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WWI compendium highlights contribution of civil engineers

Readers will be aware that August 2014 marked the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. For most of us, the images we recall of that global conflict are of trenches, mud, shell-ravaged torsos, and the battlefield cemeteries and memorials that followed, writes Mike Chrimes.

It is easy to overlook the contribution of civil engineers to an allied victory, but visitors to the ICE’s headquarters at One Great George Street are presented with two contrasting images - the bronze war memorial to members who lost their lives, at the head of the main staircase on the first floor, and Charles Sims’ polychrome ceiling mural in the Great Hall on the same floor, which captures the many elements of the civil engineering war contribution: rail, docks, aircraft, serving soldiers and officers.

It is these elements that the ICE library team, notably Debra Francis and Carol Morgan, and Victoria Rae and David Kennedy of ICE Publishing, have brought together in the first “collection” on the Virtual Library. This includes papers from the ICE minutes of proceedings on the work of the royal engineers, James Forrest lectures on the development of aircraft, First World War military engineering manuals and unpublished papers from the ICE archives. We have also scanned the Memorial Volume produced in 1919 recording the work of those members who laid down their lives.

The collection can be found at

Later in the year, the archivists at the ICE, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Engineering and Technology will create an online exhibition about the war and engineers’ work associated with it. A sense of what might be covered can be found in The Contractors, written by Hugh Ferguson and myself.

Biographical details of leading engineers will also be found in the soon to be published Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers 1890-1920. These include Sir Alexander Gibb, a painting of whose mystery “tower under construction” can be seen in the members’ business centre in the upper library; contractor Sir John Norton-Griffiths, who recommended using the monies from Manchester sewerage contracts in the mining operations on the Western Front; and John Henry Patterson, best known for slaying the man-eating lions of Tsavo, but who also led a Zionist regiment at Gallipoli.

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