deceased buried on the battlefield. Some, who survived long enough to reach a hospital ship but died during transit to other places were buried at sea. Their names are commemorated on the memorial at Lone Pine. Others, who lived long enough to reach Lemnos, Malta or Egypt before succumbing to their wounds, are buried in those places.

The anniversary of the Gallipoli landing on 25 April 1915 quickly became a focal point for remembrance of the events of World War I. As the employer of a very large number of people, thousands of whom had taken a direct part in the war, the NSW Railways needed to regulate their employee’s participation in remembrance events. From as early as the first anniversary in 1916, services were held though not officially organised and no public holiday was observed. Chief Mechanical Engineer, Ernest Lucy, advised his staff by printed circular that they could be absent to attend services for three hours, including their own lunch break, but no more. This concession seems to be extended to all employees.

By ANZAC Day in 1917 Lucy directed that all railway and tramway traffic was to stop, and all work in offices and workshops was to cease for a minute at 1pm. The previous arrangement remained so that all members of staff who could be spared could attend services, but apparently men who were refused leave took the time off anyway, despite the loss of pay. By 1918 there were many returned soldiers back in railway service. Now Lucy’s concession to attend the ANZAC services was only extended to returned men, not the general staff. He did concede, however, that those in dirty occupations needed time to go home and change clothes as they were not just attending a service, but were on parade. Still they could only attend if they could be spared and were not allowed to leave too early.

The next celebration was for the end of the war in late 1918. With the time difference, the news did not reach Sydney until 12 November, so Lucy granted leave to celebrate for the rest of that day, and the next day as well. The men who worked in order to allow everyone else to attend the celebrations were given double pay and received days off in lieu as well.

In March 1919 Lucy issued the same instructions as 1918. However, due to the Influenza epidemic that was sweeping Sydney, public gatherings could not be held and ANZAC Day had to be postponed until 22 May. In 1919 virtually all of the people who had served in the war were home and this would be the most significant ANZAC Day yet observed. Many men applied for leave, but it was refused, or did not even bother to apply. Lucy however chose to pay them absent or not, and those who did work were given another day in lieu. By 1920, ANZAC Day had become a public holiday, but as the actual day was the Sunday of a long weekend, returned soldiers were permitted to be absent from work.

To remember their service, workers at home erected honour boards at railway stations and depots. Many of these honour boards are now on display at Central Station as part of the ‘Railway Remembrance Wall’ which was inaugurated by railway employees ‘to honour their fellow workers who served in the defence of their country’. The Remembrance Wall was opened on 21 April 1997 by the Hon. Brian Langton, MP Minister for Transport and Minister for Tourism, and David Hill, Chief Executive of the State Rail Authority of NSW.

During the war the NSW Railways listed any men killed in action in Annual Reports. In the madness of it all many names were overlooked, or only added years later. The Honour Roll in 1921 records 1210 employees who had ‘given their life for the cause of liberty and Empire’. Many more were wounded, some beyond hope of ever working productively again.

A complete list of honour boards and war memorials is available to search on the Register of War Memorials in NSW.

Lives on the line

Lives on the Line is a commemorative artwork to acknowledge the contributions and sacrifices of the NSW railwaymen who enlisted during World War 1.

It is on permanent display at Trainworks rail museum. Commissioned by Transport Heritage NSW and Sydney Trains for the Anzac Centenary (2014–2018), Lives on the Line was conceived and designed by local artists Celeste Coucke and Stephen Fearnley.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, the NSW Railways and Tramways Department was the largest enterprise in the state, with 45,000 employees. Over the course of the war, 8,447 men from the department enlisted and 1,210 of these men died on active service.

Some NSW railwaymen were recruited specifically to assist with operating railway lines for the Allied war effort in Europe but most served amongst other soldiers fighting on the frontline. In an era when road transportation and aviation were still in their infancy, the nature and scale of World War I suited the use of railways like no war before or since. Joseph Joffre, Commander-in- Chief of the French Army during the war declared: ‘This is a railway war… if we win this war it will be largely due to the railways.’

The aims of the project were to: honour, in a poignant and respectful way, the 8,447 NSW railwaymen who were involved in World War 1; create an evolving and participatory artwork which, at its conclusion, would serve as an enduring memorial; and to enable people from around the state to be involved in the creation of the artwork.

Each of the railwaymen who enlisted is represented in the artwork by a handmade stoneware object, created by members of the public using press moulds and clay. The moulds were used to create facsimiles of objects from the collections of Transport Heritage NSW and the Australian War Memorial. These small, everyday objects represent the types of things that soldiers and railwaymen wore on their uniforms or on their person, the types of artefacts that became trapped in the mud of battlefields and later excavated.

The project

Between August 2015 and March 2016, workshops were held in various locations across the state to give members of the public an opportunity to participate in the creation of the artwork. Through this community engagement program, thousands of people learnt about the contribution of the NSW Railways to World War 1 and were given a rare opportunity to help make a public artwork.

The project also involved over 2000 school students from local schools, including Bargo Public School, Chevalier College, Mittagong Public School, Moss Vale Public School, North Goulburn Public School, Robertson Public School, Thirlmere Public School, Windellama Public School and Wollondilly Anglican College.

The schools outreach program enabled the story of the contribution of the NSW Railways to World War 1 to be told to a new generation and, in making a piece of the artwork with their own hands, students gained a sense of ownership over both the artwork and the story.

The artwork

The first section features the red and purple wool felt shoulder patch worn by the Australian railway operating companies on both broad gauge and light railway lines. The 6 th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company (6 th ABGROC) was formed in Sydney in December 1916, made up primarily by volunteers from the New South Wales Government Railways. They sailed in February 1916 and after a period of training in Britain, arrived in France in May 1917. After a period working at the main Railway Operating Division base at Audruicq (near Calais), in July 1917 they took control of the locomotive depot and exchange sidings at Bergues Exchange that was supporting the Ypres area.

For Christmas 1917, the 6 th ABGROC sent a hand drawn card to the Chief Commissioner of the New South Wales Railways, James Fraser. Seven pages of the card contain the signatures, regimental numbers and ranks of 269 of the enlisted men of the unit. These signatures have been reproduced and incised into the tiles as a tribute to the men of the 6 th ABGROC.

The pieces in the middle section were made by local school students and members of the public in workshops that were held throughout NSW. Plaster press moulds were made based on artefacts from the collections of Transport Heritage NSW and the Australian War Memorial. Clay was used to make stoneware facsimiles of the objects. Each of the objects was selected for its association with the NSW Railways of the era or Australian World War I soldiers – while some were recruited specifically to assist with rail operations, the majority served amongst other soldiers fighting on the frontline.

The final panel of the artwork features 1,210 star-like points of light to represent the Railway and Tramway Employees who died on active service. During the war the NSW Railways listed any men killed in action in Annual Reports. In the madness of it all many names were overlooked, or only added years later. The Honour Roll in 1921 records 1,210 employees who had ‘given their life for the cause of liberty and Empire’. Many more were wounded, some beyond hope of ever working productively again.

  • Part one
  • Part two
  • Part three
  • Part four
  • Part five
  • Part six
  • Part seven
  • Part eight
  • Part nine