Engines of War: How Wars Were Won and Lost on the Railways
© 2010 Christian Wolmar
An army marches on its stomach, but for a hundred years it rode to victory only on the rails. It was Napoleon who observed the importance of supplies the military, and well he should know, for the nigh-twenty years of wars he raged on the European continent were the last major conflict prior to the advent of rails. In Engines of War, veteran railway historian Christian Wolmar addresses how trains transformed war, allowing for greater conflicts to be sustained over a wider front, and often serving as the locus of conflicts themselves. Although the American Civil War and the Great War feature most prominently, Wolmar also dwells on the Boer and Russo-Japanese wars, and includes many minor episodes which are fascinating. Who knew, for instance, the role of railroads in the Arab revolt from Ottoman rule?
The most important aspect of the railroads to war, of course, is logistics — the transport of men and material to the battle, including food, ammunition, and forage. Mankind has waged war against itself since human history began, but not until the industrial age did he do it on so terrible a scale. Wars between ancient empires — the Roman and Carthaginian, for instance — might last decades, but these lengthy conflicts did not tax their nations they way they do now for most of the 20th century. Battles were comparatively much smaller, and more seasonal. Invading armies relied on raiding hostile territory to supply themselves, and as professional armies were rare, generally consisting of private subjects whose labor was needed back at home. Rail lines made projecting and sustaining a force in the field far easier — as they did early in Crimea, allowing Britain to sustain a siege halfway across the world. Or, take Sherman’s famed march to the sea, for instance, his bloody chevauchée from Atlanta to the southeast coast of Georgia. Despite a reputation for feeding his troops off the land, his initial push was fueled by a rail-fed stockpile.. The incorporation of railroads allowed for intense strategic planning: the Schlieffen Plan, Germany’s strategy for a quick resolution to the Great War, was essentially a train timetable. Despite how quickly trains could deliver men to the front, however, Wolmar maintains that the rails favored defensive warfare more than the offensive. Any advance made by an invading army would take them into territory with sabotaged infrastructure, often incompatible with the invaders’ systems.
The rail lines could also be used as weapons themselves; carrying artillery or serving as mobile gunships. Armored cars first appeared in the Boer war, and were used to suppress insurrection in vital areas. The importance of defending the rails, even with trains themselves, is made obvious by the Arab revolt from Ottoman rule. The Ottomans created a rail line stretching down the Arabian peninsula to allow pilgrims on the hajj to more easily reach Mecca, but during the revolt it was subjected to such chronic attack that the troops which depended on it for supplies were forced to surrender. Other methods of attacking rails were less successful: airplane-born bombs, for instance, were rarely accurate enough to touch down on so narrow a line drawn on the landscape. Even when lines were rendered inert, every military of the period created divisions which specialized in rail repair. Germany was especially diligent about maintaining large stockpiles of extra rail supplies, to allow for nigh-instantaneous repair. Only when its entire war effort was failing did the rail lines finally collapse. In his other works, Wolmar analyzes the comparative advantages of government and private management of rail systems; here the insistence on efficiency takes on a more awkward tone when it results in more prolonged wars and the horror of the holocaust.
Despite their importance for nearly a century, so linked to the projection of power that their construction could spark wars (as between Russia and Japan in 1905), even a rail enthusaist like Wolmar has to admit the age of the train is past, militarily speaking. The nature of war itself has changed.. We are as unlikely to see massed armies butchering each other with Maxims and artillery as we are to see cavalrymen running about with sabers in the next war. This is the age of cruise missiles, drones, and small groups of soldiers deployed in surgical strikes by helicopters. Even in larger operations, troop transports that can transverse alien territory are more efficient than building even the light strategic rail of the Second World War.
Engines of War is an altogether fascinating book, revealing how the vital necessity of rail lines during wars not only altered weapons and strategy, but changed both the role of the government and the behavior of the rail lines in peacetime.