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Christian Wolmar

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How Railways Made Large-Scale War Possible

Posted: 11/15/10 07:55 AM ET

Military strategy is often talked about in terms of weaponry, but there is one weapon that has been overlooked by most students of war--the humble railroad. In fact, for approximately a century--between the Crimean and Korean wars--railways were the key to virtually all military encounters.

Railways changed the nature of warfare, and created the potential for prolonged and mass scale warfare. Just think of this: The Battle of Waterloo of 1815 in which the British and Prussians defeated Napoleon, the last significant conflict before the invention of the railways, was over in just a single day. That was the case with most battles in the pre-railway age. The reason was simple: Big armies could only come together in one place for a very short period of time because the horses, on which they were entirely dependent both in combat and to bring supplies. Almost exactly one century later, the Battle of Verdun lasted most of 1916 and resulted in 700,000 dead and wounded soldiers, approximately 30 times the casualty rate at Waterloo. This is because the railways were able to keep the lines supplied and to refresh the troops every couple of weeks.

The American Civil War of 1861 to 1865 can lay claim as the first major conflict during which railways were considered a fundamental part of the supply chain. 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. This meant the railways had to be run by experienced managers who could not be bullied by army officers and had the ultimate say over the timetable. However, it took a number of wars during the 19th century for this to be understood, as generals were unwilling to subordinate themselves to mere railway managers. Eventually, the lesson was learned and the war was, as a result, bloodier and more extensive than previous conflicts. More than 630,000 American soldiers died in the four-year war, more than in all other wars in which the U.S. has been involved in combined. There were 400 battles--an average of one every four days--which extended over an area as large as the whole of Europe. Many of the battles took place at railway junctions and both the construction and destruction of rail lines played a key part in the conflict. The North proved more adept at both, which helped it win the war. At one point, an army of 20,000 men were sent nearly 1,500 miles to relieve the siege of Chattanooga in an operation that would have taken two months by road but was carried out in just two weeks.

Railways played a major part in every conflict during the rest of the century, including the Franco-Prussian War and the Second Boer War, but it was in the First World War that their importance 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 unpaved roads. Aviation was in its infancy and therefore the logistics of the war were virtually entirely dependent on the railways. The terrible stalemate on the Western front, which lasted three and a half years, was a result of the fact that both supplies had access to almost endless supplies of both ammunition and food from their railways behind the lines. Smaller, narrow gauge railways were laid to supply the front line as the main line tracks had to be at least seven miles away from enemy guns and therefore the armies on both sides were entirely dependent on rail.

Yet, this part of the history of the war has been forgotten. Lloyd George, British Prime Minister during much of the war, later commented on John Buchan's seminal History Of The War, saying '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 organization of transport behind the lines, do you know how much is given to this? 17 lines."

Even in the Second World War, when motor transport and aviation were far more developed, the railways were crucial. Most notable, 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 8½ins which is standard throughout nearly all the rest of Europe--which 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 planes, was rebuilt.

The railways, in fact, were the engines of war for a century 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.