The Long Way Home

Long Way Home – Back story part 1: Railway workers, white feathers and women in the Great War.

My aim is to write a series of short essays, to provide some background to the period in which ‘Long Way Home’ is set.

Dafydd Thomas was always destined to have a career in railways, since he first appeared in his father’s story. (Book one of which – Turning of the Wheel is on course for release in 2021). Having explored the life and times of a lead mining family in those tales, I also had a desire to explore the history and tales of the railway industry in the Aberystwyth area – and Dafydd duly obliged.

1915 to 1920, was deliberately chosen as the setting for the second novel, as a few stories began to take form involving Dafydd, some of which were based on wartime work for the Army. When I first thought about this project, around 2008, there was limited information I could find about what the railway division actually got up to. People always seemed to ignore the mechanics of how the soldiers got to the front and the people involved therein. I thought they deserved better!

So, here’s a little bit of background to the period, regarding railway workers.

The railways at the time were far more important than road transport for the movement of cargo and people. Motor vehicles of the time were poorly developed, as were the roads. The railways by comparison provided a solid form of transport, that was reliable (although perhaps, not always punctual…)

Railway workers were designated a reserved occupation by mid 1915 . The national fervor for ‘doing your bit’ was such, that the railways quickly lost men joining up to serve at the front. Mostly these men became foot soldiers, so their talent and experience was lost by both the Army and the railways. Pretty soon, those remaining were issued with ‘Railway Service’ enamel badges to wear that showed they were of a reserved occupation and exempt from joining up. Something that became particularly important when conscription arrived in 1916. This did not stop people from joining up, but the railway employers were allowed to object on the grounds of essential service. The industry lost 186,000 men to the army during this period. Of which 20,000 were killed.

The badges were partly introduced to stop men being harassed during their work. Such was the national mood, that those who had not immediately answered the call were deemed legitimate targets for abuse or scorn. For many it became an obsession to shame people into joining up. Many felt a nationalistic zeal, others an anger that people were staying behind, whilst their own loved ones were ‘over there’, risking their lives for their country. The government was complicit in promoting this mood by the coercing tone of their recruitment posters with leading slogans like ‘what did you do in the war, Daddy?’. Another way was ignoring the white feathers being presented by a zealous number of women to perceived ‘shirkers’. The sign of cowardice. All was designed to shame or embarrass men to sign up.

The railways at home had a problem with the gaps created by their departing men. Promoting youngsters faster than they would have been in past times, just moved the gap. They needed to employ women to help fill the missing third of employees created by war. This was amid serious opposition by the employees and unions in situ, as women were deemed inappropriate for the profession as in many industries of the time.

In spite of this sexist culture, the women proved to be worth their salt. Deemed weak, unable to think clearly and handle stress, the railway women had to put up with resistance from their peers, some of whom refused to train them and threatened to strike over the ‘cheap labour’. As it was, the women themselves were forced to strike for equal pay and their worth saw them grow from 4,000 to 66,000 within the industry by 1918.

After armistice, the ladies were politely thanked, as they were equally politely shown the door. The mindset of the time, left full expectations that they would go back to the domestic roles of their past. The men returning from the front were expecting their jobs back and soon the female workforce had dwindled to a mere 200 nationally. There appears little thought given to the exit strategy, it was just assumed that women would want to automatically return to being home-makers or doing more menial work. One more nail in the coffin of resentment the nation bore in the following years.

It is easy to judge by the morals of today, as I know I have, but the role of women in the Great war is often overlooked. Not allowed to fight, the women of the country shored up the manufacturing base that allowed the British Army to win the war. A munitions factory features in the novel, which was another industry that relied heavily on female workers. Although paid well, the work was hard and incredibly dangerous. The components leaving behind their mark on these brave women.

The breaking of the glass ceiling did meet with some good. It was enough for the suffragette movement to support the country’s war effort, speaking at rallies in support . After the war, women at last began to gain the vote, growing towards parity in terms of age and marital status with men during the inter-war years. Women had proven themselves more than capable workers and recognition of this was slowly forthcoming.

The Long Way Home is the sequel to By the Banks of the Rheidol, taking Dafydd Thomas’ story forward from 1915 to 1921. the novel is available via all good bookshops, amazon and ebay or via the store on this website.

By Geraint Roberts

Stuck in a limbo and desperate to do something meaningful, what to do? That is where writing began for me. A creative way of expressing myself and a chance to harness my wondering imagination. I close my eyes and I'm there. Wish I'd picked 'there' as a warm sunny day on a sandy beach, with the waves gently lapping on the shore...but I have to let the story load in my mind, then watch it unfold, wherever it may be. Currently I'm on a windy bridge, or a Devon beach, or a Cornish ti mine, or a submarine, or looking towards a Hebridean port...

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