Skip to content

By Alison Kay on

Prisoners of the Red Desert: Wartime Adventures of LNWR railwaymen

What was life like for the railwaymen who served at sea during the First World War?

We have now added over 1800 new entries to our list of railwaymen who died in the First World War, and our research demonstrates that not all railwaymen spent the war in trenches on the western front. During the First World War railwaymen served all over the world, hundreds served on ships and many experienced extraordinary adventures in stark contrast to their jobs at home.

LNWR SS Hibernia at Holyhead c.1907
LNWR SS Hibernia at Holyhead c.1907. She was renamed HMS Tara for her war duties.

On 5 November 1915 HMS Tara – formerly the London and North Western Railway (LNWR) ship Hibernia – was sunk by a German submarine whilst part of the North Egyptian coast patrol. Many of the ship’s staff were LNWR men.

LNWR Gazette Vol 5
LNWR Gazette Vol 5

Twelve officers were tragically drowned when the boat was torpedoed. The 92 survivors, mostly made up of railwaymen, were taken prisoner by the Arab Senoussi tribe. The men were taken deep into the Libyan Desert where they stayed for a number of months, those at home presuming they had been lost.

During the cold, dark, hungry and uncomfortable nights, held captive in deep in the desert, with no apparent means of escape, the railwaymen found an unlikely way of passing the time. The men ‘almost came to blows’ whilst arguing over correct times for trains to various British seaside resorts and ‘waxed hot’ on the exact cost of the ticket – you can take the man out of the railway, but you can’t take the railway out of the man!

image from 'Prisoners of the red desert' by Capt. Gwatkin-Williams
image from ‘Prisoners of the red desert’ by Capt. Gwatkin-Williams

The men survived on meagre rations and told of eating endless amounts of snails to stay alive, they even ate dead camel which had been down a well for two days. On Christmas day the prisoners used rations to cook a special pudding, boiled for five hours in LNWR employee Captain Tanner’s spare pair cotton Arab trousers. They named the finished pudding the ‘Petty Officer’.

Finally on St Patrick’s Day 1916 – four months since they were captured – the men were saved. Their saviour was the Duke of Westminster, who was serving as a Major in the Cheshire Yeomanry. The Duke arrived  at their camp at daybreak leading a fleet of Ford cars, escorted by Rolls Royces. A dramatic end to their perilous ordeal.

On 17 May 1916 the LNWR  held a banquet for the former Tara prisoners at the Euston Hotel, details of their exuberant day can be found in the LNWR Gazette.

LNWR Gazette Vol 5
LNWR Gazette Vol 5

The Duke of Westminster could not be present at the dinner but sent the following message:

“Mind you give my kindest greetings to all the men, and mind you give them snails for a remembrance.”

The below photograph shows the men at Euston Hotel two months after they were saved, some still looking rather thin.

Tara Survivors at Euston Hotel 1916
Tara Survivors at Euston Hotel 1916

We have recently acquired Prisoners of the Red Desert written by Captain R.S. Gwatkin-Williams, a flamboyant, wonderful and genuinely funny account of the ordeal. You can view this in Search Engine or online here.

Our First World War research has uncovered some fascinating information about railway companies and their contribution to the First World War, find out more on our website.


7 comments on “Prisoners of the Red Desert: Wartime Adventures of LNWR railwaymen

  1. Hi there I’m looking to find any info on my great grandfather Thomas Higgins who was a fireman on the Tara in 1915 he was one of the survivors ,we don’t seem to know where he went and when he died after they was rescued on march 21 as he never returned home to Ireland,
    regards jenny,

    1. Hi. I don’t know about Thomas but he would have served in the engine room with my grandad Sub Lieutenant Griffith Hugh Roberts. Griffith perished when the torpedo struck.
      Good luck.
      Phil Chard

      1. Hello Phil, I saw Griffith Hugh Roberts’ photo at the Holyhead Maritime Museum yesterday. I had heard about him in the family but never seen a picture. I’m very grateful to Betty Holmes (grandaughter of Griffith) who had provided the photo. Do you or another family member have any other pictures of Griffith’s family from Newry Street, Holyhead? I’m a 2nd cousin twice removed of Isabel Eva Chard (nee Roberts)) , my branch of the family were mariners from Porthdinllaen.
        Kind regards,

  2. Hi would anyone have any info on my Great uncle Owen Gray from
    Holyhead ???
    Many thanks 😊

  3. Thanks for this blog … I have never seen it before. Captain R S Gwatkin-Williams was my Grandfather; he wrote a second book ‘Under the Black Ensign’ and his story is also to be found in ‘The Escapers’ by Eric Williams. He does exhibit a nice light hand in his writing and they are an easy and interesting read even if the characters in the books are unknown to you.

  4. It should be noted that my grandfather made the decision to leave in order to seek help. He escaped the well at night carrying a back pack of cooked rice and using his exceptional naval skills, walked through the desert to find help. He left a note in a burned out car and it was this note that alerted the Duke to the plight of the men and their eventual rescue by the Duke.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *