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.