Railways and the mobilisation for war in 1914
The historian AJP Taylor, considering the events of 1914, once argued: ‘The First World War had begun – imposed on the statesmen of Europe by railway timetables. It was an unexpected climax to the railway age.’ Bruno Derrick looks at how the railways of Britain and Europe prepared for war in 1914 and how central the railways were to troop mobilisation.
In three years time, it’s the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, so anticipating that, three years early, I might talk to you about a thing which was quite central to the start of the war itself [which] was the railways, or mobilisation – railway mobilisation across Germany and all that that entailed.
A brief timeline – I’m sure most people are fairly familiar with what happened in 1914. The Archduke Franz Ferdinand went to Sarajevo with his wife and he was assassinated there by a young Bosnian Serb nationalist called Gavrilo Princip who…In fact there were two assassination attempts. The first one failed and the Archduke went to a hospital to visit the people who had been injured in the first attack, and as he was leaving, Princip was sitting in a cafe and happened to see him going by, and then saw his chance and ran up and shot the Archduke and his wife. And the Archduke’s last words to his wife were, ‘It is nothing’; but he was wrong there.
But the…And basically what happened after that, a whole series of events were set in motion. Basically the European allies and powers playing off one another – different alliances and ententes were set in motion and war was declared on August 4th or finally, the final declaration Aug 5th when Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia. And that’s what happened, so it happened over a very short period of time.
The First World War itself, as I said, started on the 4th of August 1914 and it was the biggest war the world had ever seen. In part, it was a conflict that can be seen as a culmination of the Industrial Age, a war which allowed for the mass production of weapons leading to conflict on an unprecedented scale. Railways were central to the campaign as it unfolded, taking soldiers to the front and back, and ferrying weapons and hardware from the factories to their points of distribution. Railways were, in addition, at the core of troop mobilisation in 1914 as across Europe nations prepared for a war for which they had long planned but the time of which was rushed having been sparked off by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on the 28th of June.
But the historian, AJP Taylor, went so far as to argue that the actual outbreak of war was consequent upon adherence to pre-existing railway timetables. The existence of which was central to for example the German Schlieffen Plan. He argued:
‘All the European powers had built up vast armies of conscripts. The plans to mobilise in these millions rested on railways and railway companies cannot be improvised. Once started the wagons and carriages must roll remorselessly and inevitably to their predestined goal’.
In essence, Taylor suggested that so central were the railways and railway timetables, both to mobilisation and to the first account of enemy forces, that a plan once set in motion could not be stopped, or the whole process would unravel and an opportunity would be lost which might not repeat itself. It might also be argued that war in 1914 was consequent not so much upon railway timetables as upon the close and conflicting alliances that united the nations of Europe with one another but also united them against one another, with the railways as a catalyst and not the casus belli, or the cause of war.
But the central importance of railways and of associated ideas of quick movement of troops and units…lay years before the First World War when war broke out in 1914. And the war itself can be seen as lying partly in the Franco Prussian war of 1870 and 1871 between the Prussian state representing the soon to be unified Germany and France under Emperor Napoleon III. Germany won this war convincingly. It captured the two French provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, thus sowing the seeds for a retributive French stance thereafter.
But the Germans essentially won the war on the railways before the armies had had an opportunity to confront one another. With perfect organisation, the Prussians, led by Helmuth von Moltke, were able to amass 462,000 soldiers on the French frontier to face a French army of only 270,000. Although the French army was not required to leave France, and was only operational in order to defend the motherland, it managed to lose some 100,000 stragglers through poor planning and poor administration, and because their railway infrastructure did not begin to match the German railway infrastructure.
Germany mobilised her forces by train. The value of trains in warfare – wartime had been noticed by observers of the American Civil War, even earlier than the Franco Prussian war; that was between1861and1865. And in wartime it was noticed that railways could help to keep armies in the field for as long as these armies could be fed and supplied – the importance of which being re-emphasised as a consequence of the growing rapprochement between France and Britain before the Entente Cordiale of 1904.
The growth of railways across Europe in the forty years before 1914, with new lines being built and with capacities increased and with virtually every major town and city being connected by railway lines helped convince the powers, Germany in particular, that the anticipated forthcoming European war would be a war based on movement and rapid attack, hence the Schlieffen Plan.
German preparations for war were outlined in what was called the German White Book, anticipating a war against France in the west and Russia in the east. So the Germans, as a consequence of the Schlieffen Plan, were convinced that the war was going to be a war of movement and rapid attack. There was also a contemporary development in weapons and technology such as the machine gun which tended to favour defence rather than attack. Nevertheless, in anticipation of the war, European track mileage tripled between 1870 and 1914 to 180,000 miles, the growth particularly marked in Germany and Russia. Martin Creveld, the historian wrote:
‘At the time of the Franco Prussian war it was a record that a single line could carry eight trains a day, a double one, 12, whereas on the eve of the First World War, the figures were 40 and 60 respectively. The French built more railways to link the towns and cities of a country that was still predominantly rural but they brought the main serving army, four million strong in 1914 including reservists could be quickly mobilised and deployed.’
So the emphasis, the German emphasis, before 1914 was on building a railway network to meet the demands of the Schlieffen Plan which anticipated an attack on France in the west, defeating the French fairly quickly before re-mobilising and sending the forces eastwards to confront the Russians. And in a sense, from their point of view, it was a logical plan but the problem with it, they were perhaps rather inflexible about it and certainly it began to unravel fairly quickly after 1914. But they anticipated being able to do a repeat of 1870, surrounding Paris, bombarding it, forcing a French surrender and then turning the attack east.
Looking at the immediate tensions before the war, the railways played a very large part in developing European tension before 1914. Growing military and economic prowess led to a grab for colonies at the end of the nineteenth century. Germany and France grabbed huge chunks of Africa as did smaller countries such as Belgium and Italy. The Germans in particular became enthusiastic railway builders in their colonies but the British, who had been longer established as a colonial power, were as enthusiastic.
Before the Entente Cordiale of 1904, Anglo-French rivalry frequently revealed itself, and war between Britain and France seemed a real possibility. For example, the French felt threatened by the proposed Cape to Cairo railway, the dream of Cecil Rhodes, and the affect this would have on their …African colonies.
With improving Anglo-French relations, the British turned their attention to Germany and viewed with great suspicion the proposed Berlin-Baghdad railway which, with an anticipated line extending to Basra in the South of, what was then called Mesopotamia, seemed to be a direct threat to British hegemony, and being very close to India which was seen as a British sphere of influence. Now, the railway itself of course was never built. But that’s what the anticipated route was [shows image of map]. And whoever prepared that map, which was done in 1916, actually did refer to German…territorial control via the railways ‘failing German freedom on the sea’. So the…and then up in the top hand corner, they showed how partly through the railways, Germans were able to extend their territorial empire, if you like, in Europe itself . So you see the parts of Belgium they’ve captured in the west and Russia and Poland in the east.
The line was nowhere near completion in 1914, as I said it was never completed, but German economic investment in the Ottoman Empire and overt British hostility towards what the Germans were doing over there helped to cement German-Turkish relations which had consequences for the British later on when you see events such as Gallipoli.
One historian has argued, ‘the railways having become so important, it is soon merely sufficient for one nation to announce their preliminary plans for a new railway to engender suspicion, hostility and jealousy in other powers’. Professor Morris Jastrow, writing while the First World War was still in progress, claimed with perhaps a degree of hyperbole:
‘no step apart from the concession to build the railway ever taken by any European power anywhere has caused so much trouble, given rise to so many complications and has been such a constant menace to the peace of the world. The Baghdad Railway will be found to be the largest single contributing factor in bringing on the war because through it, more than any other cause, the mutual distrust between European powers has been nurtured. A railway, which is a medium for the exchange of merchandise and of ideas, ordinarily fulfils the function of binding nations together; in this instance, has been the cause of primarily pulling them apart’.
Germany itself, in 1914, some 40 years after her victory over the French in 1870, and unified as a single country…in 1871 was unified under the auspices of Prussia, but regional differences and traditions and sometimes resentments were perpetuated within Germany itself. Thus Bismarck’s desire to nationalise the German railway network at the end of the 19th century to make it more readily available to the general staff in a time of crisis were in part thwarted. But a process of nationalisation, or semi-nationalisation did start in the 1890s as the state started to buy up smaller railway lines, smaller private railway lines, and as they did so the military assessed the strategic potential of the lines of any stock the state had acquired. In time, the German state was able to invest in railway companies across Germany, including the south. But their main focus was on the north and northwest where Germany bordered Belgium and France and where they envisaged war would start.
The Kaiser was an enthusiast of battleships, as they could he believed either threaten the supremacy of the Royal Navy, or topple the Royal Navy from its hegemony in the forthcoming great war at sea. The German army, more presciently, saw the approaching struggle as a largely land-fought war and seeing the vital strategic role of railways demanded and got new lines and new carriages and new stations and new bridges and vast new junctions linking convergent lines.
Nervous French and Belgian observers noted the construction of sidings with elongated platforms in sleepy little villages that just happened to be on the German side of the border with France and Belgium. So they built new stations with very, very long platforms, only just to disgorge troops passing over the German frontier.
The German army in 1914, although untried militarily save for odd colonial campaigns, was as ready as it could be for war. Her large standing conscript army stood at 1.2 million including reservists, and mobilising troops could be fed into an excellent train network which gathered units together at prearranged points of assembly to proceed to the front. Prussia had most of the publically-owned railways in Germany, but the state-operated railways across the whole country alongside private companies and even owned the Alsace Lorraine railways which the French were keen to seize along with the territories through which the railways ran.
Dennis Bishop and WJK Davis in Railways and War before 1918 which was published in 1972 said:
‘Germany was without doubt the most thoroughly prepared and experienced. She had a large expert military railway department, the civilian military personnel, especially the Prussians, were organised largely on military lines and their railways were easily converted to military use’.
Now in France, the French were well aware of the threat posed by Germany and noticing German preparations leading up to 1914, concluded – rightly as it turned out – that a German attack on France would be preceded by an attack on neutral Belgium. The Schlieffen Plan, which was first proposed in 1904, initially anticipated an attack on Holland as well, but eventually that was ruled out. The French foreign policy and military considerations were less nuanced than those pursued by the Germans, and in essence, her strategy was centred round re-capturing the lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine.
French railways, like their equivalents in Britain, were privately owned and before 1914, six major companies were responsible for moving goods and people around France, and troops as well, should the circumstances demand this after an agreement had been reached in 1903 between the French railways and the French government.
The French had learned the lessons from the debacle of 1870-1871 – or thought they had- and they had a railway regiment like the Germans. And the French military pressed for the construction of railway lines which headed to the German frontier. And the French had their version of the Schlieffen Plan, called Plan 17 – the number arrived at after the modification of previous plans. But Plan 17 was mostly concerned with the effective deployment of French units to the frontline wherever such a frontline should emerge. And the German plan fused considerations concerning transport and railways into overall military objectives.
Over in Russia, which was the second aspect of the Schlieffen Plan – they anticipated a longer war with Russia, once France and Belgium had been fairly quickly defeated. The Russians operated a different gauge which is normally five foot and so there was no gauge compliance between east and west. Russian railway lines covered thousands of kilometres extending into Siberia and they played a massive part in helping the Russians to mobilise far more quickly than the Germans had anticipated, thus thwarting the second part of the Schlieffen Plan.
In fact the Germans had hoped to take on the Russians, perhaps defeat them if at all possible before they even properly mobilised – they thought mobilisation would take that long. The Germans had a decisive victory over the Russians at Tannenberg in August 1914 but the army defeated by the Germans was a larger force than had been anticipated and was mobilised and deployed fairly effectively. The Germans had to requisition 60 trains to transport captured Russian equipment back into Germany.
In Belgium, the railways were mostly state-owned with lines totalling 4,369 kilometres which ran 4,288 locomotives and over 8,000 carriages, over 3,000 brake vans and 87,000 goods vehicles. French lines also operated on Belgian soil. Germany, aware that the demands of the Schlieffen Plan violated Belgian neutrality offered the Belgians the option of allowing the Germans to pass through Belgium unmolested. The Germans even offered to compensate Belgium for any damage caused, paying for the train tickets as well, while at the same time using all the existing Belgian facilities. Not surprisingly, this offer was rejected by Belgium. Perhaps the Germans guessed this would happen but they could not have anticipated the extent to which Belgian railway workers would sabotage their own railway network to thwart and delay the German advance. That slide there [shows an image] refers to a foreign office directive saying that the Germans were mining roads, railways and bridges of all kinds and even fields over which assau
lt troops were likely to pass. Of course the Belgians were doing exactly the same thing, although they were doing it on their own soil. And the idea was then to forward this on to the Russian government to make them aware of what the Germans will do once they got onto Russian soil.
Over in Britain, there was a very, very extensive railway network in 1914, not probably as efficient as the German railway system but a pretty good one nonetheless. And prior to the railway grouping of 1922, dozens of different railway companies competed with one another. British railways were fairly well prepared to meet what happened in 1914 – I mean it had been anticipated to an extent. FA MacKenzie who wrote in British Railways and the War which was published in 1917, and therefore should be seen as partly in terms of propaganda, wrote:
‘British railways have played a great and splendid part in the war. Working with depleted staff under war conditions, they have enabled England to move millions of men and millions of tons of munitions with the utmost rapidity and with an entire absence of confusion’.
The British state, as in France and Germany, acquired by Royal Proclamation the use of the railways during wartime as in when the railways were needed to pursue the war effort. The British did not anticipate fighting a war on their own soil, but did anticipate the use of the railways of a massive facilitator for troops in the forthcoming European war. Southampton and New Haven were commonly used as ports of departure for the front but other south coast towns were used as well. Train companies, particularly those based in the south of England such as the London Brighton South Coast Railway, revised timetables and schedules accordingly. The Royal Engineers had their own long established railway branch by 1914.
So…all the big rail companies were printing their timetables as normal throughout 1914. And if you had a bit of money you could go on a continental holiday. But by August-September you start seeing these notes on there, saying that holiday plans might be affected by the war and you should take that into account [laughter]. And perhaps plan a winter holiday rather than a summer holiday! But in general though things did continue as normal, in fact, and then later on – I think I…show it in one of the clips later on – they actually did actually say on one occasion, holidays to the continent should just be delayed until Christmas time or January or the New Year because…it probably will be over by Christmas time. That was commonly felt at the start of the war.
And that’s [shows an image] the war diary of the 109th Company Royal Engineers. That’s at the end of 1914. So they were actively involved in, at that stage, holding the German advance and railway officials would have been – British officials would have been – railway officers would have acted as liaisons with French railways, with French civilians, with French railway stations as well, liaising troops bivouacking and moving troops back and forth to the front. So that was done fairly efficiently.
And then that’s the war diary for number one railway company [shows an image] Longmoor Camp which…basically records their mobilisation from the start of the war and their journey down…to Southampton, then to Le Havre. It records what they’re doing as the war unfolded.
The British Railways effectively were under the control of the Railway Executive Committee. This was set up during the Second World War as well. In the First World War, perhaps anticipating the coming war, the Railway Committee was set up and it assumed responsibility for executing decisions effecting railways in wartimes. British troops started to arrive in France within days of the outbreak of war. The fact that French railways were able to move some 115,000 BEF [British Expeditionary Force] troops to the frontline that was narrow and porous in the early days of the conflict shows that the French railways were in a greater state of readiness than had been previously assumed, especially by the Germans.
The British appointed officers, French-speaking whenever possible, to supervise the movement and deployment of incoming BEF troops with Amiens acting as chief junction. The war of movement proved short lived. Early encounters in August and September 1914 have the flavour of by-gone conflicts with cavalry able to advance at speed over the land untested by modern warfare. But by the end of 1914, at the start of 1915, with the successful Anglo-French thwarting of the German advance which undermined the first objective of the Schlieffen, the war settled down to trench-based attrition and the semi-permanent front was established which ran from Belgium to the Swiss frontier. Thereafter, the railways in Britain were responsible for ferrying troops and supplies to the front and taking casualties back home.
And there we are, [shows an image] that’s a notice from the Railway Clearing House on behalf of the Executive Committee – or the Railway Clearing House, 1914; ‘again travel plans are likely to be curtailed and interrupted and any responsibility will not be accepted for any delay, damage or loss which may arise through such curtailment or interruption’.
So, they weren’t actually telling people to cancel their holidays or their trips but of course the railways were essentially placed…under the military to the extent that the military needed them once hostilities started.
The effective takeover of the railway, as far as the war effort was concerned by the Railway Executive Committee, did not mean that railways became a uniquely military concern after 1914. Railways were still needed to transport people and goods and services.
As in France, the consequences of any diminution in this, with the food shortages for example was feared. So they were always very aware of the fact that although you could, you had to supply the war effort with guns and munitions and supplies…the hinterland of the country still needed to be fed, to have supplies sent to them. So that was maintained although at a lesser level.
As JH Thomas, MP, wrote in the Rail Life and Railways in 1921: ‘The Railway Executive Committee governed the railways of Britain throughout the war right up to the moment the Ministry of Transport dissolved it. This committee had a free hand in making all arrangements for the conducting of the railways and it is a very far-fetched argument to suggest that the government had any voice at all in the working of the various lines as business undertakings. All the government wanted during that period…was that troops should be mobilised and moved expeditiously and that munitions should be carried with all speed from the workshops in London and from the big provincial towns to the docks. Nothing else mattered’.
Now what he is saying then, he was actually anticipating the grouping together of the grouping together of the railway companies in 1922 which was a sort of semi-nationalisation which actually happened after the Second World War. He is calling for it then because British control was seen as being paramount to the war and later.
But at the start of the war, the Railway Executive Committee had a rather over optimistic view of things: a statement was issued on August 5th: ‘in view of the probable great decrease in traffic, it is anticipated that there’ll be no difficulty in dealing with rolling stock’. In fact, railway traffic increased by some 50% during the war as did problems associated with bottlenecks and back and supply so there was no decrease but a vast increase in traffic as a consequence of war.
So the railway, the different railway companies had to react to the developing situation. And they responded pretty well to that. The Cambrian Railway Company on Friday 1st August: 2,000 officers and men, 76 horses, 40 carts, transport by them was 200 tons of luggage removed from the coast to Llanidloes, there to await further orders. The 9,000 Lurvis went from training camps at Aberystwyth and Porthmadog, returning to a number of different destinations in both north – from different destinations in north and south Wales, moving to a central assembly point.
The West Lancashires assembled in Lancashire on 33 NNWR trains. The Northumberland Territorials left North Wales where they had been training for the northeast on 19 trains, and so forth across the country. So they mobilised back to their normal counties of origin or counties where they were based before then heading south to Southampton. Well, they went back to bases to await further orders and further orders meant – you’ll be heading down to Southampton and then you’ll be off to France and Belgium.
Very soon afterwards though they started, casualties started coming back and the orders for the railway companies were getting involved in this as well. And the Great Western Railway produced its own ambulance trains. But because they didn’t know what was going to happen, so some of these trains had sort of 20 beds for them. But 20 beds for the number of wounded who were coming back…wouldn’t have filled many trains but the orders to the companies were laying on these trains and the facilities certainly in the years after the war were fairly good.
And here’s [shows an image] the Southern Command, well England to me, with their different mobilisation train timetables and how they mobilise and bivouac and meet in certain places prior to going across to the Continent.
The British Railway Clearing House (RCH) managed the allocation of revenue collected by the various pre-grouping railway companies. These companies all operated the railway line and gained revenue from fares charged for passengers and goods travelling over the lines of more than one company. So the Railway Clearing House had quite an important organisational role in sorting out mobilisation in 1914. According to Philip Bagwell in The Railway Clearing House and the British Economy 1842-1922,…Clearing House staffing levels were maintained throughout because of the importance of the central coordination of the railways but quite a lot of Clearing House staff actually did go and join the armed services, and a number of them were killed as well. So the Railway Clearing House if you like acted as a sort of central coordinator for the railway mobilisation.
The British Expeditionary Force mobilised as I say very quickly after the declaration of war with troops sent to the front. But the Railway Magazine, for the later months of 1914, took a rather lax view of developments perhaps because the BEF was so small compared with the armies of France and Belgium. There were about six divisions: 200,000 men. And so…hence the comment, the Kaiser’s comments which are perhaps ill-advised, that it was a contemptibly small little army. It was certainly small compared to the armies of France and Germany but the actual size – it was not a very large army.
It was recorded in the Railway Magazine; ‘so far there had been no special trains to chronicle as regards the railway situation under war conditions. Indeed the situation is so nearly normal that were it not for other factors one could hardly realise that the United Kingdom was actually concerned in the greatest war in the world’s history’.
But, going back to what I was saying earlier on, the Railway Magazine warned its readers who were planning a continental holiday, not to pack their bags as an excursion and tourist facilities usually by ordinary trains are to be discontinued until the end of November. Perhaps restarting after then, however they did suggest holidays in Scotland and Ireland were still an option.
By the end of the year though, the Railway Magazine was proudly noticing that some 20,000 railway workers had joined the colours and that railways were helping the war effort in all sorts of ways. The Great Eastern Railway, for example, operated 870 military trains and approximately 20,000 vehicles were used for military purposes between August and September 1914.
And reflecting the growing hostility to all things German, the magazine noted that the London and North Western 460 experiment class passenger engine, Germanic, is now running with the name Belgique. Affixed about the old plate names on the driving wheels were splashes…of the old name Germanic appearing with two red lines drawn across it. So it was re-named, and they crossed out the old name but left the old name there crossed out. But then they went on rather oddly to say this is not being done in any spirit of vindictiveness. Well, sort of suspect it might have been.
Lieutenant Forbes of the London Brighton South Coast railway has reported, again in the Railway Magazine, was with the authority of the Railway Executive Committee recruiting from the staffs and employees of the various railway companies, troops to assist in restoring and maintaining railway communications for the armies in the Western campaign. So the railways were actually recruiting personnel to drive as military train drivers over in France and Belgium.
And…when all the different units had been mobilised, gone back to their camps, reassembled, been sent south, got to Southampton, in the early days of all this, went across to Le Havre…this is what they actually were able to get all the way down to Southampton; 334 trains, 2,825 officers, 66,000 other ranks, 481 horses, 21,000 riding horses, 1,750 four wheel gun vehicles, 695 two wheel gun vehicles, 97 motorcycles, 1,271 (ordinary) bicycles and 2, 550 tonnes of baggage and stores. So, that was quite an achievement in those days and given what was available to them and over such a short period of time.
And if you look in the various railway magazines at the time, they do actually say there are no casualties at all so they actually were no incidents – it all went very smoothly. I mean casualties started afterwards! But the actual process of mobilisation went very smoothly. Now I think it was possibly because although the timing wasn’t actually anticipated, the fact that war was on the cards and had been anticipated for quite a number of years and that was one reason why the Railway Executive Committee had been set up.
The Railway Magazines were very popular at the time, and – as was the Railway Traffic Journal, I think – and those magazines aimed at various different readers and people who enjoyed travelling in this country, or travelling on the continent, and they had a different market and talked about different things. But the Railway Gazette…marked the outbreak of war by declaring that: ‘after carefully considering the matter,’ and again they’re saying, ‘without any hostility to anything German, in consequence of the war it will not be right to allow German firms to continue to use its advertising pages and that all advertisements for German firms and their agents are banned until further notice’.
The Gazette continued to be printed in much the same way, with much the same stories, appointments, collisions and accidents, articles about railways in Europe and throughout the Empire. But by September long articles with a military theme began to appear more regularly. The Midland Railway ambulance train was dwelt upon in the September 1918 issue: ‘…with side entrances and central corridors that had been arranged in the ward for the easy manipulation of the War Department’s standard stretchers’. This was following on from an article in the previous issue on the ambulance trains of the Great Western Railway which I showed earlier on.
The Railway Review, [shows an image] that edition for August 1914, late August 1914, a weekly newspaper for railway men, adopted a more popular touch as the crisis unfolded. And at the start of the war leads with a far from bellicose approach. And in fact if you read the Railway Review you can see cartoons and poems which actually are rather poking fun at people who are being very bellicose and calling for and [are] busy sending troops off to the front. So they actually adopted a more cautious approach which people often…the outbreak of the war, it wasn’t universally welcomed in 1914 by any means. But by later on in the year, once the German advance had slowed down and perhaps the nature of the war was becoming more apparent, the war of attritional warfare, a war of huge casualties, the Review concluded in an editorial on the 18th of September:
‘As far as our railway men are concerned we have to take a fresh hold upon our affairs. Our familiar outlook for the moment has vanished. We do not fairly realise what the next step will be. Uncertainty meets us on every hand. The only safe advice is to meet the duties which the eternal now brings us. And so we may emerge under a brighter sun because we have met them.’
And so they entered into the spirit of things within a few weeks. And again there’s another illustration there [shows an image] in the Railway Review showing the layout of ambulance trains and how they accommodate all the wounded and dying soldiers coming back from the front.
So that was just a brief introduction to how the different railway companies across Europe prepared for war. As I say my reading is that the war…was certainly anticipated from the start of the 20th century and quite possibly war with Germany. German war plans had anticipated a war with France in the west and Russia in the east. Because of the European alliance system that, once that started to kick in, the widespread European conflict was very likely.
It could be argued by some people that the Germans had little alternative other than to pursue their war once their preoccupation with the Schlieffen Plan, which was basically a railway mobilisation plan was set in stone, and they had no follow up plan, or no alternative to proceed with other than that. Of course an argument could be made that they should have made a separate peace treaty with France which. But that was never likely given the French were very keen to reoccupy Alsace-Lorraine after 1870.
So war was on the cards and railways were the mechanism for which war was going to be delivered and that was what eventually happened in 1914 because of a confluence of circumstances and because technology at the time allowed this sort of war to take place and to take place very quickly. And so the German units…invaded France and Belgium very quickly and the rest… and although the actual, the impetus broke down very quickly, the early impetus of the war was railway based.
Transcribed by Grace Brady as part of a volunteer project, March 2015