Monday 17 February 2014

Track Panels from the Great War

During fall 2013 I and the track gang at the Danish heritage railway HVB worked with steel sleepered track panels. The work with track panels on HVB was mentioned on this blog in November. Among the most prevalent two or three types of panels we found another type with unusual sleepers. The sleepers had rounded ends with a small drain hole near each end. Our first guess as to origin were early Decauville track panels or WW1 French army track, but we found it hard to believe that WW1 track had come to Denmark, let alone survived for 100 years.

Steel sleepers with rounded ends riveted to light rails. Here seen before transport to HVB. Photo: Steffen Lyngesen.
A search in books, online and among friends on several yahoo-groups and on this blog, did in fact reveal that the track panels with a high degree of probability can trace their history back to the Great War. The drain holes should according to several sources indicate that the track panels are from the US army. The measurements of one of our sleepers fit precisely to a drawing of an American sleeper on a track panel with 16 pound rail. On many images from the French light railways, however, you can clearly see track panels with sleepers that also have the drain holes. So while much indicates that our unusual track panels are from WW1 we will probably never find out if they are French or American.

Assembly of a French 370 mm mortar. Notice the short track panel in the foreground. The sleepers have rounded ends with drain holes. Photo: ECPAD.
How the track panels made their way to Denmark is quite a mystery. HVB bought the batch of track panels that included the WW1 rails from a farmer on the Danish island of Falster. He probably didn’t buy track from afar, so someone else must have brought the track panels to Denmark. The most likely explanation is that the track came to Denmark during the German occupation 1940-1945. The German occupation of France spread French light railway material as far away as Demjansk and North Caucasus in the Soviet Union. So why shouldn’t a stack of track panels not find its way to Denmark?

Considering their age, the track panels are in a fine condition.
We will take good care of them and maybe exhibit a few of them to the public. They can be HVB’s small contribution to the anniversary of WW1 in the coming years.
Sources consulted includes: Eric Fresnes: ”70 ans de chemins de fer betteraviers en France.”, Christian Cenac: ”La Voie de 60 Militaire de la Guerre de 14-18 en France”’, Richard Dunn: ”Narrow Gauge to No Man’s Land”’ and ”The Regimental History of the Twenty-First Engineers Light Railway AEF.” Arnoud Bongards from Decauville Museum, the Netherlands and Roy Link, Wales contributed valuable information as well.  

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