Welcome to War Department Light Railways, the reference site dedicated to the narrow gauge military railways used by all combatants during World War One. This site is continually evolving, further topics to be added as more material becomes available on Rolling Stock, Railway construction & operation and subsequent uses long after the Great War.
When the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914, an act destined to start a conflict in that most unstable region, no one could have predicted the brutal and in many ways revolutionary war which followed. At the outbreak of War in 1914, there was only one country physically ready for the bloody conflict which ensued – Germany.
From experience gained in South-West Africa during 1897-1907, the Germans saw the real value of using light railways in war. Rapid construction allowed the railway to keep pace with an advance, and thus provide a constant flow of stores to the front line. This light railway would then be operated until standard gauge railways could be extended to the new railhead. They had the foresight to realize that if their advance was stemmed, then there may be concentrated supply lines operating for long periods over a very restricted area. As a precautionary measure, Germany had ready a large stockpile of 60cm gauge light railway equipment together with the trained troops to operate it, for use when required.
In France, the firm of Decauville had been producing ‘portable’ 60cm gauge railways from the late 19th century. The French Army were quick to realize their strategic potential in wartime, and thus laid in stocks of equipment. This equipment was primarily used as supply lines to their frontier forts. Russia also realized this potential, indeed some of this equipment saw use during the Russian-Japanese War.
The Royal Engineers of the British Army had been following the development of Sir Arthur Heywood’s “Minimum Gauge” (15″) railway, which was seen as having Military potential. The War Office, however, was not convinced and decided to make no allowance for ‘tactical’ railways in future conflicts. Early in the 1900’s the British Army decided that the ‘new’ motor lorries should be the preferred method of transporting supplies and equipment. In 1913 official Army Regulations stated that lorries were the approved method of moving stores from railheads to forward units. Whilst this move may be seen as a very advanced decision, attention must be drawn to the fact that these early lorries were very crude machines and not perhaps the most efficient means of transporting stores/troops.
It would not be until the war became ‘static’ in 1915 and each side dug in, that the difficulties in moving stores up to the front line would be the catalyst for the first British trench tramways. These were crude affairs often built using materials requisitioned from the local area. By 1916 the War Office had been made acutely aware of the seriousness of the problem. The War effort was in danger of being lost, due to the over-stretching of the whole French transportation network right up to the front line. Sir Eric Geddes, of the Ministry of Munitions recommended that the tactical light railway system used by the other European powers should be adopted. Thus Britain and her Dominion countries were destined to learn the art of trench railway systems.