This was an ambitious event involving 21 local community groups, during the World War One 100th anniversary remembrance period in November 2016. It commemorated Ambulance Trains, which departed Kent during wartime. Interactive activities were held at seven locations and involved a dedicated “Poppy-branded” Javelin High Speed train to transport people between locations, used for the first time on SwaleRail.
The objective was to organise a thought-provoking, respectful, interesting and interactive event explaining a little-known role played by the railway, while promoting Swale and SwaleRail. The event was conceived following a meeting with Richard Emmett of the Historical Research Group of Sittingbourne, who was keen to commemorate the ambulance trains that conveyed wounded military personnel to hospitals around the UK during WW1. Kent Community Rail Partnership enthusiastically took up the challenge, led by SwaleRail chair Linda Brinklow, and coordinated by Guy Schofield with the support of Linda Bell, Kent CRP project officers.
This was a complex event, requiring careful planning and co-ordination. Considerable historical research was carried out in the early stages. There were regular progress meetings, rehearsals, private preparation and project plans and contingency plans were drafted. Almost one year in the planning, the delivery of this event demonstrated the just what excellent teamwork can achieve. A long list of voluntary groups were involved and they were in turn supported by Kent CRP and the Historical Research Group of Sittingbourne (HRGS). The project was led by Linda Brinklow, Chair of SwaleRail Community Rail Partnership.
Enthusiasm was evident throughout, but was most needed in the final weeks leading up to the event and weekend itself as the weather forecast was awful and Storm Angus hit the night before. It was decided to go ahead anyway, even if the train was unavailable, as the local events were of sufficient interest. Unfortunately, the WW1 Road Ambulance was unable to attend, because of fears it could be blown off its trailer by the storm en-route from Hampshire. However, the rain and wind on the day added to the realism of the event.
The event was action-packed, involving music, historical information delivered by poem (some written for the occasion), songs, re-enactments and demonstrations, including:
- WW1 Memorial Service at Queenborough Parish Church, with readings from WW1 children’s diaries by local schoolchildren;
- Re-enactment of disembarkation of wounded personnel, met by nursing staff from ‘ships’ at All-Tide landing, Queenborough, accompanied by a bagpiper;
- Parade through Queenborough to Station to board the Javelin ‘Ambulance Train’;
- Train ride to Sittingbourne and ‘unloading’ of wounded from train;
- Parade to Forum Shopping Centre with marching band and WW1 re-enactors;
- ‘Hell to Hospital’ presentation on giant screen at The Forum, supported by WW1 cooking demonstrations, weaponry display, contribution made by Sikh soldiers and open house at Historical Research Group of Sittingbourne’s Heritage Hub;
- Train ride on Ambulance train to Sittingbourne with poems, reminiscences and WW1 sing-along;
- Closing ceremony at Sheerness War Memorial, with Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Kent, who took the salute on behalf of the Queen, with bagpiper playing;
- A permit book/programme for attendees as used in WW1 giving access to the military Isle of Sheppey.
As can be seen from the 21 groups involved, the event was inclusive, involving young and old, from choirs to Scouts, and enjoyed for free, including the train journeys. All 320 seats on the train were reserved, with many attending multiple events, and passers-by also catching the activities at each venue. Visitors included local people and rail and history enthusiasts from far and wide, many new to Swale. It was powerful, educational and thought-provoking, impacting on participants and public, as is clear from an online questionnaire.
It was recorded through photograph and film (see top of the page). Film shows have been held for the community and participants, followed by a guided visit to Maidstone Museum, for their ‘Coming Home, Conflict and Care’ exhibition, and a DVD of the ‘Hell to Hospital’ presentation was given to all visitors at The Forum. Press coverage included local radio and a full centre-page spread in the Sheerness Times. Public donations were shared between Help-for-Heroes, Royal British Legion and community groups. This was Kent CRP’s most ambitious, successful event to date, demonstrating what can be achieved when an idea captures the imagination of the community.