Railways Pt. 2



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium episode 12. Last episode we discussed the development of the French and German railways in the lead up to the war and this week we will start off by giving an overview of the rail situation in Britain before the war. Then we will role into a discussion of what happened in that country once the war started, along with a huge rail disaster that would rock the home front. We will spend just a brief time on railways outside of the Western Front before we end with discussions of how railways were used on the Western Front and what that usage looked like. There are also of course other random topics spread throughout. I hope you enjoy this episode, the last of the first year of Premium episodes.

Before the war there was a bunch of money put into the British railways almost all of which had been put forward by private companies, of which there were many. There was a high percentage of double tracked routes and there were plenty of locomotives and carriages for the amount of track that was present, at least for what was expected of them if a war should break out. There were however 4 main problems with the British railway systems when it came to what was asked of them starting in 1914. The first big problem was that there was little strategic planning involved in the creation of all of the various rail routes. This meant that some non-critical areas had plenty of tracks and some critical areas were woefully short of tracks, stations, and all of the other facilities necessary to keep a railroad going. A great example of this problem was the fact that there was only a single rail track that connected Scapa Flow to the rest of the country. There was absolutely critical because that single rail track found itself responsible for supplying the entirety of the Grand Fleet for the first 3 years of the war. This was just one example though, and this problem could be found in a variety of severities all over the country. The rail network was created by companies for economic purposes, with little influence from the government and military, which is how you get situation like with Scapa Flow. The second problem was that the rails were heavily focused on London, however the military needed the facilities more spread out, especially because London was not the main port for men and material to flow to and from the continent. The third problem was that they were just not designed to handle the massive surge in demand that the beginning of the war brought to the tracks. The closest to this level of traffic was maybe on bank holidays, I guess, but those were an order of magnitude, or several, below what would happen in 1914 and beyond. This meant that both the physical items, like carriages, were not able to keep up with demand, but also that railway controllers were just not prepared to handle the surge. The final issue was the huge number of railway companies. They all had their own, or shared, tracks and they had their own locomotives, which varied wildly in quality. This created a nightmare even after they became subject to government control.

There had been a new committee setup to try and coordinate all of the various parties involved and to try and mitigate some of the problems discussed above and it was called the Railways Executive Committee and it had the power to manage the railways as a national system during the war. This was an important step, and it did simplify the managerial aspect of the problems, however it could not solve the physical problems. After the war started the British had another problem, one that I found to be quite interesting, and that was the fact that they saw a huge surge in civilian traffic on the rails. This was because so many people were brought into lucrative war industries that they had more spare change floating around that allowed them to pay for more journeys. To try and combat this increased demand fares were raised, but this did not put much of a dent in demand. It has been almost a decade since I took an economics class, but I believe this means that the demand was price inelastic. They also did other things to save space like cut dining and sleeping cars. Another problem came into play in 1915 as well, and that was the problem of domestic goods transport. Before the war, and unlike the continental powers, the British were surrounded by water and because of this seaborn transport of goods from one British port to another was a big piece of the freight industry. The percentage of the population that lived by the ocean and rivers was huge and because of this they usually found it easier to load the goods onto a steamer and move it around the coast rather than on rail. However, when the U-Boat threat began to rapidly increase, so too did the fear that these steamers would be easy targets. Because of this goods that previously would have been transported by water were now on rails, this coupled with the increased traffic due to the war resulted in tracks that began to quickly deteriorate in condition which then meant more effort had to be put into maintaining them, and the trains had to go slower.

The rails were not without disaster during the war, with that many trains it was almost bound to occur for all of the countries. From what I can tell, according to wikipedia, the third worst accident of the war, and the 25th all time happened on May 22, 1915 in Scotland, it is called the Quintinshill Rail crash. This would occur on the West Coast Main Line which was one of the busiest in all of Britain during the war. One crucial piece of information here is that unlike France and Germany Britain did not enforce a common speed on all of its trains. Instead all of the trains were allowed to go as fast as they wanted and dealing with that situation was left up to local signalmen. On the morning of May 22nd a slow train was late near Quintinshill Scotland, so when it arrived one of the signalmen sent it off onto a loop line so that two faster trains could overtake it. This was a very standard procedure. However, there was also a local train in front of the faster trains, and since it could not go onto the loop it was sent onto the tracks running in the opposite direction. I am sure you can see where this is going, but stay with me. This type of situation, with a train sitting on the wrong side of the tracks was not at all abnormal and was often used to let trains pass each other. It was used so often that there was an entire set of safety procedures setup around making it safer. First, the signalmen had to send a signal down to the next station through telegraph to let them know what was happening and then the signalman had to put a safety collar in place so that it was he would not forget that there was a train in the way. This of this as a big note that said “don’t touch this lever.” Both of these actions were not taken. Part of the problem was that the signalman at the station had worked out a deal so that one of them could come in a bit late, 30 minutes late, and while this required a bit of fiddling with the logs to cover up, it had not been a problem so far. After several minutes a troop train, filled with 500 soldiers on their way to Gallipoli came hurtling down the track. They were given the proper signal to proceed, from the same signal box that had just put a local train in the way. It did not see it until it was too late, and the crash was catastrophic. It did not just end there though, because even after some unhurt troops managed to get out of the wreckage they were then hit by one of the trains coming down the opposite end of the tracks. Some of the cars from the troop train had derailed enough to be sitting on the other tracks, that that train to crashed into them and went off the tracks, and in this case it caused everything to catch fire. 227 troops, passengers, and railway staff died and another 246 were injured. Most of the blame has been placed on the signalmen, and this is very accurate, having ignored several important safety regulations. However, in some ways this was inevitable, especially since not all of Britain’s trains were travelling the same speed.

One effect that I just want to touch on briefly, and that we will hit on during the main episodes early next year is the effect that railways had on women in the workplace during the war. During the war employment of women on the railways went from 13,000 to 68,000 and maybe more importantly it opened up jobs that had not been available before. Women were not allowed to collect and issue tickets, act as porters, along with a variety of new job opportunities. This seems like a small thing but it did begin the process of br3eaking down barriers for the postwar period. In Trains to the Trenches Andrew Roden would say this about this change “It would be a cliché to suggest that all women employed by the railways enjoyed their work or that they found it liberating: as with the menfolk, many did not. It certainly wasn’t the driving force behind the sufragette movement, but in proving that women could do jobs hitherto denied them as well as men, one of the fundamental objections to employing them was removed.”

Before we start digging into what happened after the war started I just want to touch briefly on some of the other countries during the war and their railways. I do not have nearly as much information about these areas, so this will be pretty brief. In Austria-Hungary there had been a huge boom in railway construction from 1880 to 1900 and this would continue until the war. This put them in a pretty good place, although one problem that they would have is that there was not a lot of track mileage going to and inside of Galicia. This was a result of the fact that before there were there just was not much of a reason to build a bunch of railways in this area, there certainly were not much in the way of economic incentives. This resulted in it not having the density as some other areas of the empire which would slow the Austrian army down, especially as it advanced into Russia. In Italy the government had taken over and nationalized the railways in 1905 but they also faced a similar problem. The region in the far north of the country, and especially on the eastern side, right by the Austrian border, did not have much in the way of track. Therefore they found themselves at a disadvantage as they tried to supply their ever growing armies in the area. The final country we will discuss if Russia, and for them rail transport was extremely important due to their size. By 1914 they had about 45,000 miles of track and importantly it was a different gauge than the rest of Europe. This difference amounted to it being 3.5 inches wider which posed a serious problem for invaders as they moved into Russia because standard European cars could not use their railways. At the same time the tracks were not different enough for invaders because a difference of only 3.5 inches did not allow the Germans to just put another rail inside and run on that, instead they had to go to the effort of dismantling and moving one rail slightly in, which took much more time. This type of issue would cause the German commanders a lot of headache, especially in the last two years of the war as they advanced deeper into Russian territory. The Russians had also taken the steps to never allow the railways in Western Poland to reach the density of the rest of Russia because they knew in the event of war this area would be quickly captured by the Germans.

Let’s now move on to what happened when the war started. Some of this info I touched on way back during the main episodes at the beginning of the war, if you do not remember that is understandable, those episodes were rubbish anyway. When the war started the Germans had 11,000 trains and the French 7,000. One of the primary engines used by the Germans was the Prussian P8 4-6-0 which was apparently a fantastic piece of machinery that would be built until the mid 20’s with the last one not being retired until the 1970’s. In railway designations a number like 4-6-0 will tell you how many of each type of wheels it uses. The first number stands for the unpowered leading wheels, the middle number for the driving wheels, and the third number for the trailing wheels. So in this configuration the P8 had 4 front wheels, 6 driving wheels, and 0 trailing wheels. At one point the Germans were running a train from Cologne to the border every 3 minutes and this allowed them to move the monumental amount of troops and material that were needed to keep their grand offensive going. To move just one army Corps required 170 coaches for officers, 965 for infantry, 2960 for cavalry and 1915 for artillery. Then they required about that many again just for the supplies that they would taken with them, not counting the supplies they would need just days after the fighting started. This is a staggering amount and required a huge national effort to make the entire thing happen. There was also a huge effort after the German offensive through Belgium to extend German lines through Belgium and France as the army advanced. For this task there were 25,000 laborers working on the tracks as soon as possible to repair those that were damaged during the advance and to create new ones. This was not an easy task and would require months to complete, and it would only really be completed in early 1915. For the French all of the railways were taken over by the military almost immediately, especially in the zone of the armies which stretched back from the front. Each route was carefully re-evaluated and classified based on its maximum carrying capacity and unlike Britain a national standard of 12 miles per hour was adopted for all trains. This allowed them to avoid the type of complicated route management that caused that big crash in Scotland. One the front settled down the French used a system where trains would start their journeys carrying just one type of item, say food or ammunition, then when these trains moved up to the front they would stop at regulating stations a decent distance from the front line where they would be mixed together. So the food train would get broken up and combined with trains for ammunition, water, mail, replacements, everything so that these could be taken to specific areas of the front where they were needed. The idea was that each train would contain everything that a French unit would need to remain in the line, and in this regard they were quite successful.

The British found themselves forced to use French trains when they were on the continent. This worked okay for awhile, however as the BEF grew and grew it started to put more and more strain on the French systems. Eventually near the end of 1915 Britain would just take over the railway operations behind tehir area of the front. This was done by slowly expanding their control out from the ports that the British were using to ship items to the continent. There were several of these almost completely dedicated just to supplying the BEF while it was on the continent. There were also huge improvements made by all three countries to the rail networks that were being used for this war traffic, however they could not just constantly lay new track wherever they wanted. They had to consider if the other lines in the area could also handle the additional traffic because bottlenecks would just prevent any new track from actually helping. Even when they wanted to create new tracks they ran into a problem though, or really two problems, first of all there were issues with manpower. When the war started everybody thought it would be a short war so there was not enough thought given to a person’s job that they had before being brought into the army. This meant that trained maintenance, factory, and engineering workers were all recruited into the armies and out of their jobs. This also meant that pretty rapidly after the war started skilled workers were in short supply. This was not just a railway problem, and you see a pattern of all governments quickly starting to pull these skilled workers out of the line but in the short term, and certainly in early 1915 it meant that the ability to expand the rail networks and the ability to keep up with the required maintenance was pretty much impossible. Because of this engines, rolling stock, and the railroads at a whole began to break down at an alarming rate. This just made trying to increase the capacity of the whole system even more difficult. The other problem that they faced was simply one of scale, they were having enough difficulties keeping the traffic up to the point that was needed, let alone being able to divert resources to expanding the network. These types of problems would be lessened in time as the situation in the West became much more stable.

The last topic for this episode will be special purpose trains. Now the vast majority of trains used during the war were standard freight trains, big engine in the front, lots of cars following behind. However there were a few special types of trains that I find interesting. We will cover 3 of them today, armored trains, ambulance trains, and narrow gauge trains. We start with the armored trains, which were mostly used on the Eastern Front. Armored trains was not an area that saw a lot of developmental focus by most countries before the war, and it was really only Russia and Austria-Hungary that put a lot of work into them. For Britain, France, and Germany, they had very little focus for a variety of reasons, one of which was that they were deemed to be simply too vulnerable on the modern battlefield. The Russians did believe in them though and they had several armored train designs in service before the war. These started as a kind of mobile fort with some infantry with rifles firing from firing holes and maybe some small artillery pieces or machine guns. During the war they would slowly evolve, getting bigger, more heavily armed and armored, really becoming much more like naval vessels on tracks than anything else with lots of turrets and machine guns. However, no matter what armament it had, it could not be of any use if it could not move up to the front and for this purpose it had to have a locomotive, and that is where things got dangerous. If you think about what a steam powered locomotive is, it is pretty much just a big steel tank with highly pressurized water inside. This could get up to pressures approaching 200 psi. That meant that when a bullet penetrated the pressurized tank it might then cause an explosion. This was a problem that could never truly be solved, sure they could put more armor on it, causing the weight to skyrocket, but not matter what if the tank was penetrated at the very least the train would be immobile and at the very worst it would explode. So after they went the armor route for awhile they switched focus and instead moved to smaller gasoline powered trains. These did not have even close to the pulling power as the steam versions, but they still could provide enough power to haul a few small artillery guns, some ammunition for them, and some machine guns. Putting these on trains tracks was still a huge advantage and gave the smaller gas engines the ability to pull far more than they were able to under normal circumstances. While these were used throughout the war, I cannot really pretend that they were decisive in anyway, they were just an interesting tool used on the battlefield. I also believe that this would not be the last time they would be used, with armored trains also making an appearance in World War 2.

Our next type of trains is the ambulance trains, which are probably the exact opposite of armored trains. While the more offensive armored trains had been considered by the Western Armies before the war and disregarded due to tactical or strategic reasons for France and Germany they simply did not properly plan for their need of ambulance trains, really, at all. This meant that they went into the war without a great way to get wounded soldiers from the front to the rear areas. Now this may have been okay if this war was like any of the previous ones, but it wasn’t. The British were a little better off, with a grand total of 6 ambulance trains in France shortly after the war started. This may not seem like many, but given the size of the British contingent it was much larger than others. There were still some easy to solve design problems that would be ironed out later, like the fact that there was not way for doctors and nurses to move between the cars while the train was running, making it very difficult to care for everybody. However, these type of issues would eventually be solved. There was also a large investment made by charitable organizations like the Red Cross into ambulance trains, raising a lot of funding to create more of them, for obvious reasons. By the end of the war there would be large numbers of well-equipped, well-maintained, and well-staffed ambulance trains that functioned more like mobile hospitals than normal train cars.

The final type of special trains that we will discuss today is the narrow gauge railroads. It was simply impossible to take a full sized train all the way up to the trenches, it was just not going to happen for a variety, and what I think are obvious, reasons. Therefore as soon as the front began to solidify there was an effort to find a way to bridge the gap between the front and the railheads or at the very least the artillery lines. This is where the narrow gauge railways really came into their own. They had a few very key advantages that made them invaluable for this role. The first was that they were simply cheap and easy to construct. The tracks could be easily prefabricated in 5 meter sections and then moved up to the front and quickly manhandled into position. The second was that even before they started using locomotives they were used to create tramways to increase the carrying capacity of horses and mules. It appears that the Canadians get the points for creating this type of system the first time and it greatly increased the carrying ability of horses and helped to bridge the gap. This type of system paved the way for more permanent railways later. The third benefit was that they were very resilient. Since the track was so easily maneuvered into place that also meant that it could be easily repaired if it was damaged. This was true for not just the track but also the cars as well. The railcars were small and light enough so that if they were derailed they could easily be lifted back onto the tracks by a small unit of men. All of these factors made these small railways almost invaluable. For the British in 1916 these little tracks were carrying 20,000 tons and 30,000 men to the front every single day. They were an essential cog in the machine that made all those huge artillery bombardments possible because there was no other way to get the number of shells up to the guns. It should also be said that none of this would be possible without the 40,000 Chinese workers that were brought to the Western front as laborers. They were not well paid, they were expected to work long hours and really they deserve their own episode at some point.

While the trails played such a huge role during the war, they also played a part in the post war settlement. For example Germany had to give up 5,000 locomotives and 150,000 railway wagons to the Allies. Most of these went to the Belgians who had lost most of the theirs to the Germans early in the war, and then some went to the French. There was also a huge maintenance burden placed on the invaded countries, especially the Belgians, as their rail network had been greatly expanded during the war which was good, but also extremely wore down by the end and that meant that there was a large maintenance effort that had to be completed before they were suitable for civilian traffic. I think that it would be a true statement that World War 1 would be the first war there it simply could not have happened in the form that it did without railroads, the scope, the scale, the length, all were made possible by the Iron Workhorses behind the lines, travelling day and night.