Tracks To The Trenches


The static fronts of World war 1 created a unique logistics situation.  this was especially true due to the great numbers of troops and artillery involved and the sheer amount of material that needed to be provided. In 1914-1918 the truck was still in it’s infancy and the traditional use of horse or mule transport simply could not keep up with the demands of modern industrial war.  Standard gauge rail could get material almost to the front, but the size of standard gauge equipment and track meant that trying to get damaged track back into operation over war torn ground just was not feasible.  A different solution was needed. Enter the light rail. Here’s a video of the American AEF light rail operations.  The operations of all the combatants on the western front were similar.


Called light railways or trench railway, these 60cm gauge railways became key part of the logistics of the Western front on both sides.
The Germans and the French were the first users of light railway, building on the commercial light railways used for mining, industrial and logging uses. Before the war the small trains were used in mines and forests to move material to transshipping and smelting points. These small railways were characterized by the lightweight of the rolling stock, the ability of the trains to handle soft and rough terrain and the ability to prefabricate track sections. Here’s a French video showing operations using steam, gas, horse, and manual powered equipment in a variety of jobs.
A French group of enthusiasts have actually restored a section of trench railway neat the Somme.

The French Called their light railway system the Decauville after the manufacturer of light railway equipment.

A link.
The British expeditionary force was late to the use of light railways, not using them until 1916. This piece from the Imperial war museum explains.  It’s interesting that more than likely the French light rail used British built equipment while due to the timing, British light rail used American built equipment.


The British, however, planned for a more mobile war and had decided to rely primarily on motor transport. Over 1,000 civilian lorries and over 300 buses were requisitioned at the outbreak of hostilities and were hurriedly moved across the Channel. The owners had been encouraged by a financial subsidy to purchase vehicles that met a War Department specification, a condition of which was that the vehicles could be requisitioned. These were only a temporary stopgap – although some vehicles such as London buses remained in service throughout the war – and thousands more vehicles were ordered from manufacturers in Britain and increasingly the USA. In the meantime, a heavy reliance had to be placed on far less efficient horse-drawn transport. The fodder for the horses alone took up more transportation capacity than food and ammunition for the men.

The inadequacy of motor transport was cruelly exposed during the Somme campaign from July 1916 onwards. The combination of heavy rainfall, inadequately built roads and the pounding caused by large numbers of heavy lorries on narrow, solid-rubber tyres caused the supply lines literally to bog down in the mud. The British artillery was to fire nearly 28 million shells during the Somme battles, but increasingly the 20,000 tonnes of supplies required daily to support an offensive on a front of about 12 miles could not be distributed adequately.

Belatedly the British also decided to embark upon the rapid development of light railway systems. However, they found to their consternation that the main British railway manufacturers already had a huge backlog of French orders. Only American industry could supply material in large quantities at such short notice to augment the limited British manufacturing capacity.

By late 1916 construction of lines was under way, and between January and September 1917 the average tonnage conveyed weekly on light railways operated by British and Dominion forces expanded from barely 10,000 tonnes to more than 200,000 tonnes. The network was to grow to some 2,000 miles of track.

Light railways could bridge part of the gap but also became vulnerable to enemy artillery and small arms fire as they got closer to the front. Consequently, smaller dumps were established at road-heads from which horse and mule transport collected material. Often the final leg had to be carried out by the soldiers themselves carrying the food, water and other supplies to the front lines. This relentless challenge to maintain the flow of supplies forward from the supply dumps had to be undertaken largely at night to minimise the risk from harassing fire.

By early 1917 these increasingly complex transportation networks – supported by a specially created Labour Corps which included tens of thousands of men recruited from China, Egypt, India and other Empire countries – were capable of supporting defensive lines almost indefinitely. They also developed the capacity to support the concentration of forces and supplies sufficient to unleash a blow that could shatter the opposing lines.

But even this revealed a further problem. As the troops advanced, supplies and reinforcements had to be brought forward across the shattered landscape of the battlefield where roads and railways had been obliterated. Despite the best efforts, it took time to build new lines of communication. Only then could artillery and infantry be moved forward with adequate supplies. This slowed the rate of advance, while the retreating troops fell back onto their supply lines and were augmented by reinforcements brought in by road and rail to stem the tide. At the end of offensive and counter-offensive the lines generally stabilised close to where they had begun.

This piece has more as well.

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). – See more at:

Here is a book from Baldwin with their war related construction including many locomotives for the light rail network.

I found some sites and videos of War Department light rail stuff.

Because the US entered the war late and was already building equipment for light rail the Us had advantages and disadvantages.  At least dealing with logistics was part of the American military tradition.  So when the time came, that part of the AEF worked well, unlike ordnance and some of the weapons issued to the troops.

Here’s the Official US army page on the use of light rail in WW1. To a certain extent the US was able to take advantage of the experience of the Entente and it’s own veterans as well as experience with logging, mining and operating 2 ft gauge railroads in Maine.

So the Americans had some advantages.  Still, operating the network of the light rails was a daunting task in the chaos of war.   A task that needed to be done if the war was to be finished and it was.

Another look at railways in WW1.

Here’s a great thread on a forum with lots of links and even more pictures.

Some pictures.

My previous post on the great war.

The light railways were an essential part of the logistics needed to feed the guns of the “Great War.” These railways could only thrive on a more or less static front.  Which is why they did not return in the second war.  While flexible,  they were not as flexible as the motor truck with decent roads.  The light railways advantage was that the track could be built more quickly than a bombed out road.  A railway of any size still needs it’s rails to go wherever they need to go.  That inflexibility is a railways major limitation.  Which worked against the little railways to the trenches as it does against every railway.  Still the light railways made a significant contribution to the war effort, bringing material in and the wounded and exhausted troops out .  They also laid some groundwork for future developments. For instance light railway operations  did introduce new technologies like the use of gas and oil internal combustion engines and modular panel track  to railroading. Innovations like these would have profound impact on railway operations in the interwar years.

This was interesting small part of the great picture that is the Great War .  Sometimes though you need to look at trees in order to understand the forest.  That’s especially true of the seemingly boring subject of military logistics.  The fact is that great events are all too frequently decided by military action and every army in history has needed to be fed.  Which is why wars can be won or lost due to a lack of horseshoe nails.


  1. penneyvanderbilt · October 6, 2016

    Reblogged this on PenneyVanderbilt.


  2. ronbrownx · October 6, 2016

    Interesting article and resources. Thanks for sharing this.


  3. Pingback: I Am The Voice That Cries in The Desert | The Arts Mechanical

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