qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

They Also Served

Book Review: Steaming to Victory - How Britain's Railways won the War, by Michael Williams
I'm a bit behind on book reviews, as I finished this over a week ago. This is the second of two books I bought at the National Railway Museum in York a couple of years ago, coincidentally both by the same author.

Steam trains and the War, what's not to like? Williams begins with a survey of the pre-War "Golden Age" of steam, with the likes of the Flying Scotsman and Mallard, and the London to Scotland race between the LNER and the LMS. I find it curious that the stereotypical view of the 1920s and 1930s is now that of a golden age (see also Martin Edwards' book on the Detection Club, which I read recently); for many of course it was a time of severe economic downturn and hardship. How events can quickly change the perception of the past.

In fact, the emergence of the "Big Four" railway companies - whose legacy is broadly still with us today - stems from the First World War, following government intervention. Some considerable preparation was made in advance, with the railway companies, government and armed forces planning for action. Mostly the book is a tale of humanity on the Home Front, from evacuated children at the outbreak of the war, through Dunkirk, the Blitz, D-Day and the V rockets. Williams has taken perhaps a last opportunity to interview some railway workers from the period, so there is first-hand testimony here. The railways were an obvious target for aerial bombardment, though in fact damage was often less severe than might have been expected, and trains and routes were quickly made good enough to allow them to continue service. Alas, after the war, the stiff upper lip gives way to disillusionment as nationalisation and austerity become the order of the day, with the following decades of poor planning and low investment. The book is an enjoyable and often humbling read.
Tags: books, history, travel

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