The Right Track: Trains, Railways, and Transport During WW1
Draft animals pulled wagon trains before and during WW1. There were also steam locomotives pulling wagons, cars and carriages. As haulage size increased track systems were developed to cope with traction problems. There were thousands of miles of railway lines upon which great steam trains transported people and merchandise across the world. Without the “iron horse” there would have been no way to effectively move, feed, or re-supply all the armies involved in World War 1.
The British were the first to use a countrywide railway system for transportation of goods commercially and as people movers. British manufactured trains were bought or duplicated by other countries, a very profitable business. A majority of train engines were steam driven with small gasoline powered motor trains being introduced later in the war.
British Railways 1914-1918
The British Railway system was not compromised during the conflicts. It was utilized heavily to supply the war staging areas with people, goods and supplies. The Railway Operating Division (ROD) of the Royal Engineers (1915) employed railway workers who were able to run both standard and narrow gauge railways. Both manpower and machines were then “shipped out” to support the armies at the fronts. Cross channel train ferries first appeared in 1917 to supply the front lines. The ships, each with four tracks on deck, accessed via the stern, were built to transport trains across the English Channel to France.
German State Railways 1914-1918
Prior to 1914 the French, the Russians and the Prussians (Germans), in anticipation of war, built up their railroad systems such that they could maneuver large military forces and all their supplies to where they were needed. The Germans constructed a network of strategic railways which would enable military operations to be carried out simultaneously against France and Russia; should the occasion for so doing arise. It did and they were able to move whole armies in 4 days.
In Africa the Germans had built railways in their protectorates. In their grandiose image of an expanded empire these routes would interconnect; South Africa to the Middle East, across Asia and join the Baghdad-Berlin railway – but this was not to be (although the Berlin to Baghdad Railway was completed before the end of World War I).
By 1914 the French railway system was one of the densest and most highly-developed in the world, with about 37,000 miles of track. One third of this mileage was narrow gauge. Ironically 16,000 French freight cars and their contents were captured by the Prussians. The latter spent the rest of the war enjoying both the freight cars and the goods.
Russian Railways 1914-1918
Russia also had an extensive railroad system but they lacked the technological expertise necessary to run them effectively. With the blockade of the Baltic and Black Sea ports the Trans-Siberian Railway became of major importance. It allowed connection to the allies in Asia (Japan) and Australasia.
From 1914 to 1920 more than 60% of the Russian railway network and more than 80% of their carriages and locomotives were destroyed. During the War Russia used gun mounted light and heavy armored trains.
The Zaamurets was a motor wagon; it had 12-16mm armor plating and two Italian 60-hp gasoline motors. The Russians built 23 armored trains. The Americans built 5 in 1918. Each train comprised; locomotive, gun, ammunition, crew and accommodation cars. These “ monstrous”, armored trains saw very limited war time use.
American And Canadian Railway Contribution 1914-1918
After entering the war in 1917 the US shipped army engineers and their trains to France (191 locomotives) and Russia (350 gasoline powered engines). The trains were painted grey with black manufacturers logos.
The Canadians Corps supplied their expertise in Western Europe and the Middle East extending and running the “light” narrow gauge railways. They had built thousands of miles of new frontier track in Western Canada.
The ebb and flow of the war meant that rail lines were built and rebuilt, moved and used elsewhere, the trench railways were extensions of these light lines, smaller engines and freight cars into (and out of) the trenches. By the latter years of the war light railways and their trains came to prove their worth, they “pulled” for the finish.
And in WW1 France
In France the railways had been used for the evacuation of the French Government and Parisian art treasures from Paris to Bordeaux. The continuous flight of civilians from Belgium and Northern France was augmented by a not inconsiderable exodus, by train, of the population of Paris.
What could offer more significant recognition of the impact and use of trains during the Great War than the fact that the ultimate Armistice was signed not in a hall, office, or building… but in the French headquarters at Compiègne, which was itself… a railway carriage.
The opening words: “Hostilities will cease at 11 hours today, November 11th”…