TOM GOODE has uncovered a little known part of World War I history.
The Mt Lawley railway buff has penned a book about long-forgotten railway workers who brought ammunition and supplies to the trenches of Belgium while under threat of German artillery fire.
It’s rare to find even a Great War buff who knows about the 5th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company, and Goode only found out about it by chance while volunteering at the Fremantle army museum.
“You get used to answering all the queries about army abbreviations, unit patches, and you reckon you know a fair bit,” he remembers.
“Some people turned up one day with a donation of a postcard from a great uncle, and it was signed by a bloke with his rank and just the initials 5AGBROC. We all looked at each other and said … ‘what’s that?’ We couldn’t find a record of it at the museum.”
The unusual company wasn’t given a lot of official recognition because it was placed under British command at the front, while most Aussie journos and diarists were nested with ANZAC units.
But as Goode pored over old war diaries a picture of the company and its unusual beginnings emerged.
The poms were having a hell of a time getting supplies to their front lines, particularly ammunition (they fired 1.5 million shells in the opening assault of the Battle of the Somme alone) because many of the railwaymen who’d rushed to sign up had already been killed and there were few to replace them.
“By 1916 the British government needed more railwaymen, so they asked the colonies,” Goode says.
Prime minister Billy Hughes didn’t think there’d be much enthusiasm to sign up as Australians had recently rejected conscription in a referendum, but he’d underestimated the country’s enthusiasm.
“They put out an advert in November 1916, and the response was such that they could make five companies,” says Goode.
Most signing up were often over-age or below fitness standards, but still eager to go to the front.
“They relaxed age and fitness requirements,” says Goode. “The oldest bloke I tracked down was 65. He just shaved his moustache off and joined up.
They operated the train lines in Belgium near Ypres, running countless tonnes of artillery shells to the frontline and moving around the giant railway-operated howitzers, setting them up to fire and then moving them if the German counter-artillery got too intense .
It was more up close and personal than anyone expected; other troops mocked them as the “cold-footed mob” who be “going off on a picnic” miles from the action.
After about 10 years of research, The Cold-Footed Mob is being launched on January 28, 100 years to the day after the railway unit left WA, at the Old Midland Courthouse at 10am, and copies are available from the publisher at http://www.hesperianpress.com or from Tom himself at firstname.lastname@example.org
by DAVID BELL