Irish Railway Record Society
on the Irish Railways
THE FOURTH YEAR OF WAR
In 1917, the war entered its fourth year – with
no prospect of victory in sight. From the beginning of the war, the Royal Navy
imposed a strict blockade on continental Europe, which caused food shortages in
Germany and Austria- Hungary. As a response to the threat of defeat by
starvation, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare
on 9 January. This meant that any ships trading with Britain were subject to
attacks without warning. This caused significant losses of merchant shipping and
the threat of a food shortage in Britain. However, a consequence of unrestricted
submarine warfare was that the USA came into the war on 6 April. The other
significant event of Spring 1917 was the first Russian Revolution in February.
This brought down the Romanov dynasty and was a prelude to the Bolshevik
Revolution in October, which took Russia out of the War. On the Western Front,
the major military engagements, of 1917 was the battle of Passchendaele, which
has become symbolic of the slaughter on the Western Front. Looking at material
in the Society’s Archive and Library, the main themes which emerge are those
of material and manpower shortages and of the movement of troops towards the
IRISH RAILWAY EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE
1917 was the first
year of government control of the railway system, which was exercised by the
Irish Railway Executive Committee. This body was made up of the general managers
of the major companies, chaired by the government’s Irish Undersecretary. The
minutes of the Committee are a mine of information, particularly in respect of
companies whose archives do not survive. In addition to minutes, the IREC issued
many directives on a wide variety of subjects, including a prohibition on the
acceptance of soldiers’ kit and rifles in Left Luggage Offices and the
arrangements to be applied for troops escorting loads of explosives.
first meeting of the IREC was on 2 January 1917, and it continued to meet at
least weekly for the remainder of its existence. A major part of its work was
the curtailment of train mileage and of traffic. This policy had in fact
commenced in December 1916, when the Government banned excursion traffic. This
badly affected the GAA, and the book The
GAA & the Revolution in Ireland 1913-1923 contains no less than eleven
index entries under the heading “rail travel”. However, some special trains
were more special than others, and those involving horses or the killing of
small animals received special treatment. A hunt special ran between Naas and Baltinglass on
6 March, while a special ran from Limerick to Kilgobbin on the
North Kerry line for the coursing events at Clounanna on St Patrick's Day and in
November. The first meeting of the IREC agreed to cancel special trains for
athletic and football meetings. but not for race meetings - as lack of specials
'would seriously interfere with the working of ordinary trains.' In addition,
all reduced fares for pleasure were abolished, as were concession fares for
fairs and markets. In March, the IREC instructed that race specials were to be
In January, English railway companies who had
notice boards at GS&WR stations requested that any notices ‘advertising
holiday resorts or anything to encourage travel’ be removed. The newspapers in
April gave details of the restrictions that would be applied to travel at
traffic increased, and a GS&WR circular of 13 January gave general guidance
on military specials. Among the things it specified was that every attempt
should be made to have at least one lavatory coach per train.
A recurring problem
was the demand by the Army for more men. Conscription was introduced in Britain
in December 1916, but was politically impossible in Ireland, where the army
relied on voluntary recruitment. A number of public relations measures were
undertaken to promote enlistment. In February, the Irish Canadian Rangers – a
unit of the Canadian Army composed of Irish migrants - toured Ireland. On 3
February, the GS&WR took over a train of GNR(I) coaches and worked it to
Cork. The GNR(I) coaches remained with the Canadians and provided specials to
Blarney and Limerick before returning northward. Later in February, the band of
the Irish Guards toured Leinster. The circular ordained that ‘Rosslare coach
869’ was to be allocated to the band and it was attached to regular trains
from Waterford in the week beginning 20 February, visiting Kilkenny, Clonmel,
Tipperary, Mountmellick and Tullamore.
minutes of the IREC also highlight manpower and materials shortages. The larger
companies were asked to act as fairy godmothers to their smaller counterparts.
In the first quarter of 2017, the West Clare sought help from the GS&WR in
re-laying, the SL&NCR sought help from the GNR(I) and the GS&WR in
re-laying and wagon repairs, while the L&LSR sought help from anywhere to
cope with its problems of engine power. The newly created Ministry of Munitions
regulated the engineering industry in the minutest detail. For example, the
L&LSR needed their approval to recruit extra workshop staff to resolve its
problems with locomotive availability.
aspect of the manpower crisis was the recruitment of civilian permanent way
labourers on three-month contracts for service behind the lines in France. This
request was first raised by the War Office with the IREC in February. The
initial request did not produce the desired results, as a month later an
amending circular was issued which clarified a number of issues – volunteers
would not be asked to serve within 50 miles of the firing line and the phrase
‘under military law’ meant that strikes would be prohibited.
This experiment was not a
happy one as the Official History of the war records[i].
companies of railwaymen from Great Britain and five from Ireland were supplied.
As in Crimea in 1855 and Sudan in 1885, the experience of employing civilians in
an overseas theatre of war did not prove altogether satisfactory, and further
offers of assistance of this kind were declined. As civilians, they could only
be deployed in safe areas. In view of the large pay they received compared with
their fellow railwaymen who had enlisted, to employ them alongside the ordinary
railway construction units would have caused discontent among the latter. The
cost and trouble involved was out of proportion to the value of their help.
battle of Passchendaele commenced on 31 July with a British assault near Ypres.
We can trace the movement of men to this battle from the GS&WR circular. The
first indication came in February when the regular Saturday military leave
special from Kildare to Kingsbridge stopped running[ii].
Further signs that much of the Army was now in France came in a note in
the circular of 25 August which reminded ticket
checkers and booking office clerks to ensure that NCOs and men ‘returning to
France off leave in Ireland must travel by the Kingstown mail route as the North
Wall route will not allow the men to arrive in London to catch the special train
leaving Victoria station at 07.50 am’. Presumably officers travelled on
regular trains or on a later special train.
concentration of troops for the battle began in early July. On 10 July, three
specials conveyed a large group of men to Cork, each special conveying 23
officers and 750 men. The pattern was repeated on the following day. On 19
August, eight specials from the Curragh carried approximately 2,700 officers and
men together with horses and bicycles. One special conveyed 54 tons of baggage
and two vans full of explosives. The trains took one hour between Curragh siding
and Kingsbridge Goods.
The war brought about a shortage of materials. A
coal shortage prompted the building of rail links to Ireland’s coalfields. In
February, the Government sought the cooperation of the IREC in the opening of a
railway to Wolfhill Collieries. On 23 March, the GS&WR board agreed that
construction of the line should proceed at Government expense. With exception of
the viaduct over the Barrow at Athy, undertaken by William Arrol and Co, the
work was undertaken directly by the GS&WR, and required the singling of the
Cherryville Junction to Carlow section to provide rails. For Sunday 10 June, the circular advised that ‘the down line between
Mageney and Carlow stations will be dispensed with after the passing of the
08.45 down passenger train and ETS working will be substituted.’ On 18 June,
the points leading to the Wolfhill branch at Athy were brought into use. This
was the first of the colliery railways to come into use, the other two being the
Castlecomer branch and the Arigna valley extension on the C&LR.
Shell production continued in
Inchicore. Weekly production reports were given to the Board with that of 26
April being typical, recording an output of 8,500 fused bodies and
11,040 fuse adaptors. The Ministry of Munitions built a bonded testing area in
the grounds of the Royal Hospital just opposite Kingsbridge. Two sidings were
laid to serve the facility. The GS&WR board was advised that Guinness was
not charged for repairs worth £80 on their loco No. 2 undertaken in Inchicore,
as Guinness did all the shunting in the Ministry of Munitions sidings (which
were connected to the GS&WR via the Guinness tramway).
railway was also witness to the growing instability of national politics in the
wake of 1916.
September there was a near riot in Ennis station, when a group of prisoners
under RIC escort were transferring from the West Clare train to the GS&WR
train bound for Limerick. The district superintendent reported ‘The prisoners
were ordinary prisoners convicted of petty offences. The crowd was set in motion
by a telegram from Kilrush which suggested that the prisoners were in fact Sinn
Féiners’. On 10 October, the RIC were besieged in Listowel station by an
angry crowd, and the assistance of the railway staff was acknowledged by Dublin
Castle, while on 20 November, the GS&WR complained that Limerick and Nenagh
stations were taken over by crowds and that ‘At Nenagh military drill was
exercised on the platform, members of the constabulary being present but no
notice was taken by Police’[iii].
level of National Politics, the main event of 1917 was the Irish Convention, an
attempt – ultimately unsuccessful – to bring together all the political
parties in Ireland and agree a form of Home Rule. In late September the
convention visited Cork and on 27 September a special train was run for
delegates. The Irish Times reported:
railway journey, which was made in splendid time, revealed the high efficiency
of the system … The train left Cork at 3 o’clock, and Dublin was reached at
5.55 pm, the Northern delegates being enabled to catch the evening train to
Belfast. The run of 165 miles was thus made in what is probably the “record
time” of 175 minutes. The services of the engine-driver and fireman were
suitably recognised by the party.’[iv]
information was given by P.J. Currivan in the Journal,
as witnessed by his father, driver of a down train:
the failing light of a September evening, as they approached Clondalkin, Martin
drew my father’s attention to what looked like a dull-red poppy coming along
on the up road. This turned out to be Bill Breen with 328, completing what was
to be one of the fastest runs ever done with steam in Ireland. … The load was
140 tons – two 45 ft 1sts; two 30 ft six-wheeled vans; and one 50 ft saloon.
The 79 miles from Cork to Thurles were covered in 75 mins, and the 155 miles to
Islandbridge in the fast time of 155 minutes. Breen’s average speed was 62
mph, and between Limerick Junction and Thurles it was 74.’[v]
THE BEGINNING OF THE
December 1917, both sides in the war were reaching exhaustion. We now know that
1917 was to be the last full year of the war, but contemporaries had no such
assurance. The October revolution took Russia out of the War, giving Germany a
chance to transfer troops from the East for one final push on the Western front
before thousands of fresh American troops arrived in Europe. It was still all to
addition to the sources noted below, the sources for this article were:
A. M. Henniker, Transportation on the
western front, 1914-1918, London, HMSO, 1937 p 223.
For details of these specials see The Great Southern and Western Railway in 1915, IRRS Journal Oct
2015, Vol 26, No 188, p 349.
GS&WR Secretary Files 2865 Assembly
of disorderly crowds at stations; 2872 Assistance
rendered to police by staff.
Irish Times, 28 September 1917.
[v] PJ Currivan, Engineman’s Son, IRRS Journal Oct 1974, Vol 11, No 65, p 277.
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