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Monday Train Blogging: Field Railways

by DoDo Wed Mar 1st, 2006 at 09:16:48 AM EST

Whether mainline, branchline, tramway or narrow gauge, the picture one has of a railway is something built for longevity – even if at lower speed, the same track may be used a hundred years later.

But, once, there was an entire class of railways different from that: rumbling little trains running on makeshift tracks never intended to last long, and easily re-laid somewhere else. The heyday of these railways was in the second darkest hour of Enlightened Europe's history: World War I.

A Canadian-built field railway with gasoline-engine locomotive transports munition to the front at Verdun. From the FIRST WORLD WAR.com photo album

The Ironhorsemen of the Apocalypse

The Industrial Age brought industrial warfare (as well as industrial colonial exploitation) – albeit with some delay. Railways were both the symbol of technological progress and a chief tool of the killing (and pillaging) machine.

Though used long before, the first European war in which railways were a decisive factor was the Austro-Prussian War of 1866. [UPDATE: Worldwide, that distinction belongs to the American Civil War, see comments.] Fully exploiting the logistics potential of railways, Prussia shocked the military strategists of the rest of Europe with the speed of its troop mobilisation. (But not enough for France to avoid being caught at unawares four years later.)

It was Prussia-dominated Germany too which pioneered the use of low-standard narrow gauge railways for the construction and supply of fortresses and marine bases.

Used as intended

In World War I, on the European Eastern Front and Africa, fronts weren't static. Thus the field railways Germany (and its opponents) built there were merely a cheap and fast alternative to a new full railway. Some lines in fact survived as transport routes after the war.

One of the 2,500 type "Brigadelok" D-coupled main work horses of the German army field railway (Heeresfeldbahn), No. 308, with Russian PoWs as railway workers near Rojen (today Lithuania) in spring 1916. Photo from the F. Rauh collection published online by Heeresfeldbahn.de

Battle in thin air

Learning from the 1866 defeat, and earning practice when conquering Bosnia, the army of Austria-Hungary was one of the best-prepared in railway matters at the start of WWI. Like in the German army, special railway units were staffed with specialists and conducted regular drills for all kinds of railway repair and construction jobs. Each were also supplied with a 100 km of ready-to-lay light railway track.

A largely forgotten part of WWI was the alpine warfare on the Italo-Austrian front. Less people involved, but no less cruel than the Western Front: scaling dizzying heights, the opposed armies (or their prisoners of war) dug intricate tunnel systems into ice-cold mountains, from which they shot each other with cannon fire, or tried to mine each other's tunnel systems, which often meant blowing off the top of entire mountains.

To supply this battlefield far beyond main routes of traffic with ammunition (the explosives and human and horse lives to waste), a giant supply chain had to be established. The ready-to-lay field railways came in handy. For, where a horse or cart sinks in mud, a crossbeam spreads weight wide, and rails spread it long. Even narrow gauge tracks laid without any proper earthwork or broken stone bed can carry more wagonload than a horse-cart.

An early gasoline combustion engine driven locomotive on the Austrian field railway "Wocheiner Feldbahn" near Görz (today Gorizia/Italy and Nova Gorica/Slovenia) in 1915. From the Gebiergskrieg site photo album

Field railways were constructed on the Italian side, too, and re-gauged by the Austrians when an area was conquered.

The Western Front

***Warning: some disturbing content below***

The popular image of the Western Front warfare is soldiers storming out of their permanent trenches and getting mowed down or hit by an artillery shell in a lunar landscape. But the primary weapon (as well as cause of death) was cannons and mortars which shot trenches and forts and those inside literally to pieces (and made survivors half-crazy). Because of them, fronts did move frequently, only offensives had to stop at the next line of trenches to obliterate.

To achieve this insanity, cannons and mortars were deployed in enormous amounts. An attack could include four thousand of them along a 10 km section of the front, each spewing hot metal once a minute.

In the first phase of the Battle of Verdun (90 years ago), the Germans fired 48,000 tons of munition in form of 2.5 million shells from 1,240 guns in six days. As for other transports, for example, towards the end of the war, just the British soldiers needed 86,000 tons of foodstuff a month.

Unlike foodstuffs, fuel and men, ammo needed replenishing by the hour. As fronts ground to halt, and because they were on more or less flat land, there was the possibility of putting the entire supply chain on the rails, unlike in the Alps.

I wrote about what the little trains transported to the front. But they didn't return empty: there was stuff for repair, soldiers back to reserve – but, chiefly, dead bodies.

Arras/Vimy, spring 1917 (same battlefield as on next picture): a German field railway is loaded for its way back with its ghastly cargo. From the Images of the Dead at Stahlgewitter.de

Germany used military field railways to their full potential on the Western Front from the start. But the lesson was learnt by the other side only about two years after the war started.

In the first two years, the standard-gauge railways (themselves put under full military control only as the war progressed) were used to transport material until dumping points, from where giant caravans of carts and packhorses continued until the front.

From early 1916 through to 1917, most of the pack-horse 'trains' were replaced by an intricate system of field railways and (on the final section) hand-pushed monorails. First by the French, then the British, but each successive country found more efficient solutions than the previous.

The British Army got itself to run up an industrialised production of prefabricated pieces of track, much like a model railway.

A page of the May 1917 issue of British propaganda paper The War Illustrated shows field railway construction on the British section of the Allied front, at Vimy

The tight curves of field railways required special solutions. Both the first German and French steamers on the Western Front were double locomotives.

A French Pechot-Bourdon locomotive, of the more flexible Fairlie design. This type was first introduced in 1889, for uses mirroring Prussian applications of field railways. Photo from Heeresfeldbahn.de

Also, this was the first time small locos with gasoline engines (not yet Diesels) came into wide use. I already showed a Canadian and an Austrian one. Here is a French one, originally only intended to serve big guns in forts:

A "Locotracteur Crochat", factory photo of the first of 200 petrol-electric 600 mm narrow gauge locos of type 14L-4-60 (DL), from rail.lu. A few are still in working order on the Chemin de Fer Touristique du Tarn in southern France


From around 1880, when French landowner Decauville built one for harvest, field railways were used extensively for peaceful purposes, too. In fact, much of the material surviving the two world wars was re-used for civilian purposes – but mostly in areas inaccessible to a wider public, and in many of their uses they have been replaced by non-rail vehicles (fitted with larger wheels or caterpillar tracks), hence they are rarely known.

The uses included: construction sites with earthwork, strip mines, peat bog mines, forestries1, fisheries in swampy regions, brick factories, earthen dams and dikes.

On the Swiss-Austrian border, the dams and the regulated riverbed of the Rhine were kept in shape by a field railway, today open for tourists.

A freight transport with a small diesel locomotive on the Austrian-side flood-prevention dam of the Rhine on the Rheindammbahn (or "Rheinbähnle"). Photo from the official Museum Rheinschauen site

Some peat bogs are still mined with field railways, though most were closed.

On a picture from August 1988, a peat bog railway near Horst in Germany. From Stillgelegt.de

  1. Forestries long used narrow-gauge railways. There is no clear separation, but a more 'primitive' usage was to lay isolated tracks on a mountainside chosen for clear-cutting, transport the trunks to 'slides' on these, load them again on permanent railways down in the valley, and then tear up the mountainside tracks and lay them elsewhere.

Previous Monday Train Bloggings:

  1. (Premiere/ modern Austrian trains & locos)
  2. Adventure
  3. Fast Steam
  4. Heavy Haul
  5. Forgotten Colorado
  6. The Hardest Job
  7. Blowback
  8. Highest Speed
  9. New England Autumn
  10. Trainwreck
  11. Bigger Than Big Boy
  12. Tunnels
  13. Failed Designs
  14. Demarcations
  15. Crazed Designs
  16. Trains In The Arts
  17. Railway Cathedrals
  18. Design Dictators
  19. Slippery Slope
  20. Alta Velocità
  21. Winter In Bulgaria
  22. Nice Station

Just a quick message before reading your diary to say thank you DoDo!!
by Alex in Toulouse on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 12:23:50 PM EST
Intense photos...

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 01:11:53 PM EST
Well worth the wait for this powerful diary. Another aspect of railways and, in this case, WWI that I didn't know about. Of course it also brings to mind the horrors of WWII railway efficiency of a different nature.
by Alexandra in WMass (alexandra_wmass[a|t]yahoo[d|o|t]fr) on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 02:48:54 PM EST
I respectfully disagree with your comment that Austro-Prussian War of 1866 was the first one where railroads were a significant factor.  During the American Civil War (1861-1865), both sides used railroads to move division sized units over long distances.  

Another civil use of field railroads was in the construction of the Panama Canal.  Nearly all of the dirt and rock was hauled by rail, and the tracks shifted constantly to keep up with the steam shovels.  This project was begun by the French, using narrow gauge equipment, but completed by Americans, who switched to larger, standard gauge wagons.

by corncam on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 03:31:05 PM EST
respectfully disagree with your comment that Austro-Prussian War of 1866 was the first one where railroads were a significant factor.  During the American Civil War (1861-1865), both sides used railroads to move division sized units over long distances.

That's significant, but was it decisive? (I'm really asking, am not sure myself.) I note moving of division sized units by railway also happened during the crushing of the 1948/9 revolutions.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 04:39:34 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You mean 1848 surely?

A society committed to the notion that government is always bad will have bad government. And it doesn't have to be that way. — Paul Krugman
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 04:52:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
D'oh! Silly typo, thanks for spotting.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 04:54:06 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In short: Yes.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 07:20:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
 . . . in American Civil War, and they are hard to untangle, as they worked together.  

Railroads are certainly on this list.  

Nor was the importance of railroads neglected at the time.  Opponent's railways, when they could not be taken over, were routinely ripped up.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Tue Feb 28th, 2006 at 11:43:46 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, for example there was the Great Locomotive Chase (real events turned inside out by Buster Keaton's The General).

After doing some read-up, I submit that railways were decisive in the American Civil War, particularly the 1864 campaigns.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Mar 1st, 2006 at 10:15:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You remind me to post some pictures of normal railway construction in Luxemburg with field railways from rail.lu which in the end I chose to not include in the diary:

Benzol engine locomotive crosses a half-finished bridge with train to less-finished parts of the Alzingen-Oetrange line in 1915.

A large assemblage of field railway steam locomotives at a tunnel widening project in 1929.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 04:53:28 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Check out the wounded in open carriages:

by Alex in Toulouse on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 04:57:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I made the following two pictures on my way home from Brittany in the summer of 2003. The edge of a thunderstorm just left the town. No sign of the war on the pictures, but at least connected.

Image Hosting by PicsPlace.to

Image Hosting by PicsPlace.to

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 05:18:47 PM EST
 . . . after a thunderstorm passes through.  Your second photo catches it well.  

The Fates are kind.
by Gaianne on Tue Feb 28th, 2006 at 11:47:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I am amazed by those photos... and the one with the dead soldiers is quite gruesome indeed. I see you are quite interested in locomotives and I've seen some restavrated here, in Bulgaria, but have no photos in the moment. Maybe I will search a bit and post my findings! Keep up the good work!

Be careful! Is it classified?
by darin (dkaloyanov[at]gmail.com) on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 06:46:28 PM EST
Thanks for the encouragement, and any photos you may find in advance!

Meanwhile, look at the list of my previous train diaries at the end of this diary (just above the comments), episode 21 - some pictures (of less old stuff) from your country there :-)

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Mon Feb 27th, 2006 at 07:06:50 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Dodo , First of all : I love your train-blogging.

But I have a question : Once I read something in my youth ( early 1960's ; I had a huge Märklin-thing .....) and in a strange way it is still hanging like a memo in my head: when the first passenger-train was operating in Britain someone said or wrote :

You call that progress ? : going from one place full of misery  faster to another place full of misery ?

Do you know who said/wrote that?

The struggle of man against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting.(Kundera)

by Elco B (elcob at scarlet dot be) on Wed Mar 1st, 2006 at 05:08:13 PM EST

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