By Cliff Thomas

World War 1 light railway commemorative events move to Leighton Buzzard

Published: 28th May 2016

Tracks to Apedale Trenches highlights War Department Light Railway contribution to the war effort

Following the major May 5-8 gala in France ( marking the centenary of the Froissy-Cappy-Dompiere lines construction and commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, the focus of marking the contribution of the War Department Light Railway contribution to the 1914-18 war effort switched to the British side of the Channel.

Two years ago Moseley Railway Trust staged a spectacular Tracks to the Trenches event at its Apedale Valley Light Railway near Newcastle-under-Lyme, the like of which had never previously been seen at a narrow gauge heritage railway. This event marked the outbreak of WW1 and provided an excellent demonstration of how 60cm/2ft gauge railways transported soldiers, ammunition and supplies to the front line. They even constructed a section of replica WW1 battlefield trenches to provide a complete vision of how light railways supported the front lines.

Over May 13-15 Moseley Railway Trust held Tracks to the Trenches II, this time marking the centenary of the July 1 1916 opening of the of the Battle of the Somme. The UK-based locomotives which visited Froissy a week earlier all headed for Apedale to join the resident fleet and further visitors.

Six in steam backed by i/c

In all, Tracks to the Trenches II featured six steam locomotives in action. The guests comprised Greensand Railway Museum Trust’s 10-12-D Baldwin 4-6-0T WDLR No. 778 (BLW44656/1917) from Leighton Buzzard Railway, West Lancashire Light Railway’s Kerr Stuart ‘Joffre’ 0-6-0T+WT Joffre (2405/1915) Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0WT 1643/1930 Surrey County Council No. GP 39 from Statfold Barn Railway.

These visitors joined Apedale residents Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0WT 1238/1916 (now numbered 104), Kerr Stuart 0-6-0T+WT ‘Joffre’ 3014/1916 and Kerr Stuart 0-4-2ST Tattoo – more usually named Stanhope but for this event running without nameplates which normally cover the painted name Tattoo on the tank sides, its appearance thus according with the original illustration of the locomotive in Kerr Stuart’s catalogue.

The Ffestiniog Railways WW1 4wDM 40hp Protected Simplex MR507/1917 WDLR No. 2228 and Baldwin 2-4-0DM BLW49604 No. 7011 (hitherto Mary Ann and Moelwyn) attended to show off their new-look WW1 appearances which had been unveiled in France, together with Fairbanks-Morse ‘speeder’ Busta.

Clever interpretation

During WW1 steam locomotives could not venture too near the front for the obvious reason that steam and smoke would all to easily reveal their presence to the enemy. Steam operations to forward depots are in effect replicated at Apedale by passenger and freight trains working the main Apedale Valley Light Railway running line.

Steam would hand over to internal combustion to convey loads closer to the battlefield, demonstrated at Apedale by a link line from AVLR proper at the loco shed leading to the field railway system, enabling further trains to run into the ‘forward areas’. These were primarily handled by internal combustion, although the smaller steam locos were sometimes seen tentatively venturing up to a water tank wagon to replenish supplies.

From ‘Wizz-Bang’ Corner (where a 20hp Simplex stranded in a ‘shell hole’ graphically demonstrated the dangers this close to the front!) a lightly laid line drops down to the back of the trenches. This final stretch is the preserve of the lightest petrol/diesel Motor Rail locomotives which worked shuttles of soldiers, ammunition and supplies – and evacuated ‘wounded’ soldiers from the front following the periodic battle demonstrations by re-enactors.

Adjacent to the field lines (where additional track has been laid recently to extend the system) was a tent camp for the re-enactors and a section of field delineated as an arena for WW1 cavalry displays, which generated much authentic-sounding gunfire!

Four-legged Horse Power

WW1 reflected a transition period from traditional fighting methods to an era where technology rapidly forced a change of thinking as to how war was waged. Railways and road transport played an increasing role, steadily replacing but far from usurping (yet) horses and mules. A couple of months prior to Tracks to the Trenches II Moseley Railway Trust secured a £10,000 HLF grant to interpret the role of horses in civilian industrial railways and delivery of supplies to the front lines during WW1. This helped enable making horses, mules and horse-drawn vehicles a significant feature of the event. A particularly novel demonstration was the periodic display of a horse hauling a WW1 D Class bogie open wagon.

Digging for victory grant

The HLF grant also encompassed construction by MRT of a trench tramway wagon, a lightweight four-wheel vehicle capable of carrying one ton (or four stretchers) produced in field workshops by Royal Engineers for use on the very lightest of track to be hauled by horses, very light locomotives or even pushed by hand. These were produced in field workshops by Royal Engineers – and during this event volunteers set about building one in the open air of the field. Fortunately, the excellent weather enjoyed over the three days allowed significant progress to be made on this most inventive of demonstrations.

Other exhibits ranged through field guns, armoured cars, steam road wagons and model railways with a WW1 theme. Overall, a cracking event – well done Moseley Railway Trust. Will the format be repeated? Very possibly, in 1918 to mark the end of The Great War.

Next event - Leighton Buzzard in August and September

Leighton Buzzard Railway (LBR) is the other UK narrow gauge line with a major collection of WW1 equipment and era-appropriate heritage - the line was built as a direct result of WW1 using much war surplus equipment.

Unsurprisingly, LBR is also producing a big event to mark the centenary of War Department Light Railways commencing WW1 operations on the Western Front. This will take place over two weekends, August 28-31 and September 1-5.

Expect a big line up of motive power, headed by Greensand Railway Museum Trust’s 10-12-D Baldwin 4-6-0T WDLR No. 778 which is resident at Leighton Buzzard. The first guest locomotive to be confirmed is Moseley Railway Trust’s Hudswell Clarke 0-6-0WT 1238/1916 in a visit reciprocating No. 778’s appearance at Apedale. The original Leighton Buzzard Light Railway (the title of the line prior to preservation) had two steam locomotives of the same type when it opened in 1919, both of which were scrapped long ago. MRT’s Hudswell Clarke 1238/1916 visited LBR in 2008 prior to its restoration, but has never steamed at Leighton Buzzard.

Further guest WW1 era steam locomotives and stock announcements are anticipated.

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