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Weapon of war

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The coming of the railways in the 19th century revolutionised military planning. The First World War saw the railways put to use as a major weapon of war. For the first time it became possible to mobilise millions of men and keep them supplied hundreds of miles from home. Colin Garratt reports

World War One broke out at the height of the railway age. Britain’s railways were comprised of over 120 private companies. The railway network was at its peak and went almost everywhere. As the Edwardian era faded away to the crump of falling shells, military planners were quick to turn to railways.

Trains were fast and comfortable and almost every town, village, military depot and garrison was either on the railway or within easy reach of it. The railway had freed people to travel in search of work, opportunity and prosperity. Now, more ominously, for the first time the railway could be effectively used for military purposes moving literally thousands of troops along with munitions, guns and general supplies.

Government Control

At the advent of World War One the railway network was placed under government control in order to relate to the needs of the military. Fortunately from the outbreak of World War One there were vast numbers of coaches and freight wagons available. Innumerable coach sidings and an abundance of spare locomotives, albeit some were a little underpowered, were at the disposal of the military. A far cry from the totally different situation which applies today when well over half the laid network has been torn up.

Countless millions of rail miles were run, as the trains conveyed troops and supplies to the embarkation ports and on their return journeys, handled a huge flow of wounded servicemen.

M001-00115.jpgWithout the railway, huge armies along with their munitions, could not have been used. Vast mobilisation was twofold. First the operation of the railway on the British mainland became a major part of the war effort. Secondly overseas specially laid tracks supported troops on the front line. No longer did the supply line rely on horses or mules.

The situation was tense and the need for railways so great that a number of British branch lines were closed and their rails taken out and sent over the English Channel to France.

Both sides in the war quickly realised the value of railways as a weapon of war.

Helmuth von Moltke

As far back as 1843 the Prussian Chief of staff, General Helmuth von Moltke, stated that every new railway development had a military benefit. For national defence von Moltke considered it better to spend money maximising railways rather than new fortresses. This view was proved by the Franco- Prussian War of 1870 when 350,000 German troops with horses and guns were moved to their assembly points.

Historians have suggested that France’s defeat was caused by bickering between the railway and the military authorities. In previous years the British had used some narrow gauge field railways in various battles. For example, General Kitchener’s victory in the Sudan was secured with help of railways laid by the Royal Engineers. In India – especially after the 1857 mutiny – along with the North West frontier a huge railway grew and was used for the military.

In World War One British railway troops managed both the field railways along with the operation of main line trains between the channel ports and the western front. It is hard to believe in today’s context of a much reduced railway that on 9 August, 1914, a total of 334 trains arrived at Southampton conveying some 70,000 troops, 22,000 horses, 2,400 guns and 2,550 tonnes of supplies. Incredibly by 18 August the British Expeditionary Force had been landed in France. By the end of the month, 670 troop trains arrived at Southampton and 118,000 troops were shipped across the English Channel.

It is hard to believe that by 1918 more than 800 miles of 600mm gauge light railway had been laid by the British Army in France with some 680 steam and petrol driven locomotives pressed into service. The trench railways of the Western Front produced the greatest concentration of minimum gauge railway locomotives observed to date.

Standard gauge steam locomotives also formed a major part of the war effort, not least the 140 Class 2-8-0s which were built for main line work in France but adopted as a standard type for the war. A rapid building program was implemented and many of these gaunt looking engines of war were built by the North British Works of Glasgow and these sat well alongside Robinson’s Great Central 8K 2-8-0s . The last survivors were allocated to Verdun and long after the guns fell silent ended up working stone trains on the route from Dungy to Conflans in Normandy.

Highland Railway

The Highland Railway was one of Britain’s most strategic lines during World War One, serving the Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys and a large naval repair base that was built at Invergordon, 31 miles north of Inverness. The huge increase in traffic put enormous strain on the 272 miles of line from Perth to Thurso. Only 47 miles of the route were double tracked. Severe gradients made it a difficult challenge for drivers and firemen. Inverness was both the vital control point and an ammunition distribution centre for the Grand Fleet, requiring a new branch to the harbour. Railway staff managed to lay this in only 10 days.

As well as troop trains, a daily train for naval personnel was run from Euston to Thurso, nicknamed the Jellicoe Special after the commander of the Fleet. It usually comprised 14 corridor coaches and ran from 1917 to 1919. Scotland, north and west of Inverness, was declared a military area and civilian passengers were not allowed off the station unless they had a permit.

Laurence of Arabia wrecks (1) [online]

Wrecks in the Arabian Desert

Further afield, the Middle East became a major arena for railway saboteurs. The railways here were vital to both the Allies and Germany and Turkey. Each side attempted to bomb the other’s lines, although with little success.

It was Colonel T. E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – and his locally recruited irregulars who did the most damage, using explosive charges. They were responsible for many derailments. The damage to the Hedjaz Railway, which ran between Damascus in Syria and Medina in what is now Saudi Arabia, was so great that it had to close. One hundred years later the wrecks of locomotives in the Arabian Desert can still be found, sad witnesses to the futility of war.

Often unremarked in the desperate passage of warfare is the bravery of railway engineers – of both sides – who frequently risked and lost their lives – to repair the railways. Throughout the war, railways were used to evacuate the wounded and bring letters and parcels from home.

However, the enduring image of the railways between 1914 and 1918 is of an industry born in peace, rudely fashioned into a lethal weapon of war.


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