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100 Years of Anzac

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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.