Seventeen craters and counting,
Shells fall, there’s no moving a train running hard.
Sulfur, smoke and coal,
Whistle blows; splinters and wood
There’s no dodging this incendiary hail storm
The only way through, is through.
The crashing of oversized bullets fired from miles away
Vengeful gifts from an invisible enemy
One there, a few here,
A close call, I don’t know if I can take it all.
(Technology, war, me and these parallel tracks
This iron horse, heaving forward, as if jumping over cracks)
I thought my nerves could take the shock, but I’m worn in every muscle
It’s hard to stay awake.
My mind and heart is racing, the Doc says my nerves are shot.
The extremes of heat, cold and smell,
Vast empty wastelands; civilization all blown to hell
If the shrapnel stays away,
And the train keeps its tracks,
If the boiler temp. is kept at bay
We’re sure to remain attached.
Our biggest fear is derailment,
From that, there’s no coming back.
So, we do our best to work & pray,
To ask Jesus Christ for a miracle,
For Him to work alongside us, as we drip in sweat,
As we roll back and forth with each, and every tilt, of this beast’s rough sway.
The noise is growing quieter now,
It’s profane and peculiar,
Our train may have never left its tracks,
But hearts and minds have derailed,
Deranged metal has deranged men;
Lives gone off the rails;
All because a train cannot dodge the screaming descent of metal hail
Though those years are far from me,
I still jump when there’s nothing there,
When a train whistles, I hold my breath;
Look to the right, left,
and then up in the air.
Awaiting the inevitable fusion,
Of locomotives, war and their violent union
Of metal meteors; fear of not making it back,
Of bombs and broken men, who gave their all, riding iron horses over broken tracks.
Corporal Frederick William Petrie served in France with the A.I.F as an engineman (fireman) on locomotives, from 22nd Dec. 1916 to 7th Nov. 1918. He was 36 years old. On the 17th July 1917, Frederick was diagnosed with Neurasthenia (depression and emotional distress), which was commonly used as a diagnosis for “shell shock”. After meeting with British Commander of the Australian Imperial Forces in Europe, General William Birdwood, Frederick was placed on lighter duties.
According to reports, locomotive engineers during the war, were faced with rough conditions:
‘we were not fighting troops, but I may say that the whole of our sphere of operations was within range of the enemy’s artillery, and he paid particular attention to the railways, both with his heavy guns and aeroplane bombs. Even…the furthest back station of the 4th company was under fire from the 15in guns…With both planes and guns the enemy paid systematic attention to our main lines of rail, so you can realise that life in a railway unit was not altogether a picnic. The 5th Coy…had the worst of it…their section of line was continually exposed to bomb raids and gunfire, night and day, and their casualties were heavy…the amount of work behind a great army is tremendous. Despite the network of lines, I have seen 280 trains per day pass over a single section of line, and trains carry 1000-ton loads…the difficulties and odds against which they had to contend are seldom realised.’
(Lt. R.J Burchell 5th coy, The West Australian, June 1919)
Photo credit: Samuel Zeller on Unsplash