By Charles A Mawer, 2nd Year Student in Naval Architecture at the University of Strathclyde
Examples of surviving First World War light gauge railway equipment © Martin O’Keeffe.
This year marks the centenary of the introduction of a forgotten (but arguably the most effective) transport system of the First World War: light railways. Once the opposing sides had dug in on the Western Front, and their continuous artillery bombardments churned up the ground, the task of supplying the front lines became more difficult. The motor lorries, which the British Army had intended to use for all transportation needs, broke up the ground more with their narrow tyres. As the roads became unusable, other methods of getting supplies to the trenches were used. Mules were used, but they had a low carrying capacity, as did soldiers carrying supplies up to the front themselves. In other areas, homemade narrow (60cm) gauge light railways were built using items obtained from local industrial sites, such as collieries and factories. In sectors of the front taken over from the French, soldiers were able to utilise trench railways built by the French. British High Command still believed that the war would be one of movement, and as a result the use of the trench railways was not officially sanctioned until early 1916. It would take until 1916 and the recommendation of Sir Eric Geddes (of the Ministry of Munitions, and formerly of the North Eastern Railway Company) before the War Office accepted that a network of light railways to supply the frontline would be highly beneficial.
Light Rail on the Western Front
Had they looked at the transport systems of the other major powers on the Western Front at this time, they would have seen that there was already extensive use being made of 60cm gauge light railways to carry supplies: for the last twenty-five years the French had been using light railways to supply their forts (such as at Verdun), having learnt much from their defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. It was the French Colonel Pechot who had done much work promoting the use of light railways for this purpose. Although much of the equipment (generally of the ‘Artillerie 88’ system) was of a similar age, it was well designed, and there were a number of modern locomotives. The Decauville Manufacturing Company was one of the largest suppliers of light railways, and much of the French track, wagons and locomotives were produced by them. The Germans had planned for a war of attrition, and having realised that transporting supplies and equipment would be crucial to victory, had built and stockpiled large supplies of light railway equipment many years before. Behind the German attack through Belgium and France, the Feldbahns (field railways) were laid, ensuring a constant flow of supplies to the advancing troops.
Contemporary film footage shows British forces and German prisoners on the Western Front (c. 1916) using light railway to move equipment. ©Imperial War Museum.
British War Department Light Railways (WDLR)
Over the following years, the value of the British (and Commonwealth) War Department Light Railways (WDLR) would be demonstrated time and time again. Vast amounts of ammunition and batteries of field guns could be transported to where they were required before major offensives. Likewise in the event of a German offensive, the guns and other important equipment could be quickly moved from any threat. The wounded could be taken by train to hospitals set up many miles behind the front, and WDLR control posts situated along the tracks also functioned as dressing stations for walking wounded.
Canadian Corps using light railway (c. 1918). © National Film Board of Canada.
After the War
After the war, some of the railways were used as part of the rebuilding process, remaining in place until the late 1920s. In many cases after the rebuilding, segments of the railways in Northern France were retained for the transport of sugar beet from the field to refinery. These lasted into the 1950s and 60s. Many of the locomotives and wagons were sold, like other military surplus items, with the result that they could be found in service on just about every continent. A large number of them had long working lives, with some still in use in the 1990s. Many of the locomotives and wagons are now preserved in many countries across the world, with particularly large collections in Britain and France. In France, in the Somme battle area, one line known as ‘Petit train de la Haute Somme’ is the sole survivor of the original First World War light railways. The line was started in 1915 by the French, later taken over by the British. After the war it was used for reconstruction trains and for carrying sugar beet, being used for this purpose until road transportation began to take over in the early 1970s. Luckily it has saved for posterity, and is now a popular heritage railway. There are also a number of other railways in France with extensive collections of light railway equipment from all the combatants, but these railways have been built more recently or date from before the war.
The War Office Locomotive Trust are in the final stages of restoring War Office Hunslet number 303 (Hunslet 1215), planning to have her running in time for the centenary of her completion in 1916. Image © Phil Robinson.