War Department Light Railways

In these notes we have mentioned the WDLR organisation a few times. This was the War Department Light Railways organisation, formed during the First World War by the British. 2008 is, of course, the 90th anniversary of the end of the Great War, and thus many thoughts inevitably turn to this conflict. The early years of WW1 compelled a revolution in military logistics; the war had bogged down into a static slogging match. In such a war of attrition, the rate of consumption of material is huge, and this caused major problems. Most of the combatants had foreseen these issues – the Germans and the French being perhaps most advanced, although with different philosophies deriving from their intentions; the French saw their railways serving fixed defensive positions, whereas the Germans intended to use railways to serve an advancing front line. Narrow Gauge railways, with their inherent limited requirements for civil engineering and their flexibility, were the ideal tool for moving material from standard gauge railheads to the front lines. Furthermore, it was also rapidly discovered that steam locos with their all-too-visible smoke emissions, were far too visible on a battlefield with very active artillery spotters on both sides. This gave the impetus to the development of the very earliest internal combustion locomotives.


The British WDLR, although late in recognising the benefits of narrow gauge railways, adopted a number of new and existing locomotive designs, both steam and internal combustion. The full weight of the colossal British manufacturing industry started to churn out locomotives, wagons and other equipment. The unexpected collapse of the German military in late 1918 produced huge amounts of surplus railway equipment, both in France and in huge dumps in the UK (which truly must have been a sight – bring on the time machine!). Much of this equipment formed the machinery used in the industrial narrow gauge railways which sprung up and modernised after the war – many a quarry or factory used WDLR surplus locomotives. The equipment was astonishingly long-lived and robust considering the short expected life of military railways and their vehicles. This meant that a number of WDLR locomotives and wagons came to be preserved, and the Moseley Railway Trust is slowly gathering such equipment at its Apedale base, in North Staffordshire. The upper photo shows a “Protected” Motor Rail 40HP loco, maker number 1369, which is part of the MRT collection (on loan from Leeds Museums). This loco was restored as part of the Salvage Squad TV programmes a few years ago. These locos were fitted with bodywork to improve the protection for the crew when running in dangerous areas. The second photo shows Motor Rail 1320, which began life similar to no.1369, but was heavily rebuilt in civilian life at gravel quarries in Hertfordshire. All being well, both of these locos will be on show at the Moseley Railway Trust’s open days in September. As ever, we’d love to hear from you – here.