Rail 1007: How railways still win wars

Two articles in national newspapers at the beginning of this month have highlighted the importance of a little understood aspect of the railways – their vital role at times of conflict. I have long been obsessed with this facet of railway history as it has been much neglected by both chroniclers of war and of railways, despite the vast literature on both those topics.
It was in researching my first general history books on the railways that I noticed the importance of the iron road in several aspects of the way that war was waged. As a result a decade ago I wrote Engines of War whose core thesis was that railways were largely responsible for the huge increase in the scale and extent of conflicts. Just compare the Battle of Waterloo which lasted less than a day because of the need to feed the horses that were the basis of the supply line with, 100 years later, the Battle of Verdun which raged for most of 1916. The railways’ ability to bring to the front line what was essentially an unlimited amount of materiel was the key factor in prolonging the battle. Both sides on the western front had railway lines serving them and that resulted in the three year stalemate that was only broken in 1918 by tanks.

Engines of War is the favourite of the books I have written, not least because my core thesis has been quite widely picked up and is now largely accepted. However, much history remains to be rewritten in the light of it. That is what resulted in my latest book, The Liberation Line, the last untold story of the Normandy landings, out in early May. It is again a story missed in conventional histories. After D Day, June 6 1944, a large number of enlisted men, around 10,000 Royal Engineers and three times that number of US servicemen were sent across to France to rebuild the railways of NW Europe. Their role was vital in ensuring that the ever extending lines of communication were kept open enabling the forward move towards and later into Germany could be kept going. Just one key statistic demonstrates this.

Two thirds of the supplies landed in Cherbourg, the key entry point until the opening of Antwerp nearly six months after D Day, were taken forward by rail. To enable this to happen, the capacity of the port was massively expanded with the construction of a vast new goods yard. Without this amazing throughput, the war would probably have lasted well into 1946 or even longer. This is well illustrated by the fact that in late September 1944, the advance had gone too fast to be supplied by rail and progress was essentially halted for a couple of months.

Yet, oddly, this key aspect of the logistics of the war is barely features in the many books written on D Day and the consequent invasion of NW Europe. When railways are mentioned, it is usually as the location of bombing raids by the Allies or as transport for troops heading off on leave. And even those who recognise that railways did play a vital part in the conflicts of the 20th century and late 19th century, tend to argue that this is mere history with no relevance to today’s wars.

They could not be more wrong which is where the two articles I have mentioned in the first sentence come into play. The first, published in the Daily Telegraph on April 6 by Joe Barnes, the paper’s Brussels correspondent is a lengthy account of how the railways remain crucial to NATO’s defence system. Only the railways can bring tanks and other equipment, as well as tens of thousands of men, to the front quickly and yet this crucial aspect of the logistics of warfare has long been neglected. Barnes points out that the creaking state of the German railways after years of lack of investment may proved crucial in a conflict. The right rolling stock such as flatbed wagons is also in short supply. Barnes reckons ‘Deutsche Bahn has only enough capacity to move two armoured brigades – each normally made up of around 85 tanks and hundreds of armoured vehicles – at the same time’.  The need in an all out conflict, which hopefully will never happen – but then Ukraine was unexpected – would be for several times that number.

There is, too, a lack of coordination between member states. A recent exercise bringing French tanks to Romania was held up because German bureaucracy prevented no diplomatic clearance being obtained to cross the border. This issue is now being rapidly addressed since the launch of the war in Ukraine. Improving the logistics, with railways at their heart, is now getting priority. Barnes quotes a British general who is now a Nato official saying: ‘If we don’t get this right, we can’t fight’.

The other article, in the Financial Times on the same day – also by a Brussels correspondent, Alice Hancock, which suggest some heavy briefing going on from NATO HQ – notes that it is not only hardware that is important for the railways. Apparently Russia has being attempting on ‘thousands of occasions; to sabotage European rail networks since the outbreak of the Ukraine war. According to Ms Hancock, ;the hacking campaign included attacks on signalling systems and on the networks of Czech national railway operator České dráhy’ and ‘past attacks have put ticketing systems out of service and raised concerns about interference with signals’. I have written (Rail 979) before about this issue and it is obviously a murky world where disinformation is an essential part of the battle being waged over the airwaves. Nevertheless, there is clearly a risk and I am not convinced that enough is being done to protect our railways in particular due to the wide variety of software systems that are both safety critical and potentially vulnerable.

The need to protect the railways is therefore not only to ensure their efficient operation but there is a security imperative too. I suspect that this issue will grow in importance as more conflicts rage across the globe and new enemies emerge from the disintegration of the old world order established after World War Two. Again, as with the  heroic and vital achievements of those D Day railwaymen, the role of the railways as part of our defence system has been ignored.



Eurostar the unloved


Try as hard as I can, I cannot bring myself to love Eurostar. It should be the most wonderful rail service in the world, dashing one under the Channel to the Continent in a couple of hours but somehow its service is as clunky as its huge 18 coach trains. I had to book a group of 11 people on the train and the process was tortuous. I had to send an email and then wait for the reply but could not then book online. Instead I had to phone Eurostar to sort out the booking. Then I discovered I had made a mistake by paying for one of the children when he was actually too old to qualify for the discounted rate. When I ‘fessed up to the, I was told to cancel his ticket, claim a refund and buy another one, rather than simply paying the extra £20. Dear reader, you can possibly guess what I ended up doing – as the child in question is not tall for his age. Actually, I could have booked us all as children and the automatic barriers would not have noticed.

When it came to the journey itself, St Pancras was jammed, as ever, and it was far worse on the return journey at Gare du Nord which is, frankly, not fit for purpose. Despite an extension to the upstairs section having been added some years ago, the space is simply inadequate as we were returning on a day of the Paris marathon and an extra train had been laid on. That was a good bit of marketing by the company but the whole upstairs area was so crowded that there was a risk they would have to shut the escalator in order to stop people piling into each other.

The following day I happened to be on Eurostar again with a Standard Premier ticket which provided me with a light meal that was perfectly eatable but unlike Business Premier did not allow me into the lounge which seemed rather mean. There is a big issue over station infrastructure which is not helped by the fact that Ebbsfleet and Ashford are out of use, and there are now trains through to Amsterdam. There is clearly a need for expansion in station capacity, but who is going to pay for it?


Scroll to Top