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


“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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