In the course of her research into the military railway aspects of the First World War, Sandra Gittins has already found a number of accidents to soldiers around the rails in France and been good enough to write them up for us, the most recent of which is here. These cases add an important dimension to the project, helping us think about both the reach of British railways and their staff and about the importance of considering accidents internationally. We’re therefore delighted to welcome Sandra back, with a new post that returns us to France and the First World War. Here she considers the intersection of railway transport and what was a relatively new form of military technology – the tank – and an accident that resulted.
As always, we welcome guest posts, so if you have an idea, please feel free to get in touch with us!
Plateau Station, situated SW of Maricourt on the Somme, was the place designated for the concentration of 436 Tanks prior to the Battle of Cambrai (20 November – 30 December 1917).
From day nine to day six before Zero Hour trains arrived at Plateau carrying tanks from various Tank Depots, each train carrying twelve tanks together with personnel and stores. In the four days before Zero Hour the trains travelled forward from Plateau to the detraining stations, of which there were six, near the Front. Those trains that travelled on day five went straight to their allotted detraining stations without stopping at Plateau.
One of the detraining stations was Ruyalcourt Station, and two ramps had been constructed during the week before for the end unloading/loading of tanks onto the wagons.
On the 16 November a ‘special’ train loaded with tanks left Plateau bound for Ruyalcourt, but as the train was being put into position for unloading and approaching the level crossing it struck a motor lorry causing two deaths.
A Court of Enquiry was held a couple of days later on the 19 November, and the witness statements are as follows:
Captain E.T.C. Milligan RAMC 48TH Casualty Clearing Station
On the night of the 16/17 November I received two bodies – 8884 Private McNally J. 1st R. Irish Fusiliers, and 149295 Sapper Bird F.C. Royal Engineers, cause of death in first case was shock following on extensive injuries to chest, stomach, pelvis and intestines. Cause of death in second case was Traumatic Asphyxiation.
M2/137143 Private Whitehead L.W., A.S.C.
On the night 16/17 November I was driving a motor lorry from Bapaume to Equancourt. I left the main Bapaume -Peronne road as directed to Traffic Control, and proceeded in the direction of Ytres. On approaching Ytres I reduced speed on account of condition of road and slight incline. After passing bend in road I changed to third speed. Immediately afterwards I saw a man running across the field on my right waving a lantern. I at once declutched and applied both brakes. This man shouted ‘Hurry’ I then put in the clutch and accelerated speed of the lorry and almost immediately a train ran into the rear of the lorry on the right hand side, turning the lorry at right angle and dragging it about 20 yards. The train then stopped. I got off the lorry and found a man lying on the road badly injured. I left my assistant in charge and went to telephone my workshop.
032037 Private Pearson W., A.O.C.
On the night 16/7 November I was assistant to Private Whitehead driving a lorry from Bapaume to Equancourt. On approaching I saw a man running towards the lorry waving a lamp. He was about 20 yards away on the right, shouting ‘hurry’. Almost immediately after I saw him the lorry was struck on the right hand side by an engine. I was thrown out on to the road and stunned for a few minutes. After I came to I took over charge of the lorry to allow Private Whitehead to go to the phone. During the journey I was riding in front with the driver to assisting to find the road.
180930 Sergeant Davies J.J. Railway Operating Division RE
On the night 16/17 November I was driving the leading engine of a train consisting of seven bogie wagons loaded with tanks. I reach Ruyalcourt block cabin and got the ‘All clear’ signal. I proceeded slowly and about 70 yards from the block cabin I felt a slight concussion. I applied the brakes immediately, got off the train, and found the lorry on the right hand side of the railway, and an injured man lying on the road between the lorry an the train. Engine was at the rear of the train.
201648 Second Corporal Blyth A., R.O.D. R.E.
On the night of the 16/17 November I was driving the second engine at the rear of a train of seven bogie wagons loaded with tanks. I got the ‘All clear’ signal from the leading engine. As we were slowing down to let the R.O.T. [Railway Transport Officer] at Ruyalcourt crossing, we then stopped. I got off the train to find the cause of the delay, and was told there had been an accident. I went to see for myself and saw a motor lorry on the right side of the train, but no injured men. I saw the ‘All clear’ signal from Ruyalcourt block cabin myself and not from the leading engine.
149418 Sapper Dixon J., R.O.D. R.E.
On the night of the 16/17 I was riding on the leading bogie of a train from Ytres with Sapper Bird. After passing Ruyalcourt Block Cabin, and before reaching the level crossing, I saw a motor lorry fouling the line too close for me to do anything. The bogie struck the lorry and I was thrown to the ground when the bogie fell over. I got up and went to look for Sapper Bird, but could not find him. I was afterwards sent to Ruyalcourt.
175256 Sapper Edwards A.H., R.O.D. R.E.
At 17.30 on the night 16/17 November I relieved Sapper Kerr. He told me that a train had been accepted and put on line for Ytres Station. I took the hand lamp and showed the green light towards the approaching train as the all clear signal, meaning that the ramp down the line was clear and free to receive the train.
247810 Sapper Kerr M., R.O.D. R.E.
I was on duty as blockman at Ruyalcourt clock cabin. At 17.25 I accepted a train from Ytres and gave the usual line clear signal, the line being clear as far as the ramp. At 17.30 I handed over to Sapper Edwards. On coming out of the cabin I saw some motor vehicles on the road approaching the level crossing. I picked up a hurricane lamp and red flag to cover the lamp, and rushed down to stop them. I was too late to stop the first lorry but stopped the remainder, and turning round saw the first lorry fouling the line. I shouted to him to go on. He was just moving when the first bogie struck him and overturned the lorry. I jumped clear and saw a man with a hand lamp in his hand thrown off the first bogie wagon. I jumped over the bogies to see if anyone was injured. I saw one man severely injured, and another man under the body of the lorry. Later on, making another search, I found the head of a man under a caterpillar that had been thrown off a bogie. I afterwards learned that the man under the caterpillar was the missing R.O.D. man.
2991 L/Cpl E.C. Vickers Mounted Military Police
At 19.45 on the 16/17 November I was ordered to proceed to the scene of an accident on the Bus-Ytres road. I arrived about 20.10 and found there had been an accident between a train loaded with tanks and a motor lorry. I made enquires and saw the driver of the lorry who said he was proceeding in the direction of Ytres and was crossing the line when he heard shouting. He thought it was meant for him, so he stopped. I questioned him and found he had no lights. I saw one dead man Private J. McNally, Royal Irish Fusiliers, and was told two injured men had been removed. I made further enquiries and found that one R.O.D. man was missing. He was found later under a caterpillar that had been thrown off the first bogie.
Conclusion of the court
The court is of the opinion that No 8884 Private James McNally 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers, No 14925 Sapper F.C. Bird Railway Operating Division R.E., were killed, and No 22737 Private W. Surplus and 9796 Lance Corporal Sullivan 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers were injured as a result of a pure accident, and do not find anyone to blame; and consider Sapper Kerr is to be commended for his prompt action at the level crossing.
Weather conditions: Low cloud and mist (source Royal Flying Corps Communique No 114)
8884 Private James McNally 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers aged 31 was from Lambeth
149295 Sapper Frederick Charles Bird – Railway Operating Division Royal Engineers aged 30 and lived in Tunbridge Wells. He was employed as a passenger guard at the London Brighton and South Coast Railway before enlisting on the 10 November 1916.
The men are buried at Rocquigny-Equancourt Road British Cemetery, Manancourt, Somme
As tragic as this accident is the witness reports give an invaluable insight into the transportation of the tanks for the Battle of Cambrai, and the difficulties encountered when manoeuvring the wagons into position for unloading onto the ramps in darkness with the added danger of an unmanned level crossing.
Note: Ruyalcourt Station was situated on the north side of Ytres. As Ytres had an existing station the British Army named the Railhead and transhipment yard Ruyalcourt Station; Ruyalcourt village itself is 2.5km NE of Ytres.
Ruyalcourt Station was used for the return of the tanks after the battle in December 1917, when 336 Tanks were returned by rail to Plateau using 28 trains.
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