“Surtout une Guerre de Chemin de Fer”: The Paramount Role of Railways in The Great War

Introduction

“Cette guerre est surtout une guerre de chemin de fer.” – French General Joseph Joffre[1]

World War I has often been historically associated with advances in military technology and the brutal impact those improvements had on the conduct and outcome of that war – and all future conflicts. Some of these technologies were invented to solve the problems that the Great War posed, while others were adapted and brought into use in ways that had not previously been possible or viable. Innovations in tactics and strategy were part and parcel of these novel technological approaches and came to define the war experience for many who lived through it, as well as in the popular imagination ever since.

Most people, when asked what image defines the First World War for them, would describe the impressive and widespread use of trenches and their development into semi-permanent military infrastructure; the use of and innovation in trench warfare – from electric lights and steel reinforcements to communication lines and well-organized trench networks – could certainly be considered a technological aspect of the war. Those trenches were intimately associated with another major technology of the war: the machine gun. Rapid-fire weaponry had been used in previous conflicts, but it had never been adopted on such a mass scale or used so effectively against troops following classic mass bayonet charge tactics; the success of the machine gun reinforced the stagnation of trench warfare, making it nearly impossible to cross the open ground of ‘No Man’s Land’ safely.[2] Other respondents would mention artillery as being the prime military technology of the war, as it caused seventy percent of all casualties, accounted for a great deal of wartime production, and was a near-constant aural presence during the four years of combat.[3] Artillery was not only present during the land battles of the war, it also was the prime means of naval surface combat, with ever-larger guns being implemented on battleships and dreadnoughts throughout the four years of fighting, some of which were able to hit targets nearly twenty miles away.[4] Yet artillery was not the only technology making an impact at sea – Germany used submarine warfare in a way that no other power had previously attempted, pushing an unrestricted submarine war against commerce in which “the surface navy was relegated to a position of support.”[5] This new, modern way of waging war was seen as barbaric and unprincipled by the Entente powers[6], and made a major impression not only on the future conduct of warfare – German U-boats were even more deadly in World War II – but on the Great War itself: without unrestricted submarine warfare, it is far less likely that the United States would have entered the conflict.[7]

The Great War also saw some entirely new technologies being developed or adapted for warfare, perhaps the most influential of which in the long-run was the advent of aerial combat. At the start of the war, planes were primarily used on a small-scale basis, focusing on artillery spotting, reconnaissance, and some air-to-air dogfighting. As the war progressed and transformed into the mass phenomenon that it would be remembered as, the role of planes grew immensely and changed in nature: now planes were used not only in a support role, they entered into their more recognizable modern roles as bombers and fighter planes delivering fire on enemy targets.[8] By the end of the conflict, the British had established the world’s first air force and the airplane had been fully integrated into combat tactics and planning, setting the stage for the next century of warfighting.[9] The other defining technology of twentieth-century warfare that debuted during the First World War was the tank. The tank made its first appearance under the British flag at the Battle of the Somme in September 1916, but it was often a disappointment during the war; tanks regularly broke down, had a very slow top speed, and had to deal with limited range.[10] Still, the tank made some difference, especially at the end of the conflict when lighter designs helped the Entente powers break through the German lines and concentrate firepower on military targets. The development of the tank as the prime weapon of a war of movement was still on the horizon at the end of the war, and it was not until the Second World War when it truly came into its own as a combat vehicle. Another military technology commonly associated with World War I was poison gas, which saw its greatest prevalence during this conflict, having been banned shortly thereafter in 1925.[11] Poison gas – not to be confused with the nonlethal tear gas which is still used in combat – was first used by the Germans against the French and Canadians at Langemarck near Ypres in April 1915[12]; it was controversial at the time and was labeled unchivalrous, repugnant, and demonic by critics on both sides.[13] The technology of gas attacks – and defense against them – advanced during the war, as different types of chemicals and more successful gas masks were developed at a rapid clip. These technologies – trenches, machine guns, tanks, artillery, planes, submarines, and poison gas – are all deeply connected to World War I in the popular and academic minds, yet none of them can accurately be seen as the technology which defined the war. To truly be the defining technology of the war requires not only involvement in every aspect of it, from start to finish, but also necessitates that the technology itself was defined by the conflict; most of the aforementioned technologies kept advancing in their military application and became more important to warfighting over time. There is only one technology which fully fits this paradigm: the railroad.

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The Victorian Cold War

The Great Game and the Eastern Question in the Late Nineteenth Century

Introduction

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was a global geopolitical, commercial, and strategic conflict which ran from the end of the Second World War in 1945 through the collapse of the USSR in 1991. This long-term, aggressive confrontation between two major world powers without direct military combat was, to many, an unprecedented occurrence which had no major modern historical analogs.[1] Many observers expected the period after World War II to be as rife with conflict as were the years of the first half of the twentieth century, but this was not the case; a number of factors contributed to this, including nuclear weaponry and greater use of  diplomacy.[2] “The absence of another great power war was given its name ‘the Long Peace’ by John Gaddis in 1986, a term that endured after the end of the Cold War as this absence continued.”[3] The fact that this period was uncommonly peaceful was both unexpected and welcome; it has been studied for years as a fascinating historical development. But was it a novel historical circumstance at all? If one looks closely, one can find a significant analog just a century earlier.

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‘La France Avant Tout’

Napoleon’s Continental System and His Ultimate Downfall


Introduction

Napoleon Bonaparte was inarguably the most influential world historical figure of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and much has been made of his rise, reign, and ultimate downfall. Of the debates over the Napoleonic regime, none is more heated, complex, or replete with disparate ideas as the argument about the proximate causes of Napoleon’s fall and the rapid collapse of his European Empire. Myriad opinions on the reasons that Napoleon’s regime collapsed exist and many of these have received popular acclaim or widespread agreement. Some have claimed that the end of the Grand Empire was due to the machinations of Napoleon’s Foreign Secretary, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, after Napoleon insulted his pride sometime between 1808 and 1809.[1] Under this theory, Talleyrand “passed information to the Russians and Austrians, among others,”[2] allowing Napoleon’s enemies to have an edge on the ‘Little Corporal’ and outmatch him strategically. Many observers focus more heavily on Napoleon’s personality flaws as contributing to his fall from power. Historian Adam Zamoyski states that “The number of complexes he suffered from, including class inferiority, money insecurity, intellectual envy, sexual anxiety, social awkwardness and, not surprisingly, a persistent hypersensitivity to criticism… drove his stark ambition, undermined his grandiose endeavors—and ultimately crippled his historic legacy.”[3]

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“Rule, Britannia!”

The Union of Foreign and Domestic Politics in Mid-Eighteenth Century Britain

Introduction

“Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves.”[1] This verse, from the poem “Rule, Britannia” by the Scot James Thomson, has had immense resonance for Britons throughout the past two and a half centuries, yet the poem was never more relevant than when it was initially written and popularized in the mid-eighteenth century. With the help of music composed by Englishman Thomas Arne, this new patriotic song promoting British maritime destiny became widely beloved almost immediately after its public debut in 1745 (it premiered to a royal audience five years earlier). What about this tune so instantly enthralled the British public? More than any other jingoistic anthem, “Rule, Britannia” captured the zeitgeist of this turbulent time; feelings of British exceptionalism in the areas of personal liberties, political freedom, and mercantile economics, as well as antagonism towards the absolutist monarchies of the Continent, were running high within the populace. The lyrics of this song depict, with accuracy and rhetorical flourish, the feelings of the era from 1740 through 1760, particularly the intimate connection between foreign and domestic affairs.

Thomson’s word choice is critical, especially in the chorus of the song, which was quoted above. In said chorus, Thomson exhorts Britannia to “rule the waves”, as well as mentioning that “Britons never will be slaves”[2]; this wording depicts the tenuous nature of the times, as the eventual British dominance of the seas and the security of her people were not guaranteed in 1740. The author has a clear concept of the connection between naval supremacy and political and economic liberty, setting Britain in contrast with the absolutist powers, namely France, who would deny her both. These themes of interconnectedness and the special role of Britain and her people are echoed in many of the poem’s later stanzas. In the second verse, Thomson writes: “The nations, not so blest as thee, Must in their turns to tyrants fall; While thou shalt flourish great and free, The dread and envy of them all.”[3] This describes contemporary British attitudes with respect to the importance of their political liberty and constitutional monarchy. By comparing other nations with their absolute monarchies to the freedom of Britain after the Glorious Revolution, Thomson shows how distinct the island is; all other nations, mainly on the Continent, are “not so blest as thee” and thus “dread and envy”[4] the British system. In the fifth stanza, Thomson pens the words: “To thee belongs the rural reign; Thy cities shall with commerce shine; All thine shall be the subject main, And every shore it circles thine.”[5] This set of lyrics brings up the economic power of Britain and its quest for colonial possessions to expand its mercantile empire. This power is based both in rural and urban settings, but chiefly in the joint operation of the two, as rural and colonial products supplied and were exported from the cities. The economic power of the island nation is tied back to naval ascendancy in the second half of the verse, “All thine shall be the subject main, And every shore it circles thine.”[6]; the ‘main’ in this case was the oceanic realm, which would be controlled by the British, along with all of the coasts bordering thereon. These aspirations of colonial and economic hegemony would resound throughout the mid-eighteenth century.

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