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Light Railway Accident 17 January 1918 – The Death of Sapper Hay

In her research, Sandra Gittins has already turned up a couple of cases of accidents to railway staff serving overseas during World War One – and we’re very grateful that she’s blogged about them for us, here and here. In this post, she has uncovered the circumstances surrounding one further – dramatic – case.

We owe Sandra a debt of thanks for sharing her research with us – and warmly encourage other researchers and potential authors to get in touch with us. We’re happy to receive guest posts, especially where they extend what the project is doing!

Royal Engineers regimental logoContemporary account of the accident.

This intriguing passage from ‘A Record of the 17th and 32nd Battalions Northumberland Fusiliers 1914-19 (NER Pioneers)’ by Lieutenant Colonel Shakespear is, on face value, an accurate account of the event, but is, in fact, very misleading.

The passage is from a chapter describing events during March and April 1918, but the floods in question occurred in January 1918. The month started very cold with snow, but three days of heavy rain began on the 15th causing severe flooding throughout the district surrounding Ypres, which seriously damaged rail tracks, weakened bridges, and undoubtedly contributed to the accidental death of 238334 Sapper Alexander Christie Hay, 10th Light Railway Operating Company Royal Engineers.

Alexander Hay. Courtesy of Andrew Fraser, Alexander’s Great Great Nephew.

As Sapper Hay’s Army records exist, in which are the papers from the Court of Inquiry held after the accident, and it has been possible to piece together the events of the 17 January using the witness statements.

Start of the day.

Sapper 206375 Arthur William J. Loder, Engine Driver, signed in at 5.30am and received orders to report to Reigersburg to work for the Canadians.

There were eight empty wagons there when he arrived. The Canadians arrived five minutes later and filled four of the wagons.

Movement on to Battle and towards Steenbeek.

The Canadian Officer in Charge, Captain Gall, gave orders to proceed to Battle, and on arriving at Battle the Canadian troops detrained and a party of Northumberland Fusiliers got on, and they occupied five wagons; the three empty wagons were left in a siding.

The Train Guard told Loder that they were to proceed to Steenbeek, and having got the ‘right away’ the train started on the journey, but had to stop for three minutes at Admirals Road to allow another train to pass. Loder heard no other instructions until the train had passed Steenbeek Loop, when he heard a whistle and the Northumberland Fusiliers shouting ‘Stop’. He applied the brakes immediately, but the wheels skidded, so he applied the sand.

He said ‘as soon as the engine came onto the bridge it collapsed, and the engine turned over into the flood, and he didn’t know if the fireman was in the engine or pinned underneath’.

The final move.

Sapper 268939 George Webster, Train Guard, stated that they started at Reigersburg with four empty wagons, and four with Canadians, and headed for Battle. On arrival the Canadians left and were replaced by Northumberland Fusiliers. When loaded Captain Gall gave orders to continue to Steenbeek, and Webster transmitted the order to the Driver, but Gall had given no specific stopping place.

When the train approached Steenbeek Loop, the furthest Webster had been before, Captain Gall gave orders to drop him anywhere there. Webster said ‘I whistled the Driver, and he must have heard the signal because he was pulling up at the time’, but there was insufficient time to pull up before the bridge.

Webster observed nothing more until he got off, and went to the bridge and saw the engine in the water.

Webster was questioned by the Court;

   Have you ever been to Steenbeek before – Once to Steenbeek Loop during the morning

  Had you any knowledge that the bridge was not open for locomotives – I had received no warning of any kind

  What do you estimate the number of troops in the wagons – About 150

  Where were you when you received the orders to drop Captain Gall anywhere – Past the loop

 How far is the loop from the bridge – 50 to 75 yards

Did Captain Gall tell you to use your whistle – I used it as soon as I got the order to drop him anywhere

Was there sufficient distance to stop the train – Yes

Did you assist with the braking – I had my brake on before given the order to stop as we were on a slight decline.

What was the estimated speed of the train when ordered to stop – A little faster than I could walk.

At what speed could you walk Owning to having had fractured legs, it would take more than an hour to walk two miles.

Did you know there was a bridge at Steenbeek – No, I did not know.

Loder was questioned by the Court;

How long have you been driving – Since August 1917

Where were you passed Fireman – At Audruicq August 1916, and passed Driver August 1917

Do you know the road over the Steenbeek – Yes

Have you previously driven construction trains – Yes

On these times was it usual for you to proceed until stopped – Yes

Have you been over this bridge before with a locomotive – Yes, I have been over with a locomotive and six of ballast (wagons)

Did you know the bridge was unsafe – No

What do you estimate the distance from the loop to the bridge – About 75 to 80 yards

What was your distance from the bridge when you received the whistle to stop – From 10 to 15 yards

What do you estimate your speed at the time of receiving the signal – about 2.5 MPH

How does your ordinary rate of walking compare with your speed at the time – I could walk a little faster

At what do you estimate your speed at the moment of the accident – I would not like to say

Have you previously worked with this guard – This was my third day with him

Did you stop at Juliet Farm – No

Was your sanding gear in good order – Yes, when tested in the yard

Did you receive any warning from control or the Canadians as to any precautions to be taken – None whatsoever

Did you have a clear view of the guard – Not a clear view owing to the troops in the wagons

Was the Fireman on the footplate when the engine came on to the bridge – Yes


The Court had received a written account of events from Captain H. Gall ‘C’ Company Canadian Railway Troops:


To: President of Court of Inquiry

                Derailment of Loco No. 618 at Steenbeek


I have the honour to report that Loco 618 when taking us to work this morning, was derailed about 8am at the temporary bridge at the Steenbeek on the B.9 line, map location C11.b.8.2. falling over into the water on the down-stream side of the bridge, and the fireman was pinned beneath the engine and drowned; we were unable to do anything to save him.

Before reaching Juliet Farm Control I gave instructions to the guard that he would take the train through to the Steenbeek. When we arrived within a couple of hundred yards of the siding at the Steenbeek I noticed the Engineer had not slackened speed at preparatory to stopping, and was still running along at a fairly good rate of speed so I ordered the guard to stop the train, and as he did not respond smartly enough I ordered him to blow his whistle and stop the train. The train had had by this time run on to the turn-out at the south end of the siding. The speed of the train slackened somewhat, but we carried on until the engine and half of the first car were on the bridge. Apparently the Engineer had set his brakes, but owing to the slippery condition of the rails we skidded on.

The bridge settled down on the downstream side and the engine jumped the track and fell over into the creek, pulling the first car in with it, the back part of which was held up by the connecting link with the next car and the oil box on the rear truck was caught in the track.

The Engineer got clear of the loco, and the Northumberland Fusiliers who were in the first wagon, also got clear, but we could find no trace of the fireman.

The bridge was put in temporarily yesterday in order to bring back P.E’s (Petrol-Electric locomotives) which were blocked on the other side of the Steenbeek. The control at Battle was notified by myself about 6.45pm last night that the bridge was open for traffic and the P.E’s could be brought out if taken slowly and carefully, this was done about 10pm

Upon examination of the bridge after the derailment I noticed that there was about two feet of the embankment had been washed away on both sides. Whether this had happened during the night or caused by the impact when the engine got on the bridge I am unable to say.

I have no recollection of seeing this train crew on this part of the line before, and can only account for their running beyond the points of the siding on the south side of the Steenbeek, which is the furthest forward to which locos are supposed to run, by the fact that they were not familiar with that part of the line.

I have the honour to be, Sir

Your obedient servant

H. Gall Capt.


Having heard the evidence, the Court concluded that the accident was caused by the weight of the locomotive braking down the fill of the bridge, which had been undermined by the floods. The Court also noted that the bridge had been a temporary structure, and that Battle Control had been informed the previous day that traffic could use the bridge provided that the traffic moved slowly and carefully, and train crews using that section should have been told, but on this occasion no instructions were given.

The Driver proceeded, as was usual, until told to stop, but he was not told in time, and there was insufficient distance in which to stop until reaching the bridge.

There were two points were highlighted that were directly responsible for the accident;

  1. No special instructions were given to the train crew as to the condition of the bridge.
  2. No explicit instructions as to the destination of the train were given by Captain Gall to the train crew. The usual practice of construction parties was to sop the train anywhere desired, and the Driver carried out this practice.

‘The Court find that the Fireman, Sapper Hay 10th LROC, was accidentally killed by either being pinned in or under the engine, which overturned into the stream through instructions not being issued respecting the above two points.’

238334 Sapper Alexander Christie Hay was employed by the Great North of Scotland Railway as a cleaner, and enlisted in his home city of Aberdeen on the 31 January 1917, aged 19. He spent a month at Longmoor where he was appointed a Sapper in the Railway Operating Division Royal Engineers, and embarked for France on the 12 March with the newly formed 10th Light Railway Operating Company.

Hay is buried in Duhallow A.D.S. Cemetery, which is situated north of Ypres, beside the canal, and east of Reigersburg (see map 1).

A work party on a Light Railway during the First World War, and modern view of the location of the bridge over the Steenbeek.

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

    My Great Uncle Sapper John Richard Norton 388364 served with 39th Broad Gauge Railway Miscellaneous Trades Company RE on the Western Front. He was accidentally killed whilst walking in the four foot in the down direction on the down main line, proceeding to Buire to catch the leave train to Boulogne when he was knocked down by a light engine travelling tender first, sustaining injuries which proved fatal. He was with Spr J W Winning who was also killed.The formal report states that the investigating officer considered Sprs Norton and Winning to blame as they were walking between the rails.

    Prior to enlistment he worked on Barry Island’s Docks on the railway. I have some documentation which I would be pleased to share if anyone’s interested.

  2. Andrew Fraser

    An excellent report from Sandra. Sapper Alexander Christie Hay was my great grandfathers younger brother, i have a copy of the investigation into the accident and have been to Duhallow many times over the years. Alexander along with four older brothers and his father all served in WW1, 2 were killed, one lost an arm, one was gassed and the rest made it through, probably typical of losses to large famillies just doing their bit for the war effort. We are very lucky not to have to do the same and we will remember them.

    • Mike Esbester

      Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for your comments here, and great that you’ve found Sandra’s post – I think it’s wonderful that family members are in touch with us about their ancestors, especially when you’re able to add wider detail about the family like this. Thank you.

      All the best,


    • Sandra Gittins

      Thank you so much for your response to my article, and interesting to hear the family WW1 history, and as you say it was a familiar statistic in large families but we will remember them
      All the best

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