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The Fourth (Unarmed) Service
on 10 August 2012
Quite a lot has been written about the contribution made by British railway companies to the ultimate Allied victories in both World Wars, but I can't bring to mind any other publication which offers so much for so little - Amazon is charging only £5.24 for the book at the time of writing (August 2012).
Shire Publishing is widely known for its extensive and eclectic collection of slim paperbacks; you'll have seen their point-of-sale displays at museums of all kinds. The characteristic Shire approach is to engage an expert to write the text in accessible language, so that the interested reader can obtain accurate and reliable information about subjects which pique their curiosity but about which they have little or no prior knowledge. As an added bonus, many of the authors have an obvious and infectious enthusiasm for their subject, which adds considerably to the reading experience. In this case, the author - Tim Bryan - was for many years curator of Steam - The Museum of the Great Western Railway and its predecessor, the GWR Museum. He's clearly an expert and an enthusiast, and he delivers an amazing array of fascinating information. He has written several books on transport subjects, including two other Shire books - 'The Great Western Railway' and, most recently, 'Railway Workshops'.
The present book runs to 64 pages, and includes around 75 illustrations; despite the historic subject matter quite a number of these are in colour. About a third of the book is devoted to the contribution made by railway companies and railwaymen during World War I, both at home and behind the lines overseas. The remaining chapters cover preparations for World War II, mass evacuations from London and other large cities, coping with attacks and bomb damage, munitions work, preparations for D-Day and the aftermath of war. There's an appendix listing relevant places to visit, and a brief - but useful - index.
The book made me realise how little I really knew about this highly significant episode of our social history. In both conflicts the strategic contribution of the railways was enormous, and integral to the success of military strategy. The epithet 'The Fourth Service' bestowed by the press may be rather twee by today's standards, but it was hard-earned and well-deserved. Overall, it's the sheer scale of the railway effort that surprises and sticks in the mind. By May 1945, the 'Big Four' railways had operated almost half-a-million special trains for the armed forces. When we think of the achievements of the Air Force, we should not forget that the runways of the new airfields were built on foundations of rubble brought in by the railways - often from blitzed urban areas - and the bricks, timber and other construction materials were also rail-borne. Even when construction was complete, and decades before the word 'logistics' acquired today's commercial relevance, the railways were responsible for delivering fuel and munitions at the precise time and in the huge quantities required. These fuel and armament shipments were of course a prime objective target for enemy aircraft. Later in the war, in the six months prior to D-Day one strategically-placed station on the Southern Railway was transformed by the addition of no less than 14 miles of sidings, providing capacity to handle 2500 wagons. And these examples merely scratch the surface of the information to be fount in 'Railways in Wartime'.
Whether you are interested in railways, in warfare or just in the social history of Britain, this little book has a great deal to offer and I have no hesitation in recommending it.