Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Somme Stations
Reviewed by David F. Beer

The Somme Stations

by Andrew Martin
Published by Faber and Faber, Ltd., 2011

Those silly little trains. I have seen photographs of them, and these, together with Jim's own vague accounts of working on the trains, caused the nightmares that I mentioned to you. The driver can hardly fit into the cab. His head pokes out of it, and I cannot help but picture them as pleasure railways, running at night-because they only do ever run at night-under a sky filled with fireworks. But the fireworks are bombs falling. . .[Jim Stringer's wife in a letter to a friend]

At least three kinds of readers will enjoy this book: those who like historical novels set in the Great War; those who read detective stories with at least one good murder in them; and last, but certainly not least, railway enthusiasts.

Click on Image to Expand

Images of the Light Railroads of the War:
Carrying Troops; a Restored Baldwin Engine; What Happens to Such a Line When Enemy Artillery Zeroes In; the Doullens-Arras Line Today, a Nature Trail — the Father of Bob Reynolds (Kneeling in Blue Sweater) Commanded This Section During the War

The Somme Stations, like the author's six previous novels, is part of his "Jim Stringer, Steam Detective" series which take place in an England of the early 20th century when large railway companies crisscrossed the country and provided transportation for millions of people. Detective Jim Stringer is employed by the North Eastern Railway in York, a city in northern England. Like many other employees of the railroad, when war breaks out he responds to the call for a North Eastern Railway Pals Battalion. They are formed and eventually shipped to the front, but not before one of the pals is found victim of a particularly brutal murder near their training quarters.

I had always assumed that men with similar backgrounds who joined up together in a Pals Battalion would be, well…pals. This is hardly the case with this group. The railway men, comprised of all branches and skills in their civilian work from track laborers to white-collar office employees, bring with them into the army all the resentments, prejudices, jealousies and class consciousness that thrived among them before they volunteered. These emotions inevitable play their part in forming the suspicions and fears of the men who are now under the cloud of harboring a killer of one of their own.

Since they have the experience, many of the men, including Jim Stringer, are assigned to building and running the narrow-gauge railroads to be used for bringing up ammunition, supplies, food, and men to the front lines at the Somme. They also transport wounded soldier to the rear. These light railways, a considerable improvement over mules and horses when working well, were actually 600 mm (1 ft 11 5/8 in) in gauge and used a variety of steam and gasoline locomotives made in Britain, France, and the United States. They usually ran at night and often at not much more than five mph. Few of the lines were permanent, since they often had to be moved, but by the end of the war some 700 miles of track had been laid and roughly 7,000 tons of cargo were being transported daily.

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It's in his description of the building and running of these railways that the author excels. His characterization of the firemen, the engineer drivers — the footplate men — and the guards is captivating, and his exciting account of a danger-fraught run to get a load of ammunition to its destination under heavy fire, when one enemy shell could have blown cargo and men to smithereens, brings the running of these wartime railways dramatically to the human level. In the background, of course, is the lurking mystery involving the unsolved murder. The appearance of a brutish military investigator from England who interrogates and harasses the men only adds to the atmosphere of tension and suspense.

Some of the characters we meet understandably speak with a thick Yorkshire dialect. This doesn't in any way hamper our reading but rather strengthens both atmosphere and character. We're also taken to places with such names as Kilnsea, Ilkley, Thorpe-on-Ouse, and Naburn Lock, and the railwaymen of course use the jargon of their trade: wheelslip, platelayer, warming the brake, and "moving the reverser back a notch." But the question hanging in the background at all times is "Who is the murderer?" This gets resolved by the end of the book in an intriguing climax (no spoilers here!).

You will enjoy this novel, both as a mystery and as a realistic glimpse into the harrowing lives of those who built and ran the light railways that played such a significant (but often ignored) role in the operations of the Great War.

David F. Beer


  1. I also enjoyed this book, both for the Great War angle and for the railroad angle. I recommend all of the books in the series.

  2. As part of the trivia for the battle of Halen, at 10 AM just as the battle started the scheduled train arrived at the railroad station literally on the front lines. This was 12 August 1914. As it was early in the war the civilians had not fled and many went to the train station and waited on the 11 o'clock train......
    that never came.