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Heroic navvies built a 29-mile railway for the Allies in the Crimea

Posted in Engineering, Historical articles, History, Railways, War on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about navvies first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 468 published on 2 January 1971.

Balaclava railway, picture, image, illustration

The railway at Balaclava, looking south by William Crimea Simpson

Everything was set. At Balaclava, Beattie had found a wharf from which the ships could unload. Raglan admitted that the railway was life and death to many of his soldiers, if not indeed to the Army. Through January, and through storms in the Bay of Biscay, the contractors’ fleet sailed out. The navvies rioted in Gibraltar and Malta, demonstrated prizefighting in Valletta, and then, at the beginning of February, began to disembark at Balaclava into the cold of a Russian winter.

They got to work. In ten days they built their own hutted camp and the first five miles of line. Captain Clifford (later to become Major-General Sir Henry Clifford) wrote home that the navvies looked “unutterable things,” and had set to work on the railway, “more because it is their nature to do so than anything else.” He would have preferred a simple road, but later admitted he was astonished at the railway’s progress. He said: “The navvies in spite of the absence of beefsteaks and ‘Barkley and Perkins Entire’ work famously, and as I have before mentioned, do more work in a day than a Regiment of English soldiers do in a week. To be sure the navvies have yet in them the stamina of English living, which has long been worked out of our poor fellows.”

Though the Army had promised to lend the contractors soldiers to use as temporary navvies, little help was in fact given. At first about 150 men of the 39th Regiment worked for Beattie, and were becoming fair navvies when they were withdrawn. He was then given 200 Croatians who were practically useless, so the entire burden was borne by English navvies.

The railway, which was laid as a double line from its beginning on the quays of Balaclava right up to the hilltop encampments, was worked by horses (who walked on planks specially laid between the rails), by stationary engines, and also, as had not at first been intended, by locomotives shipped out from Britain. As a railway it was a bit rough – Brassey having told Beattie not to be too particular about levels and that his principal task was to build a reasonably serviceable track – but it did a lot to save the Army. The engineers had expected to take until the end of April, but by the middle of March things were going much better than they had hoped. A quarter of a mile was being laid every day; the pace was fast. In one instance, a pile-driver was landed from the supply ship on one evening, carried in pieces up to the spot where the piles had to be sunk for a wooden bridge across a stream, erected the next morning, and, before that evening, in less than 24 hours, the piles were all driven, the machine removed, the bridge finished, and the rails laid down for 100 yards beyond.

By the end of March the line had reached its farthest point and in a week or so more the tributary lines were laid and the railway completed. In all, 29 miles of track were laid. In a letter to his employers Beattie praised his navvies, saying their example had showed the soldiers how to work, and that he was convinced that 50 soldiers would now do more than 100 would have done before. Soon after it was opened the railway was estimated to have carried 246,600 tons of food and forage (112 tons a day), 1,000 tons of shot and shell, 3,600 tons of commissariat goods. Even then, the idiots of the commissariat refused to make full use of the railway which the navvies had worked night and day to build, incredibly declining to run supplies before eight in the morning or after five-thirty in the evening. But the Army was relieved. Its supplies were assured. Things were never so bad again as in the early winter of 1854, and in September, 1855, the fort of Sevastopol fell.

In the Crimea the navvies were perhaps, in the eyes of such an officer as Henry Clifford, unutterable things. They were undisciplined and wore moleskin jackets; the soldiers drilled admirably and wore fine red coats. But the navvies were fit, well fed, well clothed, well paid, experienced in icebound winters, and well led: the soldiers were diseased, starved, tattered, flogged and not prepared for the cold weather.

The British Army had not fought a war since 1815, but the likes of Peto and Brassey and their men had prospered through many hard campaigns in Britain, Europe, and America. In 1846, for instance, while the chief recreations of the Army were in suffering occasional defeats in African skirmishes and in flogging a man to death at Hounslow for insubordination, the railway contractors had an army of 200,000 navvies at work in Britain alone. It is not, then, strange that the British Army was at its wits’ end to maintain an army of 30,000 in the Crimea (which was only half the number of Brassey’s habitual workforce), or that Brassey, together with Peto & Betts, the two biggest contracting firms in the world, should have found it a simple matter to transport a few hundred navvies to the Crimea and build 29 miles of railway. The contractors came out of the war well. As the Illustrated London News said, it was once more proved that the men who had “made England great by their skill, enterprise, and powers of organisation, were of far different calibre from the officials the Government employs.” And the navvies, who returned to a great welcome, were for the time being heroes.

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