By Mr. David Vergun (Soldiers Front Page)November 4, 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 engineers.
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 railroad.
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 Confederates to 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 together.
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 installation.
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 forgotten.
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.