Elsewhere on this web-site one can read of the role that the main line railways of Europe played in the mobilisation of the millions strong armies of Germany, Austria, France and Russia in August 1914, (e.g. see: Communications on the Western Front in the Great War). Accordingly, it will be appreciated how these railways played a vital role in the conveyance of men and material to the armies of the belligerent nations on the Western Front, and continued to supply them throughout the 52 months that the war raged there.

The prime need for these railways was for the transportation of munitions, principally artillery shells, to the gun batteries located in, and behind, the front lines. Nearly 200 million shells - five million tons - of artillery shells were fired the British Army alone during the course of the conflict. Artillery-fire being the cause of 90% of all military casualties. The big Allied advance that ended the war 1918, would not have been possible but for the increasing superiority that the Allies had in artillery.

Apart from these existing main line railways - usually of a heavy gauge (i.e. standard width of track) - a whole network of narrow, or light, gauge railways were developed by the British Army from early 1917. These lighter railways ran from the marshalling yards of the main line French and Belgian railways right to the very limits of the Front Line itself.

Subsequently, spurs from these light railways were laid to move around the Front large pieces of artillery, and to provide mobile gun-platforms for the large artillery guns, mortars and howitzers that were found to be too heavy to transport by road (e.g. the notorious 21cm German cannons that bombarded Paris in 1918).

These light railways also assisted in the transportation of hundreds of thousands of the more seriously wounded to hospitals and convalescence centres at various locations behind the enemy lines.

So how, on what basis, and where, were these networks of light railways developed?

Pre-war Light railways

The Germans, in anticipation of a European war, and in view of their operational experiences in South West Africa at the turn of the century, had stockpiled vast quantities of 60cm (approximately 24-inches) wide narrow gauge (light) railway track, and the rolling stock (locomotive engines and the wagons) to run on it. They foresaw that these light railway lines could be rapidly built to keep up with their advancing army, and to maintain the scale of the supply of food, equipment and munitions necessary for their army to wage continuous, total, war. Essentially, their plans for a tactical light railway went back to before 1900. Thus their excellent state of readiness, preparation and organisation in 1914 is readily understandable.

The French had also given thought to a system of satellite light railways, but their prime consideration had been the supplying of their network of fortresses along the borders of Germany (e.g. Verdun). With these objectives in view, since the late 19th Century they had also held in stock large quantities of their Decauville 60cm (24-inches) portable railway tracks, along with the appropriate rolling stock. Their light railway system was planned to be readily portable using the standard heavy gauge main line railway system to transport it - lock, stock and barrel - to the environs of the Battle Zone. From thence, it would be deployed to connect the marshalling yards of the main-line railway system with the Front Line depots and ammunition dumps.

Russia had had wide experience, some of it bitter, with light railways during the Russo-Japanese War. So, its military planners had given some careful thought about its deployment on the Eastern Front in any confrontation with Germany and Austria/Hungary. But Russia's state of preparedness in 1914 failed to parallel the meticulous organisation of German and French Armies.

Britain, since the early 1900's, had an official policy that favoured the use of motor vehicles, over light railways, for the transportation of men and supplies from the main line railheads to the War Zone. In view of the well-known mechanical unreliability of these vehicles at the time, this attitude was at best, unrealistically optimistic. In 1914 the Royal Engineers, on whom the responsibility devolved for railway transport in the War Zone, was stuck with this policy. It was not assisted in deploying it by the general paucity of suitably rugged and reliable motor vehicles and the trained manpower to drive and maintain them. Nor did the road networks of Belgium and France have any great potential to absorb really heavy military motor vehicular traffic.

Accordingly, when the British Expeditionary Force left for the Western Front, it was not at all prepared for this kind of logistics. Fortunately, the existing French railway network was able to largely fill the transportation gap until the static nature of trench warfare in the British Sector made the inadequacies only too clear, and the benefits of a light railway systems self-evident. Consequently, as early as 1915 the British built wooden tramways, or cannibalised existing steel tramways they found in situ, to create ad hoc Front Line transportation systems.


New light railways on the Western Front

By 1916, this transformation of the military operations on the Western Front into one of more or less permanent trench warfare, and all the problems of transportation of enormous numbers men and quantities of materials that this entailed, prompted the British Minister of Munitions, Sir Eric Geddes, to strongly recommend the installation of a tactical light railway system - known as the War Department Light Railways (WDLR) - to emulate the highly efficient ones already operational for the other belligerent nations. The British Government in late 1916 formally adopted this policy, and appropriate financial provision was made.

The Royal Engineers had long had a small cadre of specialised railway troops. In 1914, these were grouped into two companies - totalling about 400 men. When the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) left for France in 1914, men from these rail companies soon followed to work on the existing standard gauge French and Belgian Railway system. (The European standard gauge was 5 feet 9 inches (1.75m), which is said to be the width between the wheels of a Roman chariot - as one can readily verify by the ruts cut into the paved streets of Roman cities such as Pompeii).

As the numbers of the Royal Engineers railway specialists were so few, compared the escalating need for railway transportation, new recruits were sought from railway workers already in the British Army, and volunteers joining the British and Dominion armies. However, many of the auxiliary railway workers were either trained on the job, or in one of the special training companies that were established in France.

The first Light Railway Companies (LRC's) were formed in February 1916, under the Directorate of Light Railways. Over time, the LRC's virtually became a sort of fait accompli, in view of the extreme difficulty with which the much touted motor transport laboured in the shell torn and muddy landscape into which the Western Front had rapidly degenerated. The old and new companies became part of the British Railways Operating Division (ROD).

The new LRC's had a nominal strength of 200 men, mainly remustered former railway men, and was commanded by a Captain. In all, 27 LRC's operated on the Western Front, with other LCR's dedicated to training, recovery and repair. Some of the LRC's were established, staffed and run by the South Africans, Canadians and Australians e.g. The Canadian Tramway and Forest Corps; The Australian Light Railway Operating Companies.

The overall responsibility for the laying of new tracks and maintenance was designated to the Royal Engineers (RE).

light_railway_trucksRolling Stock and specifications

At this juncture it may be useful to take a closer look at what a Light Railway and its rolling stock in the Great War was made up of:

  • The rolling stock of a railway was the locomotive and the wagons that these locomotives pulled. The steel rails on which the locomotives and the wagons ran were called the railways lines, or tracks.
  • The tracks of a light railway were considerably narrower that that of the existing main line railways (e.g. 60cm against 144mm.) Accordingly, all the rolling stock was much smaller and lighter (e.g. locomotives weighed as little as 3.5 tonnes against 60 tonnes for a standard gauge).
  • The number of axles that a locomotive had designated what kind of railway locomotives was. The axles of the locomotive transferred its weight, via the wheels, to the steel railway lines. One, or more, of the locomotive's axle(s) supported the wheels that were directly driven by the connecting rods to the steam driven pistons (or engine gearbox in an internal combustion engine), to propel the complete train forwards (or in reverse). Another one, or more, of the locomotive's axle(s) supported sets of wheels, called bogies, that assisted in carrying the weight of the locomotive and provided longitudinal support to the locomotive's chassis, as well as additional lateral stability. The bogies on the wagons were not driven - they were sometimes called 'slave' bogies - but had brakes to assist in the slowing down or halting of the whole train which were operated by a brake man*.

*NB: The set-up of the axles of a locomotive were designated in a three (sometime more) step configuration, i.e. number of front bogie wheels/number of driven wheels/number of rear bogie wheels (also known as trailing wheels). So a configuration of 0-6-0 meant that there were no forward or rear bogies, just three pairs of driven wheels. Whilst a 4-6-0 configuration meant there were two pairs of front bogie wheels, three pairs of driven wheels and no rear bogie wheels, and a 2-6-2 showed two sets of forward and rear bogie wheels and 6 driven wheels. The driven wheels were generally much larger than the bogie wheels; particularly so on steam trains. So, if one looked at a 2-6-2 configuration locomotive from the side one would see a single, small, forward bogie wheel, followed by three, large, driven wheels and one, small, rear bogie wheel.

  • The wagon wheels were about the same size as the locomotive bogie wheels.
  • On the Western Front there were three kinds of locomotive, steam driven and internal combustion engine (petrol or gas) and a hybrid using an internal combustion engine and electric motor. All internal combustion engine locomotives were called 'tractors'.
  • Due to the danger from emissions of smoke (readily spotted by artillery observers) sparks and ashes, the steam engines were usually kept in the areas away from the front line. Unfortunately, pre-war the British locomotive manufacturers had concentrated their production on steam engines leaving the internal combustion engine locomotive market to the Germans who were, by far, the world's leading producers.

The war forced the British into the production of petrol engine locomotives but the first designs were close copies of the Germans'. One of the most successful British petrol engine designs - although the earliest type did not offer any protection from the weather, let alone the enemy - was the 20 horsepower (hp) Simplex produced by the Motor Rail and Tramcar Co. Later models with larger engines (40hp) were suitably weather protected and few, around 30, were armoured.

Two other British firms also produced large numbers of petrol-electric locomotives: Dick, Kerr and Co. and British Westinghouse Co.

A varied assortment of petrol engine tractors were used some of which were just converted from motor vehicle such as the sturdy Ford model 'T'. However, these had much less pulling power than the purpose made locomotives.

  • All the locomotive and wagon wheels had a steel flange that engaged with the top inner edge of steel railway line to guide the train along the track.
  • The steel rails were usually support on wooden or pressed steel sleepers (or ties) and on soft ground were bedded on broken stone indigenous to the area, rubble, cinders and the like. Maintenance was crucial. Repairs after shelling damage was a frequent necessity.

As already indicated, from the outset of the war, the German Army had a completely standardised, and well-established, 60cm light railway system. This they employed and developed with great skill and innovation.

The French Army had the same 60cm light gauge railway tracks and compatible rolling stock. The French network was commanded by General Pechot in collaboration with the Decauville Company and used a standardised range of locomotives mainly of the Pechot Bourdon 0-4-4-0 configuration. (This was an unusual set-up where two locomotives were built back to back, with a common firebox in the middle, - hence the additional negative bogie set and each locomotive having four driving wheels. This made it easier to drive the train in either direction in the congested conditions of a railway marshalling yard).

Whilst the Baldwin, Barclay and American CO's. of the USA, provided locomotives for Britain, Britain also built some locomotives for France called the 'Joffre Class', based on the Decauville 0-6-0 configuration. The Baldwin Company also built Pechot locomotives for the French.

Additionally, Baldwins also manufactured for the French, a total of 500, 50hp and 35hp locomotives; the latter, smaller engined locomotive, being for forestry work.

The locomotives that were fitted with an internal combustion engine had a 3.5 tonne axle load that permitted their transport over the main line railway system on the standard 10-tonne standard gauge French railway wagon.

Engineers and builders of the British Light Railways

As mentioned earlier, the concept and creation of a British Army Light Railway network (also known as 'narrow gauge railways') on the Western Front got off to a slow start. But, once the essential nature of the light railway was understood in terms of its need on the Western Front, a consortium was quickly put together by the British War Office and the Robert Hudson Company - a famous British railway contractor. This body laid down the specification requirements for a suitable locomotive, and designs for an appropriate range of railway wagons using the European Standard Light Railway gauge of 60cm (24-inches). Eventually a large selection of both steam and internal combustion engines from nine different suppliers (i.e. the ALCO, Baguley; Baldwin; Barclay; Hudson; Hunslet; Dick, Kerr; Motor Rail and Naysmith Companies) were used on the Western Front in a network that included the operational areas of the Australian, Canadian and South Africa Armies.

The steam locomotives of four manufacturers made up the bulk those used on the Western Front: Hunslet, UK; Hudson, UK; Baldwin, USA; Barclay, USA and American, USA.

The British light railway (or the WDLR as it was generally known), widely used steam locomotives of the 4-6-0 configuration for moving large amounts of supplies from the main line marshalling yards to the light railway depots nearer the Front Line but out of the range of artillery fire. Nearer the front-line the internal combustion engine locomotives took over the final stage of delivery, right up to the Front Line. Much of this work was done under darkness to avoid observation and shelling.

When the Americans entered the War in 1917, they brought with them locomotives of the Baldwin Company with a 2-6-2 configuration. They also built up their own railway net work with the US Army 12th, 13th, 21st and 22nd Engineers. At their peak they numbered about 70,000 men, of which about a fifth worked on the Light Railways.

Certainly, it is difficult to see how the extraordinary amount of materials and men that were required for the various Western Front campaigns - 500,000 shells a day in 1918 - could have ever been transported other than through a highly efficient and adaptable light railway system.

Light Railway networks

For obvious reasons, the principal British network of railways was mainly centred on the Ypres Sector in the North, and the Somme Sector in the South. They were continually evolving to meet the operational needs of the British Army.

Unfortunately, many of the Light Railway spurs did not have a cross connection with the heavy gauge lines. So, when and where the British retreated in the face of the German 1918 Spring Offensive, the light railway rolling stock also retreated. When they reached the extent of the system the rolling stock had to be abandoned, or destroyed, and fell into German hands. To avoid a repetition of this calamity, special connecting points were made to allow the Light Railway rolling stock to mate up with the standard gauge network.


Readers who would like to see the site of an original Great War light railway can visit 'Le P'tit Train de Haute Somme (The little train of the upper Somme)'. It is located in the Somme battlefield, and has been restored and reconstructed to run between the villages of Froissy and Cappy, part of the original Line B near Villers-Bretonneux.

This light railway train was able to carry 1,500 tonnes of ammunition during a single night.

About 1.5km of the original 60cm gauge track has been recreated, and along it run restored Great War vintage railway engines with passenger wagons. There is a rail shed, a station and a museum where 1914-18 rail rolling stock is exhibited.

The restored railway is maintained and operated by 'The Association Picardie pour la preservation et l'entretien des vehicules anciens' (APPEVA - The Picardie society for the preservation and restoration of heritage vehicles).


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