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Transfer of ammunition from standard-gauge railway to trench railway during the Battle of Passchendaele.

BL 9.2 inch Howitzer with shells lined up on the ground recently delivered from the trench railway in the foreground.

5th Australian Field Ambulance Company soldiers evacuating wounded from the front near Ypres in trench railway hand cars.

Trench railways represented military adaptation of early 20th century railway technology to the problem of keeping soldiers supplied during the static trench warfare phase of World War I. The large concentrations of soldiers and artillery at the front lines required delivery of enormous quantities of food, ammunition and fortification construction materials where transport facilities had been destroyed. Reconstruction of conventional roads (at that time rarely surfaced) and railways was too slow, and fixed facilities were attractive targets for enemy artillery. Trench railways linked the front with standard gauge railway facilities beyond the range of enemy artillery. Empty cars often carried litters returning wounded from the front.


Australian 17th Light Railway Operating Company ballast train near Ypres pulled by Cooke 2-6-2 tank locomotive # 1217.

France had developed portable Decauville railways for agricultural areas, small scale mining and temporary construction projects. France had standardized 60-centimetre gauge military Decauville equipment and Germany adopted similar feldbahn of the same gauge. British War Department Light Railways and the United States Army Transportation Corps used the French 600mm gauge system. Russia used Decauville 600mm and 750mm systems.

Unskilled labourers and soldiers could quickly assemble prefabricated 5-meter (16 ft 5 in) sections of track weighing about 100 kilograms (220 lb) along roads or over smooth terrain. The track distributed heavy loads to minimize development of muddy ruts through unpaved surfaces. Small locomotives pulled short trains of 10 tonnes (22,000 lb) capacity cars through areas of minimum clearance and small-radius curves. Derailments were common, but the light rolling stock was relatively easy to rerail.[1] Steam locomotives typically carried a short length of flexible pipe (called a water-lifter) to refill water tanks from flooded shell holes.

Steam locomotives produced enough smoke to reveal their location to enemy artillery and aircraft. Steam locomotives required fog or darkness to operate within visual range of the front.[1] Daylight transport usually required animal power until internal combustion locomotives were developed. Large quantities of hay and grain were carried to the front while horses remained an essential part of military logistics. Fodder for horses constituted the single biggest commodity exported from Britain to France during the war.

French equipment[]

Baldwin Locomotive Works Péchot-Bourdon locomotive with water-lifter pipe carried on right side tank

A wagon for transporting artillery shells. A rectangular water tank car is in the background.

French equipment was largely designed on the initiative of Artillery Captain Prosper Péchot, among them 10 tonnes (22,000 lb) Fairlie articulated 0-4-4-0T locomotive named for him as Péchot-Bourdon. Along with engineer Bourdon a number of test equipment was realised since 1888 by the 5th engineer regiment (5e régiment du génie) in Toul. Until the outbreak of the war there were 150 km of military 60 cm track at Toul, along with 20 locomotives and 150 wagons.

The French military had 62 Péchot-Bourdon type built between 1888 and 1914. Baldwin Locomotive Works built 280 more during the war. The "Système Péchot" as it is named in French became the dominant system for trench railways with an estimated 7,500 km of track built by the 5th engineer regiment.

Two-hundred-fifty 8 tonnes (18,000 lb) 0-6-0T of Decauville's Progres design were built for military service. Thirty-two 0-6-0T of American design and six-hundred 55 kW (74 hp) gasoline mechanical locomotives were purchased from Baldwin Locomotive Works.

The Maginot Line employed a 600mm gauge supply system of petrol-powered armoured locomotives and underground electric locomotives pulling cars of World War I design. Two Péchot-Bourdon locomotives were preserved in the technical museums of Dresden and Prague. A portion of the Somme battlefield railway continued in operation and has been preserved as the heritage Froissy Dompierre Light Railway.

German equipment[]

A 0-8-0T Brigadelok preserved at Deutsches Dampflokomotiv-Museum.

German troops loading for transport to the front about 1915.

Orenstein and Koppel GmbH manufactured portable track. Krauss designed a 0-6-0T Zwillinge intended to be operated in pairs with the cabs together. The Zwillinge offered Mallet locomotive performance through tight curves, but damage to one unit would not disable the second. One-hundred-eighty-two Zwillinge were manufactured from 1890 to 1903, and shortcomings were evaluated in German South-West Africa and China's Boxer Rebellion.

An 11 tonnes (24,000 lb) 0-8-0T Brigadelok design with Klein-Linder articulation of the front and rear axles was adopted as the new military standard in 1901. Approximately 250 were available by 1914, and over two thousand were produced during the war. A Brigadelok typically handled six loaded cars up a 2% grade.

Germany also had approximately five-hundred 0-4-0T, three-hundred 0-6-0T and forty 0-10-0T locomotives of other designs in military service.

Deutz AG produced two-hundred 4-wheel internal combustion locomotives with an evaporative cooling water jacket surrounding the single cylinder oil engine. Fifty similar 6-wheel locomotives were produced by Deutz.

Approximately 20% of the Brigadeloks saw post-war use. Government railways of (Yugoslavia), Macedonia, Serbia and Poland made extensive use of the military locomotives. Significant numbers were used in Hungary, France, Latvia, Bulgaria and Romania while smaller numbers went overseas to Africa, Indonesia, Japan and North America. Much of the trench railway equipment remaining in Belgium at the end of hostilities was shipped to the Belgian Congo to build the Vicicongo line.

British equipment[]

A pair of trench railway tractors in the Minico yard of the Australian 17th Light Railway Operating Company during the Battle of Passchendaele.

This 1917 photo of the Poperinge yard of the Australian 2nd Light Railway Operating Company shows a water tank car in the right foreground. Behind the tank car is a partially armoured, 16-wheel, hand-operated light railway crane capable of lifting 6 tons. The crane was built by Ransomes & Rapier of Ipswich, Suffolk. Cars in the left background appear to be loaded with crates of food or ammunition.

One of the Baldwin Locomotive Works 4-6-0T preserved as No. 778 on the Leighton Buzzard Light Railway

One of the ALCO 2-6-2T preserved on the Froissy Dompierre Light Railway

Another ALCO 2-6-2T preserved on the Ffestiniog Railway

Britain selected a Hunslet Engine Company 4-6-0T design as their standard for the French rail gauge; but Hunslet's production of 75 locomotives was insufficient. Baldwin Locomotive Works produced 495 15 tonnes (33,000 lb) 4-6-0T of a less satisfactory American design while Hudswell Clarke and Andrew Barclay Sons & Co. built 83 0-6-0T locomotives. One-hundred 15 tonnes (33,000 lb) 2-6-2T of the American standard military design were later purchased from Alco's Cooke Locomotive Works for British use.

Britain pioneered the use of petrol powered, 4-wheel synchromesh mechanical drive locomotives (known as tractors) for daylight use within visual range of the front. In 1916 the War Office required "Petrol Trench Tractors" of 600-mm gauge that were capable of drawing 10 to 15 tons at 5 mi (8.0 km) per hour.[2] Early tractors weighed 2 tons. Total production was 102 7 kW (9.4 hp) Ernest E. Baguley tractors, 580 15 kW (20 hp) Motor Rail tractors and 220 30 kW (40 hp) Motor Rail tractors. An additional two-hundred 30 kW (40 hp) petrol-electric tractors were produced by British Westinghouse and Kerr Stuart.

Former British trench railway equipment was put to civilian use rebuilding Vis-en-Artois between Arras and Cambrai. Twenty Hudswell-Clarke and Barclay 0-6-0T, seven Alco 2-6-2T and 26 Baldwin 4-6-0T engines saw service until 1957.

American equipment[]

One of the military 2-6-2T pulling 4-wheel side dump cars for a Michigan construction project in 1921.

Baldwin Locomotive Works produced 15 tonnes (17 tons) 2-6-2T numbered 5001-5195. Number 5195 was sent to Davenport Locomotive Works as a pattern for their production of the design, while another was sent to the Magor Car Company[3] to test operation of their military railway car production. Two were lost at sea, and the remaining 191 saw service with the U.S. Army in France. Locomotives were initially painted grey with black smoke boxes. White lettering was applied to early production, but black lettering was used in France. Baldwin also built 5 tonnes (11,000 lb) 26 kW (35 hp) and 7 tonnes (15,000 lb) 37 kW (50 hp) 4-wheel gasoline mechanical locomotives for the U.S. Army. The lighter locomotives were numbered 8001-8063. The heavier locomotives were numbered 7001-7126 and operated at 2 metres per second or 6.56 feet per second (7.2 km/h or 4.5 mph), roughly the speed of a slow jogger.[4]

The standard American military railway car was 170 centimetres (5 ft 7 in) wide and 7 m (23 ft) long riding on two 4-wheel archbar bogies. 1,695 of these cars were built by the Magor Car Company, American Car and Foundry and Ralston Steel Car Company. Most were flatcars, but some had gondola sides, others had roofs (either with open sides or like conventional boxcars) and others carried shallow rectangular tanks with a capacity of 10,000 litres (2,600 US gal; 2,200 imp gal) of drinking water. The boxcars and tank cars were regarded as top-heavy and prone to derailment; so most loads were carried on flatcars and gondolas. Approximately 1,600 4-wheel side dump cars were produced in several versions for construction earth-moving.

Davenport Locomotive Works built one-hundred 15 tonnes (33,000 lb) 2-6-2T and Vulcan Iron Works built thirty more. Whitcomb Locomotive Works built 74 7 tonnes (15,000 lb) 4-wheel gasoline mechanical locomotives. None of the Davenport, Vulcan and Whitcomb production saw overseas service, but some survived to World War II on United States military bases including Fort Benning, Georgia, Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, Fort Dix, New Jersey and an arsenal in Alabama.

Russian equipment[]

During the First World War Russia used both French 600mm Decauville and 750mm gauge systems. More than 2,000 km (1,243 mi) of narrow gauge trench railways were built during the war. Kolomna Locomotive Works built 0-6-0T locomotives (I, N, R, T series). 70 locomotives were purchased from ALCO. Baldwin Locomotive Works built 350 seven-tonne 6-wheel gasoline mechanical locomotives for Russia's 750mm gauge in 1916.[5][6]

See also[]


  • Baker, Stuart (1983). "Gas Mechanicals". Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette. 
  • DeNevi, Don and Hall, Bob (1992). United States Military Railway Service America's Soldier Railroaders in WWII. Erin, Ontario: Boston Mills Press. ISBN 1-55046-021-8. 
  • Dunn, Rich (1979). "Military Light Railway Locomotives of the U.S.Army". Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette. 
  • Dunn, Rich (1982). "Military Light Railway Rolling Stock of the U.S.Army". Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette. 
  • Seidensticker, Walter (1980). "Brigadeloks and Zwillinge in the Trenches". Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette. 
  • Small, Charles S. (1982). Two-Foot Rails to the Front. Railroad Monographs. 
  • Telford, Robert (1998). "Belligerent Baldwins". British Railway Modelling. 
  • Westing, Fred (1966). The Locomotives that Baldwin built. New York: Bonanza Books. ISBN 0-87564-503-8. 
  • Westwood, John (1980). Railways at War. San Diego, California: Howell-North Books. ISBN 0-8310-7138-9. 


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Light Rail Operators, Company D, 21st Engineers". The Great War Society. Retrieved 2012-06-16. 
  2. "Motor Rail & Tramcar Co. Ltd., Bedford, England". Old Kiln Light Railway. Retrieved 2012-06-16. 
  3. Magor Car Company
  4. War Activities of the Baldwin Locomotive Works, Baldwin Locomotive Works Record, No. 93, 1919; pages 3-21.
  5. Small 1982 p.55
  6. Westing 1966 p.76

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