Railheads: ‘we are living in railway vans’

This is one of many letters sent by staff of the Great Western Railway Audit office at Paddington who had enlisted to fight in the First World War. (RAIL 253/516)

Frederick Ernest Andrews, 16 October 1917, France. Born: 15 November 1879, Regiment: Railway Operation Division, Royal Engineers, Regiment number: 218857, Rank: Sapper, Returned to office: 26 May 1919, Retired: 15 November 1939


Dear Mr Slater

Just a few lines to let you know how things are going with me, I have been going to write to before this, but on each occasion I have had to postpone it for some reason or other. I have been at this place since April. It is a fairly large city and has at one time been a very nice place, but it is now a heap of ruins, not a habitable house anywhere and no civilians, it is the nearest railhead to this part of the line and when we first came here things were pretty lively, but Fritz is gradually being pushed back here and has not troubled us for some time now I don’t mind if he has forgotten we’re here. Naldrett, Dawson and Anglesey and several other Audit chaps were up here a short time ago, but their detachment has now been moved to another part of the line, they are on the Light Railway and shift about more.

It was nice to meet some of the old office pals again and I spent several pleasant hours with them while they were here, for I am the only G.W. man in this detachment. McMeeken is in the Railway Transport Officer’s office about three miles from here and I see him occasionally. I was very sorry to hear of the deaths of Pond and Woodhams and no doubt there are other casualties amongst our office chaps but I seldom hear any office news. Our family has had to pay the penalty of war that so many thousands of families have done, for I am now the only one out here, one brother has just been discharged after nine months in hospital, the second one was killed at Ypres about a month ago and the third is now in a London hospital with a bad shrapnel wound in the thigh. I have had a variety of jobs, including navvy’s work, carrying rails and sleepers, guard, point oiler and various other jobs. I am now a checker and number taker which job suits me much better, for it combines a lot of indoor clerical work with outdoor checking and now that we have to face another winter out here, it will be something to spend a little of my time indoors for I still have memories of last winter under canvas, but I shall not be so badly off this winter for we are living in railway vans which will be much warmer. I have now been in France nearly nine months and there does not appear to be any prospect of leave, for there are more here who have been eighteen months without leave and at the rate the R.O.D. men are going at present it will be well into next year before my turn comes.

I understand that north London has suffered rather badly in the recent air raids but I hope you came through all right. My wife and family have had to get away from home, for it was upsetting their nerves and I am pleased to think that they are out of the danger zone. I am keeping fairly fit in health and always manage to keep cheery, which wants a bit of doing sometimes especially now the muddy season has started, but let’s hope this will be our last out here and by this time next year we may be all settling down to civilian life again. Please remember me to Mr Wood, Bert Hunt and all other Audit friends. Yours sincerely

F.E. Andrews…

Return to Letters from the First World War, part two