Railways as the weapons of war

RAILWAYS are probably the best loved invention of the modern age. Even in these days of anodyne electric and diesel “multiple units” the British love for trains remains strong, as demonstrated by the fact that the National Railway Museum in York is the most visited museum outside London.

 Partly the reason for this is that the railways are seen as an invention that had almost universal benefits, creating unheard of travel opportunities, stimulating economic development and unifying nations across the world while having remarkably few disadvantages. However, they have a darker side, a hidden story which reveals they were a key weapon of war that resulted in carnage on a far bigger scale than anything seen before.

 Railways changed the nature of warfare, and created the potential for prolonged and mass warfare. Contrast, for example, the Battle of Waterloo which took place on a single day in 1815, 15 years before the world’s first significant railway, the Liverpool & Manchester, opened whereas almost exactly a century later the Battle of Verdun lasted most of 1916 and resulted in 700,000 deaths and wounded, about 30 times the casualty rate at Waterloo.

 The difference was the railways. Once armies learnt to use them properly, there was almost no limit to the number of men and amount of materiel which could be sent to the front line. Previously, the length of battles had been limited by the need to supply and feed the men and, particularly, the horses which were the major limiting factor in continuing a conflict.

 Armies could not be kept going from supply depots far away because of the amount of fodder required for the oxen, mules or horses. Consequently, battles rarely lasted more than a few days and armies quickly dispersed after the fight, because of the shortage of food.

 The railways changed all that. The first major military use of the railways was in the Crimean War when an eight mile line between the port of Balaklava and the fort of Sebastopol was built in early 1855 to enable men and supplies to be transported to the siege of the town, which was eventually broken, thanks to the greater number of shells that could be taken up the hill on the railway.

 For about a century, between the middle of the 19th and 20th centuries, war was organised and carried out around the railways. The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 was the first major conflict where railways were seen as a fundamental part of the supply chain, and it was, as a result, bloodier and more extensive than previous conflicts.

 More than 630,000 American soldiers died, more than in all other wars in which the US has been involved put together. There were 400 battles –an average of one every four days – which extended over an area as large as the whole of Europe. The importance of the railways was recognised from the start, especially by the Northerners, whose superior railways were a crucial aspect of their victory, and both sabotage and railway reconstruction took place throughout the conflict.

 Railways were to play a major part in every conflict during the rest of the century such as the Franco-Prussian War and the Second Boer War, but it was in the First World War that they came to the fore. The war occurred at a time when road transport was barely developed and even the few lorries that were available struggled on the largely untarred roads. Aviation was in its infancy and therefore the logistics of the war were virtually entirely dependent on the railways. And they were at the heart of a fascinating paradox. Railways had given armies far more mobility and enabled them to wage wars over much greater distances. The Russians, for example, fought the Japanese on neutral territory in Manchuria, with both sides supplied by lengthy rail lines – in particular the Russians who used the 5,000 mile long Trans-Siberian to reach the battleground.

 Yet, once soldiers got off the trains, they were in a position that was little different to those of their forebears who had fought in the Roman times. With no road transport to speak of, they had to walk to the front and in the First World War this meant picking their way on duckboards, through shell pocked mud, while carrying full loads.

It was the railways which resulted in the ghastly three and a half-year stalemate on the Western Front, the horrors of which are so strongly embedded in our nation’s heritage. Eventually, on all sides, a huge network of small 60cm railways were built to link the fronts with the railheads, which because of the risk of shelling from the enemy’s guns, had to be at least seven miles behind the lines. The track for light railways could be laid very easily with little ballast needed to support it and the equipment could be lifted up and used elsewhere if the front line moved, and therefore they proved invaluable.

 Even in the Second World War, when motor transport and aviation were far more developed, the railways were crucial. Most notably, during the German assault on Russia, it was the lack of sufficient rail support and the difficulties created by the change of gauge – Russia uses 5ft rather than 4ft 8½in which is standard throughout nearly all the rest of Europe – that slowed the advance sufficiently to ensure its failure.

 The Allies’ advance into Germany was delayed as the French railway network, sabotaged by the Resistance and bombed by the British and US aircraft, was rebuilt.

 The strategic role of railways in war has been much neglected byhistorians, Indeed, no less a person than Lloyd George, Prime Minister during the First World War, later commented on this lacuna. Referring to John Buchan’s History of the War, he said: “The Battle of the Somme has about 60 pages, and yet it did not make that much difference in the war; but the shells and the guns that enabled the army to fight it, all the organisation of transport behind the lines, do you know how much is given to this? 17 lines”.

The railways, in fact, were the engines of war during this period, but fortunately, with the invention of far more sophisticated weaponry and the end of set-piece battles in warfare, there will be no more blood on the tracks.

  • Derek L

    While I do not disagree with the tenor of the argument, it does seem to me that the stalemate on the Western Front in WW1 had a lot to do with the fact that defensive weapons (particularly the machine gun) were a lot more effective than offensive weapons, making it far easier to defend a trench that attack it.

    It has to be said, though, as you have, that without the rail transport logistics behind the lines, it would have been impossible to continue the stalemate for anything like the time it did.

  • Dan

    So approx 23,000 casualties at Waterloo – I don’t doubt it – but it is quite remarkable for a pre modern age battle (by the way – what is a casualty – does it mean death – or death and wounded? I’m never too sure the way it is expressed).

  • Christian Wolmar

    It was a guesstimate on my part. The usual figures are given as killed and wounded, and I have halved the 47,OOO figure given in Wikipedia for dead and wounded. This was a great source of irritation when researching the book. Its a very different matter being dead or wounded – most people would prefer the latter! – and yet because armies are only interested in who has, as it were, been taken out of action, they lump these two figures together. Even the Wikipedia list of deaths in battles turns out to be dead and wounded.

  • Dan

    Thanks Christian – so you are stuck with the same frustration as me! At least you have given a logical explanation as to why figures are given in this way.

Shares