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.
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 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.