In a timely guest post, Sandra Gittins draws on some of her research into railway workers on the Western Front of the First World War to look at one case of a chance accident – the circumstances really are quite incredible. What is good news is that Sandra will be writing a couple more posts to look at more cases like this, of accident at war.
Quite by chance this ties into Disability History Month, as the FJ Lovejoy, the fireman at the centre of this post, lost several fingers during the war, but went back to his old role on the Great Western when he returned home – even though it must have made his job quite difficult. Last week’s post looked at some other cases where accidents and disability did not prevent staff from returning to work in some capacity.
Born in Pontypool in 1892, Frederick James Lovejoy joined the Great Western Railway as an engine cleaner at Pontypool Road in July 1907, aged 15. His career progressed becoming a mechanics labourer in 1911, a shedman in 1912, and he became a 3rd Group Fireman in May 1913. When war was declared in August 1914, he joined the Royal Field Artillery, and although his Army records exist there is little information available for his early military life.
As the war progressed there came a great demand for men with a railway background for the ever increasing railway lines being built and worked, and Lovejoy re-enlisted, this time with the Railway Operating Division, Royal Engineers, on the 31 May 1916 at Longmoor. On the 23 June he arrived in France, and was sent to the large Railway Depot, Royal Engineers store and Ammunition dump at Audruicq, on the main line between Calais and St Omer.
An intriguing article appeared about Lovejoy in the June 1917 issue of the Great Western Railway Magazine, and the account of an episode he had in France read as follows; During operations in France he was fireman on a train which took ammunition to the Front, when a bomb was dropped from a German aeroplane, killing the engine driver and taking away Lovejoy’s fingers.
As plausible as this is, it is a lesson in not believing everything you read, although what actually happened is a unique accident which could only have happened at that time, and at that place.
On the 27 July 1916 shunting was being carried out at Audruicq yard, with Lovejoy as fireman performing his usual duties, but as he shovelled the coal into the firebox there was an explosion.
In his evidence for the Court of Enquiry, Lovejoy thought that he had shovelled a Mills Bomb into the firebox, but the Court came to the conclusion that a shell nose cap (fuse) was concealed within the coal, causing the explosion once it had been put into the fire. The nose cap could have found its way into the coal when the depot at Audruicq was bombed during the previous week, resulting in massive explosions when the ammunition dump was hit, causing shells etc to be hurled over a very large area.
Lovejoy was admitted to No 35 General Hospital, Calais, for initial treatment before being sent back to England for further treatment. The medical report stated; Terminal and middle phalanges of thumb, index and middle fingers of left hand are missing. Tender scars over heads of metacarpal bones and tips of fingers. Several fragments stated to be still embedded in the hand, and that these fragments are too small and numerous to warrant any attempt at removal.
It was recorded that the ‘injury was received in performance of Military duty, and the man was in no way to blame.’ There is no report of the engine driver being killed or injured.
Lovejoy was discharged from the Army on the 3 February 1917 being ‘no longer physically fit for war service.’
On the 5 March 1917 Lovejoy returned to work, and surprisingly, given his injuries, to his old position as a GWR Fireman at Pontypool.
On the 20 April, according to the GWR records, he was working the 10.40 Special Goods train from Pontypool, with engine 2802, and on arrival at Llangollen Junction he left the engine and proceeded to the Signal Box to carry out Rule 55.
Rule 55 meant that when a signal was at danger, and the train was brought to a standstill, the driver had to sound the engine whistle, and if still detained, the guard, shunter or fireman had to go to the signal box and remind the signalman of the position of the train.
The GWR record continued relating the events of the day; When returning to his engine he (Lovejoy) was knocked down by the 9.05pm Llangollen Branch goods train, and was fatally injured.
A tragic end for a man who had worked on the railway since the age of 15, cheated death while serving with the Royal Engineers, only to lose his life in a railway accident two months before his 25th birthday.
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
Ed’s postscript: Lovejoy’s accident record is also found in the GWR’s files held at The National Archives – and is one of those which will be appearing in our project extension with TNA, so watch this space for more!