By Rob Langham
Fonthill Media
ISBN: 978 1 78155 081 6

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

Well, here we are in 2014 where, better or worse, we will endure or enjoy the beginning of commemorations and profiteering which will put some of the antics of a century ago in the shade. The flood of Great War books is beginning to turn into a torrent. My in-tray is bulging with the things. They will pretty much all find room in my corner of the WHO caravan and I’ll do my best to keep you all on side while trying to refrain from going gaga.

The books that divert me from the mud, blood and poetry beyond will always find favour and we’re rubbing along nicely here with this book from first time author Rob Langham who also happens to be an experienced Great War living history enthusiast, a collector and a fellow pilgrim on The Trail. Here he brings us the wartime story of the North Eastern Railway and many interesting adventures associated with its employees. I am well aware that he has been researching the subject for quite some time, making good use of the company’s in-house magazine and other sources. The result is an entertaining look at a very important subject.

What we need to get into perspective is without railways there would pretty much have been no World War One. From the very outset armies relied on trains to deliver them to their jumping off points and as the war progressed trains were essential to bring everything on two and four legs in and out of the war zones along with just about everything they needed to fight and survive in Europe, the near East and a good few bits of Africa. Whether it be the likes of the brilliant Eric Geddes building them or the colourful Thomas Edward Lawrence blowing them up; railways are crucial to the Great War story.

Rob’s history takes place in the birthplace of railways and it seems quite appropriate to me. The war was probably its greatest test in close on a century of operations and it is heartening to know that the vision and hard work of the men who dreamt it all up and built the network paid off in 1914. Rob takes us through aspects big and small of the North Eastern Railway with accounts of the trains themselves, accidents, heroics and the minutiae of how it all worked. We meet some of the heroes who left the railway company behind to fight for king and country and much more about the dramas that unfolded in the north-east, including marauding German battle-cruisers, Zeppelin raids and spy scares. The role of women, who replaced thousands of men on the railway and in factories is given proper respect and we also learn about the munitions manufacturing and engineering work done for the war effort.

There are chapters on the men of the company who fought in the war, including its own battalion of Northumberland Fusiliers who served as pioneers on the Western Front. I particularly enjoyed accounts of the armoured car leader William Wells-Hood and very much liked the stories of heroism on the railway itself where sometimes small acts of bravery were rewarded in the fashion of the day. There is a lot of detail here and it all fits together.

You know they always ask what is it about blokes and trains? While the thing I travel to work on most days doesn’t bring me out in goose bumps, I do like a proper steam train from time to time.  If you’re instilled with a sense of the romance of the age of steam there is a lot here to entertain and if, like the author you combine it with a deep fascination for the Great War, you have got yourself double prizes.

On balance, if I was the author I’d be walking around with a big cheesy grin on my face. Congratulations to him for producing something which is as informative as it is entertaining. More please.

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.