Railway yard at Balaclava.
During much of the time the railway was being built, the fighting had stopped for the winter and it seemed for a while that it might never resume. The Tsar, Nicholas I, had died and was replaced by the more modernizing Alexander II, but in the early days of his rule he did not have sufficient confidence to call a halt to the crazy conflict. In Britain, too, there had been political changes. The government had fallen as a result of the scandalous conduct of the war brought to the public’s attention by Russell’s graphic reports. Lord Aberdeen, the Prime Minister, was replaced by Lord Palmerston but that only served to encourage the British to redouble their efforts, given the national embarrassment about the failings of the 1854 campaign and the far better performance of their allies, the French, who had only recently been the enemy. Now with the railway fully functioning, the assault by the Allies, bolstered by the arrival of the Sardinian army, resumed. Thanks to the railway, supplies of ammunition could be brought up the hill to enable the bombardment, which had been halted for six months, to recommence. The attack, which began on Easter Monday, 9 April 1855, was the fiercest bombardment in all military history until that time, and lasted ten days. The railway played an invaluable role in supplying this attack, which involved the firing of 47,000 artillery rounds, including a far higher proportion than previously of the heavier shells, which could now be carried up to the guns far more easily.
The results, however, were disappointing, and the siege was not broken. The Russians managed to repair much of the damage caused by the artillery fire and, more important, no proper plan for an assault on the town, which would have to be a joint effort with the French, had been drawn up. The hope had been that the Russians would simply melt away under the bombardment but, despite incurring massive casualties under the artillery barrage which had turned the town into a charnel house, they remained in place. Further similar bombardments in June and August again failed to break Russian resolve and it was not until yet another attack in early September that the siege was finally broken. On each occasion the railway was vital in supplying artillery fire on an unprecedented scale and the final bombardment was on an even greater scale, with 307 guns being used to fire 150,000 rounds in just four days. As Cooke concludes, the railway turned Sevastopol into ‘the first victim of the modern application of artillery to war. Never before had so many guns been concentrated into such a small area. Never before had ammunition been available in such prodigal quantities.’ While the railway might appear to have been a modest little line, its importance in military history should not be underestimated. As Cooke goes on to say, ‘the idea of a relatively sophisticated and complex system of transport being especially built to feed the guns was being adopted for the first time. It was to reach its zenith on the Western Front in the First World War.’ Whereas previously railways had been used to carry troops, here a specially built line became for the first time a vital part of the line of communication.
After the collapse of Sevastopol, the war meandered to a halt, its futility slowly dawning on the new Tsar, who signed a rather humiliating peace treaty in Paris in March 1856. In the intervening months, however, the railway had been improved and was used to carry vast amounts of supplies to the British camp on the plateau as the generals had expected the war to continue and did not want the troops to spend a second winter out in the open. In the event, the utterly futile war cost nearly a quarter of a million lives, mostly to disease, and it may well have lasted longer had not the railway been built because the allies were intent on continuing their siege however much the Russians resisted.
Of course, not all the supplies arrived by rail. The road between Balaklava and the front line was eventually greatly improved but the railways continued to carry most of the heavy matériel, an average of 250-300 tons per day during the bombardments, the equivalent of perhaps a thousand carloads pulled by a couple of horses each, showing the huge capacity afforded by even such a Heath Robinson contraption. At its peak, the railway was worked by a huge group of 1,000 men, including many Turks, and carried 700 tons per day. The French, who fired more, but mostly lighter, shells than the British, did not have the benefit of a railway. However, their front line was more easily reached from their base, which was on the other side of the Crimean peninsula from Balaklava, partly because they had ensured the connecting road was well maintained.
As Brian Cooke sums up, ‘the railway did not save the British Army’, since most of the poor soldiers who arrived in the initial wave of landings died of disease and starvation in the first winter, but it did have a huge impact on the war through the simple expedient of allowing goods to be cleared out of Balaklava and used by front-line troops. More importantly, it taught the more far-seeing elements in the British military the importance of basic logistics since the army, until then, had seemed to assume that ‘if supplies of ammunition, food, fuel and clothing were delivered in sufficient quantities to the British base then they would distribute themselves automatically’. Peto was extremely proud of what had been achieved. After listing the achievement of building the line so fast, he said: ‘I received a letter from Field Marshal Burgoyne on his return from the command of the Engineering Staff, stating it was impossible to overrate the services rendered by the railway, or its effect in shortening the time of the siege and alleviating the fatigues and suffering of the troops.’
While the Crimean conflict is possibly best remembered for the work of Florence Nightingale, it marked another significant event: the first time that a railway was used to carry injured soldiers away from a theatre of war. While the railway was being built, the engineers and navvies had witnessed the appalling sight of the injured and dying being led down the hill to Balaklava, as Russell described in one of his dispatches: ‘A large number of sick and I fear dying men were sent into Balaklava today on French mule litters… many of the men were all but dead. With closed eyes, open mouths and ghastly attenuated faces, they were borne along, two and two, the thin stream of breath, visible in the air, alone showing that they were still alive. One figure was a horror – a corpse, stone dead, strapped upright in its seat, its legs hanging stiffly down, the eyes staring wide open, the teeth set on the protruding tongue, the head and body nodding with frightful mockery of life at each stride of the mule.’ Russell noted with satisfaction that now the railway was being used to bring down injured and sick troops: ‘Four wagons filled with sick and wounded soldiers, ran from headquarters to the town in less than half an hour. The men were propped up on their knapsacks and seemed very comfortable. What a change from the ghastly processions one met with some weeks ago, formed of dead and dying men, hanging from half-starved horses or dangling about on French mule-litters.’ As we shall see, it would nevertheless not be until the First World War that specially designed ambulance trains would carry out this task.
Just as the French Army had used the railway between Paris and the Mediterranean to move troops to the Crimea, their second major rail movement five years later took the same route, making use of the now completed Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée (PLM) to reach the country’s southern seaports. This deployment was on a much larger scale than previous rail transportation of troops and would have a much more direct impact on the outcome of the conflict. However, it would also highlight the limitations of moving men rapidly towards a conflict without proper consideration of the rest of the army’s logistical needs. The troops’ destination was Lombardy to help the Italians chase the Austrians out of their country. Napoleon III had agreed to help the Kingdom of Savoy (Savoie) take Lombardy from the Austrians in return for Savoy giving the strip of the Mediterranean coast that included Nice and the French-speaking part of Savoy south of Geneva back to the French.
Since neither the coastal nor the alpine railways between France and Italy had yet been built, the troops had to travel down to the Mediterranean to complete their journey by ship to Genoa. Pratt reports that in a three-month period from April 1859 the French railways carried more than 600,000 troops and 125,000 horses, with a maximum of 12,000 being transported in a single day, without, moreover, affecting the existing passenger traffic. While other historians have suggested that there may be an element of double counting in these statistics since the numbers do appear massive, Pratt’s hypothesis that an army could be carried by rail six times faster than by road, as well as arriving in a far better state, is difficult to challenge.
The Austrians were surprised by the speed of the arrival of the French troops in Italy and their own preparations had been marred by their failure to learn from the mistakes of their 1850 experience when despatching troops between Vienna and Bohemia. Not only were they short of railway lines, but they had still not grasped how to make effective use of them. The station at Vienna, the staging point for reinforcements from the whole of the Habsburg Empire, was choked with supplies, a situation that was exacerbated by the lack of rolling stock to take them to the front. This is a perennial issue at times of war because returning trains of empty wagons is considered by the military to be low priority when, in fact, as railway managers know, it is vital to ensure an efficient line of communication. On average, it took fourteen days for a unit to be taken from Vienna to the Lombardy battlefield, a journey that with efficient use of the railway should have been completed in just two. Admittedly, transport to the front was made more difficult by the steep gradients on the Semmering railway between Vienna and Trieste, the world’s first mountain railway, since trains had to be split into three sections to get up the mountains, slowing down the whole process. Despite these difficulties, the Austrians made extensive use of their railways but the lack of a route that reached the front line directly meant the troops had to march a considerable distance from the railhead and consequently they arrived far more tired than their enemies.
The French on the other hand had quickly learnt how to make good tactical use of the railways. After disembarking at Genoa, the troops travelled on an Italian railway to head north to Alessandria, from where the Franco-Sardinian forces used local lines to defeat the Austrians on a couple of occasions. On 20 May 1859, the Austrians were beaten at Montebello because, as The Times reported, ‘train after train arrived by railway from Voghera [about sixty miles away], each train disgorging its hundreds of armed men and immediately hastening back for more’. Then a couple of weeks later, the French used the railway to outflank the Austrians at Vercelli, forcing them out of the town and leaving them exposed to face defeat at Magenta.
It was, however, inadequate logistics on the French side that prevented a total victory. They were not able to force their opponents out of Italy completely because they ran out of supplies that would have allowed them to continue their attack. The soldiers went without food for twenty-four hours but, as ever, it was the lack of fodder for the horses that prevented them giving chase as the Austrians retreated after a third defeat, on 24 June at Solferino, tearing up railway lines and destroying bridges as they fled. The Austrians, therefore, would hold on to Venetia, the north-eastern corner of Italy, for a few more years.
Both the Austrians and the French made use of the railways during this war to take away their wounded and sick from the battle line but neither thought of providing any special facilities for their comfort or their medical needs. Injured and suffering soldiers were simply dumped on the floor of goods and cattle trucks or into third-class carriages with wooden benches, mostly with no medical attention available on board. Their suffering in these conditions did not go unnoticed. After seeing the inadequate transport arrangements, in Germany a Dr Gurlt suggested that hammocks should be suspended from hooks screwed into the roof of the goods wagons transporting the wounded so that they would not have to lie on the floor. The implementation of this well-intended idea proved to be flawed: not only were the roofs of the wagons too weak to support the weight, but the movement of the trains rocked the hammocks so violently that they dashed the wounded men against the sides of the vehicles. Instead, the Prussian war minister Albrecht Graf von Roon ordered that in any future wars the walking wounded should travel in normal passenger accommodation – the class determined by rank, of course – while the badly wounded should be given straw-filled sacks to lie on. Crucially, a doctor and attendant were to travel on each train with suitable medical equipment. Thus the notion of the ambulance train was born.
The different sides in future conflicts drew their own lessons from these early uses of the railways in war, not always the right ones. The French, for example, were misled by the ease of transporting the troops to fight the Austrians in Italy, as Allan Mitchell, a historian of the railways of France and Germany, suggests: ‘The tracks of the PLM were superbly suited for the purposes of that decade, capable of shipping men and supplies from Paris to Marseille.’ Yet, he asks, suppose France should be called upon to transfer military forces across the country, say, from Bordeaux in the west to Sedan in the east? That would, of course, happen in the Franco-Prussian War, when the limitations of the existing system would be exposed. Mitchell calls the 1859 experience an ‘optical illusion’ which misled the French into thinking they could rely on their private railway companies in the event of war and that railways were an easy way of deploying armies that required little preparation.
The Crimean railway, too, was something of an exception in that it was specifically built for a military purpose, while in the subsequent history of the use of railways in war, there were very few such purely strategic railways and, rather, it was civilian railways that were used for military ends. As we shall see, military considerations were at times allowed to influence the routeing and design of railways, with the result that the railway companies were helped financially to build lines in recognition of their military potential. Nevertheless, for the most part, railways were built for commercial or even political reasons but later happened to serve a military purpose as well, since they linked major towns or connected the system with ports. In the United States, there was never any notion of the railways having a military purpose, but they were to play a crucial, and indeed decisive, role in the Civil War, the first conflict where the outcome was greatly influenced by which side was better able to exploit the iron road.