Railway lines had connected the major cities of Europe by the 1850s, making communication and travel easier. But it wasn’t until the tangled web of alliances built up over the 19th century exploded into continent-wide war that the true impact of those tracks was felt by the combatants and civilians of the affected countries. Here are some examples of the way rail redefined what it was to be a European during the WWI era.
The Schlieffen Plan required speedy travel to be effective
Gare de Metz-Ville is the main railway station in Metz, which is now part of France, but was under German control when the station was constructed. At the time, it formed a crucial part of Germany’s Schlieffen Plan, which was intended to see Teutonic troops move through Belgium to pacify France within six weeks. Then, they'd catch trains over to the east in preparation for a fight against poorly organised Russia 24 hours later. It, uh, didn’t work. Instead, we got years of trench warfare, decades of finger-pointing over what went wrong and sturdy rail infrastructure for future generations.
General manoeuvring of troops
In previous battles across the face of Europe, battle moved at the speed of horse. But in the lead-up to WWI, which was in some ways planned for yet in other ways unexpected, the major powers of Europe factored rail into their planning. Mobilisation lessons learned from the Crimean War were taken into account, combining conscription and reserve training with the ability to move men to key points via train. In practice, this meant a more effective way of churning through soldiers as they were delivered to the trenches in their millions.
Railway guns made defensive combat more adaptable
So many of history’s technological advances have been tied to military gain that it was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to turn railway lines into weaponised tracks. Railway guns had seen some use in America and Europe previously, but it wasn’t until WWI that they really took off as a way to get previously static defences to the places they were needed. Germany and France both transported their coastal defence and naval cannons to the front, mounted on semicircular tracks for more efficient aiming. Later models were built for rail travel, rather than retrofitted.
Women got their hands dirty with new career opportunities
In Britain, more than 100,000 railway-working men had signed up to fight the Boche, which left a decent gap in the industry that was handily filled by women doing their bit for England. By the end of the war, women were keeping things running smoothly as engine cleaners, painters, turret-lathers and even ticket collectors. Of course, a lot of them went back to being housewives when the menfolk returned, but it was a powerful symbol of what women could achieve in the workforce.
Rail got Lenin back to Russia for a timely revolution
The last thing you want, fighting a war, is Russia breathing down your neck while you’re trying to break through to Paris to hoist the Imperial German Tricolour. Recognising that regime change in the east could knock Russia out of the conflict, the Germans allowed 32 Russian citizens to travel through their territory in a sealed carriage. The most prominent? Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, who had been cheersing in Zurich with dreams of a workers’ utopia. He arrived in Petrograd, gave a speech, seized control of the state and established an armistice with the Central Powers. Not all in one day.
Watch Railways of the Great War on SBS Friday nights at 7:30pm. Previous episodes are available to stream on SBS On Demand: