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Trains and Railways in World War 1

Updated on July 22, 2015

The Importance of Trains and Train Lines

In today's modern world we take transport systems for granted and often have a choice of different modes of transport for any journey long or short. This was not the case back in 1914 prior to the commencement of World War 1.

To give you some perspective about what transportation existed I identify two significant transportation developments of the time.

  • The Wright brothers first successful powered flight took place in December 1903 (11 years before the commencement of the war)
  • Henry Ford's model T motor car wasn't produced until September 1908 (six years before the commencement of the war).

There was no commercial or military aircraft or vehicles capable of moving large numbers of troops or equipment and the only method of moving men and machines was by train.

Britain’s Transport Problem

Consequentially when Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914 the British Government was faced with the problem of getting troops and equipment to the front line in Europe.

The Background to the Conflict

  • As recorded within my World War1 Military Medals lens the assassination of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand was the spark which ignited the powder keg of political unrest which existed in Europe at the time.
  • Indeed there is a long history of wars and conflicts between European countries prior to WW1 and as from 1907 the German Government heavily influenced by the military commenced a period of militarism with a major rise in military expenditure.
  • The German General staff was concerned that in the event of war it might find its armies fighting France and Russia on two different fronts.
  • Count Alfred Von Schlieffen prepared a plan to concentrate forces against the French initially and then moving thousands of troops and equipment quickly by rail to the Russian front.

Germany was prepared to move Troops and Equipment

It was believed that because Germany had been preparing for WW1 for at least seven years.


Germany Plan for a Quick Mobilisation

  • The Germans thought they would be able to mobilize quickly and defeat an unprepared French army, before moving the bulk of the army by rail to the Russian front.
  • The plan to quickly move armies by rail was a major factor in the decision making process of the General staff and had France and Russia not responded so quickly the plan might have worked. However the plan didn't work and Germany found itself in fighting on two fronts in bitter trench warfare.

The Invasion of Belgium

  • It is worth noting that the Schlieffen Plan required German troops to travel though neutral Belgium using the Belgium rail network in order to engage France, and although Belgium wasn't Germanys primary objective it nevertheless declared war on Belgium within days of WW1 starting.
  • The invasion of Belgium in order to engage the French was the reason Great Britain declared war on Germany and was a significant contributing factor to a change of attitude in America and influenced the decision for America to enter the war.

The Logistics of War

  • Mobilization of each army involved moving tens of thousands of troops, and millions of tons of ammunition and equipment using the existing rail infrastructure.
  • Without doubt the rail networks played a significant part in deployment of troops and equipment, but the use of rail transportation wasn't restricted to standard gauge railways.
  • Narrow gauge lines, like those seen in old coal mines played a major role in the movement of munitions, food and all the other paraphernalia of war.

Getting Heavy Equipment and Supplies to the Front Line

  • Trench warfare required vast quantities of artillery shells and explosives charges, ammunition, food and building materials for supporting trench walls and trench steps to be moved from holding areas to the gun batteries or front line.
  • Many of the artillery shells were simply too heavy to manually carry any distance and often hoists and cranes were used to lift the shells. Getting the heavy shells and other ammunition and supplies from mainline rail stations to military positions was a challenging problem.
  • To resolve this problem troops learnt to lay small gauge tracks and these often temporary lines were used to move equipment, food and importantly to evacuate wounded soldiers


WW1 Narrow gauge train lines in France - World War One - Historic Steam Trains & Railways

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