Railways Pt. 1



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode number 11. In his book Trains to the Trenches Andrew Roden would say in his introduction that “It’s easy to forget that while the front lines were a war of bullets and shells, such materiel was moved most of the way to the front by rail.” So that is what we are going to look at for the next two premium episodes. This episode will be solely focused on the design and development of the German and French railways which excites me greatly because after the Cavalry and Tank episodes I personally felt that the premium episodes were getting a bit too Anglo-centric. I think that the reason that both the French and German railways were so important to the war is obvious but they each had their own path from the beginning of the rail age early in the 19th century until the war started in 1914. For the French their method of government and control posed some problems when trying to get all of the railroad companies working together and this means that the government itself would spend a lot of time trying to figure out how much control they could get over the companies without the companies getting too terribly angry. On the German side the issues were very different because many of the railroads were initially laid down and developed before 1870 and hence before unification. As Prussia tried to centralized and unify control of all of the railways for both economic and military reasons they ran into barriers that were not just private companies but also the governments of some of the German states. Both of these problems, for the French and the Germans would not be entirely solved by the time that the war started, however they would be solved enough so that the railroads were a great benefit to both countries in the opening weeks and then for the rest of the war. Just as a programming note we will actually be discussing the railways during the war next episode. The third episode in this series will be very different as we look at the Berlin to Baghdad railroad project that was heavily focused on by several governments before 1914 and makes for what I think is a pretty interesting geopolitical story that gives some insight into the world before the war.

For the French the century before the war is a story of trying to balance government intervention with their various railway efforts. A good portion of the reasoning for this was the fact that the French economy had some problems producing enough capital to build a network in the first place and this meant that the government had to be involved from right in the beginning to help finance such a large endeavor. This would put the French squarely between the British, whose railways were very privatized, and the Germans who had for the most part nationalized rail service. For the French the actual operations of the railways were managed by private enterprises and this would not change, even though some people tried, but they always had a bit of government supervision thrown on top and how big that bit was left a lot of room for arguments. The government, for its investment, wanted above all the ability to do 4 things with these railways and 2 of them were directly related to defense. The first was the ability to determine the routes that the railways took. This would allow the government to make sure that they had the proper tracks positioned to say defend the country’s eastern border from a German attack. This was a very important function of the government because as a specific area got more track there were very quickly diminishing economic returns on making more, and in some areas it did not make too much sense to have more than one railway, but maybe the area was very important as a military thoroughfare. This would cause the government to put their finger on the scale of where new lines got made, and this finger usually came in the form of a very large check. The opposite of this was also try, there were areas where the military specifically did not want companies building a bunch of railroads, specifically ones that crossed the German border into France. This created conversations that were both on a macro scale, dealing with strategic ramifications about how dense a specific border region should have its railways and which direction they should run to more detailed and micro discussions. This could include things like which side of a river, or a natural obstacle, a company could build a line on, or how many bridges they could have over the river into Germany, things like that. All of these various arrangements and deals with the companies at the frontier, especially those in the East but also in other regions, created a situation that was hard to balance and hard to keep both sides happy as time went on. The next ability that the government wanted was to confiscate railway property when needed and at a moments notice. The whole purpose around this ability would be to requisition everything in case of war and the need for mobilization. The third and forth requirements seem less important to me, but were the ability to survey and lay roadbeds and the ability to design bridges and tunnels. I am not sure specifically why they wanted this ability, and I did not find a concrete reason in my research. These requirements did not prevent the normal operations of the companies and they would still be in charge of actually buying the locomotives and rolling stock, dealing with the personnel aspects, and then maintaining normal service. All of these arrangements would be put into law on June 11th 1842 as a sort of outline, but always with enough wiggle room that both sides felt that they could interpret things how they needed to. One thing that the law did not do at this point, and something that would only come later, was lay down specific areas of control for the railway companies. With the amount of capital investment necessary to make the railways happen, the companies putting in all of this money wanted regional guaranteed monopolies so that they had a good return on investment. This type of arrangement with the government would happen, but it would take some time before the landscape settled down and some companies got big enough to start convincing the government that it was a good idea. When this was finally codified and the country was split up one thing remained, all of the railways in France radiated from Paris. This was a conscious design choice and even to this day a lot of rail traffic in France radiates out of Paris. This arrangement was called the Legrand Star and it would be the centerpiece of early French railway planning. None of these things happened overnight, and it took decades to even get what we have discussed so far hashed out, but one thing that became very clear was that it only really mattered if the French economy was good. I think it is easy to fall into the idea that since the railways were obvious superior to any other method of transport at this period of history they were always supported by the companies and the government but this was not the case, economic downturns happened and when they did it hit the railways hard. For example during 1847, in the year before Louis Bonaparte was elected President France had a series economic downturn. This resulted in an almost complete stoppage of all railway construction and a huge round of consolidation of the railway companies as the smaller ones found themselves unable to pay the bills. After this downturn though they recovered and so began the first big railway boom in France so that between 1848 and 1857 almost 14,000 kilometers of track were built. This would be the first of two big boom times before the Franco-Prussian war with the other coming between 1859 and the start of the war in 1870. Even after these two build periods though there were still many areas of France that had little or no regular rail service due to local economic factors. This did not prevent the French from utilizing their rails in two instances prior to the Franco-Prussian war with the movement of troops on their way to the Crimea in 1859 and to the Southeastern border to participate in the Austro-Italio War. Both of these efforts were successful, but they did not really strain the system as much as what would happen in 1870 when the Prussians came a knocking.

The Franco-Prussian war, which we will not cover here, was of course devastating to the French railway companies just like it was devastating to the country as a whole. By far the worst it was the Eastern Railway company though which had a high portion of the track mileage in the eastern part of the country and suffered 38 million in lost revenue due to the war. After the war they found it hard to recover because they had a lot of track mileage in Alsace and Lorraine which was now in German hands. This was not the only problems for the railways though because the entire French economy hit another very rough patch after 1870 which they would not truly recover from for another 2 decades. During this time the railway networks contracted and industrial growth barely increased at all. While this was going on the French government and military were trying to come to grips with why they had failed so horribly in 1870 and they tried to find a way to fix it. They knew that railways would play a big role, and an ever increasing role in any conflict, especially with the Germans and their ability to quickly mobilize troops to threatened areas was critical. To try and figure out the answers to some of these questions Charles de Freycinet would become Minister of War in 1888 would spend quite a bit of time getting together with the railway companies and government officials to come to some agreement about what needed to be done and how it was going to happen.

As Allan Mitchell mentions in his excellent work the Great Train Race from which we have already had a quote to open the episode, it is important to not just look at what happened in the 20 years before the war in France and Germany as some long inevitable road to destruction. Nobody in the 1890s could have guessed that it would be the middle of the second decade of the next century before the next war started and so as we look back we also should not fall into the trap of assuming that it was inevitable and that the events that led up to it were because of the war instead of just because that is how they happened. With that said the period between 1895 and 1914 would see the French government continuing to grapple with the massively growing industry that was the railways companies. We will talk about 3 of the problems right now, the first being the continued push to nationalize the railways, the second being the movement to get French companies to buy all of their goods from French manufacturers to help the domestic economy, and finally how the rivalty between the French railway companies would end up hurting all of them, and France along the way. While I mentioned earlier that one of the defining characteristics of the French railway network was that it was not nationalized, that was not due to a lack of trying. There were several serious movements to nationalize in the decades before the war including on in 1895. This effort would take time to get rolling only to then be called off so that it did not interfere with the 1900 Paris exposition. The effort would be restarted in 1903 and would continue with varying intensity until the war started. The second problem was the idea that the French railway companies should be required to buy their resources domestically. There were arguments both for and against the possibility of implementing this restriction. The arguments in favor focused mostly around how much it would help the manufacturers to have these huge orders for locomotives, cars, and the rest of stuff that it takes to run a railroad placed through them instead of in other countries. This was not all sun and roses for the manufacturers though, because it would also mean that they would have to buy their materials domestically which would have really hurt the smaller firms as domestic resources were often much more costly than similar materials purchased in other countries like Germany. This all sort of became a moot point though because after another huge boom in construction and demand in 1906 domestic manufacturers just had no hope of keeping up with demand. This caused even the companies that were most adamant about trying to buy from French firms to reach out to German companies to make up for domestic shortfall. To give you some idea of how lopsided the manufacturing was by this point in 1909 all of French manufacturing produced just 450 locomotives while the Germans made 1500. This meant that when the war came a lot of the locomotives pulling French trains were made across the border in one of the German states. The third problem was getting all of the companies to work together. This meant simple things like trying to get everybody on the same type of coupling mechanism for their freight cars, something that would be absolutely critical during war time, to more abstract ideas like doing what was best for France instead of for themselves. These companies were competing, of course, and that caused some pretty unfortunate side effects. For example, there were two main tunnels that passed through the Alps at this time, the Mt. Cenis tunnel into France and the St. Gotthard tunnel that connected Italy with Germany via Switzerland. In one year 6 million Francs worth of good went through Gotthard while only 1.8 million went through Cenis. Now there are many reasons for this large discrepancy, which would be an episode in itself to properly examine. However, one that that was happening is that the Northern French railway companies were not using the Eastern French companies instead they were having their freight shipped from Italy, up the Gotthard tunnel and through Germany, then they would bring it down through Belgium or Holland and then into France. This almost completely cut the other French companies out of the transportation loop and instead gave all of the transportation money over to German companies for one very good reason, they were cheaper. This was a problem for the French government who just wanted as much money flowing to the companies and economy as possible so that they could build more tracks that could be used in an emergency. They began serious planning for such an emergency around 1888 when the first really good comprehensive plan was hashed out being the government, the military, and the railway companies. This plan would be elaborated over the years as the equations of forces, technology, plans, and timelines constantly shifted but the basis would remain the same. It would be broken into 4 phases the first was the initial movement of some number of defensive troops to defend the border, this was number one priority so as to slow down any invasion, the second would be the concentration of the main mass of the French army as various points within France, the third was the transport of these groups of men from the concentration areas to the frontier for action, and the final phase was then supporting those troops once the fighting started and until it ended. One of the interesting problems with all of this that I never considered was how the railway companies and the armies worked together. Often Army Corps was the main unit for mobilization but these were large units that often were stationed in a wide area that would require multiple companies to work together to get them to the front together. This created big logistical problems that required intricate planning to overcome. This also meant constantly updating the plans and also the understandings between the companies, government and military, they would be updated 5 times before 1903 and 1914 to account for changing conditions. At the end of the day though Allan Mitchell would make it clear that the French army could count on the trains “There were a lot of problems with the situation in 1914 but Joffre could be certain that French army corps would move along double track rail corridors to the front, that the private companies would cooperate in their transportation, and that specially constructed long platforms at stations throughout the northeastern sector would facilitate their debarkation”

We now switch gears over to Germany, which had its own set of unique problems during the 19th century when trying to get its railroads sorted out at the national level, the biggest problem of course being that there was no national level at the beginning. Each of the smaller German states started their railways in their own way before unification. For example Bavaria and Saxony treated railways like postal services, highly regulated and government controlled. On the flip side of that was Prussia where at the beginning there was very little government involvement and instead a bunch of small private companies sprung up at the beginning of the railway age. There also not any sets of standardized regulations between the states and so they had different standards for many things including maybe the most important track gauge. This meant that for quite some time Baden had a different and wider track gauge than the rest of Germany. All of this created a system that was a bit crazy and so the German states all got together in 1847 and created the Association of German Railway Administration. This was not any kind of governing body with real power but instead just an attempt by everybody to figure out some solutions to the problems that were effecting all and so the decisions of this group were seen more as just guidelines instead of actual rules. Trying to wrangle all of the various groups in Germany together would be a problem for Germany even after unification however the biggest roadblocks would be the governments instead of the private companies like in France. Even with all of these problems though there was no denying that the German railway system was very robust. In the 1840s Germany went from under 500 kilometers of track to over 6,000 and all of this construction then demanded locomotives and railway cars and all of the other stuff which created a boom for the German economy. They also managed to quickly start working with other countries, the most important of which would be Italy and Switzerland for the creation of a railway through the Alps. This was a huge step for Northern Europe and Italy and it would be a huge economic benefit for both sides, although it would be costly to make it happen. Another benefit that the Prussians specifically had over the French was that they had the 1866 Austro-Prussian war which let them find out how woefully unprepared to utilize their rail network in case of a military emergency. The French never really had something on this scale and it would completely change the way of thinking in the German leadership. Afterwards Moltke the Elder setup a central committee that contained both civilian and military officials with the explicit goal of making sure that when the next military emergency happened there would be perfect coordination between everybody. This would greatly assist in 1870 because it allowed the Prussian military to solve some of the easy problems before the Franco-Prussian war. An example of this was making sure that everything was aligned so that the troops could travel all the way across the country without having to ever get off a train. This is something that did not exist before 1866 and by 1870 these and other arrangements would cut the time to transport troops to the French frontier from 24 days to 18.

After the Franco-Prussian war, while Germany would eventually become known for their nationalized service it would not happen instantly at unification. The effort was started but not completed by Bismarck and he had his work cut out for him. The problem was two-fold, the first that had to be tackled before the other was the private companies in Prussia. It was only after the largely Prussian run government took care of its own railways that they could start trying to get control of the rest. The only real option available was a straight up purchase of the Prussian companies by the government, and eventually the government had to hand over 1.4 billiion marks to 13 different companies to make this happen. After this the government had control over a vast swath of railways that encompassed all of northern Germany, because remember at this point that Prussia contained most of the land in all of Northern Germany, which was much more land than modern northern Germany. This meant that they started to try and make the next big step of working to get control of the other German states. The way it ended up working out was that the government, based in Berlin would pay for most of the expense of any railways in these states that were thought to be primarily of military use. And by most of the cost, I mean they basically paid for 95 percent of the construction costs. This seemed like a huge investment for the government, and it was, but it was all made possible by the fact that after 1871 the German economy was awesome. Germany was quickly catching up with the British to challenge for Europe’s number 1 economy and this allowed them to spend some of the money that was flowing around on their railways and it allowed them to quiintupled their mileage amount between 1870 and 1890. While some of this expansion came from private companies, most of it came from Berlin. Not all of the developments were strictly military related and there would always be a reasonable number of strictly economic projects like the St. Gotthard tunnel that we discussed earlier. This was also the time that German war plans became ever more linked to the railways and their developments with Moltke the Elder saying in 1879 that “Railways have become, in our time, one of the most essential instruments for the conduct of war. The transport of large bodies of troops to a given point is an extremely complicated and comprehensive piece of work, to which continuous attention must be paid. Every fresh railway junction makes a difference, while, although we may not want to make use of every railway line that is constructed, we may still want to make use of the whole of the rolling stock that is available”

Even with all of the economic booming during this time, still the German government was having problems getting all of the state railways together, by 1900 they were making some progress but very slowly and only in some areas. For example Wurttemberg was the first of the Southern states to join the railways into the Prussian system, and that was mostly because their system was by far the weakest. This caused some consternation in Prussia as well because even after the government had spent all of this money on the railways in Prussia they would now have to absorb all of these crappy other systems that they would then have to spend money on improving. All of this would cut deeply into the profits that were being made. While Wurttemberg did come into the system there were two big hold outs that were very adamant about keeping their independence, Saxony and Bavaria. They were even hesitant to join the German railway union after it was created, and it was only created to try and increase the standardization of the various system and it in no way infringed upon the state autonomy. It would take 3 years for even the most basic of freight unions to be worked out between the German stated simply because nobody wanted to agree on anything. Sure, they all saw the benefits of these agreements, they all saw the problems that they solved, but they all wanted to solve them in their own way, no in somebody else’s way. While some agreements would come into place before the war, it would still not be a perfectly nationalized system that is often associated with Germany. Bavaria and Saxony would both still have their own independent railways, along with a few of the other small states. However, they had at least gotten everybody to agree on enough things that when war came everybody could be counted on to play their part in the grand German mobilization plan.

Overall, I hope you have come out of this episode with some insight into the complexity of the situation in both countries, of the fact that both were dealing with this massive economic infrastructure project in ways that were constrained by their society, their government, and their people. When the war started Germany would have more railways with 60,000 kilometers to the French 40,000. The Germans also had much more capacity to manufacture locomotives and other things that kept the railways going. However, when the time came the definitive fact was that while Germany was objectively more prepared when it came to the rails, the French were prepared enough. They were able to get their troops and their supplies where the military command wanted them to go in time to do what they wanted them to do. Now, they did not want them to do the right thing, but that is beside the point. So when it came down to it, the Germans had spent a bunch a lot more money to still not quite give them enough of an advantage to win a war. Then after the war everything was changed so much that the story would be entirely different, but that is a story for a different day. Thank you for listening, and that you for your support.