Monday, 20 January 2020

Caversham Heights Society

THE Caversham Heights Society held three events during November, two lectures and a theatre trip.

On November 6 members were exposed to some history that most of us were ignorant about, namely the contribution of Indian soldiers during the First World War.

The speaker was Interpal Dhanjal, a Sikh who now speaks on behalf of Legacy for Valour, which seeks to set the record straight about the contribution that Indian soldiers, sailors and airmen made to supporting British armed forces in the two world wars, the Boer War and the Afghan wars.

The talk was informative, illuminating and mind-
blowing.

On the outbreak of war in August 1914 the Government appealed to the colonies for help.

The response from India was both swift and positive. An Indian expeditionary force was assembled and the first elements of this landed at Marseilles on August 24. Thereafter, for the duration of the war, Indian forces were involved in Europe, East Africa, Suez, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and south China.

A sixth of Allied forces were Indian. The Sikhs, who formed only two per cent of India’s population, accounted for 20 per cent of the British Army.

There were 1.5 million soldiers and 500,000 involved in support services such as doctors, nurses, medical surgeons, vets, technical staff, plus another 150,000 engineers, signallers, telegraph operators and mechanical engineers for army vehicles.

In addition, India provided jute for sandbags and for processing into other items in the factories of Dundee — cotton for tent canvas, tea, coffee and sugar and other food supplies, medicines and stores, vehicles and locomotives and many other items that were essential for the war effort. The cost to the Indian exchequer was £850 million, the equivalent of £85 billion today.

The human cost can be seen in the fact that there are 403 war cemeteries in 35 countries resulting from that war.

The social and economic impact on India itself was profound and the fact that Indians felt that their contribution to the war effort was never properly recognised helped fuel the demands for first dominion status and then for full independence.

Many society members were left with mixed feelings of guilt and humility but with gratitude for the information that we had been given.

On November 20, Ruth Leuillette, a senior sponsor for Network Rail, brought us down to more local matters when she talked about “The rise and fall of the Cow Lane bridges”.

Nearly half her talk was about the upgrade and redevelopment of Reading station, of which Cow Lane was an integral part.

The upgrade took eight years from December 2011 to November 2019 to complete at a cost of
£85 million.

Over the years many drivers have spent considerable time waiting at the traffic lights at the Cow Lane bridges, so the fact that there is now two-way traffic through the new, bigger bridges is a great relief.

However, it was not just the bottleneck at Cow Lane that was the problem; it was far more that Reading station had become a major bottleneck itself and lacked the capacity to allow more passenger and freight trains to pass through. With the expected growth in Reading’s population, the need for an enlarged station had become necessary.

Ruth’s talk not only dwelt on the reasons for the upgrade, and the need for five more platforms, but was equally concerned with the difficulties and complications surrounding the whole enterprise.

The bridges had to be renewed while trains were still using the lines and new signalling and tracks were being installed, to say nothing of major electrification of the system,

Twenty-three underground electric cables had to be traced and neutralised, a means of preventing flooding under the bridges by installing pumps had to be developed and work had to be stopped to allow several Reading Festivals to happen.

The most fascinating and novel part of the talk was seeing how the new bridges were built off-site and then brought to Cow Lane and manoeuvred into place using lorries, cranes and dozens of workers.

A total of 2,000 cubic metres of concrete had to be laid and 500 tons of reinforced steel were needed to strengthen the bridges, all of which had to be in place by key times.

Despite the disruption, the great benefit of this upgrade is that passenger capacity has increased by 24 per cent.

We enjoyed a very different experience on November 28 when a coachload of 40 members went up to the Dominion Theatre in London to see White Christmas. This was a slick and highly professional performance which was thoroughly enjoyed by all. Afterwards we all enjoyed a good pub meal.

Before making our way back to Reading, our driver took us to see some of London’s Christmas lights.

The final event of 2019 was the annual bring and share Christmas party on December 4, which was preceded by seasonal musical entertainment provided by the Glass Ensemble.

Next term’s programme begins on January 15 with a talk on “The life and work of William Hogarth”.

New members are welcome. Society meetings are held on alternate Wednesday in the hall of Caversham Heights Methodist Church in Highmoor Road. Talks begin at 8pm after coffee and chat.

For more information, visit www.caversham heights.org

Keith Watson

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