|Warfare Home History Glossary Guides Publishers Artists Techniques Topicals Blog Contact|
Weapons of World War One:
Rail and road networks are not often thought of as an instrument of war, yet much of military planing revolves around them. At one time an army could just live off the land, but as they grew larger it was not just more difficult to supply them, the task became impossible if they were stationary for too long. High tech weaponry also began to expend ammunition at an enormous rate, and if it couldn’t be resupplied in a timely manner after a battle, an army might face annihilation. A number of campaigns that had a promising start ended prematurely when supplies could not be brought up as fast as they were needed. In modern warfare the placement of armies are determined by the ability to run supplies to them; World War One was primarily a railroad war.
The value of railways as a means of transporting supplies and men had already been proven during conflicts of the 19th century. For the most part rail lines could be depended upon since they were not usually subject to variances in the weather. They could carry far more weight than anything transported by wagon or even truck. Even wagons were transported by rail when long distances were involved. Unlike teams of horses, trains did not have to rest and could travel easily through the darkness of night. In coming to understand its vital importance, the military of France, Germany and Russia pressed for building a railroad network that would work to their advantage in times of war. All armies would become dependent on rail lines for their very survival.
Since the mid-19th century, railroads had proved their importance in quickly transporting large bodies of men between fronts. This allowed generals to reinforce a defense that might be collapsing under extreme pressure or secretly add troops to create overwhelming odds in an upcoming offensive. They played a crucial role in Prussia’s victories in both the Austrian War and the Franco-Prussian War. The Germans were the most successful in constructing a strategic railway system that could be used against France or Russia. Now their rails would make it easy for them to shift large bodies of troops back and forth between fronts to handle emergencies and opportunities. It also allowed them to more easily transport food and raw materials back to Germany from occupied lands. The more irregular terrain of France posed more problems for their building program. While their railway system was expanded, it was not extended into many remote rural regions. Transport by rail was relatively fast, but it was often slowed down in all nations due to the great demands put on the system.
Russia had undertaken a massive program to expand their railways since the 1890’s, but it was in such need of improvement, and it needed to cover such a large geographical expanse that it was still in progress by 1914. Some have speculated that certain German strategists who wanted to seize territory in the East felt it was necessary to go to war before this modernization was complete. When war did come, Russian military operations would always be hampered by the inability to bring in adequate supplies to where they were needed and with the speed required. While German armies made great inroads into Russia during their campaigns, they too were slowed by the inability to bring up supplies fast enough on Russian rails. Russia had also made a strategic move with just this in mind when building their rail system. Russian tracks were laid at a different gauge than those found in Germany so German engines and rolling stock could not be used on the Russian system. They also purposely laid few rails in western Poland to hamper any potential German armies that might invade this region.
While a number of postcards depict the transport of supplies on trains, there were also cards produced that honored the rail network itself. They display a variety of subjects ranging from steam engines, train crews and guards, to repair work. Some of these cards exist as real photos, but they seem to be largely produced by artists who singled this subject out. Some of these were issued as charity cards to benefit rail workers or their families.
Trains not only brought men to the battlefront, they were used to remove the wounded. Postcards display this in a variety of manner from showing lightly wounded revelers on their return trip home to the careful transfer of the more seriously injured onto trains.
Many of the wounded were simply transferred to the rear in the same boxcars that brought supplies to the front out of necessity, but specialty train cars that vastly improved survival rates were also devised for this purpose. A number of interior views of these hospital trains exist on real photo postcards. They are usually pictured empty lined with neat clean rows of beds. When the injured are pictured they are usually well attended and clean of blood. These types of postcards are not meant to catalog military equipment as much as give the impression to both soldier and family that the wounded will be well cared for.
Enemy rail lines have always been targeted for destruction during wartime. Raids were often launched against them to cut off crucial supply to the front lines. This became impossible on the Western Front once trench warfare cut off all access to an opponents flank. On the more porous Eastern Front, which was too long for armies to always make a continuous line, cavalry raids were common. While the cutting off of supplies and communications was the main goal, Cossacks were often portrayed on German cards committing atrocities, the favorite which seems to be attacking Red Cross trains carrying the wounded.
The longer ranges that large guns could fire redefined the battlefields of World War One. Even if an army protected the land on which a railway ran from attack, trains could still be easily destroyed if in range of enemy artillery fire even from guns that were far out of sight. This type of indirect fire could be very accurate once they found the range of their target. It did however require observers that could quickly relay messages as to the accuracy of this fire back to the gunners. This was why the control over high points was often brutally contested.
While aircraft were primarily used for reconnaissance, it was eventually realized that they could be used to drop bombs on strategic targets. This provided for a new way of attacking railways behind enemy lines that was not effected by trenches. The light loads that planes carried made them more of a nuisance than a real threat. Even when they hit their target, damage was usually light and quickly repaired. This began to change when large squadrons of bombers were dispatched to attack depots were rolling stock and supplies were stored in quantity. Zeppelins were also employed in these types of raids. These events were captured on postcards but in far less numbers than one might expect. While the public was normally attracted to new aspects of warfare, perhaps these raids hit too close to home. Civilians fearful of being attacked from the air may have found this subject too distasteful to want postcards of them.
Even where rail lines were in abundance, they sill lacked the capacity to bring supplies into the precise places that armies needed them as no one could predict exactly where the front line would settle down. In areas like the Western Front where the situation quickly became static, it often became worthwhile to spend time and energy into extending the rails to the places where armies sat. Very often existing railways had to be updated and new tracks laid to help keep up with the expanded volume of men and supplies that needed to be transported. These new lines were used exclusively by the military, and often staffed by military personnel.
To save on time and materials, light railway systems were built extending from existing train depots toward the front lines. They were usually set up and run by special units within a War Department, though they could be built by pioneers with the aid of various types of unskilled labor. While these narrow gage lines did not require a sturdy bed to support the tracks, they could not accommodate standard gauge engines and rolling stock. This meant that all supplies had to be transferred by hand from one system to the other. Depots were set up nearest to where armies were deployed to facilitate the transfer of supplies and men.
Narrow gauge railroads were also very important in supplying armies fighting in difficult terrain where conventional roads were lacking and difficult to construct. Without these rail lines there was no alternative way of keeping an army supplied in these locations. They helped to bring the conflict to regions that would normally be considered totally unsuitable for the conduct of warfare. These lines took more skill to put into place than those over flat terrain that could be built by almost anyone. They also seemed to catch the eye of photographers more often. Many real photo cards were produced of the German narrow gauge railways running through the Argonne Forest.
Although light rail was primarily used to transport soldiers and supplies, it also became a convenient method for officers to move back and forth between the front lines and rear headquarters. These men did not travel by ordinary means but had special cars made for comfort that better suited their status. Postcards do not usually display forms of elitism but is was not a subject shied away from. In places where the class system was highly defined or where officers were highly respected, the perks that came with rank were not unexpected.
Narrow gauge rail lines suffered from many problems. Their makeshift nature with poor or nonexistent bedding caused many derailments. It was easy enough to put the light rolling stock back on the tracks but even the small locomotives that were used proved difficult to lift. The disruption of service was often more detrimental than the loss of any supplies. The huge quantities of tell tale smoke that the engines produced also made them prime targets for enemy artillery, and even when situated well out of range they were still subject to air attack. This meant that they were most often used under the cover of darkness or fog, but this was often a poor solution where the delivery of supplies was too wanting to only be restricted to the night.
To avoid detection in daylight hours the cars on these light railways came to be pulled by horses as they neared the front lines. This was still a better substitute to horse drawn wagons for the railroad bed was more reliable than worn muddy roads. When horses were not available this laborious task of pulling cars was sometimes performed by solders and even prisoners of war.
While a car on rails required less effort for a horse to pull than a wagon on a road, sometimes large teams were needed, especially where inclines were involved. Narrow gauge tracks were placed where they were needed, which meant they sometimes ran through forest and at other times down the streets of towns. These were often places where rails would never have been laid in peacetime due to their unsuitability for this activity. Some of these lines became important for clearing debris in postwar years for there was little other means available.
Many steam locomotives were eventually be replaced by smokeless diesel engines so they would not attract enemy fire. This trend trickled down to narrow gauge rail lines so that they could bring supplies closer to the front lines without the use of horses. Engines were preferred because they had the power to haul a lot more than horses and they were far easier to maintain. Horses still played a critical role in the War and there was a constant need for them; but this way of life also extracted a heavy toll on them and they became difficult to replace.
As narrow gauge lines grew closer to the battlefront they needed the same protection as provided to infantrymen going to and fro. Narrow communication trenches were normally dug for the passage of men, but even a narrow gauge railway cannot navigate their sharp turns let alone the zigzag patterns of trenches. Wider and straighter trenches were now constructed to allow for the passage of supply trains but this made them much more vulnerable to enemy attack. This would limit how close to the front rails could be placed before supplies had to be carried by animals or men.
Digging a trench deep enough to hide a train was laborious work, so shortcuts were used whenever possible. Sometimes this simply meant using army issued netting for camouflage or erecting barriers above the trench line made from local materials like lattle and fascines. This solution was obviously better suited to some terrain more than others. Many of these common practices were not documented well on postcards simply because they were to common to generate much notice of interest.
The canal system in Flanders dates back to the 12th century, running from Brussels to Willebroeck, Ypres to Boesinghe, and from Brugge connecting to Passchendaele, Nieuport, Dunkirk and Ostend. At the end of the 17th century new efforts were made to build canals throughout Europe, and the network through Belgium and France was greatly expanded with the coming of industrial development in the early 19th century. The Saint-Quentin Canal linked with the North Sea, and the Schelde and Lys systems connected to the English Channel via the Somme, and with Paris and Le Havre via the Oise and Seine. This was followed by the Rhine-Rhone Canal, and the Sambre-Oise Canal that linked the French system with Belgium via the Meuse. The Belgians also expanded their network with Mons-Conde, Pommeroeul-Antoing, and Sambre canals with the need to carry coal through the region.
By World War One these canals were a major part of the transportation network as barges could carry vast loads. While all armies employed them the best they could, canals were easily damaged by the sinking of barges, destruction of locks, and collapsing bridges into them. The system was also designed to transport commerce from city to city, while armies primarily needed to bring supplies to the front lines wherever they lay. Unlike the rail system, canals could not be easily extended to where they were most needed. A number of canals were incorporated into defensive works where they acted as formidable moats.