The mangled ruins of part of the light railway after a direct hit on a trainload of ammunition. Amidst the debris are damaged shell cases. The light railway was used to transport casualties and supplies within the Ypres area. From Birr Cross Roads casualties were transferred to motor ambulances to be transported to the advanced dressing stations on the Menin Road. Note in the background a line of motor lorries. AWM image E04674, reproduced with permission.
Although the British Army on the Western Front used the French standard gauge railways to move men, equipment and supplies along the lines of communication from the Channel Ports to the Divisional railheads from the earliest days of the Great War, it relied largely on horsed transport and manual effort to move it from the railhead to the front lines. The formation of the RE Light Railway Companies in early 1917 was innovation that was one of the factors that transformed the operational abilities of the army. Goods and men could now make the last leg of the journey to the front by light rail. Until that time, ammunition supply in particular had been subject to delays and required vast numbers of men and horses, and the light railways helped overcome both problems. Traffic and wear on the roads and tracks leading up to the front was eased, and fewer men were required to repair them.
The first use of light rail in France
The Light Railway Companies came into existence when it became clear that the maintenance of roads was becoming a severe problem, in terms of the manpower needed and enormous quantities of road stone clogging up the supply routes. In February 1916 the first new light railways were sanctioned.
The first light railway worked by the British was a French one. It had a track gauge of 60cm (2 feet), and this was subsequently applied to all light railways constructed by the army. The British system developed tracks that were prefabricated in lengths, that were in themselves of light weight. They could be easily carried and laid quickly, and with minimal preparation of the ground. For lengths of rail that were going to be more permanent, they were laid like full-size tracks, with sleepers and stone ballast. Special units were formed for the construction, maintenance and operation of the new system.
The Light Railway Operating Company RE
The Company consisted of approximately 200 men, in a number of trades: Drivers, Brakesmen, Guards, Wagon Repairers, Repair Shop Engineers, Traffic controllers and Storesmen. There were few officers among this number (for example, the 31st LROC was commanded by a Captain). The job of the type of Company was to run the trains, with the tracks being laid by RE Railway Construction Companies – often with the assistance of whatever Labour Corps Company or “resting” infantry were at hand.
|Company||Raised||Embarked||Theatre||War Diary||Date from||Date to|
|1st Operating||Longmoor||24.1.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|2nd Operating||Longmoor||4.2.17||F & F||WO 95/4056||10.18||3.19|
|3rd Operating||Longmoor||9.2.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|4th Operating||Longmoor||23.2.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|6th Operating||Longmoor||26.2.17||F & F||WO 95/4056||2.17||11.18|
|7th Operating (South African)||Bordon||18.3.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|8th Operating (South African)||Bordon||18.3.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|9th Operating||Longmoor||12.3.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|10th Operating||Longmoor||12.3.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|11th Operating||Longmoor||17.5.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|12th Operating||Longmoor||11.5.17||F & F||WO 95/4056||4.17||10.18|
|13th Operating (Canadian)||Bordon||9.6.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|14th Operating||Longmoor||22.5.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|15th Operating (Australian)||Bordon||16.12.18||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|18th Train Crews||Longmoor||6.2.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|19th Train Crews||Longmoor||16.2.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|20th Train Crews||Longmoor||18.3.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|21st Train Crews||Longmoor||27.3.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|22nd Train Crews||Longmoor||7.5.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|23rd Misc. Trades||Longmoor||10.3.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|24th Misc. Trades||Longmoor||17.5.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|25th Workshop||Longmoor||23.5.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|26th Workshop||Longmoor||12.3.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|27th Workshop||Longmoor||17.4.17||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|28th Tractor Repair||France||N/A||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|29th Operating||France||N/A||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|30th Operating||France||N/A||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|31st Operating||France||2.17||F & F||WO 95/4056||2.17||5.19|
|32nd Operating||France||N/A||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|33rd Operating||France||N/A||F & F||WO 95/4056||3.17||5.17|
|34th Operating||France||N/A||F & F||WO 95/4056||2.17||5.19|
|231st Operating||N/K||N/K||N/K||WO 95/4056||10.18||6.19|
|232nd Operating||N/K||N/K||N/K||WO 95/4056||10.18||1.19|
|234th (Forward)||France||N/A||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|235th (Forward)||France||N/A||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|236th (Forward)||France||N/A||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|237th (Forward)||France||N/A||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|238th (Forward)||France||N/A||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|239th (Forward)||France||N/A||F & F||N/A||N/A||N/A|
|240th (Forward)||France||N/A||F & F||WO 95/4056||11.18||7.19|
With thanks to Kevin Horn, grandson of railway engineer 55961 Sapper Thomas Horn, for this table of the Light Railway Companies.
The 11th Durham Light Infantry move up to the front line: quicker and less fatiguing than marching.
An example: 31st Light Railway Operating Company
Formed at Boulogne in late February and early March 1917, the Company moved to Maroeuil (on the River Scarpe and a standard railway line) north west of Arras, and built a Company HQ and camp there that remained until March 1918. Used an old cotton mill as base. On first arrival they took over about six of the standard workhorses of the light railways, the 20hp Simplex petrol locomotive.
Took over the operations of all light railways in the Arras area, supplying the front line and artillery units of Third Army. The main lines operated appear to have been the ones running out of Arras to the east, along the Scarpe valley towards the front line positions of Fampoux.
The main pick-up point for goods to be carried was called Q Dump. From there, ammunition, trench supplies, timber, men and a myriad other supplies would be carried forward. Men, wounded and salvage were the main cargoes for return journeys.
The men of the LROC enjoyed a considerable amount of individual freedom – quite necessary as they were charged with moving trains to and fro, getting them re-railed and repaired when accidents or break-downs occurred, etc. The officers and NCOs of the Company appear to have had a sensible attitude, that as long as men were back at camp when they should be, all was well. A simple recreation was going to the YMCA hut in nearby Etrun for a cup of tea.
The 31st worked the lines in front of Arras (including during the Battle of Arras in April 1917, when British artillery finally overcame its former supply difficulties and overwhelmed the enemy) until forced to move back in March and April 1918, when the enemy attacked in great force. The Third Army front was pushed back some way, but held. By May 1918, the 31st HQ was at Fosseux, a few miles further west of Arras, with the locomotives at Bernville. Much track had been lost to the enemy, and much more damaged, so the immediate task was to restore operating efficiency.
In August 1918, an Allied offensive opened that was to win the war. For the 31st, it meant many weeks of gradually extending the lines to keep up with the advancing armies, and all the time moving their centre of operations forward. The distance to be covered kept extending, as the attacking infantry moved much faster than the supply centres could move up. They moved first to the east of Arras, then further on to Bapaume, then Bourlon near Cambrai.