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Part III - the Works 

Swindon and World War One
 
Trains during WW1
Keeping Britain running:
the Great War war saw greater dependancy on
the train than ever before - and the Swindon
Works rose to the challenge
Even during peace time, Swindon Railway Works was important enough for ensuring the smooth running of the railway network, but during the First World War it became absolutely essential.

More than six million British troops were mobilised - and not only did they need to be transported by train to the front and home again eventually (if they were lucky), but the closeness of the fighting in France and Belgium also meant they often came home on leave by train.

Britain also took a big hand in organising the transport of troops once they were on the other side of the English Channel, and the Swindon Works is reckoned to have produced around 100 locomotives during the war, specifically for shipment overseas. These were finished in black instead of the famous GWR green.

Maintaining the network

At home it was probably the busiest ever time for railways because, far from decreasing, civilian passenger traffic actually increased between 1913 and 1916.

The onus on Swindon Works to keep the increased number of trains running must have been immense, yet it was also pressed into special manufacturing projects as the railways came under direct government control for the first time.

By no means all of it was specifically railway-based work, so they sometimes needed to adapt very quickly.

The range of items produced in the factory is as impressive as the quantity, ranging from whole locomotives to leather straps for soldiers' personal equipment.

Hospital trains

One of the first jobs for those who stayed at home was to convert carriages into ambulance trains for transporting wounded soldiers.
 
Hospital trains made in Swindon

In all, 238 such carriages would either be converted or built from scratch. These were mostly rolling hospital wards but also included infectious disease units, pharmacies and other special designs.

During the war, trains made up from these carriages made around 6,000 loaded journeys.

Wagons were also converted or built for military use. The 410 open wagons that were adapted to have high sides, suitable for transporting horses, were among the first of a staggering total of 216,350 vehicles produced in the Works during the war years.

Not all of these wagons were for rail traffic as they included 50 horse-drawn water carts.

And not everything had wheels, either. Nearly 4,000 posts and 38,000 pegs for the securing of horses were turned out, along with nearly 3,000 stretchers.

Weapons and ammunition

But it's not until you start adding up the numbers of shells and guns that the full picture of activity in the works between 1914 and 1918 begins to come clear.

Guns leaving the GWR Works Swindon for the frontline
To the front-line:
guns leave the Swindon Works circa. 1916
The factory turned out an average of 2,500 six-inch long shells every week over a two year period; a total of nearly 500,000 fuses for explosives; no less than five million cartridge cases - and also some of the guns to fire them.

A complete manufacturing line was installed to make anti-aircraft guns while 4.5inch howitzer and 60-pounder guns were also turned out, along with 338 field carriages, including 40 large naval guns, and hundreds of thousands of other weapons parts.

This is just an overview of the Works' contribution to the war effort. In fact, the full extent of the work undertaken in Swindon is unknown because information was classified at the time and full details were never released. Sometimes the only clues come from some of the photographs that were taken for internal use which later became generally available.

Dual role

It also needs to be understood that everything was produced in addition to the normal railway work, not instead of it - and if that isn't impressive enough, it was all done during a time when a large proportion of the Swindon workforce were absent. They were fighting abroad.
 
Women at work poster WW1
Crucial role:
the war accelerated the
emancipation of women
- especially in Swindon
At least there were benefits even beyond the satisfaction it must have given the the workers to be involved directly in supporting front-line troops. Labour - especially skilled labour - was in short supply so labour relations had to be changed in the workers' favour. They were even paid a war bonus - and these concessions were to have a positive impact on the lives of succeeding generations of Swindon railway workers.

Women benefitted too as they were brought in to do clerical and even shop-floor work in the factory for the first time - setting a precedent that would lead to them being given employment (and therefore an improved status) for years to come.
 
Officially recognised

Charles Collett, awarded the OBE for services to munitions production
Order of the British
Empire:
manager of the
works
C harles Collett
The management got its own rewards. The four most senior Swindon managers made the Birthday Honours in 1918.
 
Two of these - George Jackson Churchward, who received the CBE, and Charles Collett (OBE) - deserve honours as towering engineers of the period but received their medals specifically for services to munitions production.

The most lasting reward probably went to the works as a whole when new plant and machine tools which had been paid for by the Ministry of Munitions was sold off cheaply to the GWR when the war ended.

This new investment was to prove invaluable in helping Swindon through the difficult economic challenges it would face during the lean decades of the Twenties and Thirties.
MORE IN THIS SECTION
Swindon and World War One
Part I - the War at home
Part II - action
Part IV - Little Known Facts
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