Railways in War, Part 3 - Railways To and From the Great War Battlefield

German 'war engine' built 1861
In branchline service in the early 1900s, this German locomotive, which was built in 1861, was probably typical of those which were 'still good enough to pull German troop trains working as 'war engines' when Belgium and France were invaded.

South-Eastern & Chatham Railway, Great War
Using equipment like this in south-east England, British railways were hustling soldiers to ports on the English Channel so they could join the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium.

Western Front area, railway system
The map above shows the "natural pattern" of the railways before the war started, with the darker lines representing double track railways. As you would expect, drawing "No Man's Land" through the countryside disrupted the pre-war flow of standard gauge railway traffic.

So transporting thousands of troops, supplies, weapons, and ammunition to the active war zones required adapting railway lines and operating practices. Then, with advances or retreats, the railway traffic patterns would change again ...

Great War 1914, Western Front, British Expeditionary Force

The map above shows the division of part of the Front in the first months of the war. Brackets indicate who commanded which sections of Front. Initially it was Field Marshal Sir John French commanding the small British Expeditionary Force ... his zone appears as (French) on the map near Ypres, Belgium.

As the war 'progressed', and the BEF grew, it took over the remaining area north of the Somme River from the forces of France. The Somme runs through Amiens, Peronne and St. Quentin.

So ... the northern end of the Western Front running into Belgium ... became British and included the Canadians fighting at various locations ... including in 'Flanders Fields'.

Great War Beaumont Hamel station
'Train Service Suspended!' was the contemporary title. Beaumont Hamel 'station' in 1917. A damaged passenger car can be seen still on the rails, to the left of the picture.

Great War French troops shell light railway
Narrow gauge: Here two French soldiers are using a cross bar attached to a wire to pull an artillery shell to a battery as another soldier steadies it. The shell dump behind a ridge is purposely not in the direct view of the enemy. As always, smooth low-friction rails make heavy load movement easier.

Great War 'flying pig' dump French sector
'Supply trains' and 'ammunition trains' were generally convoys of horse-drawn wagons hauling toward the battle area. Trucks using gasoline motors were also beginning to appear near the Front during the war. Here trench mortar 'aerial torpedo' bombs sit at a trans-shipment point between wagons and a railway in the French sector.

Great War artillery shell storage, railways
As greater efficiency was demanded, transfer areas such as this were set up ... far to the rear. A narrow gauge railway, will take the shells closer to the battle area where the artillery batteries are located.

Feeding the Artillery

  • In August 1914, British field guns had a total of 1000 shells available at or approaching the front lines. 
  • In June 1916, EACH 18 pound (shell weight) gun had 1000 shells ready for firing at its gun position. These 18-pounders often operated 2 miles behind the active front. 
  • In 1917 during the summer, 18 pound shell use reached 1,000,000 shells fired PER WEEK. 
  • Just before the Armistice, Britain had over 10,000 guns, howitzers and trench mortars in the field.

The use of railways was more than just a matter of efficiency. Using Canadian experiences near Ypres, Belgium as an example ... a number of factors made conventional supply trains of horses or mules and wagons very difficult.
  1. The battlefield was low-lying farmland which was flat and usually drained slowly.
  2. The rains were unusually heavy.
  3. With repeated artillery bombardments all of the natural drainage was disrupted. Water pooled in shell holes and saturated the surrounding soil. The water table rose to meet the surface soil in places.
  4. With the pounding of heavy human and vehicular traffic "higher" pathways turned from grass, to mud, to mud with watery ruts, to quagmires.

Mules and horses suffered terribly during World War One.
Where possible, narrow gauge railways were laid. With multiple axles spreading the weight of the payload out, the railway could often "float" on the mud. The use of special tracks, featuring metal "cup" ties also distributed the weight broadly. With the mules and wagon above, all the weight is being forced down on just a few points - hooves and wagon wheels.

A Frenchman by the name of Decauville developed his idea of modular ready-to-run railways which could be quickly laid and taken up without demanding all the skills of professional railway maintenance crews. A farmer and distiller with a large operation, Decauville's first efforts were used on his own farm for transporting the harvest from the fields and hauling manure. The small, stable railway 'footprint' allowed him to haul large quantities of commodities without the damage to his fields which would have resulted if equivalent horse-drawn wagons were used.  He thought there was no reason why this technology couldn't be employed in factories, mills, mines and other facilities where a full-scale conventional railway would never have been justified.

* To fully grasp 'The Decauville Concept': Go to a toy store and look at a 'toy train' with all the rolling stock and track sections in one box.

* Handy tip if you build your own trench railway: A track segment with a permanent LEFT curve, becomes a track segment with a RIGHT curve if you turn it so the other butt end faces you.

Because little metal pieces tend to get lost in a muddy battlefield, having the track sections in "one piece" with perhaps two standard bolts to secure track sections together met the needs of the armies well. It also meant unskilled labour could be used to do most of the tracklaying.

Below are two different proprietary connecting systems. Notice that the metal ties of the LeGrand system are cup-shaped underneath to float better on soft ground. In the top illustration, two men are moving a section of track which probably weighs just over 200 pounds.

Great War modular light railways
Track switches are relatively complicated, delicate pieces of track and if their tapered 'switch points' are damaged, derailments occur with regularity. It was possible to buy 'modular' left, right or three-way track switches. However, a simpler solution was to place special pivoting wheelsets under your load and use a rather unconventional turntable ...

Wheelset with pivoting load-bearing girder.
The Internet: At one point, I was emailed by a Florida-based archaeologist who was contracted to work as a consultant during the recent enlargement of the Panama Canal. He was requesting a published reference for the item above, because they had dredged one up during the ongoing reconstruction work.

Great War diagram, cast iron turntable, rotating wheelsets light railway -
track and turntable viewed from above.

In the drawing above a (L)oad, which looks like a pole, is being transported on two pivoting wheelsets. The load is making a 90 degree left turn.

The leading wheelset has run onto the cast iron turntable, has been turned 90 degrees ... and has rolled off toward the top of the illustration. The trailing wheelset will be next.

Needless to say, this system worked best in low traffic areas. But it was simple, robust and required little maintenance.

Great War installing cast iron turntable on light railway
Here troops are installing the top plate of one of these turntables. In this case, the turntable has no 'rails' in the top casting ... the steel wheels will simply sit upon the smaller raised circle ... I am guessing.

Great War light railway, potable water tankcar
There was often plenty of water in the trenches, but it was undrinkable. Above, an armoured gasoline-powered locomotive has taken a water tankcar for filling with clean water for the troops.

Gasoline cans were used to carry both water and gasoline by hand to the front lines. As the cans were usually not rinsed, potable water often tasted like gasoline.

Great War 'iron ration' dump

Beside a main line railway track is a large storage area for military canned provisions.

Some British Army 'iron ration' favourites: bully (corned) beef, hard tack (like dog biscuits), canned stew or vegetables, 'plum & apple jam', canned bacon.

At the left, troops are scaling the pyramid of food. Horse-drawn wagons and a primitive truck can be seen ... ready to take the rations forward.

Great War light railway mules for power
In 1917 a light railway is used to haul ammunition, and a few riders, behind Canadian lines at Vimy Ridge.

There are several possible reasons why mules are being used instead of a locomotive ...

  • On a steep grade ... 24 horseshoe to roadbed adhesion ... is higher than ... 4 steel wheels to 2 steel rails adhesion. (A light locomotive's wheels would just spin.)
  • Locomotives may have been in greater demand in high traffic areas.
  • As mules don't give off  black smoke, enemy artillery spotters will be slow to spot this train as a target.

The use of traditional coal-fired steam locomotives was very limited near the front midway through the war. At this stage, both sides were using aerial surveillance and the location of most major enemy installations was well known. Black smoke to aim at would just be 'icing on the cake'.

In other artillery developments ... Flash spotting with acoustical ranging was sometimes used to pinpoint the location of enemy artillery batteries ... so counter-battery fire could be directed effectively.

Great War French observation aircraft
A French observation aircraft in 1916 - weather and daylight permitting, of course.

Great War wireless at artillery battery
Using a wireless radio, aerial observers could sometimes adjust the fire of artillery batteries. In this posed photo, the battery commander relays correction information with a megaphone.

Great War light railway at the rear
This is perhaps an example of an out of the box 'modular solution'. Thanks to Frank Sharp, looking in from  England, for helping me identify this as a Hudswell Clarke G class locomotive.

Far behind the Canadian lines near Vimy Ridge. Look ... trees !

Great War, Chinese, Labour Corps duckboards
Chinese Labour Corps personnel unload duckboards from mainline railway cars. The wartime photo caption notes that the Labour Corps was not used in the 'danger areas'. The Great War was a truly global war, with all the great powers drawing in soldiers and labour from their colonies. The firing of a shell or launching of a torpedo often created unpredictable 'danger areas'.

After the Battle

Great War Canadians Vimy Ridge light railway

Contemporary title: 'The Ever-Memorable Exploit of the Canadians on Easter Monday 1917'

Sorry about the seam and the odd horizon - many of these battlefield news photos are not aligned well. This panorama shows modular light railway track, push-carts for evacuating the wounded, and the common practice of using recently captured enemy soldiers as stretcher bearers.

Great War battlefield graveyard, duckboards
Duckboards lead to a battlefield cemetery. In active areas of the Front, the ability to have proper grave observances such as this was rare. With constant artillery barrages and the shifting Front, interments were often temporary - another health hazard. After the war, special crews went over battlefields and huge memorial ossuaries were filled with human remains.

Great War walking wounded evacuation by rail
Walking wounded board regular mainline cars, likely for treatment and rest near the Channel or in England. Fatigued British soldiers often hoped for a 'Blighty One' ...  translation: an 'England Wound'. The most desired outcome, for many experienced soldiers, was a minor wound which made them permanently unfit to fight.

Great War gasoline locomotive light railway stretcher evacuation
A gasoline powered locomotive prepares to depart with stretcher cases.

I retained the horizon on the following photograph to preserve the original detail. 

Great War field hospital stretcher cases.
After the final German offensive of the war, the badly wounded await evacuation by rail at a field hospital.

*  *  *

At a dressing station where first treatment was given.

No doubt they'll soon get well; the shock and strain

Have caused their stammering, disconnected talk.

Of course they're "longing to go out again," -

These boys with old, scared faces, learning to walk,

They'll soon forget their haunted nights; their cowed

Subjection to the ghosts of friends who died, -

Their dreams that drip with murder; and they'll be proud

Of glorious war that shatter'd all their pride . . .

Men who went out to battle, grim and glad;

Children, with eyes that hate you, broken and mad.

 written by Siegfried Sassoon at Craiglockhart, 1917

Cold and wet in yet another French winter ... these veteran soldiers are posing, under orders, for an 'embedded photographer'.

If they knew you were in their gaze today ...

Some might be tickled to learn ... that even 'Old Fritzie's' great-great-grandchildren might see their picture ...

And they might be interested that today many Germans would be able to understand 'The King's English' written here ... displayed through 'a kind of telephonic, electrically-lit, typewriter-book'.

Some might want us to understand why they went to war ... why they continued to fight ... and to remember their accomplishments, and hopes for the future.

Some might want us to try to comprehend their personal experiences ... and to see how they finished their lives - hours or decades later.

But if they really believed you saw them there right now ...

looking in a century later ...

they would wave their arms... and shout ... and cheer ...

and the winter chill would be gone for a while.