“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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Social Media Bans & Soft Power

Before I get into the meat of this blog post, I have to start with a few quick thoughts/disclaimers. First, what happened at the Capitol on January 6th was one of the most unpatriotic, abhorrent, depressing domestic political events that I’ve witnessed in my 31 years on this planet. It was an absolute disgrace and all of those rioters who assaulted the seat of our federal government should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I will be writing more in depth about this failed insurrection later this week, as I want to wait for as much information as possible before committing my (many) thoughts to paper (or whatever the Internet equivalent is).

The main purpose of this post is to discuss one of the reactions to the events of the 6th, namely the concurrent banning of President Donald Trump from all social media platforms, as well as the deplatforming of Parler, a Twitter competitor favored by some Trump supporters and right-wing activists. Many have written about this already, but here’s my two cents as someone who is genuinely struggling with how to address this in a way that is consistent with my personal political and ideological framework. I support the right of private companies like Amazon, Twitter, Google, Apple, and Facebook to freely associate with whomever they please. As a free marketeer and a laissez-faire capitalist, I do not wish to see government regulation in most aspects of private commerce; I believe that the free association rights of individuals and businesses are sacrosanct, whether it involves a small-time religious baker in Colorado or a massive Silicon Valley conglomerate. Still, that doesn’t mean that I’m not disturbed by the seemingly coordinated deplatforming based on political speech that we’re seeing now. I’m most concerned by the appearance of coordination among supposedly neutral platforms who compete with one another, whether that coordination was actual cartel-like behavior or if it reflects a high level of ideological groupthink. Both of those options are very disturbing to me when it comes to my support for an absolutist position regarding free speech. Given the dissonance between my two preferred classical liberal positions on free association and speech in this instance, I am not sure what the right approach is. All I can say for certain is that it is a nuanced issue that merits deep consideration and a society-wide debate over our cultural values. Most of these positions and issues have been raised elsewhere, so I do not intend to dive too deeply into that heavily populated pool. However, there is one specific aspect of this issue that I have not seen addressed yet, so I wanted to write a bit more about it: the unforeseen impact of these corporate actions on the soft power of the American government.

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Why a TikTok Ban is Necessary

A sale to an American company would only serve to create perverse incentives.

The Chinese-owned video-sharing social media app TikTok has been all over the news recently, as the federal government has been considering banning the app from the US. I am a big proponent of this strategy and laid out the case against TikTok a few weeks back on this blog. This past weekend saw a flurry of activity on the TikTok front, as President Trump first stated that he was planning to ban the app outright before backing off of that position. The current plan du jour is to allow the American technology giant Microsoft to pursue a full acquisition of TikTok’s US operations. A sale to Microsoft would include the app’s American business, as well as the user data which the app collects. This would solve the problem that I delineated, would it not?

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The Case Against TikTok

The video-sharing social network is a danger to personal privacy and national security.

If you know anyone under the age of 30 (or are in that group yourself), you may have heard of the most popular app in America’s youth culture – TikTok. The short-video creation and sharing app has rapidly become one of the most downloaded apps in the world, surpassing 2 billion downloads as of April 2020. Its growth has accelerated since the beginning of the year, especially taking off among teens stuck at home during the lockdowns due to the coronavirus pandemic. The app’s users are predominately young, with over 63% of users falling between the ages of 10 and 29 and 37% of the app’s US user base being categorized as ‘adolescent’. If you’ve heard about TikTok recently, it is likely either because you have seen some of the viral challenges or dances that have been going around the internet or you have read the breathless coverage surrounding the possibility that the Trump administration may ban the app in the US. I am no fan of the Trump administration, but in this case, I believe that they are fully justified in banning TikTok outright.

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