Engines of War

How Wars Were Won & Lost on the Railways


By Christian Wolmar

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The birth of the railway in the early 1830’s revolutionized the way the world waged war. From armored engines with swiveling guns, to the practice of track sabotage, to the construction of tracks that crossed frozen Siberian lakes, the “iron road” facilitated conflict on a scale that was previously unimaginable. It not only made armies more mobile, but widened fighting fronts and increased the power and scale of available weaponry; a deadly combination.

In Engines of War, Christian Wolmar examines all the engagements in which the railway played a part: the Crimean War; the American Civil War; both world wars; the Korean War; and the Cold War, with its mysterious missile trains; and illustrates how the railway became a deadly weapon exploited by governments across the world.




While writing my previous book, Blood, Iron & Gold: How Railways Transformed the World, I stumbled upon the role of railways in war and saw that this had been greatly underplayed by historians, even those interested in railways. Researching this book, I realized that even my initial thoughts on the subject fell far short of the mark. The railways, I discovered, were as integral to the development of methods of warfare as they were to the numerous aspects of modern life that I had catalogued in Blood, Iron & Gold.

Most writers on the subject of railways and war – of which there have been remarkably few, as can be gleaned from my bibliography – have focussed mainly on how the railways coped with the extra demands placed on them, particularly during the two world wars. In this book, however, I have concentrated on what I felt was a far more interesting subject: how the creation of the railways led to a tremendous escalation of the scale of warfare and how increasingly they were used in a strategic way to conduct military operations. Over the course of the nineteenth century, it gradually dawned on military leaders that railways were a crucial weapon in their armoury, and as they exploited this great improvement in their logistics, their ability to amass ever larger and well-equipped armies increased exponentially. A recurring theme, which resulted from the growing military use of the railways during this century, was the constant tension between railway managers and military leaders who were often unable to understand that the iron road could not just be subjected to their whims. Railways, right from their beginnings, were used by governments to transport troops quickly in order to quell internal riots or uprisings and consequently the railway companies, unwittingly or not, became agents of the state at a very early stage in the history of the railways.

There was another, indirect, way in which the railways contributed to the escalation in the scale of warfare. As the tracks expanded across countries, they became a unifying force for nations, which in turn made conflict between them more likely since unification helped foment nationalistic feelings. The strong economic stimulus resulting from the creation of the railways also encouraged expansion and consequently aggressive intent towards neighbouring countries. Moreover, richer societies were able to devote more resources to waging war and building up their defensive and offensive capacities. Railways also enabled colonial powers to establish greater dominance over the countries in their possession, sometimes, as we shall see, with the result that the eventual rebellions were ultimately stronger. All these themes are explored in the book.

I have tried to make Engines of War as international as possible, examining a wide variety of conflicts, but inevitably I have had to ignore several wars in which railways played a role, such as, for example, the Mexican revolution and civil war of the 1910s in which the railways were a frequent target. Inevitably, too, the easy accessibility of sources ensures there is a strong focus on Britain and something of a bias towards the British side of conflicts. I have, too, concentrated on the strategic aspects of railways, rather than their use – and overuse – by passengers at times of war, although this is sometimes referred to. I have also largely focussed on railways in the theatres of war, leaving out much detail about the exploitation of British railways by the government in the wars, partly because this has been better covered in previous books. Since the subject has been little covered by previous authors, there were a lot of potential avenues – or rather tracks – to explore, but I have tried to home in on facets of the story which best reveal how the role of railways in war has been consistently understated.

This book is set out broadly chronologically, with chapters that for the most part encompass a single war. I start by setting out a very brief assessment of war before the railway age in Chapter One, and the following two chapters cover, respectively, the Crimean War and the American Civil War. The latter is undoubtedly the first genuine railway war, fought by troops delivered to the front by railway and on battlegrounds frequently determined by the location of the train. Chapter Four mainly looks at the Franco-Prussian War, where interestingly the side with the best railways lost, but also examines the wars waged by Prussia in the run-up to that conflict.

In Chapter Five, I look at a motley collection of conflicts which occurred between the Franco-Prussian War and the First World War, including various British colonial wars, such as its victory over Sudan rebels facilitated by the construction of a long railway across the desert, and the Boer War, fought over a single railway line. This chapter also covers the most important and bloodiest war of this period, the Russo-Japanese War, triggered by the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway. In Chapter Six, I set out the build-up to the First World War, which involved massive investment in the railways across Europe, and assess A. J. P. Taylor's famous assertion that the rigidity of railway timetables triggered off the whole war. I devote two chapters to the First World War, in which railways played a significant part in virtually every theatre of that conflict. I analyse in depth the initial phases of the war, in which the railways played a crucial role and effectively determined the location of the front line. I consider the paradox that it was the increased mobility afforded by the railways which led to the stalemate lasting three and a half years on the Western Front, while the relative lack of railways in the east resulted in a less static war. I examine all aspects of the use of the railways, ranging from the often underestimated role of the light railways in delivering material to the front line as well as the far more famous attacks by Arab forces led by T. E. Lawrence on the Hejaz Railway on the Arabian peninsula.

While it might have been expected that railways would have played a lesser role in the Second World War given the technological changes in the intervening quarter of a century, this turned out not to be the case. I examine the reasons for this, and focus particularly on the German invasion of Russia, where the logistics were fundamental to the outcome. Finally, in Chapter Ten, I set out a few surprising and more recent aspects of railway warfare, notably the difficulties the Americans found in destroying the North Koreans’ railway supply lines and the remarkable story of the Russian missile trains which carried weapons capable of blowing up American cities. And I finish by trying to draw out a few of the recurring themes of the book.

While I have made no attempt to give a comprehensive account of each war, I have attempted to set out the basic facts of each conflict to facilitate discussion of the role of the railways. Obviously, given the need to keep this book to a manageable length, it has been impossible to include great detail but I have tried, at least, to outline the cause of each war, the key battles and the outcome.

I suspect that even the least railway-minded reader of this book would agree that the way the military role of railways has been ignored in the past is quite remarkable and possibly can only be explained by the modern obsession with the motor car, at the expense of all other modes of transport. This example from a website featuring the Red Ball Express motor transport in the Second World War mentioned in Chapter Nine may be extreme but it is in no way unique in its ignorance: ‘Since the time of Alexander the Great large armies have crossed the world's military landscape with ponderous difficulty, their seemingly endless lines of animal-drawn carts and wagons trailing far behind. How different this is from the pace and dimension of modern warfare. The highly mechanized U.S. Army of WWII had the ability to cover vast distances at speeds unimagined by even the greatest of the Great Captains of old.’1 No mention here of the previous century, during which rail transport had been the crucial line of communication, and how, for example, the railways delivered 23,000 Northern troops across half the breadth of America in just two weeks during the American Civil War, almost a hundred years before the Second World War. The same website goes on to quote an ‘observer’ suggesting that the Second World War was ‘a 100 percent internal combustion engine war’. That is just 100 per cent wrong, as is made patently clear in Chapter Nine, which shows that nearly 100 per cent of US troops travelled to their ships by rail.

Even in cases where I thought, on preliminary reading, that the role of the railways may have been minimal in a particular conflict, it emerged quite often that it was crucial. The Second World War, covered in Chapter Nine, is a case in point. Just like the generals who made such heavy use of the railways, historians have tended to relegate their role to that of backroom boy and only seemed to notice them when they went wrong. In fact, the railways were at times far more important in deciding outcomes than the HQs where those same generals spent their days. Hitler is simply the most glaring example of a military leader who dismissed the importance of logistics, but even a cursory examination of the Second World War demonstrates clearly that he made a grave error in ignoring this key aspect of warfare.

There are countless military histories where the role of the railways has been ignored or greatly underplayed. Indeed, at times railways have been written out of the histories, as, too often, have the wider problems of logistics, which, it is no exaggeration to say, were often a decisive factor in the outcome of a conflict. There is, therefore, quite an imbalance to redress, which is why readers may feel that I have gone too far the other way and overemphasized the role of railways in this account. I do not feel that this is the case, but I leave the reader to judge. Of course, I have tended to highlight features of those battles in which railways played a key part, and also stressed their role, but where necessary I have mentioned the relative roles played by other means of transportation, including road vehicles.

I am not a military historian and therefore am unfamiliar with many of the terms used in military histories. Indeed, I have always been bemused by them, not understanding the difference, say, between a division and a company, and with no idea of which is bigger. In a way my ignorance has been useful because so many books assume that readers know the difference when, in fact, I suspect a majority do not understand the precise meanings of these terms. Therefore every time I came across them, I interpreted them according to this list provided to me by the ever helpful librarians at the Imperial War Museum:

A section led by a lance corporal: 15

A platoon under a subaltern: 60

A company under a captain: 250

A battalion under a major: 1,000

A regiment under a colonel: 2,000

A brigade under a brigadier: 4,000

A division under a major general: 12,000

A corps under a lieutenant general: 50,000

An army under a general: 200,000

These figures are, of course, approximate and have varied over time and between nations, but I am assured that they are a good general guide.

I can make no claim to expertise on military matters, but one thing struck me consistently during the writing of this book. Virtually all the wars covered had very little clear purpose and, notably, resulted in a worse – or certainly no better – situation than before the conflict had taken place. There are of course exceptions, such as the American Civil War and the Second World War, but overall the readiness to go to war seems all too easily to overrule the caution that should be born of studying the history of warfare, a mistake which has been repeated several times during my lifetime. Writing this book has been a salutary experience and I hope that reading it will strengthen the view that war is an evil that is necessary only very rarely. With Iraq still suffering and the Afghan War still raging as I write these words, all I can say is: Plus ça change.

As with all my books, I have been greatly dependent on the availability of source material. Since the importance of railways in war has, as I mentioned, been largely shunned by military historians, and railway writers tend to focus on the technology and the mechanics rather than the effect of the railways, there are great gaps in our knowledge of this element of warfare. I have tried to fill a few through combing the library at the Imperial War Museum, but mostly I have relied on secondary sources, which at times are sparse and, inevitably, occasionally contradictory. There is, therefore, plenty of scope for lots of PhDs to be written on this hidden factor in conflict.

If there was any doubt that the use of railways in war is a neglected subject, I leave the last word of this introduction to Lloyd George. He noted that the histories of the First World War tended to ignore this aspect of warfare and in 1932 commented on the coverage in John Buchan's History of the War: ‘The Battle of the Somme has about 60 pages, and yet it did not make that much difference in the war; but the shells and the guns that enabled the army to fight it, all the organisation of transport behind the lines, do you know how much is given to this? 17 lines.’



We are used to thinking of railways as a benign invention which brought untold benefits to the world. For the first time ever, people were able to travel long distances cheaply and in relative comfort. The railways opened up vast new markets for the products of the factories springing up in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and were the catalyst for the far-reaching changes that created our modern way of life. They brought in their wake all kinds of positive developments which might not seem immediately obvious. The health of urban citizens improved greatly as fresh food became far more widely available and the railways, which during the second part of the nineteenth century were by far the world's largest businesses, were instrumental in improving education to ensure there was a supply of skilled labour to operate and maintain them.1 While today trains have been to a great extent superseded by the car and the aeroplane, they still play a vital role in many countries’ transport systems, offering a particularly pleasant and relaxing way to travel, and, remarkably, the burgeoning network of high-speed lines is now attracting people back onto the railways.

Yet, there is another side to their history, one which has rarely been told and which shows that technology developed for one purpose can so easily be harnessed for another, one which might surprise or even appal its creators. Railways were first conceived as a way of transporting goods. Early ‘railways’, such as the Stockton & Darlington completed in 1825, were primarily mineral lines with the principal task of taking coal from a mine to the nearest waterway. However, railway companies soon found it profitable to carry passengers, and it was the Liverpool & Manchester, a far more sophisticated enterprise, which truly inaugurated the railway age. Opened in 1830, the Liverpool & Manchester was the first railway in the modern sense of the word as it was a double-track line operated by locomotive haulage and linked two major towns with traffic, passenger and freight, flowing in both directions. The concept of hauling freight wagons and passenger carriages on permanent metal tracks using locomotives soon spread around the world, reaching the United States, France, Belgium and Bavaria by 1835, and a dozen other countries, including the far-flung Spanish colony of Cuba, by the end of the decade.

Most of these early lines were experimental but were developed with the knowledge that they would be the start of a network. Already, ambitious schemes to create country-wide and transcontinental systems were being put forward and, while no one quite realized just how fast this new invention would spread, the railways’ early sponsors soon became aware of their potential. So did governments and, notably, their military leaders. Almost as soon as the Liverpool & Manchester was opened, troops despatched to quell unrest in Ireland were being carried on its trains. While in Britain the development of the railway system was a haphazard process in which the government did not play an active role, elsewhere there was an immediate awareness of the railways’ potential for military use. In Belgium, the construction of the railways was seen as a key means of protecting the country against invaders, while in Prussia, as early as the 1830s, there was already discussion of their military value. According to a history of the role of railways in French–German relations, ‘the potential of railroads to alter the nature of warfare was quickly recognized… The first reflex in the 1830s was to assume that railways would bring a decisive edge for the defense; interior connections would enable a national army to concentrate its forces swiftly against any offensive thrust by an invading foe.’2 Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the railways were an invention for which the military had been waiting for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. They would become a key development in the technology of warfare because of their ability to shift unprecedented amounts of matériel and huge numbers of people. It was, therefore, not so much that they could be used as a weapon, though armoured trains would play a significant role in several conflicts, but that they allowed a step change in the scale of warfare. Once railways became involved, the very nature of warfare changed, and wars increased in length, intensity, and destructiveness. However, as with other innovations, it took a long time for the military to understand their importance and exploit them fully.

Wars have been waged by human beings ever since they formed themselves into tribes or other groups and the history of warfare is one of growth in the scale of conflict nourished by technological progress, not just in weaponry but in the means of logistical support. To understand how railways affected the ways in which wars were pursued, it is essential briefly to examine how they were conducted before the dawning of the railway age. The earliest people developed weapons in order to kill animals both to protect themselves from predators and to obtain food, and, as they formed into tribes, to use in battles with neighbouring groups. Spears and arrows were initially made by sharpening wood and later became stone-tipped. When first soft and then harder metals were discovered, these were quickly used to improve the effectiveness of weapons. Otzi, the iceman shepherd who lived 5,300 years ago, was discovered in the Alps in 1991 with a copper axe, a flint knife and flint-tipped arrows and a bow, suggesting that weaponry was already well developed. It was around then that societies were becoming more economically advanced and thus increasingly militarized as they sought to protect themselves. Weapons were important but large-scale wars were only made possible by the establishment of settled societies that fed themselves through agriculture and were able to produce a surplus of food; as Jeremy Black, author of War: A Short History, explains, once certain groups became more affluent, they invariably had to protect themselves against those who were less well-off: ‘Social change helped alter the nature of war. This change was linked to economic transformation with the move from hunter-gatherer societies to those focussing on specialized agriculture, both pastoral and arable.’3

Thanks to the surplus of food that could be used to supply warriors, settled societies were able to raise armies to fight in battles where mobility and speed became crucial assets. Horses were first domesticated as early as 4000 bc but it took another couple of thousand years before someone got the idea of using them in conflicts by hitching them to chariots carrying armed men into battle. Around 1700 bc, the Hittites, using chariots with spoked rather than solid wheels, which made them far lighter than previous versions, were able to dominate Anatolia and establish a kingdom in a large swathe of modern-day Turkey and Syria. Thanks to their efficient and manoeuvrable vehicles, these charioteers became the elite and the decisive force in battles. This is just one early example of the way that the progress of the techniques of war was to prove decisive in many conflicts. The three great empires of Classical times – Han China, Persia and Imperial Rome – all created standing armies but eventually found themselves vulnerable to tribal groups or invaders adept at waging mobile warfare using the horse with the minimum of support. Harnessing the speed and size of horses changed the nature of warfare. While initially they were unprotected and vulnerable, at some point between the fifth and tenth centuries – the precise date is difficult to determine because of the absence of contemporary sources in the Dark Ages – the horses began to wear light armour, which by the thirteenth century had become heavier and thicker. Massed charges of such heavy cavalry were the blitzkrieg of the early years of the second millennium. There were also developments in the technology of archery, notably the longbow, which was decisive in several battles of what became known as the Hundred Years War (which actually lasted very intermittently from 1337 to 1453), and later the use of gunpowder and cannons became vital in enabling sieges to be broken far more easily.

Technology, therefore, determined the success of warfare with improvements first to bows, and later guns, often proving crucial to the outcome. As ever, it always took time for soldiers and their leaders to understand how to use these new weapons and the decisive factor would frequently prove to be organization rather than technology. Well-disciplined and drilled infantry, for example, could see off cavalry even before the development of the machine gun. Black suggests the equation between weaponry and equine forces half a millennium ago was in balance: ‘In Europe, it was unclear that enhanced firepower would change the nature of war. Instead, there was an emphasis on horse armies, while Swiss pikemen acquired a formidable reputation in the late fifteenth century, routing Charles the Bold of Burgundy at Granson, Murten and Nancy in 1476–7.’4 In what has become known as the ‘military revolution’ between 1560 and 1660, the increasing sophistication of weapons required, in turn, the training of the soldiers using them and their incorporation into permanent armies. And once a country establishes such an army, transport requirements come to the fore. Whereas previously armies had consisted of perhaps a few thousand men, their numbers now increased exponentially. Louis XIV of France, for example, raised an army of 120,000 in 1673 to see off the Dutch and even in peacetime he had a standing force of 150,000 men, though only a proportion were actually permanently in garrisons.

This is where a hitherto neglected aspect of war, logistics – the science of managing the movement of men and matériel – begins to enter the equation to a much greater extent. Larger armies needed more skill and planning to move around. The very word ‘logistics’, derived from the French logistique, initially referred only to military transport since, in pre-capitalist days, there was little movement of goods on anything like a military scale5 and the ability to develop expertise in logistics was as important as introducing new types of weapons. Compared to the fleet forces of previous generations, armies in the second half of the sixteenth century became massive lumbering enterprises that kept growing in size as they increased in complexity. According to Martin van Creveld, who has chronicled the logistics of battles between the Thirty Years War in the early seventeenth century and the Second World War, ‘a force numbering, say, 30,000 men, might be followed by a crowd of women, children, servants and sutlers [suppliers] of anywhere between 50 and 150 per cent of its own size and it had to drag this huge “tail” behind it wherever it went’.6 Armies largely consisted of uprooted men who had no other home and consequently their baggage, especially that of officers, assumed monumental proportions. Van Creveld suggests that an army in the early seventeenth century might have one wagon, hauled by two or four horses, for every fifteen men and the proportion could, at times, be double that. However, even such a large fleet of wagons was not sufficient to keep an army, and especially the horses, provided with food. There was no question of supplying armies from a base, given the slowness of any method of transport and the huge volume of fodder required. This did not present a particularly great problem when moving through friendly territory since the army would establish a supply system using local markets to buy produce (although armies could be notoriously bad payers and undisciplined even in friendly territory). For the most part, soldiers were expected to buy their own food, and while there was plenty of scope for this system to break down or be subject to corruption, for the most part it worked reasonably well.

The difficulties really started when an army began moving through hostile territory. As van Creveld puts it, ‘from time immemorial the problem had been solved simply by having the troops take whatever they required. More or less well organized plunder was the rule rather than the exception.’7 Consequently, armies ‘were forced to keep on the move in order to stay alive’.8 The choice of which town to besiege, therefore, was made not necessarily as a result of a particular location's strategic importance, but rather the availability of local supplies of food. The best defence against being besieged was to have been the victim of a previous assault in which the attackers had eaten up everything in the immediate vicinity!

Once armies expanded in the early seventeenth century, relying on plunder or living off the land no longer became feasible for any length of time since the number of men was too great to allow them to obtain sufficient supplies. Either the armies had to be on the move the whole time or a reliable supply system to provide men with the basic requirements of food and shelter had to be created. Rivers initially proved to be the vital line of communication and the most successful armies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries tended to be those that made best use of navigable waterways or, like the British, Dutch and Swedes, of the seas.


On Sale
Nov 1, 2011
Page Count
368 pages

Christian Wolmar

About the Author

Christian Wolmar is a British writer and broadcaster. He’s the author of 20 books, including a series of eight classic books of railway history. In 2021, Wolmar was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He has lectured several times at the online One Day University and has twice spoken at the Pennsylvania Railroad Museum, as well as at numerous other venues in the United States, including the Brookings Institution. His books have been widely translated into numerous languages including Italian, Spanish, Polish, and Mandarin. He's based in the UK.

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