The railways and war


The nature of war changed radically in the 19th century. Conflicts became longer, they were waged over far greater distances and much more blood was shed. The catalyst for this dramatic transformation was not so much improved weaponry but another invention which came out of the industrial revolution: the railways. During the second quarter of the century the growth of the railways and their mobilisation for military purposes transformed the nature of war in an unprecedented and massive way. The polite encounters of the pre-industrial age turned into monstrous conflicts which killed hundreds of thousands of men and wrought untold damage.

 To a large extent, this has been ignored by conventional military historians who tend to focus on battlefield strategy and the technology of weaponry. Just as the role of the railways in stimulating the massive economic development of the 19th and early 20th century has been forgotten, so has their role in wartime. This is well illustrated by a quotation on an ill-informed website on the Second World War: ‘Since the time of Alexander the Great large armies have crossed the world’s military landscape with ponderous difficulty, their seemingly endless lines of animal-drawn carts and wagons trailing far behind. How different this is from the pace and dimension of modern warfare. The highly mechanized U. S. Army of WW II had the ability to cover vast distances at speeds unimagined by even the greatest of the Great Captains of old.’[1] The implication that this was new was entirely misplaced. It omits any mention of the previous century during which rail transport had been the crucial line of communication and had, precisely, been able to deliver huge amounts of men and material to front lines in a way that would have been, indeed, ‘unimaginable’ to Alexander the Great.

 In fact, the role of the railways is undeniable and almost impossible to exaggerate. Take the difference between the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century and the First World War a hundred years later. While the Napoleonic wars, which lasted for a dozen years from 1803,  did see armies that were bigger than anything before, they still followed the pattern of previous conflicts. They were a series of big battles fought over a few days with long intervals between them during which time there were various skirmishes. Moreover, wars were largely confined to the spring and summer because of weather conditions and the availability of food.

 For example, the Battle of Waterloo, the final encounter of the Napoleonic wars, was over in just one day, June 18, 1815 with a total of around 50,000 killed or wounded on the two sides. Contrast that with the one of the biggest battles of the First World War, Verdun, which lasted from February to December 1916, and had more than ten times the number of casualties. The seasons were no longer a barrier since railways remain open all the year round.

 Napoleon was one of the few pre industrial age generals to really understand the role of logistics in war. He even called the long series of wagons which were used to supply ‘trains’ but despite his awareness of the vital nature of transport, he was restricted by the technology of the day and crucially the appetite of horses which were used not only for cavalry but also transport. Carts pulled by horses could manage barely 25 miles per day and oxen were even slower. If the supplies were too far behind the lines, they were useless since the horses would need to eat more than they could carry.

 The railways changed that equation. Herman Haupt, the railway genius of the American Civil War, reckoned that a single track line could supply an army of 200,000 men, provided it was operated in a correct way. Although railways played a role in several earlier conflicts such as the Crimean where a specially created railway helped the British and French forces eventually take Sebastopol (see box), it is the American Civil War that can lay to being the first ‘railway war’. This is demonstrated not only by its length – four years between 1861 and 1865 – but the breadth of the conflict which raged over an area the size of Europe its bloodiness. More American soldiers – over 600,000  – died in the war than in all other conflicts in which the US has been involved subsequently. There is another telling statistic, too. During those four long years of carnage, there were no fewer 400 encounters – one every four days – which were serious enough to be recorded as battles and it was the mobility afforded by the railways which made such a high level of activity possible.

 From the first battle to almost the last, the railways were involved throughout the war. The arrival of troops by rail proved decisive in the earliest big battle, the Battle of Bull Run in Virginia, twenty miles from Washington. The Northerners had the rebel forces on the run until reinforcements arrived by train on the Manassas Gap Rail Road which allowed them to counter attack and give the Southerners victory. Throughout the war massive troop movements across huge distances were made on the railways with the biggest being the 1,200 mile journey by 20.000 men from east to west along the boundary between the rival armies in early autumn 1863. The troops were sent from the Eastern seaboard to reinforce the beleaguered Northern troops at Chattanooga, Tennessee, a vital rail hub, and were vital in stopping the South from taking over the state after an earlier northern defeat.

 It was not only troops that were moved by rail, but all the supplies and ammunition essential to maintain the armies. Indeed, in what became known as the Western Theater, west of the Mississippi, battles would not have been possible without the railways since the area was largely uncultivated and troops would not have been able to live off the land.

 The better organised and resilient railways of the North helped it secure victory and it was by cutting off Atlanta from any railway support that General Sherman was able to launch the final assault that ensured the South’s defeat. Ironically, though, having used the railways to supply his troops for the attack on Atlanta, he then destroyed them behind him as he progressed eastwards in order to prevent the enemy from using them to in pursuit. Indeed, the Civil War was also pioneering in another respect: the development of the art of destroying railways. Here, too, the North proved more adept than the South using more thorough techniques, such as a hook that was dragged behind a train which tore up the sleepers. The North, too, had been better organised, taking control of the railways early in the conflict while the southern rebel government never managed to impose itself over the privately-owned railways. This too proved vital and was understood in subsequent wars by countries like Britain where the railways were taken over by the government at the outset of both World Wars because they were so vital to wartime movements. 

 Although the evidence of the American Civil War made it clear that the railways were now a vital instrument of war, on the other side of the Atlantic it took time for the implications to be taken on board by conservative military administrations. In the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1, the French started off with the better railways but they bungled the initial mobilisation and lost the initiative. Troops roamed about getting drunk because train services were delayed and officers became separated from their men, resulting in ill-discipline. The Prussians, on the other hand, had prepared well for the attack on France which gave them a decisive advantage that they never lost. However, they operated the railways badly once they were in enemy territory, hampered by such basic mistakes as the fact that the chimneys on many of their locomotives were too high to get under the French bridges, causing numerous embarrassing mishaps. The French guerrilla forces, the francs-tireurs, soon realised that blowing up bridges and sections of line was the best way to harass the enemy which further delayed progress. Although the Prussians did eventually emerge victorious, with better use of the railways they might have concluded the war earlier because their supply lines in the siege of Paris fell apart, and the troops had to be sent out in the countryside to forage in the old-fashioned way.

 This time the lessons were taken on board. The German preparations for the First World War were based entirely on the role of the railways in mobilising troops and despatching them to the front. An elaborate scheme, the Schlieffen Plan was devised by the Germans to prepare for the rapid invasion of Belgium and France with railways were at the core of the plan which set out in detail precisely the timing of the offensive. The French border was to be reached on the 22nd day and Paris on the 39th but inevitably there were unexpected obstacles such as the Belgians blowing up their railways and the British entering the war sooner than expected, and Paris was, in fact, never reached.

 The First World War was the ultimate railway war with all sides utterly dependent on transport by rail. Motor transport was still in its infancy and at the outset of the wars, there were hardly any cars and lorries. Few roads were tarred, which meant they soon became mud traps in the autumn rains, and it was the railways which were essential in keeping armies supplied. Armies had become far more sophisticated, requiring ever large quantities of supplies, and the increasing power of guns meant that far more ammunition had to be carried than in previous conflicts. Only the railways could cope with this ever increasing load.

 The terrible stalemate on the Western front which lasted for most of its duration was the result of the prevailing level of development in both weapon technology and transport. Both sides could deliver huge resources to the front lines and keep them maintained, but the weaponry was not good enough to allow for significant breakthroughs. As the war went on, more and more small 60cm gauge railways were built, linking the main line railways in the rear with the trenches.

 Yet, despite the importance of the railways in the war, their role was rarely given sufficient emphasis. Lloyd George wrote in 1932,  commenting on the coverage in John Buchan’s

Account of the war: ‘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 official record of the war’s logistics does not make the same mistake, devoting most of its 600 pages to the performance of the railways during the conflict.

 In the Second World War, too, surprisingly the role of the railways proved vital despite the far greater use of motor transport. The railways remained by far the most efficient way of transporting men and materiel over long distances and there were many examples where the lack of railway support proved vital. For example, Hitler may well have managed to win a more decisive victory at Dunkirk had it not been for the lack of supplies caused by a shortage of rail capacity, which meant the German offensive stalled.

 it was, too, the lack of sufficient railway support that made it impossible for the German assault on Russia in 1941 to succeed, the turning point of the war. Conversely, it was not until the German railway system had been destroyed by the Allied air attacks in 1944 that the result of the war became inevitable.

 Remarkably, railways remained important in several conflicts after World War Two

In Korea, the Americans had great difficulty destroying the lines of communication from China which kept the Communist North supplied. General James Van Fleet, the commander of the UN forces, later wrote: ‘We knew [the Communists] were getting the bulk of their supplies by rail. We knew the location of all rail lines. We had air and naval supremacy. But in spite of all our air and naval interdiction attacks, their railroads continued to keep them supplied, even to the point of building up reserves for offensive actions.’ Railways proved difficult to destroy from the air until the advent of precision guided missiles.

 Even in the Cold War, the railways proved useful. The Russians built massive trains that transported nuclear missiles capable of reaching American cities and the advantage of using rail was that the location of the weapons were far more difficult to detect. Now, though, the very nature of war has changed. There are no longer set piece confrontations between massive armies that need to be supplied by rail. Wars are far more mobile and involve far fewer troops. New weaponry, universal road networks, and the availability of airpower means the railways no longer have a role. With, thankfully, the demise of mass industrial scale warfare, the age of the railway war is over. Much blood was spilt on the tracks but railways will never again be called upon to be the engines of war. But virtually all the wars between the Crimean and the Korean were quintessentially ‘railway wars’.


The Crimean War


Best remembered for Florence Nightingale, the Crimean War can lay claim to another innovation, the first ever railway built purely for military purposes. Just seven miles long, the Grand Central Crimean Railway was a crude affair that was in part horse hauled, while using locomotives on the lower stretch. Nevertheless, it proved vital in supplying the army outside Sebastopol, helping to break the year long siege of the town in 1855.


The Boer War


The Boer War saw the intensive use of armoured trains in a battle zone for the first time. They proved useful to the British to patrol the vital rail line on which all the major battles were fought and protecting it against attacks by the Boers. But the armoured trains also revealed their vulnerability when Winston Churchill, travelling as a journalist on a patrolling train, was captured in an ambush. He eventually escaped and regained British lines by jumping on a freight train.

The Russo-Japanese War

The Russo-Japanese conflict of 1904/5 arose because of the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway which gave Russia easier access to the Pacific Ocean. The Japanese were worried about the growing influence of Russia in the Far East and despite Russian reinforcements arriving on the railway, won all the major battles of the conflict. The railway, though, survived and 15 years later played a significant role in the Russian civil war, as shown in the film Dr Zhivago. 

The Holocaust

The worst atrocity of the century, the despatch of millions of Jews and other victims of the Holocaust to the concentration and death camps in the Second World War would not have been possible without the rail transport. The first trains, in October 1941, between Germany and Poland, were to move German Jews into ghettos where the former inhabitants had been eliminated. The despatch of Jews direct to Auschwitz and the other death camps for extermination began in earnest in the spring of 1942 and the flow intensified over the next two years and then began to slow after the Allies landed in northern France, although the last recorded train was in March 1945. Eventually, 1,600 trains carrying around 8 million people were sent to the camps.

 For the most part, freight trains were used, with between 100 and 150 victims crowded into each wagon with no food or water and just a bucket as a latrine. However, in places where the Germans tried maintain the myth that the Jews were simply being ‘resettled in the east’, the victims travelled in third-class carriages and were forced to buy a one-way ticket, with children being charged half fare. The average journey time was more than four days as the trains were given the least priority and consequently were frequently made to wait for freight and troop services. The longest journey involved a train of Jews from Corfu, which took eighteen days to reach its destination and not by that time contained only corpses.

 The whole macabre logistical exercise would not have been feasible by road because of the manpower involved in transporting and guarding literally hundreds of thousands of trucks and buses, and the use of fuel which was in short supply, since the trains used coal. It is quite fitting, therefore, that one of the most haunting images of the Holocaust remains the picture of the railway line leading into the Auschwitz camp.


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