Steam Railway feature sample

Here’s a sample of one of the many fantastic features you can read in this month’s Steam Railway magazine.

Home from the front

From the front line in France to the industrial heartland of Australia, Hunslet No. 303 has led a remarkable life. Thomas Bright explores the history of this rare First World War veteran.

 
 War veterans united. Fresh from its return to steam, Hunslet 4‑6‑0T Works No. 1215 (ROD No. 303) passes its fellow First World War veteran, Baldwin 4‑6‑0PT No. 778 at the Apedale Valley Light Railway during a 30742 Charters event on July 16. KARL HEATH

War veterans united. Fresh from its return to steam, Hunslet 4‑6‑0T Works No. 1215 (ROD No. 303) passes its fellow First World War veteran, Baldwin 4‑6‑0PT No. 778 at the Apedale Valley Light Railway during a 30742 Charters event on July 16. KARL HEATH

It is hard to truly comprehend the horrors of the First World War. Imagine being in the trenches at Passchendaele or the Somme, ankle deep in rancid mud, deafened by incessant shell fire and chattering of machine gun bullets strafing No Man’s Land. 

It almost doesn’t bear thinking about. 

Then imagine what a relief it must have been to see an oddly proportioned narrow gauge steam locomotive bucking its way towards the front over hastily laid track, bringing food, medicine and ammunition to where it was desperately needed. The War Department Light Railways Hunslet 4‑6‑0Ts were a vital lifeline to the brave soldiers fighting for King and country in the “war to end all wars”.

It is appropriate that one of these locomotives – Railway Operating Department No. 303 – has been restored to working order for the first time in over 50 years, and is able to pay its respects to the soldiers with whom it served on the Western Front in time for the Armistice centenary.

The First World War was the first truly mechanised conflict, but it wasn’t until halfway through the war that the Hunslet 4‑6‑0Ts were deployed.

Ian Hughes, chairman of the War Office Locomotive Trust, which restored No. 303, explains: “The War Office’s original transport plans were to link the standard gauge railheads – a safe distance out of artillery range – to the front line using requisitioned horses and road transport, but by late 1915, this concept was proving a major drain on resources and a restriction on effective war operations in the conditions into which the front had degenerated.”

The War Office turned to iron horses to replace the flesh-and-blood kind, and in collaboration with the Hunslet Engine Company of Leeds, developed a narrow gauge locomotive that would not only be quick and cheap to produce but was suitable for the lightly laid branches from the standard gauge railheads to the front line.

Given that large swathes of British industry had been turned over to the war effort, and that Hunslet had lost a large proportion of its skilled workforce to the military, the speed with which these locomotives appeared is remarkable.

Ian says: “They were designed and the first locomotive completed in just over three months, a remarkable achievement for a relatively small manufacturer which was already committed to manufacturing gun-making equipment for the War Office.”

An order for an initial batch of ten was placed in May 1916, with the first despatched to the front in August that year. The class eventually totalled 155 examples, the largest single class of narrow gauge locomotive built in Britain – a figure which trumps even the ubiquitous ‘Quarry Hunslet’ 0‑4‑0STs.

No. 303 – Works No. 1215 – was the third War Office Hunslet 4‑6‑0T built as part of the initial order, but actually the second to leave the factory, and was despatched to France on August 12 1916.

Ian says: “We do not know exactly where it headed first but it is known that Hunslets were used on one of the first lines officially operated by the British forces.”

In War Office use it was numbered 303, but there are few records of its wartime service. Remarkably though, it is the only surviving example that can be seen in service in a photograph, taken at Boisleux-au-Mont works in September 1917, serving with the US Army Corps of Engineers.

“It was later involved in a slight misdemeanour with some ballast wagons just north of Arras, but after this we have little information of its further war service,” says Ian.

Read more on pages 68-71 of Steam Railway SR486 – on sale now!