Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Book Review: Narrow Gauge in the Somme Sector

I was recently asked to review a new book from publishers Pen & Sword, "Narrow Gauge in the Somme Sector - Before, during and after the first world war", by Martin JB Farebrother and Joan S Farebrother. As a fan of narrow gauge railways, and with an interest in the light railways used in the first world war, it seemed right up my street. Pen and Sword are a relatively new publisher in the world of narrow gauge railways, but are well established with an extensive range of military history books, so this book is very much at home in their range. It is actually the second book by the same authors in a series titled "Allied Railways of the Western Front", the first being "Narrow Gauge in the Arras Sector". I presume a third book may be possible for the Ypres sector.

This is a substantial, hardback book, with a dust-jacket cover featuring a Jonathan Clay illustration, which is attractive yet suitably sombre. The paper is good quality, the print clear, and the text seems well written. I notice it is also available in electronic format, which is handy if your bookshelves are already overflowing (like mine!), but I don't suppose is as satisfying, nor so convenient to reference the text to maps on previous pages.

The book opens with a summary of the geography and history of the area covered by the book, which has seen many armies fight over it through the centuries. Then the railway history of the region is introduced, including the network of meter gauge railways, this is of interest because of the part both the standard and meter gauge railways played in the war, and how they were affected by the front line. I hadn't realised the extent of meter gauge railways in this region.

The story of the part played by the railways in the war starts around 1916, when the need for good supply lines to the front-line trenches was recognised, and a concerted effort applied to supply and build good railway links. As well as the existing standard and meter gauge lines this included the building of 2' gauge light railways, now well-known amongst narrow gauge enthusiasts, with locos preserved today, and even scale models. These railway systems were a crucial link in what we would today call the "logistics" of feeding a vast army and fighting a war in often difficult terrain. A chapter is given to summarising the light railway equipment, including locomotives; no doubt there is overlap here with the first book in the series but it means this book stands alone.

The chapters through the mid part of the book cover the development of these railways chronologically, describing when each route was built, and by which company of soldiers. This inevitably means that the text can become a little dry in places, and not being familiar with the area it can be tricky to follow the geography, not every place mentioned is marked on the maps, and it it can take a while to find those that are. This is where the book shows it is a serious historical record though, and not coffee-table bling.

As the chapters progress a picture of the extensive and ever-changing network of railways is painted, that is far more detailed than other books I have read on this subject, despite the challenges of geography and the dangers of the battle. The background of the battles obviously drives the evolution of the railways, and the losses to German advances are described along with the building when the front line advanced. I found this fascinating, considering the speed with which both advance and retreat occurred at times (the war was not always as static as is often thought), but also quite moving, when the description includes the towns and villages that passed under the changing front. There are some first-hand accounts that add an extra dimension to the text, though sadly not many as soldiers were discouraged from keeping diaries. I would liked to have seen more on how the railways were operated, and their impact to those soldiers they served, but there are some examples of the bravery of those building and maintaining the railways in extreme circumstances.

The closing stages of the book cover the post-war recovery of the civilian railways, but also the winding up of the military light railways. I had never realised the part some of them played in rebuilding the towns devastated by the war, having passed into civil control, and indeed some actually ran a passenger service in the period immediately following the war. The use of light railway routes and equipment by industrial railways, particularly in the region relevant to the book, is also discussed, along with the locos that made it into preservation. I thought the final chapter of walks showing interesting remains was a fitting end to the book. As you might expect, there is an extensive bibliography and index.

There are numerous maps throughout the book showing the various railways of all gauges, at different stages of the period covered. I found these to be excellent, very clear, and very helpful to the text. I like a good map, and these really contribute to the book.

There are photos throughout the book too, which are well reproduced and captioned. There are enough to give a flavour to the text, from the pre-war meter gauge railways to the present day remains, as well as war-time photos of the railways in use. However this isn't a photo album, and there are other complimentary books that are more photo-heavy. Likewise this book isn't about loco or stock drawings or other technical details beyond a basic summary, that are adequately covered elsewhere. Here the illustrations are used to enhance the text, and set the context. I found those showing the meter gauge stations on the front line, after bombardment and with burned-out carriage remains, were particularly moving. It is easy to think that the trenches ran through deserted countryside, but this book shows how the infrastructure of civilian life was not spared, including how the meter gauge railways attempted to maintain a service behind the lines, despite being severed by the front.

So this is a high-quality publication, and a detailed historical record of the subject it covers. I'm not qualified to assess the accuracy of the content, but my impression is that it is well researched and with no obvious errors, it is also clear that the authors have a deep interest in the subject. Although it is in places not an easy read, it is an interesting and informative book, and much more than a textbook. The style is factual and informative, but also warm, and respectful of the horrors of the war. The excellent maps and the selection of period and modern photographs enhance the text in portraying the geographical and social context of the reality in which the railways were built and operated. Of course those with an interest in the narrow gauge railways of the first world war will find this book of great value, but it will be of interest to railway enthusiasts generally, and also to those interested in the military aspects of the war.

1 comment:

neil whitehead said...

One too read. Here, in downtown Halesworth in Suffolk, a group is planning to reinstate the 3ft Halesworth- Southwold railway.