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[edit]

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) metre gauge 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[2][page 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[edit]

A large number of locomotives[3] (mostly of 600 mm (1 ft 11+58 in) gauge) was ordered for the WDLR. These included:


Western Front (Belgium), Ypres Area. Locomotive believed to be a Baldwin 4-6-0T
Baldwin Class 10-12-D in Michigan in 1921 after the end of the war
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 ft 11 in (584 mm) 1 ft 10 in (559 mm) 2 ft 0 in (610 mm) 1 ft 11.5 in (597 mm) 2 ft 3 in (686 mm)
Tank capacity
Imperial gallons
US gallons
110 imp gal (500 L; 130 US gal) 110 imp gal (500 L; 130 US gal) 375 imp gal (1,700 L; 450 US gal) (476 US gal or 1,800 L or 396 imp gal) 396 imp gal (1,800 L; 476 US gal)
Fuel capacity 3.5 long hundredweight (180 kg; 390 lb) 3.5 long hundredweight (180 kg; 390 lb) 15 long hundredweight (760 kg; 1,700 lb) 15 long hundredweight (760 kg; 1,700 lb) 15 long hundredweight (760 kg; 1,700 lb)
Cylinders 6.5 in × 12 in (165 mm × 305 mm) 6.75 in × 10.75 in (171 mm × 273 mm) 9.5 in × 12 in (241 mm × 305 mm) 9 in × 12 in (229 mm × 305 mm) 9 in × 14 in (229 mm × 356 mm)
Working pressure 180 psi (1,200 kPa) 160 psi (1,100 kPa) 160 psi (1,100 kPa) 178 psi (1,230 kPa) 175 psi (1,210 kPa)
Tractive effort at
75% working pressure
2,970 lbf (13.2 kN) 2,672 lbf 5,415 lbf (24.09 kN) 5,398 lbf (24.01 kN) 5,512 lbf
in working order
6.98 long tons (7.82 short tons; 7.09 t) 6.38 long tons (7.15 short tons; 6.48 t) 14.05 long tons (15.74 short tons; 14.28 t) 14.50 long tons (16.24 short tons; 14.73 t) 17.09 long tons (19.14 short tons; 17.36 t)

Internal combustion[edit]

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
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 ft 3 in (2,515 mm) 11 ft 2 in (3,404 mm) 15 ft 1 in (4,597 mm) 9 ft 0 in (2,743 mm)
Wheel diameter 1 ft 6 in (457 mm) 1 ft 6 in (457 mm) 2 ft 8 in (813 mm) n/k
Weight loaded
(long tons-cwt)
short tons
long ton 18 cwt (2.1 short tons; 1.9 t) 6 long tons 3 cwt (6.9 short tons; 6.2 t) 8 long tons 0 cwt (9.0 short tons; 8.1 t) 1 long ton 18 cwt (2.1 short tons; 1.9 t)
Cylinders 2 4 4 2
Horsepower 20 hp (15 kW) 40 hp (30 kW) 55 hp (41 kW) (engine)
45 hp (34 kW) (motors)
10 hp (7.5 kW)


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[edit]

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

French Army[edit]

U.S. Army[edit]

Preserved locomotives[edit]


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. 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:

Four of this type of locomotive have been repatriated from India and preserved in the UK, two in full working order, and the other two undergoing restoration in 2021.


Hunslet 4-6-0 Locomotive no. 1215 of 1916, was repatriated from Australia in 2008 where she had worked since 1924 on the sugar cane railways of Queensland, before ending up at Rowan Bay Bush Children's Home in a playground around 1962. She is currently in full working order at the Moseley Railway Trust's Apedale Valley Light Railway, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, United Kingdom.

Hunslet 4-6-0 Locomotive no. 1218 of 1916, formerly of Gin Gin Mill, is currently with D.Revell, Weewaa, New South Wales, Australia.[6] This is the locomotive which is now preserved at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, Australia, although she may be in store and not on public display.

Hunslet 4-6-0 Locomotive no. 1229 of 1916, formerly of Cattle Creek Mill, is currently stored at ANGRMS, Woodford QLD, Australia. Awaiting restoration.[7]

Hunslet 4-6-0 Locomotive no. 1239 of 1916, retrieved from a public park in Mackay, restored at the Rail Workshops Museum, currently on display at the Rail Workshops Museum, North Ipswich, Queensland, Australia [8]

The Motor Rail & Tramcar Co Ltd,[edit]

Surplus Motor Rail internal combustion locomotives were sold off after the war and provided service for decades in industrial narrow gauge railways systems, such as the Leighton Buzzard Light Railway. The larger (40HP) locomotives came in 'open', 'protected', and 'armoured' versions resulting in the curious spectacle of fully armoured locomotives appearing in an industrial context. Many locomotives were overhauled and/or modified by Kent Construction & Engineering Co. Ltd of Ashford which can complicate identifying locomotives (for example "Mary Ann" - the Ffestiniog Loco).

WDLR Number Year
Type HP Notes
264 1916 4wPM 20 Welsh Highland Heritage Railway
LR2182 461 1917 4wPM 40 Armoured version. Greensand Railway Museum Trust
507? 1917 4wPM 40 "Mary Ann". Open type. Works number uncertain Ffestiniog railway (since 1923), and the first loco to run on the preserved Ffestiniog Railway (in 1954).
LR3041 1320 1918 4wPM 40 Originally a protected version. Apedale Valley Light Railway.
LR3090 1369 1918 4wPM 40 Protected version. Apedale Valley Light Railway.
LR3098 1377 1918 4wPM 40 Protected version. National Railway Museum on loan to Leighton Buzzard Light Railway.
LR3101 1381 1918 4wPM 40 Protected version, restored as Open Version. Recently at Amberley Chalk Pits Museum
LR2478 1757 1918 4wPM 20 Apedale Valley Light Railway

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Small 1982, p. 56.
  2. ^ Duckworth, Christian Leslie Dyce; Langmuir, Graham Easton (1968). Railway and other Steamers. Prescot, Lancashire: T. Stephenson and Sons.
  3. ^ "War Department Light Railways". Wdlr.org.uk. Retrieved 4 August 2014.
  4. ^ Davies 1967, p. 152.
  5. ^ Davies 1967, p. 162.
  6. ^ "(untitled photo)". War Department Light Railways.
  7. ^ "ANGRMS Collection: Hunslet" (PDF). Australian Narrow Gauge Railway Museum Society. 5 June 2010.
  8. ^ Hinchliffe, Jessica (10 November 2017). "Train from WWI restored by volunteers at Ipswich". ABC News. Retrieved 11 November 2017.


  • Davies, W.J.K. (1967). Light Railways of the First World War. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.
  • Small, Charles S. (1982). Two-Foot Rails to the Front. Railroad Monographs.

Further reading[edit]

  • Baker, Stuart (1983). "Gas Mechanicals". Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette.
  • DeNevi, Don & 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.
  • Hughes, H.C. (February 1966). "Hunslet's Only Single". Railway Magazine. pp. 106–107.
  • Seidensticker, Walter (1980). "Brigadeloks and Zwillinge in the Trenches". Narrow Gauge and Short Line Gazette.
  • Telford, Robert (1998). "Belligerent Baldwins". British Railway Modelling.
  • Westwood, John (1980). Railways at War. San Diego, California: Howell-North Books. ISBN 0-8310-7138-9.