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Railways at War - 1

Railways at War During the Nineteenth Century

Commencement of the railway works at Balaclava

“Commencement of the railway works at Balaclava”, from the Illustrated London News of March 10, 1855.

THE PRESENCE of the Duke of Wellington at the opening of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway in 1830 might well mislead one into thinking that the British, the first to make railways a practicable proposition, were also swift to see their military potential, for the speed and reliability which railways could offer obviously revolutionised man’s mastery of time and space, the fundamental dimensions of strategic thinking. In fact the “Iron Duke” was present in his civilian capacity as Prime Minister. Nevertheless in 1834 the promoters of the projected London & Southampton Railway did think it worthwhile to bring before Parliament as witnesses to support their cause Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy, General Sir Willoughby Gordon and five captains of the Royal Navy, to testify to the military value of a railway link between the capital and its major Channel ports.

The authorities were also quick to see the value of railways as a means of transporting police and troops to put down demonstrations and riots in various parts of the country. At the height of the Chartist agitation in 1842 a Railway Regulation Act was passed by Parliament requiring railway companies to carry troops, but only “at the usual hours of starting”. This was later amended to include the possibility of running “specials”, but, whatever the arrangements, all military passengers were to be scrupulously paid for at the full rate. Apart from using railways as an aid to maintaining law and order or as a link in the chain of transport to overseas stations, the military establishment remained indifferent to their strategic potential for more than two decades after their inception. The Admiralty merely concerned itself with ensuring that structures such as the Saltash Bridge over the Tamar or the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Strait should not obstruct shipping.

The real vindication of the railway came during the Crimean War of 1854-6, and then chiefly on the initiative of private enterprise. In the harsh winter of 1854-5 Russell’s despatches to “The Times” from the battlefront revealed to a shocked public the total failure of the supply system which had reduced the army to the edge of destitution. Charles Gordon, then a lieutenant of Engineers (later the hero of Khartoum) wrote to his parents of “officers in every conceivable costume foraging for eatables” and of “roads bad beyond description.” Therein lay the nub of the matter. The distance from the harbour at Balaclava to the firing-line before the fortress of Sebastopol was a mere seven miles, but it might as well have been 700. Supplies which had come 1,500 miles by sea from England piled up at the supply base, while less than ten miles away the largest expeditionary force to leave England for 40 years was steadily decimated by starvation and frostbite and military operations came to a total standstill.

The answer was, of course, a railway and it was sent out from England by that titan among engineers, Thomas Brassey, at his own expense. It arrived complete with wagons and a small army of navvies and was in operation by March 1855, despite the fact that most of the rolling stock had to be rebuilt before it could be used. At first the trains were horse drawn, with a stationary engine to help the horses manage one steep gradient, but later small locomotives were sent out. Another distinguished engineer, I. K. Brunel, also lent his talents to the war effort, designing a prefabricated hospital which has remained the basic model for all such field medical units in subsequent wars.

A railborne gun battery built for the American Federal Government

A railborne gun battery built for the American Federal Government in 1861 by the Baldwin Company. It was proposed to carry 50 riflemen and a rifled cannon capable of bearing through the end or side ports.

By bringing supplies up to the front line and evacuating the wounded on the return trip, the Balaclava railway made possible the final assault on Sebastopol which brought the futile war to a close. The experience had taught some useful lessons - that it was not possible to leave military railways in the hands of civilians who were exempt from military discipline; that military lines must be under the direct orders of the commander in chief and insulated from disruption by local and subordinate commanders; and that, above all, loading and unloading must be organised with maximum efficiency to avoid choking the line.

Unfortunately it seems to have been necessary to re-learn the lessons in every succeeding war. And the War Office seems never to have been able to resist the attractions of doing a job on the cheap. When a British force had to build a railway from the Red Sea port of Zula 300 miles into the interior of Ethiopia in 1867-8, they were supplied with five different types of rail and six ancient locomotives, all bought second-hand from Indian railways. Two of the engines were quite useless and two broke down in a fortnight. All spare parts had, of course, been left on the dockside in Bombay together with the augers for boring spike-holes in sleepers.

The Mutiny of 1857, which revealed the precariousness of Britain’s hold over India, led to the construction of strategic railway lines throughout the sub-continent. Realising that the white garrison could never be substantially increased in size, the authorities determined to make it a mobile striking force which could be brought to bear at any threatening point. This was really an application on a massive scale of the principles already worked out in Britain for controlling domestic disorders. And investors were encouraged by a guaranteed five-per cent return, subsidised out of taxes.

In Europe, meanwhile, the French were giving the first convincing display of the strategic, rather than the merely tactical, use of railways. Having provoked Austria into declaring war in 1859, France sent to the aid of her ally, Piedmont, 76,000 men and 4,450 horses, who made the journey from Paris to northern Italy in 10 days. The supply arrangements, however, failed to match the efficiency achieved in the initial deployment and, after the bloody battles of Magenta and Solferino, the French were unable to pursue the beaten Austrians beyond the Mincio for lack of food, despite the fact that they had a fully operational railway network at their rear. This was more than could be said of the Austrians whose incomplete system of single-track lines had been all but paralysed throughout the conflict by the patriotic desertion of its largely French personnel.

Despite the shortcomings on both sides, the spectacle of French military success revived old fears of Napoleonic ambitions in Britain. Volunteer rifle companies were formed in large numbers in 1859 and 1860 and there was talk of constructing a circular railway around London to carry armoured trains. In 1862 tension was still sufficiently high for the War Office to veto a proposed broad-gauge line from Tavistock to Launceston on the grounds that a standard-gauge link from Exeter to Plymouth was a military necessity.

a train with American Civil war reinforcements running off the track

An artist’s impression of a train with American Civil war reinforcements running off the track in 1863.

The American Civil War

The real lessons of railway warfare were, however, to be learned, not from Europe, but in North America. On the eve of the American Civil War, Colonel R. Delafield had presented to Congress a report on the state of the art of war in Europe, a report in which he had placed particular emphasis on the military potential of the railway. Despite that, both the Federal and the Confederate armies were slow to organise the railway systems at their disposal, although the field of conflict they were to contest was as large as the whole continent of Europe. Indeed, the Confederates delayed until February 1865, the last year of the war, before imposing state control in a futile effort to undo the damage inflicted by suicidal competition between the various southern railway companies. The victory of the North was largely determined by the efforts of two men - Daniel C. McCallum, a Scottish railway administrator (who was also a poet and church architect), and Herman C. Haupt, a West Point-trained engineer whose speciality was bridge-building. President Lincoln spoke admiringly of Haupt’s bridge over the Potomac - “over which loaded trains are running every hour, and, upon my word there is nothing in it but beanpoles and cornstalks”.

Thanks to McCallum and Haupt a rapid programme of railway building was pushed ahead and such novelties as railway corps, armoured trains and hospital trains introduced. Prodigious feats of transportation became almost commonplace. In September 1863, 23,000 men with their artillery and horses were moved 1,200 miles in seven days to save Rosecrans after his mauling at Chickamauga, a deployment which, without the railway, would have taken about three months. Sherman’s decisive campaign through the South, starting from the vital junction at Chattanooga and ending with the destruction of the railway town of Atlanta and the terrible march through Georgia, was made possible by a single line of track which the Confederates never managed to cut for more than a few days at a time. The effect of this manoeuvre was to sever the railway connections between Robert E Lee’s army in Virginia and his supply base in the South and thus oblige him to surrender.

The American Civil War also produced an epic of individual endeavour which has never been paralleled in the history of railways. On April 12, 1862, a band of 21 Federal soldiers, led by Captain James J. Andrews and disguised as civilians, stole the locomotive General and a number of carriages of a north-bound passenger train which had stopped for a breakfast halt at Big Shanty, Georgia. Their aim was simple, to drive northwards to Chattanooga, destroying bridges and tunnels behind them. Wet weather foiled their attempts at arson, however, and numerous meetings with other trains involved them in long delays while their leaders explained away their unscheduled progress along the line. The delays gave dearly needed time to the intrepid conductor of the stolen train, W. A. Fuller. Like a determined bloodhound he pursued the train for more than a hundred miles, sometimes on foot and sometimes in the locomotive Texas. His relentless pursuit constantly interrupted the Federals’ attempts at sabotage and made it so impossible for them to refuel adequately, that they were finally forced to abandon the General at the Tennessee state line and seek refuge in the woods. This entire story was, of course, immortalised in Buster Keaton’s silent comedy classic “The General”.

It is tempting to speculate on whether or not the railways made the Northern victory inevitable and thus secured the preservation of the Federal Union. Had it not been possible to reach a temporary compromise over the slavery issue in 1850 and had the South seceded in that year it is doubtful whether the North, with its few disconnected lines, could ever have mounted the massive probing counter-attacks which eventually proved decisive in breaking stubborn Confederate resistance.

The “War Between the States” naturally attracted its share of European military observers; among them Moltke, the Prussian genius, dismissed the mighty struggle contemptuously as that of “two armed mobs chasing each other around the country, from which nothing could be learned”. The evidence suggests, however, that Moltke learned a great deal. As a young man in the early 1840s he had risked his savings in the new Hamburg-Berlin railway, of which he later became a director. In 1864 the Prussian General Staff set up its own railway sub-section, elevated to the status of a full department in 1866. At the end of the American Civil War it was responsible for translating and publishing an edition of McCallum’s official report on US military railways.

In fact the Prussians were building on a long-established tradition. As early as 1833 Friedrick Harkort had urged the building of a railway from Minden to Cologne on the grounds of its defensive value in the event of a French invasion. In 1842 C. E. Ponitz had pointed out the value of railways to Germany should France and Russia choose to attack Germany simultaneously. But it was Friedrich List, the economist and a passionate supporter of railways as a result of a visit to the USA, who was the first to realise that they would enable Germany to transform her greatest source of military weakness, her central geographical location, into a source of strength. A Germany united by railways would be like a single vast fortress, its army a domestic garrison which could be shifted along interior lines of communication to any threatened section of frontier. “While the French Chambers are still engaged in discussing the matter,” List wrote gleefully to his brother, “we have laid down 300 miles of railway and are working at 200 more.” List idealistically imagined that Germany’s new strength would act as a deterrent to all attackers and thus ensure the peace of Europe. It never occurred to him that Germany might herself be the aggressor, but in the year of his death, 1846, a Prussian army corps of 12,000 was despatched by rail to snuff out the tiny Polish republic of Cracow. It was a portent of greater and more sophisticated acts of aggression.

The Effect of Other Wars in Europe

In 1847 a German military writer asserted that transport of artillery and cavalry by train was impossible and denied that any railway could carry 10,000 men over 60 miles within 24 hours. The Austrian mobilisation along the Silesian frontier in

1850 seemed to prove his point, as 75,000 men and 8,000 horses took 26 days to travel the 150 miles from Vienna. As opponents of the railway were swift to point out, they could have done it faster on foot. Nevertheless the Prussian General Staff had already gained enough faith in the new mode of transport to begin compiling a comparative survey of railways from the military point of view and the Austrians, having digested the lessons of the debacle of 1850 - the need for adequate supplies of rolling stock and numerous detraining platforms - succeeded in 1851 in moving 145,000 men, 2,000 horses, 50 guns and 500 vehicles a distance of nearly 200 miles in two days. To march would have taken 15.

Austrian soldiers mustering at the Northern Railway Station, Vienna, in 1866

Austrian soldiers mustering at the Northern Railway Station, Vienna, in 1866.

When Prussia and Austria finally clashed in 1866 it was the railway which proved decisive. Using five lines to Austria’s one, Prussia was able to compensate for her late mobilisation and deploy a screen of 250,000 troops over a front of about 270 miles, enabling her generals to bring the Austrians to a quick defeat at Sadowa. This “Six Weeks War” was, indeed, so rapid that its lessons were largely lost on contemporaries. In retrospect, however, it is possible to see how the railways meshed in with other technical developments of the period. Without them it would have been impossible to keep the front line supplied with the quantities of ammunition required for the quick-firing needle-gun or breech-loading artillery. Without contemporary progress in medical science, on the other hand, it would have been impossible to concentrate and transport large numbers of men without their falling victim to typhus.

The Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 once again demonstrated the new strategic significance of railways and this time the lessons were nowhere ignored. Despite the fact that Prussian preparations for war were incomplete, they moved 384,000 men with their horses and artillery to the assembly areas within a fortnight. Uncontrolled loading, however, created a great supply blockage between Frankfurt and Cologne, which was to create a shortage of food at the front. The importance which was attached to the railways can be assessed from the fact that 100,000 men were kept behind the lines to protect them. French mobilisation was, by contrast, extremely slipshod and totally hamstrung by quarrels between the civilian railwaymen and the military authorities. Despite great confusion, however, the French Est Company struggled on valiantly and rushed troops towards the frontier throughout the late summer of 1870.

Again it is difficult to resist the speculation that if the confusion had been that little bit worse, if the Est Company had disintegrated into total chaos, then the French army would not have been thrown into action so rashly and could have taken advantage of Prussian supply shortages to attack the invaders as they began to lose momentum. Thus might the Second Empire have been saved instead of lost. As it was the French were defeated on the frontiers and the Prussians were able to use the railways to bring up enough food and ammunition to besiege Paris and bombard it into submission, to the astonishment of all Europe. As a result of the Franco-Prussian conflict the British government gave itself the power to take possession of the railways in time of war and governments throughout Europe began to grasp the basic implication of railway transport - that it made possible the mobilisation and deployment of armies of unprecedented size. Mass conscription and a general increase in international tension was the result.

A Mitrailleuse battery dispatched from Paris by the Strasbourg Railway in 1870

A Mitrailleuse battery dispatched from Paris by the Strasbourg Railway in 1870.

Another result was strategic railway-building at a pace that might almost be described as frantic. France greatly extended her network along the eastern frontier, neglecting the west; Germany intensified her system to the west, neglecting that of the east; Russia began to build on a massive scale. With French financial assistance, the fantastic Trans-Siberian Railway was started in 1891, stretching 4,627 miles from Chelyabinsk in the Urals to Vladivostok on the Pacific. The condition of French aid in the project was the simultaneous construction of a rather useless line to Tashkent. The French hoped to use it to stimulate British fears of a Russian invasion of India.

A similar idea lay behind the scheme for a Berlin-Baghdad railway, which gave the Foreign Office nightmares in the first decade of the present century. In the 1830s List had envisaged a joint British-German railway along the Berlin-Baghdad route which would enable Germany to colonise the Balkans and Britain to create an overland link with her Asian Empire. What in fact appeared to be materialising was a German-controlled route from the Bosphorous to Basra. This was too near the sensitive Persian Gulf for Britian’s liking and diplomatic tension was only finally eased by an agreement that the section from Baghdad to Basra should remain in British hands. Ironically, the agreement was signed in June 1914, just two months before the outbreak of the first world war.

The roots of the 1914-18 war lie deep in the colonial and economic rivalries of the great powers of Europe. Many factors played their part in making general war unavoidable - the interlocking systems of military alliances, the existence of vast conscripted armies, the problem of strategic areas, like the Balkans and the Middle East which had their own explosive domestic problems; but one particularly important factor was the railway. Throughout Europe, General Staffs placed the utmost significance on the rapid initial deployment of their forces by rail. All imagined a short and bloody war whose outcome would be determined by a single decisive battle on the frontiers. All had drawn up elaborate timetables for mobilisation and none more so than the German General Staff. Every station, every siding, every wagon had its appointed role in the great Schlieffen Plan, which would rush German forces to the west, knock out France in six weeks and then turn them around by rail to throw them east against the ponderous Russians.

But once mobilisation had begun the railway timetable took over. Nothing could be altered for the first five days without causing the whole system to collapse into complete anarchy. Thus the feverish last-minute attempts of the diplomats to keep France or Belgium, England or Germany out of what was essentially a local squabble in the Balkans, were thwarted by the simple logic of the railway timetable, a logic which ironically failed to reproduce the decisive conflict of 1870, but instead led to a re-staging of the four-year carnage of 1861-65.

Russian vigilance on the Trans-Siberian Railway

Details guarding the line: Russian vigilance on the Trans-Siberian Railway during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.

You can read more on “The Railway in War”, “Railways at War 2” and “The Trans-Caspian Railway” on this website.