George Butterworth, Railways, and WW1

George Butterworth’s letters addressed to his father at NER offices must have landed here in his father’s in-tray.

Entrance, NER Head Office, York

Entrance to the former North Eastern Railway head office at York

Recently it was announced that the AHRC would be funding a PhD studentship, Britain’s Railways in the Great War, 1914-1918, to begin in September 2013. The project is to be managed by the Science Museum Group, and will address ‘six core inter-connected themes – political, administrative, economic, technical, cultural and social … to explore the basic questions of how, and how well, the railways coped’ (see the project outline).

Railways are frequently mentioned in the papers I have been researching for material for the Bodleian Library’s 2014 exhibition on the First World War, usually in the context of delays to journeys in England in wartime conditions, or transportation from the French coast to the front. George Butterworth, the composer, and alumnus of Trinity College, Oxford, was a lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry. His papers include his wartime diary and letters to his father, Sir Alexander Kaye Butterworth, who was a general manager of the North Eastern Railway. Sir Alexander’s office was in the grand new NER headquarters at York, later the main offices of the North eastern region of British Railways, and my father’s own place of work from 1968-1983 (see the family railway blog, Memories of a Railwayman).  George Butterworth’s railway connection explains his wry comments about his journey from London to Bodmin, the depot of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry Regiment which he joined as a private in August 1914: ‘We decided unanimously that the transport arrangements were not creditable to the Committee of Railway Managers.’ He describes the train as ‘ordinary’ with the ‘space reserved quite insufficient, many having standing room only.’ Nevertheless, the journey was ‘a hilarious one—beer and singing ad lib.’

Once Butterworth had reached France in August 1915 with the Durham Light Infantry things did not improve. His battalion marched in the middle of the night to a railway where the men sat down and waited for a train to take them to the front: ‘the transport arrangements at this point were defective, as we had to wait about two hours by the side of the line, during which time some fifty trains must have passed us, mostly empty and returning to the base.’ Eventually their train turned up, comprising ‘three first class compartments for the officers and cattle trucks for the men, 40 in each.’ Rumours spread that they were heading straight to the front, ‘but after a few hours journey the train pulled up at a small wayside station’ and they were marched ‘five very hot and dusty miles’ to their billets in a village.

On 28 November 1915 Butterworth wrote to his father about his turn in the trenches.  At the end of the letter he mentions the pioneer battalion raised by the North Eastern Railway Company (the 17th Northumberland Fusiliers): ‘I hope the N.E.R. Battalion will have luck—it is rather thankless work out here, and our Pioneer Battalion has certainly had more than its share of artillery and machine gun fire.’


Memorial in York to the 2236 men of the NER who died in the Great War



8 thoughts on “George Butterworth, Railways, and WW1

  1. Hi Mike, a fascinating post, many thanks. Would you be able to advise where the Butterworth letters are deposited please? I am currently researching the management of logistics on the Western Front and would be very interested in reading the letters between George and his father.


    Chris Phillips

      1. Several people have asked about the Butterworth papers. The original war diary is in the Bodleian Library, but it is somewhat flimsy and needs some conservation care – wartime paper was not of the highest quality! There is a printed version of Butterworth’s diary, which includes the letters to his father. This was privately published in 1918, and only circulated among friends and family and so is very hard to find. The Bodleian Library has a copy (ref. 17402 d.828). You would need to obtain a reader’s ticket for the Library – details on how to do that are on our ‘using the library’ webpage. Otherwise the British Library is likely to have a copy.

  2. Hi Mike,

    Great blogpost, thanks. Can you tell me where I would find George Butterworth’s wartime diary? I’m doing some research on him for my doctoral studies.

  3. Hi, superb blog post, just seen this. May be of interest but my book ‘The North Eastern Railway in the First World War’ is out in November, I found the story of the NER in WW1 absolutely fascinating and felt it should be told, the NER seemed to have received more attacks from the enemy than any other British railway in the war

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