July 1917: Transportation and the long vacation

In July 1917, Somerville College held its first Vacation Term.

There were (and are) strict rules governing residence for students at Oxford, rules with which Somervillians complied (even though they had yet to be admitted as members of the University). One rule was that students had to leave college at the end of term. Before the war, many academics spent the  summer break travelling abroad for their research and the empty college buildings, then as now, were given over to summer schools and conferences. Emily Penrose, on becoming Principal of Somerville in 1907, made not having to remain in Oxford during vacations a condition of her acceptance. However, by the summer of 1917, it had become a necessity for some students to extend their residence in college, due to the difficulties of rail travel.

Rail was the primary method of long-distance transport at this time; the previous seventy years had seen private railway companies create a vast, intersecting network of main lines, branch-lines and stations, crossing the country and providing cheap, reliable transport for the masses. Many students depended upon trains to travel to and from Oxford. There were porters to help with heavy trunks or baggage could be sent as advance luggage, delivered door to door, for a fee.College porter with luggage c.1935

The importance of the rail system in the event of war had long been recognised. The Railway Executive Committee (REC) was established in 1912, so that the government could assume control of the railways should hostilities commence and, on 4th August 1914, the REC took over from the private companies. The War Office depended on the rail network to move troops and supplies around the country and to the ports. Once across the Channel, railways brought men and equipment as close to the front as conditions and infrastructure would allow and hospital trains were deployed to take the wounded home.

The upsurge in military traffic coincided with the loss of large numbers of the railway workforce, as men enlisted. As with other industries, women took on many of the roles (apart from those of engine driver and fireman). The engineering works were also operating at maximum capacity; rolling stock, locomotives and equipment were needed in Britain and by the French. The French and German forces relied even more than the British on trains for transport, having built light railways to cover the distance from the railheads and supply depots to the front lines. The British Army relied on road vehicles, both motorised and horse-drawn (see July 1915 blog) and did not construct its own light rail network until 1917.

Domestic freight traffic also increased as submarine attacks on merchant vessels made it unsafe to transport vital supplies by sea, with huge quantities of steam coal being carried by rail from Wales to Scotland to fuel the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow.

With so many demands on the railways, it is unsurprising that train travel for civilian passengers became ‘difficult’.ASM Annual Report 1917

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