A Rail Network Designed With Military Purposes In Mind…


The emphasis in most other European states was on land warfare. This was especially so of Prussia. Her geostrategic position was a vulnerable one and, in 1806, her partial, slow and ineffectual mobilization had contributed to a débâcle that had brought her to the very brink of annihilation. In precipitating reform, however, military defeats often prove to be better catalysts than victories. After the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia maintained and refined the conscription laws she had first devised for the Befreiungskrieg. These required all able-bodied men of 20 to serve for three years with the colours and two years with the reserves. For a further 14 years thereafter, they were liable for duty with the Landwehr, a discrete, territorial service. Besides yielding a sizeable standing army, this approach gave Prussia a large pool of trained manpower that she could tap to flesh out embryonic Armeekorps. Raised on a provincial basis, their composition was fixed at one cavalry and two infantry divisions, together with artillery, cavalry and engineering units.

The coming of new forms of transport that promised to speed up the tempo of military operations both facilitated the timely activation and concentration of armed forces and accentuated the importance of such capabilities. Indeed, over the next few decades, the utilization of the steam engine in this regard was a major factor in the erosion of the technological consistency that had prevailed in military affairs since Marlborough’s time. Railways offered comparatively rapid, inexpensive transport and communication. One authority has estimated that they reduced haulage costs per kilometre by between 80 and 85 per cent. They helped create integrated internal markets, accelerated the growth of towns and, like other machines, changed the relationship between humankind and its tools. Even people’s concepts of time were transformed. Once related to the natural and essentially local world – the rising and setting of the sun, the turning of the seasons, the varying speed of travel achievable by horse or on foot – time now became an absolute. Trains could move with a regularity and predictability that the horse- drawn mail coaches could not match. The very notion of timetables demanded the synchronization of time.

Built between 1822 and 1825, the Stockton to Darlington line triggered a railway-construction boom that quickly radiated across the home of the industrial revolution to the European mainland and the eastern seaboard of the USA. Traversed by George Stephenson’s Rocket at speeds of up to 56 kilometres per hour, the Liverpool to Manchester line opened in 1830, bringing these cities within two hours’ travelling time of one another. The ‘Railway King’, George Hudson, was preeminent among the early railroad entrepreneurs. He made a fortune in northern England between 1836 and 1847, only to lose it over the next two years as the initial bonanza petered out in Britain. The same occurred in France, too, where the first major railway – a coal-freighting line between Andrézieux on the Loire and St Étienne – had opened in 1828. Laissez faire attitudes towards railway construction led to wasteful duplications of effort on some routes and the neglect of others, a plethora of gauges, a disjointed network and, particularly in the larger, nodal towns, a surfeit of separate termini – several of which were named after great battles – belonging to different companies. Such inefficiencies were largely responsible for the 1847 crash in Britain and, despite calls for more governmental regulation, persisted after the rationalization caused by the slump. In France, by contrast, the main problem was one of too much state interference, albeit of an indirect kind. Here, in the years 1835–44, railway investment averaged only 34 million Francs, climbing to 175 mil- lion between 1845 and 1854. During the next nine years, however, it soared to 487 million.

Germany and the USA were the principal beneficiaries of rail construction in the period 1850–70. More will be said about the latter country elsewhere, but, between 1855 and 1859, rail construction absorbed all of 19.7 per cent of the former’s total investment. 5 Although, again, laissez faire attitudes prevailed, there was appreciably more control of the development of the network in the German states, particularly in Hanover and Baden, than in France or Britain. From 1842 onwards, the Prussian authorities also sought to foster railroad construction by guaranteeing interest repayments for those entrepreneurs willing to invest in such ventures.

If, like Wellington, E. F. Kankrin – finance minister to Tsar Nicholas I – feared that railways, by allowing the lower classes to move around, threatened the established social order and could lead to concentrations of malcontents in inconvenient places, 6 there were others, particularly Germans, who were struck by the advantages that this new mode of transport offered for internal and external security alike. Within three years of the opening of the Manchester to Liverpool line in Britain, Friedrich Harkort, the politically active Westphalian entrepreneur and publicist, was calling for a rail network designed with military purposes in mind, while, in 1842, Karl Pönitz, a Saxon, published a book which underscored the importance of this concept. Perhaps of most significance of all, however, were some comments made at the same juncture by Helmut von Moltke, future chief of staff of the Prussian Army: ‘Every new development of railways is a military advantage; and for the national defence a few million on the completion of our railways is far more profitably employed than on our new fortresses.

If the value of fortresses was not what it once had been, the utility of railways was rapidly becoming apparent. Barely had Britain’s Manchester to Liverpool line opened in 1830 than it was used to move a regiment of infantry; in two hours, they covered a distance that they could not have marched in under two days. 8 The Austrians, too, were quick to exploit the strategic flexibility bestowed by trains. In 1851, at a time of tension with Prussia, they employed them to reinforce their Bohemian garrisons at speed; they moved all of 14 500 personnel, 8000 horses, 48 guns and 464 wagons some 300 kilometres in just two days. Similarly, during the Franco-Austrian War eight years later, the French were to transport a total of 604 000 personnel and 129 000 horses within a period of 86 days.

Where available, trains greatly simplified the movement of armies. Providing they had sufficient coal and water, these machines, like ships, could keep going round the clock; they merely needed an occasional change of crew. Travelling by train at night or in poor weather posed far fewer problems than movement by road did at such times, and, spared gruelling, lengthy marches, units arrived at their destination, not only far faster, but fresher and with fewer losses, too. Railways were also capable of carrying a variety of loads, from troops to guns, foodstuffs and munitions. They enabled forces to be succoured from afar, though the difficulty of distributing supplies from the railhead to units in the field – units that might themselves be on the move – remained and was not always over- come with complete success, as French experience in their struggle with Austria in 1859 attests. Although, for the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, the British and French reduced their need for pack animals and horse-drawn vehicles by constructing a railway between the port of Balaklava and their positions on the Saboun Hills, some ten kilometres away and 400 metres above sea-level, they could not eliminate it. Whilst this line enabled the allies to move matériel – notably ammunition for their heavy artillery, which, in all, devoured over 250 000 rounds – at a rate of up to 200 tonnes per day, then, as now, continuous supply required a continuous transport ‘loop’.


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