Railways in War
Part 3 - Railways to and from the Great War battlefield
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.
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.
The shell dump behind a ridge is purposely not in the direct view of the enemy.
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
THEN, with advances or retreats, the railway traffic patterns would change again ...
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".
'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.
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.
As always, smooth low-friction rails make heavy load movement easier.
'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.
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.
Mules and horses suffered terribly during World War One.
- The battlefield was low-lying farmland which was flat and usually drained slowly.
- The rains were unusually heavy.
- 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.
the pounding of heavy human and vehicular traffic "higher" pathways
turned from grass, to mud, to mud with watery ruts, to quagmires.
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.
Wheelset with pivoting load-bearing girder.
Track and turntable viewed from above.
A Frenchman by the name of Decauville developed his idea of modular
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
* 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.
Track switches are relatively complicated, delicate pieces of track
and if their tapered 'switch points' are damaged, derailments occur
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 ...
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.
leading wheelset has run onto the cast iron turntable, been turned 90
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.
Here troops are installing the top plate of one of these turntables.
In this case, the turntable has no 'rails' in the top casting ...
steel wheels will simply sit around the smaller raised circle ... I am
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.
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.
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 wheel to steel rail adhesion.
(The light locomotive's wheels would just spin.)
* Locomotives may also be needed in higher 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.
A French observation aircraft in 1916.
Weather permitting, of course.
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.
This is perhaps an example of a Decauville out of the box 'modular solution'.
Far behind the Canadian lines near Vimy Ridge. Look ... trees !
Chinese Labour Corps personnel unload duckboards from mainline railway cars.
The photo caption notes that the Labour Corps was not used in the 'danger areas'.
After the Battle
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.
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.
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.
A gasoline powered locomotive prepares to depart with stretcher cases.
I retained the horizon on the following photograph to preserve the original detail.
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.
'Survivors' 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 ...
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 almost a century later ...
they would wave their arms... and shout ... and cheer ...
and the winter chill would be gone for a while.
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