Wednesday, 31 January 2018

AEF and Baldwin Gas Mechanicals went to war 100 years ago

One hundred years ago, there was watching and waiting on the Western Front. The Germans signed a treaty with the new Soviet government of Russia which gave them a tract of agricultural land and ensured safety to their east. They could now move their armies westward. If they could attack as soon in the early spring, they could knock out France before the AEF (American Expeditionary Force of the USA) could deploy for battle. A system of convoys, for the most part British in 1917 to early 1918, was bringing US troops in British shipping across the Atlantic.
The Baldwin Gas Mechanical. Any excuse to include a picture of this lovely brute!A series built beginning 7001 running on 60cm gauge was built for the AEF. This is a 16mm scale model by  MD Wright
As well as an Army, the AEF had to create a whole system of trench railways, which they modelled on the existing 60 cm gauge. In ‘Colonel Pechot: Tracks to the trenches’ pages 236-239, I describe the US Light Railways. Just at the planning stage in 1917, they were a formidable force by the end of the War. 150 examples of the 50h.p. Baldwin Gas Mechanical locomotive were built. They were identical to a large order (over 500) for the French Army. US industry also imitated French practice and constructed over 2800 bogie wagons for carrying freight. Rich Dunn comments 'there was some controversy about this decision' Clearly there were many proponents of simple four-wheel wagons for gauge this narrow.
German Military Intelligence told the High Command that this fresh new AEF was grouped south of Verdun (east of Soissons at the bottom right of the map); the western Front swung east from Soissons through Reims, then on to Verdun and Toul. Though this area had been regarded as the hinge of the Front in 1916, for various reasons, the Germans did not wish a frontal attack on the AEF.
Railway map of north-east France. In February 1918, The Front ran from just west of Lille at the top right to just east of Soissons, bottom right. A strong attack on Amiens(centre), well to the west of Albert, would knock out most n/s communications. Map courtesy of Terry van Winkle
The original Schlieffen Plan had been to attack France from the North-East, punch through the existing defences, destroy communications, cut off northern France and encircle Paris. It had worked before. The Front now ran from Soissons northwards, west of Lille, dangerously close to the Channel.
Military Intelligence also told the Germans that the British had just taken over the sector of the Front west of Amiens and had no time to settle in. This city was an irreplaceable centre for communication and supply for the whole north-east sector. A successful attack could cut off the north of France and most of the Channel ports (Boulogne is shown top left on the map). Thus their forces could encircle Paris without a threat to their northern flank. With France knocked out, the AEF would go home. They had come to protect their sister republic and didn’t have much interest in Britain. German Intelligence suggested that the new army stayed well clear of the British.
It was a good plan and nearly worked.
The Germans had developed storm-troopers. In the last years of the war, StoƟtruppen ("shock troops" or "thrust troops") were trained to fight with imfiltration tactics. Most memorable of these tactics were flame-throwers directed into trenches. Gas projectiles were also used.  A soldier trained in these methods was known in Germany as a Sturmmann ("storm man", usually translated as "stormtrooper"), formed into companies of Sturmtruppen.  
It is observed in Wikipedia that the infiltration tactics were much copied. In the Second World War, the Russians developed the flame-thrower into the Katyusha (Little Katy) and used this against the Germans.
The Allies were aware of a German threat. Unfortunately the British generals simply reinforced the defences forward of Amiens. This filled the trenches with fodder for flamethrowers.
The first AEF  troops were in France by August 1917. A contingent arrives by standard gauge Photo 'Illustration'
Fortunately, the British were also learning the use of trench communications. A resilient network, described at more length in ‘Tracks to the trenches’ page 226-7 had strength in depth and redundancy. Even if one line was cut, reserves could be brought up on parallel lines. Another advantage of the trench railway was how quickly it could be repaired.
The Germans also misunderstood the AEF. It did not stay solely behind the lines at St Mihiel. Troops were already out with the French, learning war-craft and how to deploy the Schneider 155 and the Filloux 155 which were being manufactured for them in France.
Some of the AEF were also supporting the British. In Rich Dunn’s ‘Narrow Gauge to No-man’s Land’ he describes how the 12th Engineers of the AEF were out on British War Department Light Railways quite early in 1917. The 11th Engineers were also with them, as standard gauge specialists.
Both 11th and 12th Engineers did brief training in June to July 1917 and left for Europe by the end of August. The 12th Engineers arrived in Liverpool on August 15th to lead a parade of US troops through the city. They then went to the Somme valley (east of Amiens) to operate the WDLR. 
Both 11th and 12th saw action in November, helping to capture some territory. When the Germans counterattacked, they fought their way out in spirited fashion. You can read the full story in Chapter 2 of Rich Dunn’s book.
Doughboys facing the oven! French and US soldiers share a trench in the winter of 1917-18. The US boys look fresher. The French are wearing the distinctive greatcoat and ridged helmet. Photo 'Illustration'

Though not made by simpletons, claims that the AEF kept itself to itself are overly simplistic. There were, no doubt many jokes about being divided by a common language, but they joked together, fought together and, sadly, often died together.
Sarah Wright,‘Colonel Pechot: Tracks to the trenches’  Birse Press
Richard Dunn ‘Narrow Gauge To Noman’s Land’  Benchmark Press
WJK Davis ‘Light Railways of the First World War’David & Charles

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Slow Locomotion

Modern technology promised to speed up our world. Take for example the telephone. It saved visiting or writing. A mobile phone saves the bother of going to the telephone. A quick flick through the contacts device saves us even the trouble of dialling. And so on.
Does that mean we spend less time on the telephone? Now the average person spends more time looking at the mobile than sleeping. Frequently it is the last thing a digitally connected human looks at when going to sleep and the first thing reached for in the morning.
There is plenty that is good about the modern hyper-connected world but some not so good. One big problem is our feeling about ‘down-time’. The phone and then the mobile were justified to us as time-savers. If time is money then somehow time has become money. Our down-time has to be as streamlined as a fully automated work-place. Leisure is a matter of films seen, pages read, engines run and how many people have ‘touched base’ with us.
To the hyperconnected moderner, this looks like a mess.Nothing is running; the vegetation is clearly flourishing but there is no activity ... and yet!
Fun has become a matter of numbers, the bigger the numbers the better.
Even time-off becomes a treadmill. For the railway modeller, the more turns the model train has done, the more photos taken and uploaded, the more this, the more that, the better. What have all these numbers actually done for us?
Always being connected and busy can lead to chronic fatigue. The whole point of leisure is that we step outside ordinary existence. It is a complement. This may be to numbers, results or competition. Unlike work, it is not the goal that is important, it is the journey.
The Slow Movement started as a protest. An Italian - they consider themselves the home of good food - was so shocked at the sight of a McDonald’s next to the Spanish Steps that he started an anti-culture. The Slow Movement protests against speed, size and surplus. At its best, it gently encourages slowing down, doing less, walking more and sleeping more.
One former burnt-out activist admits that her first attempt at craft-work was a failure. Her mind-set was one of speedy results. She had purchased a cross-stitch kit simply to pass time on long journeys. The first lesson she learned was … read the instructions! In the hyper-connected world, pausing to read these meant that the competition would pass her. She would be left behind!. All that happened was, she got her thread into a tangle and wasted time and material. She realised that no-one minded. No-one was racing her. She went back to the beginning and tried to make sense of the advice in the instructions. Then she had to apply the advice to the kit. At first it was slow, mindful, but then she picked up speed and ended with a first attempt whichgave her pleasure. She could even be proud of it.
16mm live steam Wrightscale Wren. This is not a switch-on-and-go sort of locomotive, but the joy that it can bring is immense. Step back, step out of time, enjoy the journey Photo MD Wright
The Slow Movement applies to our craft. Instead of fingering endless boxes of products and  racing our 16mm locomotives around the track, slow down. Enjoy the journey. If you have a live steam rather than electric locomotive, you have already grasped the vital point. The journey from shelf to trip is all part of the experience.
The instructions on the Wren 16mm locomotive are a veritable gateway to pleasure. The ritual begins with warming some water and conveying it in the correct container to the locomotive. Using a syringe, give the boiler its first dampening. 60 cc (four tablespoons) is enough. This is not just to apply water, but to reseat the ball-valve. The ritual may need to be repeated in a few minutes.
Check the lubricator. Water may have gathered inside. Unscrew the bottom nut and allow this to drain away. Tighten the nut gently. Loosen the top nut. Lubricate and then tighten, again, gently.  Moderation applies here.
Make friends with your gas filler. Make sure that your gas cylinder is at normal room temperature. On a cold day, carry it around for a little before use. Remember that gas will flow readily from a warm place to a cool one.
When it feels comfortable to the touch, connect gas filler to cylinder. Push the filler down gently to find the valve to the locomotive gas tank. Push down a little more and gas will flow from your gas bottle. Learn from subtle signs when the gas tank is full. When the burner sighs thanks to escaping gas, you are probably there!
If there is poetry in ritual, there is plenty of poetry in lighting the gas burner. Hold a flame in front of the front buffer beam of the Wren. You will learn from experience how far in front; about two finger-breadths is probably a good guide.
Open the gas valve slightly, and the flame should ‘pop’ back into the burner.  After a few seconds, you should be able to adjust the burner until you hear the purr of a well-tempered locomotive. Adjust to be ‘more open’ or ‘more closed’. It all depends. Once you have heard the purr or soft roar of a contented locomotive, then it will be forever recognised.
Wrightscale Wren seen from the back. The huge rod coming down into the gas tank is the filler. The water-filling valve is to the right, the regulator is the handle seen just above (it is in the 'off' position) the gas control valve is the hndle on the left.  Photo MD Wright
Allow the locomotive to adjust and pick up steam.
Problems with lighting are usually caused by carbon deposits. If gas persists in burning below the smokebox or the fire keeps going out, the jet needs cleaning. Have the cleaning wire at the ready. Loosen the cleaning screw and gently roll the little wire with a forward motion through the jet. Gently, gently. Check that the o-ring stays on the conical washer as you replace the cleaning screw. Try lighting again.
When the pressure gauge comes to life, you can think of running but firstly, any condensate must be removed from the valve gear. When 20 psi shows on the gauge, engage forward gear (handle to front). Flick the wheels forward to clear condensate. Quite soon, the wheels will start to turn of their own accord.
Now open the regulator … and let her away.
This all seems long-winded. By the standards of our hyper-connected, super-efficient world, this is an invitation to a waste of time. See it rather as a gateway to a slow world. This has been a journey, part of the fun, part of the re-invention we so desperately need.