Steam in the orient by Dr Mc Neil

I am standing near the engine shed on the Great Central preserved line at Loughborough looking at two seemingly identical steam locomotives. Both are from the same design, one prepared for the London, Midland and Scottish Railway under the direction of William Stanier; both were intended for the same purpose – pulling heavy freight trains; both are identical in size, the number of wheels- in fact, they are two examples of one class. Yet there is something odd about them. Apart from the paintwork, which is black, though one is bright and shiny, whilst the weather has reduced the black to a sort of grey, there is something odd about the number and the insignia on the sides of the cab and the tender. The sort-of-grey one was inherited by British Railways when the L.M.S. was nationalised. Its number – 48305 – was given to it at the time, and it carried it until it retired. It is true that the insignia is of a later date than 1948; but it was the standard one that was used in the latter days of British Railways steam.

By contrast, the shiny black one has the number TCOO 45160, together with an insignia of a star and a crescent moon, one which British Railways never used. For the shiny black one was a Turkish émigré. Now Britain did not swamp the rest of the world with purely British designs as a rule, though there is a long and excellent history of British companies building steam locomotives for foreign railways. So what happened in this case? World War Two.

Steam train

The actual history of British designs for British Railways ending up in unlikely places goes back to the first world war. Even in the 1950s at Balaclava there was still that traditional element of how a war should be fought – both sides in conspicuous uniforms attacking each other on horseback with cannons doing what they could to disadvantage the charge from the other side. Tennyson could write poems about gallant charges of the light brigade knowing that it was a partial success, despite the officers in charge. The British Expeditionary Force embarked for France in 1914 complete with cavalry. The cavalry could never be used, least of all at the rout at Mons.

By late 1914 the pattern of the war had settled to that of attrition from fixed trenches, and the cannon had given place to much more devastating artillery. The rules had to be rewritten; whilst the big guns were reeking havoc with surface troops and equipment, it took the battle of the Somme to show that they were not the answer to everything. For a solid week the British guns shelled the German positions, yet on the first day of the attack, some 50,000 British were killed and injured.

Now I need to wind back to “for a solid week the shelling went on” - thousands of shells from thousands of guns. Each shell weighed so much that the traditional method of transport – horse and cart – could in no way cope. Yet there was an alternative not available at Balaclava: railways. It would have been impossible to build a full-size railway up to the gun emplacements; for one thing, these were being shelled by the enemy. Yet it must be said that the supply of shells to places near the front line would have been overwhelmed but for the railways. From these rail-heads shells could be delivered to the guns either by lorry or – an ingenious French system – by narrow-gauge railway trains running on portable tracks. Such a system is easily replaced in case of damage or can be moved as required. Sadly, neither lorries nor narrow-gauge railways could run over the quagmire left at some of the battlefields after successful attacks.

But the supplies must get through – continuously. After a while it became clear that the French railways could not keep up with the traffic. Steam engines can only work so long before they have to be serviced, and the strains on the system meant that there was no time to service them, so they broke down. What was to be done? The British could loan locomotives to the French, but this would leave British railways exposed to the same problem. As it was, by the end of the war, many British locomotives were in a dire straight. The British could build locomotives especially for the conflict and export them to France; but what designs would be suitable? There was no time to develop anything new. So the most versatile designs currently in production were chosen. A number of locomotives from the Great Western Railway were available in any case – the Great Western was perhaps the least affected by the war, as it served no major industrial centre. The design which was chosen to replicate in numbers was that of a large goods locomotive designed for the Great Central Railway under the direction of Robinson.

After the war was over these surplus examples were sold off – the London North Eastern Railway, which by that time has incorporated the Great Central, bought a number, as did the Great Western. Others found their way to remote corners of the globe, like Australia.

The second world war required something of a repeat performance, though the speed of advance and retreat was much increased, thanks to the developments of the internal combustion engine. Clearly in countries where the roads were poor and railways could be useful the immediate need for additional steam power justified building additional engines to a current design. Two were chosen; one was a medium sized goods engine from the Southern Railway; and the other? I was looking at it on that day in Loughborough. It had done its time in Turkey and had come home, albeit to the rails of a rival company to that for which it was designed.