Our friend Jim Hawkesworth recently produced a photograph. It dates back to the 1960s. A First World War survivor waits outside the depot of the Sabliers de Nemours just outside Paris. It was then a working sand-extraction works though these days, its 60cm railway has become a heritage site – worth a visit if you are in Paris area.
He had fond memories of the day. An enthusiasts’ coach tour had started early at Pithiviers, then still a centre for a 60cm network. They had been dragged away from the attractions and struggled up the crowded Route Nationale towards Paris. They visited the sand extraction works on the Loing, now the site of Tacot des Lacs museum and railway. They were finally on their way to dinner and bed when they passed through Nemours. There a night-watchman was shutting up the works while the staff put away their 60cm locomotives and stock. The bus skidded to a halt and the passengers streamed off to see this attraction. parc roulant – of the sabliers de Nemours with their bus parked firmly in the gateway in case it should accidentally close.
|A Dikk Kerr petrol electric tractor waits outside the depot at Sabliers de Nemours, south of Paris,1963. Photo courtesy of Jim Hawkesworth|
Jim snapped this Dick Kerr petrol electric locotractor which was just about to be put back in the engine shed. Its pedigree is long and interesting. Already a veteran in 1963, the design dates back to the 1916 plan to modernise British transport on the Western Front and to my mind this makes it a significant locomotive. It marks a revolution in military thought and action on the British sector of the Western Front Just briefly, this is why:
In 1914, British and Continental military planning were very different. In the 19th century, the French realised that the only way to supply an army, given the impressive growth of artillery, was to construct temporary field railways, using portable track panels. The British did not and so once the Western Front came into being, they were at a logistical disadvantage.
This was partly because, between Crimea and 1914, the British had not made war on a large nation with modern armaments. They were consequently complacent. The French in contrast had endured the bruising defeat of the Franco-Prussian War. There was another reason which I have explored in my book Colonel Péchot – Tracks To The Trenches. The French Army included an officer, Prosper Péchot, who made it his life’s work to ensure that his fully integrated system of 60cm portable railways was adopted. It was adopted – for attack rather than defence - in 1888. Although the official name of the system was artillerie 1888, the Army always called it système Péchot. The Germans – coincidence? – produced their own 60cm feldbahn, also in 1888. By 1914, they had 1000 km of prefabricated track, and, more importantly, a couple of regiments of specially trained engineers. The French had less material, but soon placed orders for a massive increase in 60cm rail and rolling stock. The British had 4 ½ miles (7.2 km) of 2’6” track and no plans to build any.
By 1916, the British realised their mistake. Lloyd George sent his trouble-shooter, Eric Geddes, to France. Just before the War, Geddes was deputy manager of the North-Eastern Railway. Interestingly, when young, he had managed a narrow gauge line but it was 2’6” gauge. When he assessed French practice, he rejected any gauge but 60cm, the same as the système Péchot. This was the basis of Programme B, the War Department Light Railways. By late 1918 the WDLR involved 6000 miles (9600km) of track, over 600 steam locomotives, over 800 tractors of various sorts, and well over 10,000 wagons.
Starting in 1917, the American Expeditionary Force of the USA built up their own enormous system of railways, based on a modernised plan which harked directly back to the système Péchot.
|These 16mm models are all from Wrightscale. The 50h.p. Baldwin Gas Mechanical prototype was made in the USA for the French Army. The WD wagon, just seen at left was British and the wagon in the background is artillerie 1888. Photo MD Wright|
After the War, the huge 60cm networks were dismantled. British, AEF and German material was sold off as War surplus; this is why US-built Baldwin Gas Mechanicals ended up on the Festiniog Railway, also at Froissy and why a British locotractor was working the Sabliers de Nemours many years later. (Relatively little French material was sold off in this way – until recently.)
Among the first orders of this historic Programme B was one for 200 electric locomotives and a power system. Geddes realised that the original French system, involving steam locomotives, was unsuitable for trench conditions. Night or day, a steam loco provides a good target for hostile artillery. The French and Germans were already bringing petrol driven ‘locotractors’ into service. The British on the other hand thought that electricity would be the ideal smoke-free, spark-free and silent power source. Orders were placed with both British Westinghouse in November 1917 and (a little later – we believe) Dick Kerr Limited. Each were to supply 50 pairs of tractors - one of each pair could take electricity from trolley-poles Conditions on the ground soon convinced the powers-that-be that the motor should be driven by petrol, but 50% of all ‘tractors’ supplied had vestigial electric connections. The other half of each pair had electrical connections so that they could run together.
Which design arrived in France first? BW undertook design and testing and so it is reasonable to assume that they were first built, but the Dick Kerr locomotives have earlier WD running numbers. This often happened in wartime and so numbering is not clear evidence that the DKs arrived first.
The two designs were similar: armoured 0-4-0, 15’1” in length, nominally 45 h.p. supplied by two 22.5 b.h.p. motors. When it was clear that transmission systems were not going to be built at the Front(!), each was fitted with a 55 h.p. petrol engine to supply the generator. The motors fitted in the DKs were slightly less powerful than the ones in the majority of the BWs, therefore overall output was lower in these examples. The tractors can be told apart immediately because the DKs had louvred sides, the BWs panelled.
They were not too heavy (8 imperial tons), reasonably well armoured and not self-advertisers to the opposition – no clouds of steam nor showers of glowing sparks. All the same, they did not see much service at the Front. The gearing was very low and so they were too slow. They were far more useful elsewhere. Forward work-shops and repair stations needed power and so, in a neat reversal of the original concept, they often became parked power units. I suspect that otherwise, few would have survived the War.