Forgotten�Tiny Trains Carried WWI�Vets To Victory
(November 7, 2010)
|FORT BELVOIR, Va. (Army News Service, Nov. 5, 2010) -- The
saga began in 1918 in northern Virginia's Fort Belvoir,
known then as Camp A. A. Humphreys; named for the Union Army
general during the Civil War and later the Army's chief of
Although Brig. Gen. Andrew Atkinson Humphreys had died in
1883, some of his Soldiers were around still in 1918, and
these veterans passed down what they learned in that earlier
conflict to a new generation of sappers.
Their skills -- bridge building, demolition, field defenses
and so on -- were now in great demand, as World War I (then
known as the Great War) was raging in Europe, and the United
States had entered the fray.
Besides their other engineering skills, Civil War combat
engineers and their progeny developed a particular
appreciation for a relatively new technology -- the
The veterans recalled how the Confederate forces had moved
reinforcements quickly from the Shenandoah Valley to the area of northern
Virginia near Bull Run and Manassas in 1862, helping turn the tide of battle.
And later, how Grant and Sherman used the railways of the South against the
Soldiers and supplies head to the front during
World War I. (Photo courtesy of the National
Library of Scotland)
quickly move their own troops and supplies and carry away their wounded.
What had previously taken weeks to move units now took days.
The technology was as revolutionary then as nuclear weaponry
and the Internet would be to warfare years later.|
By 1918, however, another competing technology -- motor
transport -- had emerged, challenging the status railways
had enjoyed in modern warfare. But despite their more mobile
rubber-tired relatives, railways could and would play a
dominant role in transportation during that war, as they
would later in World War II, moving Soldiers and materiel
from towns and cities across America to ports of
embarkation, where awaiting ships steamed across the ocean.
Beginning in the latter part of 1914, after seven German
field armies invaded France and Belgium, French soldiers and
their British allies were quickly mobilized and dispatched
to the front by railway, thereby stymieing the German
offensive. And there things stood for the next four years --
armies facing off on a massive line of trenches extending
hundreds of miles from neutral Switzerland to the North Sea.
The line sometimes wavered and undulated, but neither side
could gain a decisive breakthrough, as millions were killed
in a meat grinder of artillery and machine-gun fire.
Such was the situation when the United States declared war
on Germany, April 6, 1917. Full mobilization of American
forces took months, however. Camp Humphreys became an
important mobilization training area for combat engineers
and other Soldiers, where they learned how to build roads,
bridges and, of course, dig trench fortifications.
In early 1918, the installation's leadership decided to add
another realistic feature to the camp -- a 20-mile,
two-foot-gauge railway. The distance between the rails of a
standard American track is 4-feet, 8.5-inches, so this was a
comparably tiny track -- like one might see today in an
amusement park. But there was nothing amusing about this
tiny track and the tiny trains that would run on them.
The British, French and their German foe used hundreds of
miles of these tiny railways to deliver troops and munitions
from the larger, standard-gauge railways to the frontlines
-- right up to the trenches in some cases.
The advantage in using this light-rail system was ease in
construction and, if need be, rapid removal. Pieces of
5-meter-long, 100-kilogram sectional track could be picked
up and laid down by just two Soldiers. The sections
resembled children's train track sections, which snap
The narrow gauge also enabled the tracks to twist and turn
around obstacles and ascend steep grades much more easily
than trains on wider tracks. Also, the roads in Europe were
mostly dirt and gravel at the time, and often became
impassible during rainy weather, especially for motor
vehicles carrying heavy weaponry. Yet, the tiny trains
chugged along, providing a relatively smooth ride.
From March until the end of the war on Nov. 11, 1918,
hundreds of Soldiers and engineers trained on the little
Camp Humphreys railway, learning how to put together track,
build railway trestles and run the tiny steam and gas
locomotives. Many of these tiny trains accompanied the
troops to Europe, where the Americans and their British and
French allies used them to help turn the tide, bringing
victory in Europe.
The two-foot-gauge railway at Camp Humphreys also played an
important role in moving supplies and workers engaged in
construction projects for the rapidly expanding
Camp Humphreys wasn't the only U.S. installation where these
tiny trains operated. Tiny two-foot railways on Fort Benning,
Ga., Fort Sill, Okla., Fort Benjamin Harrison, Ind., Fort
Dix, N.J., and other installations were built during the war
and remained through World War II. But by 1920, the tiny
railway at Camp Humphreys was ripped up and pretty much
Following the war, some of the trains from Camp Humphreys
and other installations that weren't scrapped ended up
working mines and plantations around the world.
The veterans of the Great War are all but gone, but many of
the tiny trains that carried them to battle soldier on
today, huffing and puffing, paint worn, rust showing
through, but still carrying themselves with the pride they
had in serving.
By David Vergun
Army News Service
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