The Role of Railways in the War

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THE ROLE OF RAILWAYS IN THE WAR


(extract)
By Edwin A. Pratt, Author of The Rise of Rail-Power in War and Conquest.


Railways Become a New Arm in Warfare - Germany Prepares them in Time of Peace for Purposes of Conquest - Strategical Railways and Welt-Politik - Germany's Iron Road to the Persian Gulf - How she Yearned for the African Continent, and Hoped that Railways would Help her to Get German Troops Rushed across the Belgian Frontier by Rail - French Railways Fully Prepared - First Victory in the Great War Won by French Railwaymen - Strategical Services Rendered - British Railways also Ready - Basis of their Operation, under State Control, by Railway Executive Committee - What they Accomplished - Railways and the German Invasion of Russia - Overcoming Differences in Gauge - German Dependence on the "Railway Machine" - Italian Railways and the War - The 'Rail Factor' in the Balkans - Role of the Railways in the Attack on Egypt - Various Purposes Served by Railways in War - Easily Destroyed but Readily Restored - Some Conclusions.


FROM the earliest days of their introduction railways have been regarded as offering the most efficient means for meeting the special needs of military transport in time of war; and, in becoming a new arm in modern warfare, they have helped to alter its scope and character. While, however, the use which may be made of railways in war is great, varied, and 'comprehensive, much practical and even disastrous experience established the fact that this use was only likely to be efficient when the employment of railways for military transport had been the subject of well-planned organisation in time of peace.


Hence it was that since, more especially, the War of Secession in the United States, schemes for the Organisation of military rail-transport had been adopted more or less completely in all the leading countries of Europe, according to what were regarded as the special needs of the national situation; and the outbreak of war in 1914 found the railway authorities in the countries concerned ready to respond at once to the demands that the military Powers were likely to make upon them. This, as will be shown later on, was certainly the case in Britain and France quite as much as it was in Germany and Austria. Germany went, however, far beyond those made by measures in the way of peacetime organisation which had been adopted in other countries, as a matter of prudence and precaution, in the interests of national defence.


Germany was the first of the great nations to recognise the importance of the role that railways were likely to play in warfare. As early as I842 a scheme was put forward in that country for the construction of a network of strategical railways which would allow of operations being carried on simultaneously against France and Russia, should the occasion for so doing arise.


Nor was the said scheme to be regarded as merely a project on paper, since in this same year M. Marschall pointed out in the French Chamber that the German Confederation was already converging a formidable system of 11 aggressive lines" from Cologne, Mayence, and Mannheim on to the frontiers of France between Metz and Strassburg (sic), leaving no room for doubt as to the nature of Germany's intentions. "Studies for an expedition against Paris by way of Lorraine and Champagne can," he added, "hardly be regarded as indicative of a sentiment of fraternity."


In the Schleswig Holstein campaigns, the Austro - Prussian War, and the Franco-Prussian War, Germany made increasing use of her railways, revising and improving her Organisation with each fresh experience gained.


After the war of I870-71, France showed so much activity in strengthening her defences in the north-east, alike by an extension of her railway system and by the construction of a series of formidable forts, that in i896 Germany began to build along the Belgian frontier a railway which, subsequently to 1908 - when her policy in this direction was suddenly developed with almost feverish activity expanded into a complete network of strategical lines radiating from Aix-la-Chapelle, the Rhine, and the Moselle to the new Malmedy-Stavelot line (crossing the frontier of Germany and Belgium), the said network affording the means by which troops from all parts of the German Empire could be poured in an endless succession of trains on to Belgian territory, with a view either to the conquest of that country itself or to an attack on France at points more vulnerable than were then to be found in Champagne and Lorraine.


In the direction of Russia, Russian Poland, and Austria there was built by Germany another network of strategical railways which connected various military centres with lines running parallel to the frontier, and having branches to points within a few miles thereof, so that troops could be concentrated wherever they were wanted. Intersecting or transverse lines afforded a ready means of communication between one of these direct lines and another.


Germany had also reorganised her rail way system on the frontiers of Holland in such a way that she could assemble an army there and invade Dutch territory no less readily than Belgium; while, simultaneously with these developments, she had so improved or adapted her railway system in the interior of Germany as to provide alike for the speedy mobilisation of her troops, for their despatch by well-defined routes to any one of her frontiers, and for their ready transfer from one front to another in the event of war having to be carried on in two or more directions at the same time. The programme recommended in 1842 was, in fact, accomplished in all its essential details. Here it may be explained that strategical railways differ from ordinary railways in so far as the former (1) are built expressly to serve strategical purposes, as distinct from ordinary traffic, and (2) have such provision of siding accommodation, long platforms, and other special facilities for the entrainment or detrainment of troops, horses, guns, munitions, and supplies that they are able to ensure the transport of large bodies of men and material, which many ordinary railways would not be able to do. A railway is thus not necessarily of military significance simply because it has been made in the direction or in the neighbourhood of a frontier. For this reason ordinary railway maps may be misleading, unless the capacity of the lines for military traffic is understood. On the other hand, when one finds concerning German lines on the frontiers of Belgium, for instance, that many of them were not wanted at all for the ordinary needs of the district, and that the double lines, the extensive sidings, the long platforms, and the general station arrangements at places where the local traffic was quite insignificant in extent would permit of a complete army corps and all its necessaries being dealt with, no reason was left for doubt that such lines as these were purely strategical railways, deliberately designed for the furthering of a national policy either of defence or of invasion. Which of these purposes was the more likely to have been paramount in the case of Germany is a point that, as it happened, left little ground for speculation.


Railways and Weltpolitik

One has, in fact, only to look at Germany's policy in regard to railway expansion in order to understand how thoroughly, and over what a prolonged period, she had prepared for world-conquest, or, at least, for the acquiring of supremacy in the exercise of world-power.


Among the chief measures to which she resorted for ensuring the success of her Welt-politik were (1) railways, (2) commerce, and (3) a more powerful Navy. Railways were to afford her the means of either penetrating into and obtaining greater control over countries whose possession she coveted, or, alternatively, concentrating her armed forces within striking distance of such countries; her commercial men were to be advance agents for the furthering of political no less than of economic interests; and her expanded Navy was being prepared for that conflict with Britain to which, it was foreseen, her bid for world supremacy would inevitably lead. But in these three essentials to the attainment of one great aim it was the railways that took the place of primary importance. Without them, Welt-politik must have remained a dream, since railways were indispensable to any practical attempt to effect its realisation.


The Bagdad Railway, regarded in Germany as a German line, was to be the means by which she would (1) strengthen her hold on the Turkish Government, through the consequent financial and political complications ; (2) convert Turkey in Asia into practically a German State; (3) secure with the help of railways in Europe which she either controlled already or hoped eventually to control direct lines of communication from Hamburg and Berlin to the Persian Gulf ; (4) neutralise, as far as that Gulf, the sea- power of Great Britain; (5) acquire a strategical position from which she might add Persia, no less than Mesopotamia, to the German Empire -1 and (6) create at the head of the Persian Gulf a stronghold which, with a stream of troops and munitions conveyed thither, without fear of interruption, alike from Germany and from her vassal State, Turkey, would enable her to threaten the gates of India and the ocean highway to Australia, and start on fresh schemes of conquest in the Far East in general.


With western sections of the Bagdad Railway linking up with the Hedjaz Railway, and having extensions or branches which would afford greater facilities for reaching the eastern bank British scouting party; of the Suez Canal, Germany also looked forward (1) to the creation at Alexandretta of a great port from which she could exercise sea-power in the Mediterranean and control commerce expected to pass between that inland sea, Turkey in Asia (otherwise Germany in Asia), and the Far East, via the Bagdad Railway; (2) to bringing the whole of Syria under her influence; and (3) to the eventual conquest of Egypt, thereby not only acquiring a land of great value in itself, but making what was predicted in advance to be a deadly thrust into a vital part of the British Empire.


Railways, again, were to enable Germany to effect the conquest of the African continent; and here, once more, we have to deal, not with the visionary ideas of irresponsible dreamers who were merely planning schemes of world-conquest on paper, but with lines of railway actually constructed and in full working order with still others definitely projected for the express purpose of furthering the aims in question.


Aided by the strategical railways already built in South-West Africa, German troops were to join the Boers whose rising when "Der Tag" arrived was confidently expected - in acquiring possession of British South Africa.


The German East African Railway, connecting the Indian Ocean with the shores of Lake Tanganyika, was to enable German troops (1) to make raids into British East Africa; (2) to secure the eventual supremacy of Germany in the Belgian Congo, with its vast potentialities in the way of mineral and other resources; and (3) to join with German troops coming via the north-east comer of German South-West Africa in the seizure of Rhodesia.


Then, as originally designed, the northern railway of the German Cameroon was to be continued to Lake Chad, whence, it was hoped, Germany would get control alike over the Sudan and over the French possessions in North Africa, linking up Lake Chad with Algeria and the Mediterranean by what would then be a German railway across the Desert of Sahara. The line which was to lead to the realisation of this ambitious scheme was not carried, however, more than a comparatively short distance, and other proposals (1) for bringing the trade and traffic of the Belgian Congo under the direction of Germany, by securing it either for the German East Africa Railway or for new German lines connecting the Congo with the chief port of the Cameroon; (2) for a coastal railway connection between German South-West Africa and Portuguese Angola (helping to ensure the ultimate possession thereof for Germany); and (3) for the extension of the Lobito Bay railway to the southern districts of the Belgian Congo as part of a German line of rail communication from the west coast across Central Africa to the east, had all failed of realisation at the time that war broke out; though here we get still further evidence as to the nature of the aims that Germany was cherishing.


Had all these plans been realised, the world might eventually have seen, not only the transformation of Africa into a German Empire, but continuous lines of German-owned or German - controlled railways stretching from Hamburg first to Constantinople and thence in one direction to the Persian Gulf, and in the other to Cairo and the Cape. With the failure of the Boer "rising" on the out-break of war, and with the capture of German South-West Africa by General Botha's forces, the schemes of conquest so laboriously prepared and so long cherished came to grief at what was to have been the initial step towards their fulfilment. The railways in South-West Africa, on which Germany had spent over œ8,000,000, were not only annexed by the victorious British forces, but were made use of for their own movements, and joined up with the railways of the South African Union, to serve thenceforward the purposes of peace in the development of South-West Africa under the administration of the Cape Province Government.


The railway policy thus adopted by Germany in Asia and Africa must, in the circumstances here narrated, be taken into account no less than what we have already seen she was doing in the same direction in Europe.


On the outbreak of the Great War the strategical railways which Germany had constructed towards, along, and, jointly with the Belgian Government (owing to the pressure she bad brought to bear upon them), even across the Belgian frontier, enabled her at once to concentrate and to throw into that country great masses of troops for an invasion of France. But although these railways afforded her material aid in rushing troops on to Belgian territory, Germany had not anticipated so vigorous an opposition, at Liege, by the brave-hearted Belgians, who thus thwarted her design first to make a sudden descent on France by rail, and then to rush the main body of her troops, also by rail, back through Germany for the attack on Russia.


From the railway point of view the action taken by Belgium was of exceptional value to the Allies, since it meant that, although Germany crossed the frontiers of Belgium and Luxemburg on August 3rd, it was not until the 24th that she was in a position to attack the French Army, which by that time had not only completed both its mobilisation and its concentration, but had been joined by the first arrivals of the British Expeditionary Force.


When once the Belgian opposition had been effectively crushed, the close network of railways in that country became a powerful auxiliary to Germany's further operations against France. While, however, she had attached so much importance both to the perfection of her own railway system (from helped her Allies a strategical point of view) and to the control of the Belgian and Luxemburg systems, she had made the mistake of not allowing sufficiently for what the French and British railways could also do - especially with the practical advantage which, though at so terrible a cost to herself, Belgium had secured for them by her own heroic struggle with so powerful and merciless a foe.


It certainly was the case that, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, military transport in France speedily assumed chaotic conditions, and that these were, in fact, among the direct causes of the disaster by which the country was so speedily overtaken. It cannot be said, however, that the disorder leading to those conditions was due to any lack of zeal or efficiency on the part of the French railway companies, who made the most strenuous efforts to deal with the traffic, and themselves accomplished marvels in this direction. The faults that arose were attributable, rather, to the absence in France of any organisation co-ordinating the military and the civil elements by the creation of authorities through whom all orders and instructions for rail transport would pass, the military element further adopting such methods of control and regulation as would avoid congestion and delay at the stations, while leaving the railway element free to attend to the working of the lines without the risk of having to deal with impracticable and conflicting demands by individual military officers acting on their own responsibility without regard for the physical limitations of the railways or for the needs of the situation as a whole.


In the interval which had elapsed. since 1870-71 an organisation for the conduct of military rail transport in time of war, on the lines here indicated, had been planned and worked out in France in a way so comprehensive and so exhaustive that it provided in advance as far as the combined wisdom of military and railway authorities could foresee or suggest for every contingency that was likely to arise.


At the same time, also, France had greatly improved her railway system, from a strategical point of view, and more especially in regard to better connections with the Franco-German frontier and the linking up of cross-country lines in such a way as to facilitate speedy mobilisation and concentration in case of need.


So it was that Germany's proclamation on July 31st, 1914, Of "the state of danger of war" found the French railways prepared to take instant action.


The transport of "troupes de couverture" otherwise, the troops despatched to the frontier to meet the first attack of the enemy began at nine o'clock the same evening, and was completed by noon on August 3rd (before there had been any suspension of the ordinary railway traffic), although this initial operation itself involved the running, on the Eastern system alone, of nearly six hundred trains.


The general mobilisation began on August 2nd, and the despatch of troops, etc., from the depots to, the points of concentration at the front, in accordance with the time-tables prepared in time of peace, was started at midday on the 5th and completed on the 19th. Between the two last-mentioned dates, the number of military trains run was nearly 4,500 (exclusive of 250 trains carrying siege supplies to the fortresses), and of this total more than 4,000 had destinations on the Eastern system.


At the end of this period the French Government issued a notice expressing to the railway officers and railway workers of all ranks the warmest acknowledgment of the patriotic zeal and the admirable devotion with which they had toiled day and night; while the "Journal des Transports," of January 30th, 1915 in announcing this fact, declared on its own behalf: "One can justly say that the first victory in this great conflict has been won by the railwaymen."


These earliest movements were, however, to be followed by a succession of others, which imposed a further abnormal strain on the railway organisation to an extent far greater than had been anticipated and already provided for.


No sooner was the concentration of France's seven armies six along the front and one in Paris accomplished than the railways had to ensure, between August 12th and August 20th, the conveyance to Mons of the officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force who had by that time arrived at Boulogne, Nantes, and St. Nazaire. This alone involved the running of 420 transport trains. Provision had likewise to be made for the transport across France, from Marseilles, of 60,000 French troops from Africa, and, also, of the troops arriving there from India. The masterly retreat of the allied centre and right to the south of the Marne, which followed the fall of Charleroi, on August 26th, called for an especially prodigious effort on the part of the French railways; and this effort crowned with complete success had to be made concurrently with the need for facilitating the flight of many thousands of refugees from the invaded or threatened districts of Belgium and Northern France. Thanks to the results attained, there was secured for the defence of Paris so speedy and so strong a reconcentration of the allied forces that not only was the advance of the invaders checked, but the enemy was himself thrown back in some disorder successively to the Petit Morin, the Marne, and the Aisne. Thus the first great object of the German offensive failed, and Paris was saved.


Meanwhile, the railways bad been further engaged in the removal of the French Government as a precautionary measure from Paris to Bordeaux, whither they conveyed the President, Ministers, secretaries, officials, and the more important of the State papers.


Many of the most precious of the art treasures in the museums of Paris were also taken to Bordeaux, while the continuous flight from Belgium and Northern France was now supplemented by a not inconsiderable exodus of the population of Paris.