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Colonel Péchot : Tracks to the Trenches

Author : Sarah Wright  Publisher : Birse Press

Hardback, 256 pages, 300 illustrations Price £36=75


Fellow readers might be interested in where our enthusiasm for railways has taken us.  For 20 years, Malcolm and Sarah have been researching the history of 60cm/2 foot narrow gauge. The search began in Wales, at the Festiniog Railway, and soon proved to be international. For 25 years, we have been untangling one of the great untold tales of pre-First World War Europe. Bit by bit we decided that others might be interested too, and this book is the result.


Our research showed that 60 cm gauge railways have been highly significant. The First World War was supposed to be over by Christmas. Before the era of efficient lorries, tractors and aeroplanes, it had been all but impossible to keep substantial armies in the field for more than a few weeks. Yet this time it was different, thanks to a flexible and practical system of portable railways which linked existing supply routes to the battlefields. Yet this system of ‘clip-together’ 60cm gauge track which could carry locomotives and laden wagons very nearly did not happen.


Colonel Péchot and his Legion of Honour Award

A modest French soldier, Prosper Péchot looked at existing industrial and agricultural railways - most particularly those of the Decauville Company and the Festiniog Railway. Through careful calculation and experiment, he re-imagined these into a robust yet flexible system which could deliver 48 tonnes of gun over muddy fields, plus ammunition, water and all else an army would need. Through constant effort, he persuaded his superiors in the French Army to adopt his system. They did; starting in 1888 they created a 500 kilometre network of 60cm railways in eastern France.   Unfortunately, the rivals, the Germans, saw what he was doing and adopted it as well. Between 1897 and 1902, they created an amazing railway through the harsh conditions of the Namib desert. In fact, it was the Germans who were best prepared for war in 1914 with 1000 miles-worth of 60 cm railway kits ready to support the Schlieffen offensive.


From 1914-16, the British scorned such ‘toy’ trains but were reluctantly obliged to adopt a similar system. The US Army, however, created its own version immediately it joined the war. Though used mainly on the Western Front, 60cm gauge appeared in places in the Turkish Empire and on the Balkan Front, both to bridge gaps left by destruction of standard gauge lines and to open up new areas. Just how influential was Colonel Péchot? We hope that you will find this question as fascinating as we have.


Available from good booksellers or in case of difficulty from the publishers:

Birse Press   aboyne.workwright@gmail.com

See the blog InTheWorks through our website www.wrightscale.co.uk

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