During the First World War, countless thousands of men made the long, uncomfortable journey to and from Scapa Flow.
The journey north to Scapa Flow was made in overcrowded trains and across the wild waters of the Pentland Firth, in carriages and boats that were often ill-equipped for the job. Few ever forgot this rite of passage once endured.
Despite the wartime presence of vast numbers of naval vessels in Scapa Flow, very few of the men who served there made the journey by ship. Even Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, when dispatched to Scapa to take command of the Grand Fleet, travelled by train overnight on the 31 July, on a journey that became known as the “Jellicoe Express”.
For every person who travelled on the “Jellicoe”, the experience was memorable, although not for pleasant reasons. The journey sometimes took days, and the trains were cramped and cold, filled with the smells of tobacco, damp clothing and stale sweat.
“The air was dense with smoke and smelt more like a ship’s bilges than a train; but the thought of having a window open, even if one could get to it, was out of the question and asking for trouble. Little or no heat was provided by the train and it was a case of putting up with any discomfort to keep warm.”
During the First World War, the carriages often had no corridors, and there was no kind of catering on board. Even worse, there were no toilets, and putting your head out of the window for some fresh air could bring an unpleasant surprise as a result.
Travelers bound for Scapa set off from many different destinations, but the “Jellicoe” really began from either Kings Cross or Euston stations in London. The Kings Cross train travelled along the east coast line, while the Euston train, considered the “true” Jellicoe, took the west coast route.
At Perth, the two routes became one, travelling the Highland Railway line winding through the north of Scotland to Thurso. From Euston to Thurso took at least 22 hours, but for many on the train, their journey was even longer:
“The memory I have of the journey north by special train from Portsmouth to Thurso in 1915 was of being confined to the train and living on pies for about three days, with an occasional wash by putting our heads out of the railway carriage window to catch the raindrops.”
Although it might seem that finally being able to leave those crowded and stinking train carriages would be a relief, for some it only served to remind them of what lay ahead. Between them and Orkney now lay the treacherous waters of the Pentland Firth.
The Pentland Firth is widely believed to be one of the most dangerous stretches of water on Earth, with powerful, swirling currents at the best of times, and crashing waves and storms render it essentially unusable by ships at the worst.
For those men boarding the transport vessels of different shapes and sizes at Scrabster on a peaceful and calm day, the journey was by all accounts relatively pleasant. For those less fortunate, the next few hours could be a dangerous and terrifying ordeal. Seasickness was rife on the crossing, even among experienced naval personnel. For those lost overboard on a wilder crossing, the chance of survival was tragically almost non-existent.
Nevertheless, over the course of the First World War, hundreds of thousands of men made the journey north and south on those slow, cramped trains and nausea-inducing boats. To anyone stationed at Scapa, the Jellicoe and the Pentland Firth were a part of life, and an invaluable link to their homes far away.
- Header image: Altered from original. By Dun Deagh, Riverside Museum Glasgow.
- First image: By Dun_Deagh (Riverside Museum, Glasgow Uploaded by Oxyman) CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
- Second image: Copyright RCAHMS.
- Third image: Copyright RCAHMS.