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Dernancourt (Somme) railway accident, 1918

In this post, guest contributor Sandra Gittins brings us back to the First World War, when accidents to railway staff didn’t stop. She’s already blogged about a case which led to an injury for a railwayman on active service in France (here); this time, sadly, 2 fatalities resulted.

As always, we’re very happy to receive guest posts for our blog – do please get in touch with us!


On the 15 January 1918 Sapper John Richard Norton, and Sapper James William Winning, who were with the Railway Operating Division at Meaulte, began walking down the railway line to catch a leave train at Buire-sur-L’Ancre, a little way down the main line from Dernancourt. Unfortunately, they were hit by an engine, that was running light and tender first, on the main line just past the Meaulte branch line junction.

Map of the accident location at Dernancourt.
Dernancourt accident location.

Details of the accident were provided by the driver and fireman, L/Cpl William Denman and Sapper Joseph Chinnick, and, although the handwritten accounts are difficult to read, their accounts are, basically, as follows;

They were held up at Dernancourt junction ‘Stop Board’ for about two or three minutes, and proceeded when the line was clear, passing Dernancourt Junction and continued down the main line.

The Dernancourt accident site today.

Top: Looking up the main line towards Albert – the purpose-built war time Meaulte Branch line ran through the fields opposite and joined the main line here.

Bottom: Looking down the main line at the same point (Dernancourt)

Shortly after Chinnick sounded the whistle, and quickly applied the brakes. Denman was unaware, until then, that anything was wrong owing to the restricted view from the cab as the engine was running tender first.

As soon as they stopped Chinnick jumped down and saw a soldier wedged between the sand pipe and left driving wheel. He went for a spanner, and assisted Denman with removing the sand pipe and releasing the man. Having done that, to their shock and surprise, they found another man lying on the ‘four foot’. Chinnick recollected ‘I noticed the scalp of the head was missing, and knew he was beyond first aid’. (The cause of his death was recorded as a fractured skull.)

A Sergeant-Major, who evidently had been on the footplate, ordered Chinnick to take charge of the bodies, while he summoned assistance, and an ambulance arrived twenty minutes later.

Copy of the accident report.
Contemporary accident report giving details of the case.


388364 Sapper Norton, from Barry in South Wales, was with the 39th Broad Gauge Railway Miscellaneous Trades Company

206355 Sapper Winning, from Battersea, was an Engine Driver with the Railway Operating Division.

These men would have been aware of any scheduled trains due to run on the main line, and might have felt confident that they could walk safely down the track, but they were probably not aware of any unscheduled movement of stock.

Norton and Winning's graves at Dernancourt.
The graves of Norton and Winning at Dernancourt Military Cemetery, Somme


Sandra Gittins

Author of:

The Great Western Railway in the First World War – The History Press 2010

Between the coast and the Western Front – The History Press 2014

Current Project – the railways of the Royal Engineers on the Western Front


  1. Michael Norton

    Dear Sandra,
    This was my Great Uncle, Spr John Richard Norton.
    I have similar documentation but no detail of any Court of Inquiry.
    Mick Norton

  2. Pingback:Connecting people through the project - Railway Work, Life & Death

  3. Pingback:Light Railway Accident 17 January 1918 - The Death of Sapper Hay - Railway Work, Life & Death

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