How did the Longmoor Military Railway start?
The background to the Railway is to be found with our involvement in the Boer war. It was quickly found that a railway could provide invaluable help in moving supplies. To start with, this involved using casual labour but it soon became apparent that civilians were unreliable and that military organisation was needed. Soon, the building of railways in Abyssinia by Indian and Chinese labour was supervised by Royal Engineers. This involvement showed the need for regular railway troops. Help in training them was sought from our main line railway Companies and the resultant trained personnel were posted to the re-designated Railway Company, RE. The development continued and, in 1886, during Kitchener’s reconquest of the Sudan, the railway support was almost entirely military. In the background, there were volunteer units of the Royal Engineers. Amongst these, there was a specific railway unit raised as a battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, based at Crewe. These volunteers played an important role in the development of British Military railways.
After the Boer war, it was impossible to house all the returning troops in normal barracks. The War Office conceived a plan to build hutted camps instead. One of the largest sites chosen on Crown lands was in an area known as Woolmer forest, used for army training since 1870. The hutted camp, sited south of Liphook became known as Longmoor camp. It was built between August 1900 and May 1903 by 23 Field Company, assisted by Royal Monmouth Royal Engineers during annual summer camps. The first occupants of the huts were less than enthusiastic, complaining of damp and unhealthy conditions. The War Office decided to move the Infantry Brigade to Bordon, meaning less huts at Longmoor but more at Bordon. A plan was drawn up to build a light railway and move the surplus huts from Longmoor to Bordon. Thus, for reasons unconnected with plans for military training, a military railway was to be built at Longmoor.
The War Office had already negotiated with London & South West Railway in 1901 to construct a rail link between Bentley and Bordon. The light railway order was issued in 1902. By December 1905, essential stocks of food and other supplies for the Bordon camp were starting to be carried by the railway.
The task of moving the 68 huts (72ft long and 21 ft wide) from Longmoor to Bordon started in 1903. Even by modern standards, this was no mean feat. The first stage was to clear 4.5 miles of trees and heathland, choosing a route that allowed curves and gradients to be manageable. Details of this major project are sparse but it was apparent that much improvisation and effort were involved. We know that a 2.5 “ steel rope was dragged out to a maximum 400 yards, giving the longest distance of travel of the hut at each stage. Power was provided by a crude steam winch mounted on a platform (on two pairs of trolleys), with a vertical boiler and a 200 gallon cistern. A speed of 3 mph on the flat and 2 mph on a gradient was achieved; there were frequent stops. The labour force was 1 NCO and 12 men per hut, with horses; or there were 6 extra men without horses. The task of moving the 68 huts was finished in 1905.
With the Bordon link established and huts moved, it was decided to build a line (using military labour) between Bordon and Longmoor, purely as a link. This was not connected with any idea of forming a railway training centre at Longmoor. That idea gradually evolved and it was 1906 before the Board of Trade proposed an instructional railway between Bordon through Hogmoor Enclosure and Woolmer Forest to Longmoor camp. There were objections to this from the local and county councils. Finally, in 1908, the Woolmer Instructional Railway emerged. (The “will it move?” railway, according to the locals). The railway operation was disbanded in 1912, a decision later regretted with the onset of World War I. Standing orders for the WIMR were drawn up in 1913 and the outbreak of war led to the railway's principal role becoming training. This led to much expansion and changes.
From 1914, training became the principal role of Longmoor. After WWI, however, there were economy cuts and the view was that Longmoor has completed its part; the military railway structure in the UK came close to collapse. Longmoor was saved and its work continued. In 1930, work started on the Liss extension; this would provide a valuable link with the Portsmouth to London main line. The line was finished in 1933. In 1930, the Hollywater loop (started many years before) was completed.
In 1935, the name of the railway was finally changed to the Longmoor Military Railway.
In 1938, emphasis changed to preparation for war. During the war [period, 1939 to 1945, the role of the Longmoor Military Railway became crucial to the war effort and has probably seldom been fully appreciated. At least one third of the REs were transportation troops and most of them were trained at Longmoor (a total of 76,000 men).
The railway finally closed on 31st October 1969. Some 12,000 people attended the final open day on 5th July 1969.