Almost four years in, and it’s getting harder to come up with centenaries that have anything new to say about the First World War, so here comes another rambling excursion into generic territory. Back in the early twentieth century, the key to mounting a good excursion was the same as the key to fighting a huge, mechanised war – so let’s talk about trains.
For almost a century now, a great deal of thought, print and educational torture has been devoted to analysing and correlating the ’causes’ of the First World War. For reasons that are pretty obvious (learning from mistakes, for instance), the roots and triggers that produce wars are always of interest to posterity, but no conflict in human history has provoked anything like the intensity and controversy of our search for the First World War’s true parentage. This is largely because, having turned out so much bigger, longer, more ghastly and less decisive than it was supposed to be, the First World War needs some serious explaining, but it also has something to do with the wide range of debatable, disputable and damnable explanations available for its outbreak.
You’ll be glad to know I’m not planning a tilt at that particular windmill today, but competitive, chauvinist nationalism has its place among a litany of ’causes’, and there are arguments pinning the blame on one or other of those competing nations, on failure of an outdated diplomatic system, on social and economic pressures within the same states, on the shape of European geopolitics in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, on Karl Marx… the beat goes on, and it’s still generating plenty of funky arguments among academics not otherwise inclined to a lot of dancing.
The bottom line is that generations of historians and less objective commentators have failed to come up with a consensus about the relative importance of those political, social and economic factors they all agree had something to do with starting the First World War. This is understandable and, if you’re looking to trace the War back to its seeds, unavoidable, but approach the question from a more holistic perspective and answers come more easily. Ask yourself what factors were fundamental to the War’s origin and continuation, what it could not have existed without rather than what gave it such distinctive features, and it becomes clear that trains caused the First World War.
I know I’m begging the question of what caused trains, but every search for causation involves gazing into infinite mirrors. In any case, however much the very existence of HMS Dreadnought served to exacerbate the contemporary world’s geopolitical and socio-economic tensions, none of the other beacons of technological progress that symbolised, facilitated or shaped it can claim to have made the First World War possible.
Prompted by fear, ambition or revenge, the Great Powers of mainland Europe were all ready to fight each other for many years before 1914, but their carefully if optimistically laid plans for massed invasions and rapid conquests would have been inconceivable without the great infrastructural leap forward that had created comprehensive national rail networks during the later nineteenth century. You couldn’t rapidly mobilise and deploy million-man armies, or even hundred-thousand-man armies, using horses – and it took the false certainties of train timetables to inspire military minds to create the Schlieffen Plan, Plan 17 or Plan 19 (the German, French and Russian invasion plans for the outbreak of war in the years leading up to 1914).
Precise, minutely detailed schedules for the transport of troops by train were at the crux of French, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German war plans in August 1914. As military authorities took more or less complete control of networks, hundreds of thousands of reserves were rushed from their homes to their assigned battle positions, and delivering them more quickly than the enemy was seen as a fundamental precondition to the rapid victory everybody expected to win.
The German railway network performed its task almost perfectly as the War began (giving rise to the never-ending trope about German trains running on time). The French railway system performed a far less arduous operation with reasonable efficiency, and Russian armies (though not many of their weapons) were transported to front lines in East Prussia, Poland and (modern) Ukraine far more quickly than anybody, including most Russian commanders, expected.
By contrast, the Austro-Hungarian railway experience in August 1914 was nothing short of calamitous, as strategic dithering at the top forced armies to reverse course the hard way, taking single-track railways all the way to the Serbian frontier in order to travel back to the southern stretches of the Eastern Front. Chaos, breakdowns, bottlenecks and the occasional skirmish between rail workers followed, so that Austro-Hungarian armies arrived late and in bad condition to every important action during the War’s first months.
Once the European frontlines had stabilised, railways played a vital part in creating and maintaining stalemate. Defenders in France, Italy and (to a lesser extent) Eastern Europe could call upon sophisticated rail networks to whisk troops, weapons and supplies to wherever they were needed at the front, while attackers lost all those advantages the moment they crossed into enemy-held territory.
Railways played a different but no less crucial role in extending land warfare across the globe. Vital tools for colonial and imperial powers, they connected ports with remote inland population or resource centres all over the world, and made it possible for belligerent Europeans to fight mechanised wars at the fringes of their empires. Connection often amounted to a single, narrow-gauge railway line, and during the First World War some of those lines – in the Arab lands, in East Africa and across Russia’s Asian hinterland to Vladivostok, for instance – became battlefronts themselves.
Railways were obvious military targets whenever and wherever they came within range of hostile weapons. Blowing up bridges or important junctions, train-wrecking and other forms of sabotage were high priorities for all spies and resistance groups behind enemy lines. They were also the principal tactics of the Arab Revolt during its difficult early stages, and as such achieved significant strategic impact by effectively isolating the Ottoman Empire from its Arabian provinces. The whole of the sprawling Ottoman Empire was ‘railway poor’ in that most of its (largely foreign-owned) network was of the narrow-gauge, single-line variety. The system never recovered from a chaotic attempt at mass mobilisation in late 1914 and ground to a virtual halt after the Russian navy cut off coal supplies from the Black Sea in 1916, but I digress…
Railway systems close to busy front lines were in particular danger from hostile artillery and aerial attacks, which began as sporadic light raids by small aircraft, singly or in groups of three or four, but became steadily more organised and heavier as aerial tactics and technology underwent rapid development. By the later years of the War purpose-designed light bombers were targeting railways near all the main European fronts, and heavy, long-range bombing forces on both sides were attacking railway systems deep inside hostile territory. The long-range bombers weren’t very accurate or effective, but they kept trying because – by way of underlining the trains-to-blame theory – the national commitments to ‘total war’ that made such a long conflict possible could only have been developed and could only be sustained through the arteries of a sophisticated railway system.
Left alone, properly maintained and efficiently run, contemporary railway systems were quite capable of keeping the Great War in motion, so wartime technological innovation was unnecessary, give or take experiments in transporting enormous guns or small aircraft. The War did trigger one rapid change in the global railway landscape as thousands of kilometres of light railway track, hitherto used for local services or transporting mine and factory goods to main lines, were torn up and transported to war zones.
Railways near any battlefront, but particularly near the crowded artillery of the main European fronts, tended to get blown to bits during major battles or overrun when the lines shifted. They could hardly be rebuilt in their original form amid the (potentially deadly) crater-scape left by the big guns, but ground could be flattened for light railways. They were slow, fragile and could only carry reduced loads over short distances, but light railways could and did maintain the defenders’ advantage in supply and manpower deployment wherever trench warfare took hold, most famously during the French defence of Verdun in 1916.
Light railways were also extremely useful as supply lines for forces operating in remote or desolate regions without roads, navigable rivers or established rail lines. As such they were responsible (along with shipping, obviously) for extending the global reach of the Great War and its consequences, as chillingly demonstrated by the long-term fallout from British establishment of a line across Sinai in preparation for the invasion of Palestine in 1917.
Much of the above is fact-free and quite a lot of it is incidental to this post’s small message – but stats about global railway systems and the Great War are available in spades online, and I’m allowed to ramble off the point during conversational excursions. The small message is this.
There’s no denying the argument that trains were to blame for the First World War in all its misery, and it’s always worth reminding ourselves that history isn’t just about human decisions but can be shaped by the circumstances of humanity’s development. Then again, that doesn’t mean railways were THE cause of the War.
History isn’t, or shouldn’t be about nailing down cause and effect. That’s what heritage and demagogues do. History is about gathering up all the possible causes, causes of causes and influences to causes that can shine any light on the impossibly obscure big picture of the past. History won’t ever show us the whole picture of anything and will always leave us guessing. It won’t ever grant us understanding of its effects, of the present, and it won’t ever stop trapping the unwary into dangerous ‘eureka’ moments. What it can do, looked at from enough angles, is help us to stay open-minded.