Lives On the Line: NSW Railways Remember

Earlier this year, my partner Stephen Fearnley and I were thrilled to be selected to create a commemorative artwork that honours the commitment of NSW Railway men that served duringNSW Railway men.

“The outbreak of war in 1914 had dramatic impacts in Australia, with large numbers of men rushing to enlist for military service to serve their country. At the time, the NSW Railways and Tramways Department was the largest enterprise in the state, with 45,000 employees. Over the course of the war 8,447 men from the department enlisted for service and by the end of the war 1,210 of these men had died serving their country. Most NSW Railwaymen served amongst other soldiers fighting on the frontline, whilst some were recruited especially for their expertise to assist with operating railway lines for the war effort in Europe. The nature and scale of WWI suited the use of railways like no war before or since, with the war requiring massive transportation in an era where road vehicles and aviation were still too limited. Joseph Joffre, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army during the war declared: ‘This is a railway war… if we win this war it will be largely due to the railways.’  From

The artwork that we are making is linear in nature and when finished will be 45 metres long. The work explores three themes: The first section references the extraordinary story of the men of the 6th Australian Broad Gauge Railway Operating Company (ABGROC) which was made up of volunteers from the NSW Government Railways. In July 1917 they took control of the locomotive depot and exchange sidings at Bergues Exchange that was supporting the Ypres area on the Western Front. 303 stoneware tiles – one for each member of the 6th ABGROC – are being handmade in the design of the red and purple shoulder patch worn by the Railway Operating Companies. Signatures from a Christmas card the company made in 1917 for the Chief Commissioner for the NSW Railways and Tramways, will be reproduced and subtly incised into these tiles. These tiles also reference ceramic tesserae used in many Federation railway stations.

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The deeper level of meaning of this section of the memorial references intellectual man: here is the “mind” of man.

The second section of the memorial is a collaborative artwork. At a series of events around NSW, members of the general public, as well as railways employees and their families, are invited to take part in clay workshops  to help make thousands of ceramic pieces to be included in a 28 metre long mosaic. We are aiming to make 8,447 objects- one for each man who served- ceramic facsimiles of everyday articles that would have been familiar to the men who served. Buckles, badges, buttons, keys, whistles, coins …fragments of objects that were trapped in the mud of battlefields and are being found to this day. When the work is installed the ceramic objects will appear as  flotsam caught in an eddy; from a distance the work will be a palimpsest of textures, close up the details will be revealed.

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The deeper level of meaning of this section of the memorial references physical man; this is the earthly realm, the “body” of man.

The third part of the memorial made of steel, punctured, as though with bullet holes. Each hole will be sealed with kiln slumped blue glass. The steel panels will be illuminated from below: 1210 starlike points of light, representing the number of NSW Railwaymen who died on the battlefields.

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The deeper level of meaning of this section of the memorial references that part of man which we cannot touch- the ethereal or “spirit” body. 

Over the course of the next few months I’ll chart the progress of “Lives on the Line” with images of the works in progress.


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