From Trams To Trenches - National Express commemorates staff who died at the Somme

National Express West Midlands is marking the centenary of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 2016), in which 49 West Midlands transport workers died, by reprinting a book that tells their story. 

The Birmingham Tramways Department was a precursor of today’s West Midlands bus company. “From Trams To Trenches” is the history of 236 men who worked there and who died in the First World War. 

National Express HR Director Madi Pilgrim added:

“This book honours each and every one of the 236 men who died in World War One by researching how they lived and died. They were young men from Birmingham who worked as drivers, conductors and engineers, many based at some of the same buildings that our staff work in now. This is our way of remembering and honouring them.”

In September 1914, 700 Birmingham Tramways employees - almost a fifth of the workforce - left their transport roles to serve their country. Most of them were Army Reserves, but the department was also well represented in the Territorial units and Lord Kitchener’s new army. By March 1916, 1,755 employees were serving in the armed forces. 236 of them never came back.

Three of the 49 men from the Birmingham Tramways Corporation who died at the Somme were Alfred Farnell, Frederic Field and John Simmonds. They served with the 14th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment. It was the first to be formed following the Lord Mayor of Birmingham’s appeal in August 1914 and was known as the 1st Birmingham Battalion.

The men of 14th Battalion Royal Warwickshire Regiment entered the front line on 22 July 1916. Their objective was 500 yards of German trench. They were met with a hail of bullets and shells, and suffered 485 casualties. In total, 194 men were killed, including:

Lance Corporal Alfred Charles Farnell - the youngest son of Mr and Mrs Farnell of Leonard Road, Handsworth. Before the war, he was employed at Council House Traffic Department of the Trams. He was the husband of Alice Farnell of Railway Terrace, Nechells. He died on 23 July 1916 and is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial.

Private Frederic Alan Field - the only son of Mr and Mrs Barney Field of Lordswood Road, Harborne. He died on 23 July 1916, aged 22, and is also remembered on the Thiepval Memorial.

Sergeant John Albert Simmonds - the only son of John and Jane Simmonds of Victoria Road, Aston. He died on 23 July 1916 and is buried at Longueval. He was 23.

From Trams To Trenches was first published in November 2014, with a cover price of £5. After a sell-out first run of 1,000 copies, National Express is working with local history publisher Brewin Books to make the book available again in local and national bookshops and online. 

The book was written and researched by local author and historian Doug Smith MBE from Kings Heath in Birmingham. He took on the challenge of identifying and researching each of the WWI names listed on the company’s cenotaph, in the grounds of their Sports and Social Club on Wheeler’s Lane.

Author Doug Smith MBE said: 

“Many people are still unaware that this cenotaph exists. Researching the book has enabled me to inform local families about the brave actions of their relatives who are honoured on this memorial.” 

The bus company has also contributed a memory square for The Path of the Remembered, which is part of the National Commemoration of the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

Published 24th June 2016