Trains, Tanks and Trenches: model railways with a difference

military modelling“They’re all the same dad”

I have to say I had some sympathy with the young teenager whose conversations with his dad I overheard at a recent model railway show.

While the size and quality of model making vary, the theme of the majority of model railway layouts seems very stuck on two basic formats.

They’re either a quaint branch line with a station or an industrial setting, such as a mine or harbour.

And, I have to put my hand up and say I’m just as guilty. All my layouts have the same lack of imagination and fall into this trap. My latest £35 model railway project, as fun as it is to build, is yet another harbour dock themed layout.

I can visualise the despondent teenager at the show glancing at my layout, humpfing and walking off despondently in search of something more exciting.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with these layouts and being centred around railway lines we are a bit limited in what we can model but it set me thinking.

Around the same time as I happened to be given a book as a birthday present by a friend. (Hi John if you’re reading this!).

John knew I was “into trains” and gave me Christian Wolmar’s Engines of War: How Wars Were Won and Lost on the Railways. It’s a fascinating account of a poorly documented aspect of railways and got me thinking about war-themed model railway layouts.

I’ve seen several layouts set in or around the 2nd World War period, such as the one pictured above and the video below, but Engines of War opened my eyes up to the potential of model railways set in and around actual combat areas.

I’m not talking about a layout carrying tanks etc on an otherwise normal line but a model railway set in a battlefield setting. Walmer describes how the flexibility and versatility of narrow gauge railways, in particular, saw them used to ferry troops and armaments up to front lines.

war railwayBattered, improvised, trains running through mud, trenches and shell craters with combat taking place around them would certainly be different, unusual and fun.

It’s also very possible.

Using either 00 gauge trains and track or 009 (OO scale models on N gauge track to achieve the narrow gauge look) means track and trains are readily available. (Bachmann have several 009 gauge Baldwin locos — as used by British forces in WW I — coming out in December this year).

And there are lots of plenty of military vehicle models built to this scale too (1/76th) from Airfix and Revell

In terms of track plans, there’s an incredibly useful resource of WW1 trench railway maps online here (Change the category on the left to Belgium/France WW1 and pick a location). The transparency of the map can be changed to show satellite imagery of the area that will help with terrain

Animation, lighting and smoke circuits familiar on model railways could produce explosions, fires and soldiers moving around to bring extra life and realism and also raise the model work above that of military dioramas.

Is a battlefield railway something you’d consider? Have you done it? I’d love to hear about and see some photos of layouts set in a combat zone, the trenches of WW I or WW II or another war.

Photo: Battlefield narrow gauge railway, public domain via Wikipedia.

> A final, personal, note: I spend a huge amount of time testing, photographing, writing and researching techniques for these articles and pay for all the running costs of MRE out of my own pocket. If you found this article useful you can support me by making a donation on my fund-raising page. Thanks and happy modelling, Andy.
Founder of ModelRailwayEngineer, Andy Leaning

Andy is a lifelong modeler, writer, and founder of He has been building model railways, dioramas, and miniatures for over 20 years. His passion for model making and railways began when he was a child, building his first layout at the age of seven.
Andy’s particular passion is making scenery and structures in 4mm scale, which he sells commercially. He is particularly interested in modelling the railways of South West England during the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, although he also enjoys making sci-fi and fantasy figures and dioramas. His website has won several awards, and he is a member of MERG (Model Railway Electronics Group) and the 009 Society.
When not making models, Andy lives in Surrey with his wife and teenage son. Other interests include history, science fiction, photography, and programming. Read more about Andy.

Afflliate disclosure:The links on this page may take you to carefully selected businesses, such as Hornby, Amazon, eBay and Scale Model Scenery, where you can purchase the product under affiliate programmes. This means I receive a small commission on any orders placed although the price you pay does not change. You can read my full affiliate policy here. I also sell my my own ready to use, pre-made and painted buildings and terrain features. browse the range.
  1. The layout is about 60% complete. I am converting back ROD locos such as the Robinson 04, 3000 Class, P class, Mogul, Dean Goods and an 040 into a Baldwin 040.

    I have six ambulance coaches, French 40men or 8 horses wagons, RAMC wagons, Macaws for tanks and I am curently working on a Royal Engineers mobile workshop.

    For 009 I have a Baldwin, Decauville and have three kits to build: Hunslet, Simplex and Dick Kerr. I have ambulance cars and plank wagons for 009 too.

    The board will have road vehicles and aircraft above with spinning props.

    Just like the real thing, there was a ruined village and the hospital was made up of marquee tents and Nissen huts. There are plenty of fires around for warmth, lighting amd of course lots of mud.

    There will be nurses and US, French, British and German troops.

  2. I am currently working on an 00 and 009 model railway layout covering a Casualty clearing Station in WWI. The hospital was located in Boisleux au Mont from the second half of 1917 to early 1918. 20 CCS supported the 46 North midland Division. The Americans looked after the narrow gauge in that area at the time and of course the Railway Operating division the mainline operations.

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