Tag Archives: Victoria Station

The Two Trains of Destiny

In her book, Untold Tales of War-time London, Hallie Eustace Miles described the scene as soldiers arrived on leave and left again for the front at Victoria station in early 1915.

Her descriptions provide a vivid picture of the station’s daily use as a point of transit for soldiers travelling to and from the front (as we heard from F.H. Keeling, who travelled there early one morning in early 1916). Here are Miles’s descriptions in full, which had the title The Two Trains of Destiny in her book, with some photos and a few comments from me at the end.

March 5th [1915]

I must now describe two very different wonderful experiences I have just had. Every day there is a train from Victoria which takes soldiers who have been home on leave back to – somewhere – to join a Boat that will take them to France and the cruel trenches. Shortly after, another train comes in, bringing soldiers and officers home from the trenches. Well, I determined I would go to Victoria and meet both trains, and see for myself the moving scenes that people can hardly speak of for their pathos. And I really can scarcely find words in which to describe what I saw.

Back to the trenches after Christmas: soldiers leaving Victoria for the front after a brief stay at home Illustrated War News, 5/1/1916

Back to the trenches after Christmas: soldiers leaving Victoria for the front after a brief stay at home
Illustrated War News, 5/1/1916

The “Good-bye” Train

It was a perfect day of brilliant sunshine. When I got to Victoria Station, the train was waiting in the “siding” which is always kept for these goings and comings. Even the train looked to me different to any other train that I have ever seen before. It seemed to me like a train of Destiny waiting there for its sacred burden of brave men who might never again return to “Blighty”. It reminded me of the Allegory of the “Black Ship” which used to fetch people and take them out to sea when their “day” had come to start on their last voyage.

‘At first the platform was empty, only the train with “steam up,” waiting. And then there began to arrive the Tommies, and the Officers, and the Mothers, Wives, Sisters and Sweethearts. A magic piece of paper admitted them on to the platform. I was at the barrier. The men looked very brave, but their faces were very set. Some of them hardly dared to look at the brave women walking by their side. But I knew what they were each feeling, I went through a bit of it on that very platform, when Eustace went to America. The luggage was so different to other luggage too; it was chiefly those long bolsters they take all their things in. Some of the Tommies had bunches of flowers to take out with them. Soon the platform was crowded with this wonderful army of men and women who were fighting back the tears so bravely, and each helping the other by their own courage. Then came the moment when the first dreaded whistle sounded; it seemed more like a “trumpet call” than the whistle of an ordinary engine. The very air become suddenly charged with intensest feeling. We all held our breaths; perhect silence reigned, for we knew the “good-byes” were being said; we knew that for some the last kiss was being given. Then there was a banging of doors, and the last whistle sounded. The train slowly moved off, as if it could not bear to go, and the platform was left with only women, a few fathers, and some very depressed doggies. I never saw such as sight as it was when the khaki arms were waving out of the windows to those dear ones who were left standing on the platform as long as the train was in sight.

And then the sad procession passed out again; some of the women looked years older since they had last gone through the wonderful gate that kept opening and shutting to admit the brave procession through. I kept on thinking “Which will come back again through that gate?” Of course there were tears, but on the whole very few really gave way. Some looked terribly lonely, and one thought of the empty homes to which they were going back.

Soldiers back on leave, at a London station (probably Waterloo) in 1915.

Soldiers back on leave, at a London station (probably Waterloo) in 1915.

March 6th

The “Blighty” Train

I must now describe the second train which brought the Tommies and Oficers home on furlough to the same platform as the train that, alas! took them out again to the awful trenches. It was a very intense time, waiting for the wonderful train to come in with its heroic burden. Not the least interesting part was the sight of the happy, expectant faces of those who had come to meet their dear ones; such a contrast to the faces I had just seen go through the gate, after seeing their brave men off. How we all watched for the signal to drop! At last it did, and again the train seemed more than a train, as it slowly slipped into the siding. In one instant the doors all flew open, and strange objects poured out. They seemed almost to resemble Arctic explorers, or Esquimaux, than ordinary soldiers. Most of them had on sheepskin coats, strange fur caps and woollen helmets; and their khaki was black; some were in rags, and oh! the mud on their boots and legs. The colour of their faces was strange too, so weather-worn and weather-beaten. But the saddest part of all was the stern gravity of their expressions, as if the “veil” had been lifted and they had seen things they could never speak of and never forget. They carried the weirdest parcels and bags, full of souvenirs. Some of the “Tommies” had bunches of flowers tied to their rifles, given to them, I suppose, by the French girls. There were some beautiful cares waiting for some of the officers, with beautiful wives inside too! I was so sorry for those who had no one to meet the. They all looked dreadfully tired. It was the most wonderful and thrilling crowd I have ever seen. It made one realise what the War means more than anything else has ever done. When it was all over, I felt as if I have been to Church; as if I had been at a Sacrament. I did so long for someone to start cheering the War-worn heroes; it was all so horribly English and silent. One woman waved her baby to the Tommies! This gave a little life to the solemn scene. I went up to some of them and said “Welcome Home.” One thing I noticed was that the men who came home looked nearly as sad as those who went back. I suppose it was that the shadow of the “going back” was already over them. It was only three days for most of them.

Victoria station, after the arrival of the leave train © IWM (Q 30511)

Victoria station, after the arrival of the leave train
© IWM (Q 30511)

Miles’s descriptions capture a snapshot of leave arrivals and departures, fairly early in the war. The three days granted in 1914-15 gradually increased until most soldiers at the front could expect a ten-day block of home leave at least once a year by 1918. During 1915, free buffets for soldiers were opened at the major London stations – as we shall see in a forthcoming blog post.

Source: Hallie Eustace Miles, Untold Tales of War-time London: a personal diary (1930).

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Posted by on 16 January 2014 in Ordinary Londoners, Places


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Victoria Station, 10 November 1920: the arrival of the unknown warrior

The Unknown Warrior is part of the UK’s national remembrance of the Great War. A single, unidentified serviceman, he represents all those whose bodies were missing, while the Cenotaph represents all those who did not return. On 10 November 1920, the warrior arrived at Victoria station en route to Westminster Abbey.

The idea was that an unidentified body would be repatriated from the battlefields in France and Flanders to lie in the heart of London (and thus of the nation and empire) to represent the British Empire’s one million dead, and especially those whose bodies were not located or identified. The warrior’s journey is depicted in this five-minute Pathe film.

Four bodies were disinterred in from the battlefields of the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. They were taken to St Pol and one was blindly selected to return to Britain.  This warrior was transported across France to Boulogne and onto the – significantly named – HMS Verdun. The ship landed at Dover and the coffin was tranferred to a train.

The Unknown Warrior being removed from HMS Verdun by soldiers, a sailor and an airman. (Daily Mirror 10/11/20)

The train arrived at platform 8 in Victoria Station at 8.32 on the 10th of November, the coffin being borne in the same carriage that had returned the bodies of Nurse Edith Cavell and Captain Fryatt to the UK.

The Unknown Warrior at Victoria Station, guarded overnight

A plaque next to platform 8 now marks the occasion and the Western Front Association meet there at 8pm each year to pay their respects.

The plaque marking the event of the warrior’s arrive

On 11 November, the warrior was transported on a gun carriage to Westminster Abbey. The procession left Victoria at 9.40am and travelled via Hyde Park Corner and the Mall to Whitehall, passing the Cenotaph before arriving at the Abbey.

The procession’s route, 11 November 1920 (from Daily Mirror 10/11/20)

A guard of honour of a hundred Victoria Cross holders welcomed the coffin, accompanied by the King, Field Marshals Haig and French and many other luminaries of the Great War era.

After a shortened version of the burial service, the King dropped a handful of French soil onto the coffin as it was lowered into the grave. After thousands of mourners had passed the spot, the grave was filled with 100 barrels of French soil.

The Unknown Warrior’s grave being filled with French soil

So, by the evening of 11 November 1920, the key pieces of the landscape of British national (and imperial) remembrance were in place. The Unknown Warrior and the Cenotaph (used in temporary form in 1919 but replaced in stone in 1920) are central to remembrance in London. The warrior also plays a part in other events in the Abbey, such as the recent royal wedding, when the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge paid their respects.


Sources and further reading:

Adrian Gregory – the Silence of Memory

Neil Hanson – the Unknown Warrior

Westminster Abbey website

BBC picture gallery of the Unknown Warrior’s final journey


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