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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

109th Railway Company, Royal Engineers, and Robert Blackwell & Co


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I am researching Sapper WR 54795 / 250299 Walter Henry Allen, who died from pneumonia in Cologne 22/02/1919 and is buried there. He attested on 19/10/1914, joining the RE 109th Railway Company. He was subsequently posted from the 109th to the 295th on 25/01/1917 and to the 260th on 03/08/1918. In his surviving service records is a form, headed “Royal Engineers Railway Troops / Health Certificate of Recruit”. One of the blanks to be completed is titled “Position in R. Blackwell’s employ”. In his case it was “Rigger”. This suggested to me that other employees of this company must have joined the RE railway troops with him. This company, Robert Blackwell & Co, was created in 1894 by Robert Winthrop Blackwell, an American electrical engineer and businessman, to build and equip electric tramways and trolley lines in Britain.


By searching for consecutive service numbers on either side of Walter’s original 54795 service number I have identified 66 men with surviving service records containing evidence that they were employees of Robert Blackwell & Co. These 66 - Riggers, Platelayers, Blacksmiths and Carpenters – all attested between 09/10/1914 and 20/10/1914. For most of them there are two forms identifying them as employees of Robert Blackwell & Co, the “Health Certificate of Recruit” and a second, headed “Royal Engineers Railway Troops / Identity Certificate of Recruit”, with a blank to be completed with optional heading: “Railway Company / Robert Blackwell & Co”. This form was used both by Robert Blackwell & Co and by the mainline railway companies. Within the period 09/10 – 20/10/1914 there are service records for 7 recruits from mainline railway companies (e.g. Great Central Railway, London & South Western) that used this Identity Certificate form and their own version of the Health Certificate. They continued using them after 20/10/1914, but I do not know for how long.


Robert Blackwell & Co was in existence after the war, so it seems to me that they must have decided that they would have to close at least their construction business for the duration and to encourage their men to enlist in the RE railway troops. The article on this site, Railway Construction Companies of the Royal Engineers says that “In October 1914, the Railway Executive Committee in England formed a Sub-Committee for Recruiting.”. I am guessing that Robert Blackwell & Co had input into this committee, at least involving the forms to be used. In the scheme the sub-committee devised, railway companies were to assess the fitness for service of their employees themselves. For example, Robert Blackwell & Co used a retired Royal Navy surgeon. (The form certifies that the employee “is organically sound and fit for Active Service”, but with a footnote “There are no standards of measurement.” The service records I found show that a number of 109th Railway Company men were subsequently weeded out as unfit for service in November 1914.) The companies were to use the “Identity Certificate” to certify the trade of the employee, his age and whether he was married or not.


In the period 09/10 – 20/10/1914 I have found service records for 97 RE railway company recruits, with service numbers from 54575 to 54809. 66 of them were definitely from Robert Blackwell & Co. Out of the 31 remaining, only 7 are identified as coming from other mainline railway companies (shunters, clerks, checkers, a parcel porter and a warehouseman). I think the other 24, whose occupations all match those from the known Robert Blackwell employees, were also from Robert Blackwell & Co, but the evidence is missing from their service records. Men from Robert Bell & Co must have been a large contingent in the 109th Railway Company, which mustered 7 officers and 231 men when it embarked for France on Christmas Eve 1914.


I understand, from a post by Stebie9173 in 2008 that there was a reorganisation of the Royal Engineers in 1918 that would account for the renumbering of these men, so that Walter Henry Allen became WR 250299. I would like to know a little more about the when and why of this renumbering. Out of the service records of the 66 known Robert Blackwell & Co men, 46 are renumbered.

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The renumbering came about as the result of the restructuring of transportation units in 1917, after the Geddes report.   The renumbering was announced in an Army Order of March 1918 and units were required to draw up nominal rolls containing the names of the men and send them to the appropriate authority and the new numbers started to be allocated from around June of the same year.  Those concerned were Railway, Inland Water Transport and Road Construction units.


In theory, it is is possible to trace men through this new numbering system because of the nominal roll allocation, however, there are some problems with this because of the time lag between the instruction in the AO  and the actual allocation, during which men could have been posted to different units, etc.


Just out of interest I have extracted the names of men from 109 Company war diary and also from some other railway units.




Edited by Terry_Reeves
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Thank you for your answer to my question. Could it be that Walter Allen's posting to the 295th in January 1917 was due to the restructuring of transportation units in 1917 you mention, or is January too early?


I have downloaded the war diaries of the 109th, 295th and 260th, but not got into them yet, other than the first entry in the 109th's. I have a spreadsheet I made of the service numbers, names, trade and date of attestation, with indicators of the available evidence of which company they worked for, between attestation on 09/10/1914 and 21/10/1914. Would it be of interest to match them with the names you have extracted from the 109th's war diary? (I've had to convert it to a pdf file to attach it.) It seems possible that some of the 7 officers the 109th embarked with came from Robert Blackwell & Co, but I do not know how this could be confirmed without access to their service records in the National Archives.

Robert Blackwell & Co in 109th Railway Company.pdf

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Thanks, I will go through the list. With regard to the officers, I have a named group photograph. If you would care to send me your email address through the message system I will send you a copy.  With regard to these officers see below:


Captain (later Major) Frank Forbes -Higginson MC, (born 1879), ran his own public works and engineering company.  MC citation LG 11 Jan 1916.  MID-LG 14.6.18.


Lt Guy Godfrey Glyn was employed by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway as an engineer. He died of a contusion of the brain on 16 August 1915 and is buried in Abbeville Military Cemetery.  He was a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers from 1904.  There is a file at TNA in WO339/36593.  


Lt Charles Ronald Maciver (born 1890).  An engineer, but no details. He was an oarsman at the 1908 Olympic Games and the recipient of a silver medal. TNA file WO339/49167 may give some details of pre-war employment.


Lt Charles Joseph Newbold. Posted to the Railway Transport Executive at some stage. No further details yet.


Lt Charles Edward Jordan-Bell (born 1890). Ended the war as a Lieutenant Colonel. No further details but there is a file at TNA in WO374/5463. 


Captain N Wilson DSO. No details yet.



















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