War Department Light Railways

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The War Department Light Railways were a system of narrow gauge trench railways run by the British War Department in World War I. Light railways made an important contribution to the Allied war effort in the First World War, and were used for the supply of ammunition and stores, the transport of troops and the evacuation of the wounded.

Track gauges

Different track gauges were used in different parts of the world including 600mm, 760 mm (2 ft 5 1516 in), 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) and 1,050 mm (3 ft 5 1132 in).

The military light railways in France were of 600 mm (1 ft 11 58 in) gauge and used a variety of steam and petrol locomotives from French, British and American builders. The Germans installed their 600 mm (1 ft 11 58 in) gauge Feldbahn system early in the war. Trench railways of the World War I western front produced the greatest concentration of minimum gauge railway locomotives observed to date.[1]


ALCO locomotive built for the WDLR, seen running on the Ffestiniog Railway in 1995

Britain came to the belated realisation that it needed a flexible and reliable method of supplying the front lines, bringing shells, timber, and fodder from the rear areas and their standard gauge supply points. narrow gauge light railways were the solution.

Hundreds of locomotives were built by companies such as Hunslet, Kerr Stuart, ALCO, Davenport, Motor Rail and Baldwin to work these lines. Also, Model T Ford conversions were used. Thirty or so Companies were formed within the Royal Engineers to staff the lines. These were mostly British ex-railwaymen pressed into service, though Australian, South African and Canadian gangs served with distinction. An American unit also served under the British flag.

Each area of the front would have its own light rail to bring up materiel. The British perfected roll on roll off train ferries[citation needed] to bring fodder and supplies direct from England via train ferries to France. Northern French rail lines were under direct military control of the Army in the area.

By 1917, the Canadians led the way in showing the utility of light railways. Having built thousands of miles of new frontier track in Western Canada in the previous decades, these "colonials", led by J. Stewart, supplied the Canadian Corps who went on to victory at Vimy. From this the light railways were expanded to 700 miles (1,100 km) of track, which supplied 7,000 tons of supplies daily. The ebb and flow of war meant that rail lines were built and rebuilt, moved and used elsewhere, but by the latter years of Passchendaele, Amiens and Argonne, light railways came into their own and pulled for the final victory.

WDLR locomotives

A large number of locomotives[2] (mostly of 600 mm (1 ft 11 58 in) gauge) was ordered for the WDLR. These included:


File:C01357-military rail transport Frizeville 1917.jpg
Western Front (Belgium), Ypres Area. Locomotive believed to be a Baldwin 4-6-0T
Dimension Hudson Barclay Hunslet Baldwin Alco
Wheel arrangement 0-6-0WT 0-6-0WT 4-6-0T 4-6-0T 2-6-2T
Driving wheels 1' 11" 1' 10" 2' 0" 1' 11.5" 2' 3"
Tank capacity
Imperial gallons
110 110 375 476 (US) 396
Fuel capacity (cwt) 3.5 3.5 15 15 15
Cylinders (inches) 6.5 x 12 6.75 x 10.75 9.5 x 12 9 x 12 9 x 14
Working pressure (psi) 180 160 160 178 175
Tractive effort (lbf) at
75% working pressure
2970 n/k 5415 5398 n/k
Weight (long tons)
in working order
6.98 6.38 14.05 14.50 17.09

Internal combustion

File:C01360-40HP petrol locomotive 1917.jpg
Western Front (Belgium), Ypres Area, Poperinghe. A 40 hp Simplex petrol locomotive that was damaged by shellfire and returned to the railway yard for repairs
File:C01361-40HP petrol locomotives 1917.jpg
Western Front (Belgium), Ypres Area. A pair of petrol-electric locomotives
Dimension Simplex 20 hp Simplex 40 hp Petrol-electric McEwan Pratt
Overall length 8' 3" 11' 2" 15' 1" 9' 0"
Wheel diameter 1' 6" 1' 6" 2' 8" n/k
Weight loaded
(long tons-cwt)
1-18 6-3 8-0 1-18
Cylinders 2 4 4 2
Horsepower 20 40 55 (engine)
45 (motors)


A few captured German feldbahn locomotives were also used but these usually had short lives because no spare parts were available for them.

Other locomotives

Both the French Army and the U.S. Army had their own locomotives, which included:

French Army

U.S. Army

Preserved locomotives


10-12-D No.778, one of the many that went to India, now runs at Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway

Probably the most famous of these war service engines were of class 10-12-D, built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works, U.S.A. Nearly 500 were built and those that survived the war found new homes around the world. Many went to India and after the war a few went to railways in Britain including:


Hunslet 4-6-0 Locomotive no. 1218 of 1916, formerly of Gin Gin Mill, is currently with D.Revell, Weewaa, Queensland, Australia.[5]

See also


  1. Small (1982) p.56
  2. "War Department Light Railways". Wdlr.org.uk. Retrieved 2014-08-04.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Davies, W J K, Light Railways of the First World War, David & Charles, 1967, page 152
  4. Davies, W J K, Light Railways of the First World War, David & Charles, 1967, page 162
  5. http://www.wdlr.org.uk/wdlr/images/preservedaus/1218_1.jpg


  • Baker, Stuart (1983). "Gas Mechanicals". Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Davies, W.J.K. (1967). Light Railways of the First World War. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • 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. <templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Dunn, Rich (1979). "Military Light Railway Locomotives of the U.S.Army". Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Dunn, Rich (1982). "Military Light Railway Rolling Stock of the U.S.Army". Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Seidensticker, Walter (1980). "Brigadeloks and Zwillinge in the Trenches". Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Small, Charles S. (1982). Two-Foot Rails to the Front. Railroad Monographs.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Telford, Robert (1998). "Belligerent Baldwins". British Railway Modelling.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Westwood, John (1980). Railways at War. San Diego, California: Howell-North Books. ISBN 0-8310-7138-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links