Grand Crimean Central Railway

Railway yard at Balaclava. Photograph by Roger Fenton

The Grand Crimean Central Railway, built to supply the British troops at the Siege of Sevastopol, 1855.

The first significant transport of troops by rail was the despatch of 14,500 Prussian soldiers, together with their horses and wagons, to smash the Krakow rebellion of Polish nationalists in 1846, taking just two days to cover the 200-mile journey from their garrison at Hradish in Bohemia. Then, in 1848, Tsar Nicholas I, the most reactionary of the nineteenth-century monarchs – quite an accolade given the competition – got in on the act. He had no compunction in despatching 30,000 troops on the newly established Warsaw-Vienna railway to help his ally, the Austrian emperor, Ferdinand, quell a rebellion in Hungary in a particularly ruthless and bloody way. A few months later, the Austrians, in turn, made use of the railways to send reinforcements to reimpose their rule over Italy following a partial takeover by nationalists. That movement of troops stimulated the first recorded instance of railway sabotage when Venetian rebels, led by Daniele Manin, blew up some of the arches of the long viaduct linking their city with the mainland to try to prevent the Austrians reaching their island. They were unsuccessful as their sabotage only managed to lengthen the siege of the city, which ultimately fell to the Austrians in August 1849.

There were several significant troop movements on railways in the 1850s which made governments throughout Europe aware of the military potential of these networks, even if they were still unable to comprehend how completely the iron road would change the nature of war. The first of these involved the despatch of a 75,000-strong Austrian army, along with 8,000 horses and a thousand carts, from Vienna to Bohemia early in the winter of 1850. As Edwin Pratt, the first historian of the role of railways in war and whose seminal work on the subject, The Rise of Rail Power in War and Conquest, was published in 1915, puts it wryly, ‘owing to the combined disadvantages of single-line railways, inadequate staff and rolling stock, unfavourable weather, lack of previous preparations and of transport regulations and delays from various unforeseen causes, no fewer than 26 days were occupied in the transport’ for a journey of a mere 150 miles, in other words barely six miles per day.

It would ever be thus. The limitations of a rail line, together with the failure of the military to exploit it properly, would lead to many similar stories. Nevertheless, van Creveld describes this movement as ‘perhaps the first time when the railways played an important part in international power politics by helping to bring about the Prussian humiliation at Olmütz [the agreement under which the Prussians were forced to give up their claim to leadership of the German Confederation]’. The Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph, was sufficiently impressed to draw up a scheme for a strategic rail network and to devise plans for future movements of troops which could be carried out without disruption to existing traffic on the rail network. Unfortunately, despite this, the Austrians, as we see below, never quite got to grips with railway logistics while the Prussians, in contrast, would learn the lessons of their humiliation.

In spite of the hesitations and the nonsense about ‘feminising’ soldiers, the French finally began to recognize the advantage of carrying soldiers by rail and, in fact, undertook two of the biggest early troop movements by rail, both times taking armies to the Mediterranean for embarkation to wage wars overseas. The first was used to take troops to the Crimean War in 1854 and the second, five years later, to fight the Austrians in Italy. The railway between Paris and Marseille was not even quite complete at the outbreak of the Crimean War but the troops were able to use large sections of it to hasten their journey southwards.

The French actually sent more troops to the Crimean War than the British, 400,000 as against 250,000, and large numbers of them travelled by train to the Mediterranean seaports for embarkation. However, it was the British who were to use a railway in a completely novel way during this war. Indeed, the Crimean War was the first in which a railway played a major part in maintaining lines of communication, partly as a result of the poor preparations made by the British, who had not learnt the lessons from Napoleon about logistics.

A transport corps, called the Royal Wagon Train, had been formed in 1799 and indeed operated during the Napoleonic Wars, but was disbanded in 1833 for reasons of economy, which meant that the regiments sent to the Crimea had to organize their own transport, at times without the benefit of any mules or horses. Notionally transport was the responsibility of the Treasury, which was separate from both the War Office, responsible for the Army, and the Master General of the Ordnance, in charge of supplying ammunition and equipment. The Treasury showed little interest in this task but this ridiculous and dysfunctional system was not scrapped until the 1870s, even though its shortcomings were exposed by the Crimean War.

The Crimean War was a misconceived and unnecessary venture, fought in difficult terrain and awful conditions by an army which lost far more men to sickness and disease than combat and earned the description by the historian Eric Hobsbawm as ‘a notoriously incompetent international butchery’. The war was fought between Russia on one side and an alliance that encompassed Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia on the other in a number of theatres, including the Balkans and Finland, and lasted from late 1853 until early 1856. However, the key battles were in the Crimea, notably the prolonged siege of Sevastopol by the British and French forces.

The ostensible casus belli was obscure in the extreme, a dispute about access to the holy sites of Jerusalem, which gradually turned into war because of a failure of diplomacy and much ridiculous posturing. In fact, the Russians had long been on the outlook for an excuse to wrest control of the Black Sea – and consequently the land route through to India – from the crumbling Ottoman Empire, but they misread the diplomatic situation, not realizing that the Turks would receive so much support and expecting, wrongly, that Austria would be willing to fight on their side. Britain and France declared war after the Russians attacked the Turkish fleet in November 1853, wiping it out with the loss of more than 3,000 sailors. While this declaration was presented as a response to the horrors of the Russian attack, the two Great Powers had their own motives for becoming involved, as they sought to prevent the Slavonic parts of the Ottoman Empire, and even possibly Constantinople, from falling into Russian hands.

If the Russians were unprepared for a major and prolonged conflict, so too were the British, who had been at peace since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, more than a generation previously, and it was this lack of preparation which was to lead to the need for a railway as a key element of the supply route. The British army sent to the Crimea had lost its sense of purpose, having become obsessed with pomp and ceremony during the long years of inaction. As Anthony Burton, a railway historian, puts it eloquently: ‘The ordinary soldiers, poorly paid and badly fed, were no more than mannequins, displaying ever more gorgeous uniforms… The slightest falling away of standards – a dirty button, a foot placed out of sequence – was greeted with the vicious punishment of the lash. This was the army of popinjays and paupers that was sent to the distant Crimea to fight a real war in which blood would be spilled.’

In response to the annihilation of the Turkish fleet, in the summer of 1854 a force of 60,000 troops, together with 3,000 horses and 130 heavy field guns, was landed on the Crimean peninsula (now in Ukraine) by the British and French, supported by their Turkish allies. The idea was to attack and capture Sevastopol, a fortress town and port of crucial importance in controlling the Black Sea. The hope, as with so many wars, was that it would be a quick campaign with the town falling after a period of bombardment and that the war would be over by Christmas. But it did not work out like that. There was an initial victory at Alma soon after the force landed but this was not followed up quickly enough and the wet summer turned into a freezing winter against which the troops had no protection.

The British had arrived utterly unprepared. They had sent an army 3,000 miles from home by ship scandalously ill-equipped and, as a wet summer turned into a freezing winter, the conditions for the troops became unbearable. The death rates from disease and malnutrition were staggering, the result, as Brian Cooke, the historian of the Crimean railway, suggests, of ‘the indifference and incompetence of a government and Army command which had sent out a large military expeditionary force almost totally lacking in any of the services necessary to support it’.

The eight-mile road between the British base at the port of Balaklava and the front line, from where the bombardment and siege of Sevastopol were being conducted by 30,000 troops, was a terrible bottleneck. It was completely inadequate for the purpose of carrying thousands of tons of ammunition and other equipment and little thought had been given to the logistics. The army was dependent upon Russian ox wagons captured when the troops first landed and a few Turkish ponies, but according to Captain Henry Clifford, an officer stationed at Balaklava, ‘the cold, want of food and hard work have killed the oxen and ponies, and the roads are impassable’. The troops were down to ‘a quarter of half rations of pork and biscuit’. Later, he described how by December ammunition was running out because ‘our artillery horses [were] dying three and four a night’.

As more and more supplies piled into Balaklava, unable to be taken up to Sevastopol, the state of chaos increased. There were numerous tales of food and forage rotting on board the ships while both men and animals starved. A letter in the Illustrated London News described what had, before the war, been a pleasant fisherman’s harbour: ‘The harbour is a cesspool and the beach a bottomless pit full of liquid abominations – a putrid sea of black foetid mire, exhaling a poisonous stench even at this cold season and pregnant with the deaths of thousands the moment the hot sun of spring shall come forth to quicken the pestilence…’ William Russell, the legendary Times reporter who has claim to being the world’s first war correspondent, was blunt: ‘There is nothing to eat, nothing to drink, no roads, no commissariat, no medicine, no clothes, no arrangement: the only thing in abundance is cholera.’

The British belatedly recognized that they would have to improve the line of communication up to the encampment outside Sevastopol to maintain the siege. The death of most of the horses and oxen from neglect and exhaustion, and the lack of timber to build what was called a corduroy road (a crude but firm path built with logs perpendicular to the direction of travel and covered with sand), suggested that a railway might be the obvious solution.

The idea was not, however, a product of military imagination; nor did it come from the government ministers who had become aware of the logistical failings. While previous military campaigns had been just as poorly organized and neglectful of human life, the difference this time was that there were journalists and photographers – ‘embedded’ in the modern parlance – who were able to inform the public back home of the disastrous turn of events. Without this flow of information, the railway might never have been built. The suggestion to build it came, in fact, from railway interests back in Britain. The country had just been through its biggest ever railway boom, with the result that an astonishing network of over 6,000 miles of track had been completed by 1854, a mere quarter-century after the first major railway had opened. Many of these lines had been built by Samuel Peto, one of the great early railway contractors, who had also been responsible for lines laid in much more difficult conditions in places as far afield as Norway and Nova Scotia. Hearing of the transport difficulties through Russell’s reports in The Times, Peto, a Whig MP and a widely respected figure, suggested to the Duke of Newcastle, the Secretary of State for War, that a railway be built from Balaklava to the encampment up the hill. It was not a notion that was universally welcomed among some of the senior military, who argued for simply improving the road. But the lack of animals and Peto’s promise to build the line quickly proved decisive.

Peto teamed up with Edward Betts, with whom he had built several railways, and Thomas Brassey, the other prolific contractor of the day, and the trio promised that since they were working in the national interest they would carry out the work at cost without making any profit. After his suggestion to build the line was accepted by the Duke of Newcastle, the material for the railway was gathered together at remarkable speed. So was the workforce of around 250 experienced navvies – eventually nearly four times as many worked on the line at the peak of construction – who were not only motivated by the nationalistic fervour which they strongly espoused but also by the shortage of work since the collapse of the railway mania in Britain in the late 1840s. The flotilla of steamers carrying the men and material managed to leave in December 1854 for the two-month journey within a few weeks of the acceptance of the idea by the government.

The project certainly caught the imagination of the public, who liked the idea of these rowdy navvies being sent to the other end of Europe to save the British army. Peto was appointed chief engineer and was rewarded for his efforts with a baronetcy, although he did not actually travel to the Crimea. He left the work on the ground in the charge of James Beatty, an experienced rail engineer, who was paid the princely sum of £1,500 (the equivalent of around £1.2m today) to build the railway. Brassey and Betts stayed at home, too, but provided advice and financial support.

Arriving in a small advance party, the surveyor, Donald Campbell, had largely set out the route for the little railway by the time Beatty got there on 19 January. It was no easy task as the terrain and conditions were ill-suited for a railway. There was an initial problem over the location of the railway sidings at the wharf, but then Campbell decided to keep it simple by placing the railway in the centre of the main street in order to obviate the need for demolition of any existing buildings. Out of town, there was swampy land that required a few small bridges to ford the rivulets, but the most difficult section was about a mile after the village of Kadikoi, with a sharp incline up a valley reaching a col 600 feet above sea level to terminate on the plateau where the army was laying siege to Sevastopol. At its steepest, the gradient was one in fourteen, far too onerous for conventional locomotives of the day, and Campbell therefore realized that a stationary engine, using cables to haul the trains up the slope, would have to be installed.

The first group of 500 men arrived soon after Beatty. Most were ordinary navvies but there were also a hundred carpenters, a dozen engine drivers, three doctors and, remarkably, three scripture readers, whose injunctions fell on deaf ears on the trip as the navvies more than lived up to their infamous reputation. They had disembarked at Gibraltar (a timeless British military tradition), where they had got thoroughly drunk and a brave group had actually climbed up to join the monkeys on the Rock. At the next stop, in Malta, they had been banned from taking any money ashore to prevent similar drunken exploits, but they promptly staged prize fights to raise cash for their booze. News of these exploits had preceded them and their presence in Balaklava was met with hostility from some military top brass, who doubted their ability to build the railway. The officers were swiftly proved wrong. The navvies’ effectiveness as railway builders could not be faulted and the military were impressed by their endeavours. Within a week of the navvies’ arrival, rails were being laid on the road in Balaklava and much of the alignment of the whole route had been prepared. Captain Clifford was won over. While in his diary he describes the navvies on their arrival as ‘unutterable things’, a few days later he wrote that ‘I was astonished to see the progress of the Railway in Balaklava… the navvies do more work in a day than a Regiment of English Soldiers do in a week.’

Peto had rather rashly promised the Duke of Newcastle that the line would be ready within three weeks of the arrival of the workforce, but in the event it took slightly more than twice that time, still an amazing feat. Working conditions were appalling as the men, who toiled night and day, had to contend with several feet of mud using only spades, forks and wheelbarrows to help them. Although horses, mules and even camels were available, there was a shortage of animal labour as so many had succumbed to exhaustion and injuries caused by accidents.

Nevertheless, within ten days of the first landing, track had been laid to the village of Kadikoi, and as soon as the first section had been completed it was employed to carry material to the navvies building the remainder of the line and to help with the transport of supplies to the troops. The Grand Crimean Central Railway, to call it by its rather overstated and grandiose official title, was completed on 26 March 1855. While it was a crude and basic railway, its construction in just seven weeks during a fierce winter and early spring was a remarkable achievement. Although it was only seven miles long, Peto later pointed out that it comprised a total of thirty-nine miles of track, including branches, sidings and various sections of double track.

The operation of the railway was a cumbersome process, and sounds like something designed by the architects of the hugely complex railway privatization introduced by the Conservative government of the mid-1990s. The first two miles from Balaklava were worked by conventional steam locomotives imported from Britain and operated by Royal Engineers. Then the wagons were drawn up the steep incline from Kadikoi in batches of eight by the stationary engine, which again was under the charge of the Engineers. In the next stage, six horses, the responsibility of the newly created Land Transport Corps, would drag the wagons in pairs up a further incline and finally a combination of gravity and further horse haulage would bring the wagons, each capable of carrying up to three tons, to the upland campsite. The return of the wagons to Balaklava was largely by gravity, which caused numerous accidents when brakes failed or were not applied sufficiently, including one which led to the death of poor Beatty. Although apparently not badly hurt at the time, he returned to Britain and succumbed soon after, aged just thirty-six, to an aneurysm which the autopsy revealed had been caused when he fell from the train. The navvies, who had six-month contracts, went home too. By then the army, so impressed by their work, had wanted them to stay to build fortifications, but the contractors insisted they were civilians and could not be obliged to remain. The navvies, too, were eager to return, though not before at least one had been killed by a Russian cannonball while partaking in the local spectator sport of watching the bombardment of the besieged town.

Despite the complex and at times dangerous operating procedures, the line represented a far better and safer alternative to the cart roads which still carried many supplies. As soon as it was completed, the railway was rapidly put into action at full capacity, although the army placed ridiculous constraints on its working, limiting its usefulness by stating that no supplies could be sent before 8 a.m. or after 5.30 p.m.

During much of the time the railway was being built, the fighting had stopped for the winter and it seemed for a while that it might never resume. The Tsar, Nicholas I, had died and was replaced by the more modernizing Alexander II, but in the early days of his rule he did not have sufficient confidence to call a halt to the crazy conflict. In Britain, too, there had been political changes. The government had fallen as a result of the scandalous conduct of the war brought to the public’s attention by Russell’s graphic reports. Lord Aberdeen, the Prime Minister, was replaced by Lord Palmerston but that only served to encourage the British to redouble their efforts, given the national embarrassment about the failings of the 1854 campaign and the far better performance of their allies, the French, who had only recently been the enemy. Now with the railway fully functioning, the assault by the Allies, bolstered by the arrival of the Sardinian army, resumed. Thanks to the railway, supplies of ammunition could be brought up the hill to enable the bombardment, which had been halted for six months, to recommence. The attack, which began on Easter Monday, 9 April 1855, was the fiercest bombardment in all military history until that time, and lasted ten days. The railway played an invaluable role in supplying this attack, which involved the firing of 47,000 artillery rounds, including a far higher proportion than previously of the heavier shells, which could now be carried up to the guns far more easily.

The results, however, were disappointing, and the siege was not broken. The Russians managed to repair much of the damage caused by the artillery fire and, more important, no proper plan for an assault on the town, which would have to be a joint effort with the French, had been drawn up. The hope had been that the Russians would simply melt away under the bombardment but, despite incurring massive casualties under the artillery barrage which had turned the town into a charnel house, they remained in place. Further similar bombardments in June and August again failed to break Russian resolve and it was not until yet another attack in early September that the siege was finally broken. On each occasion the railway was vital in supplying artillery fire on an unprecedented scale and the final bombardment was on an even greater scale, with 307 guns being used to fire 150,000 rounds in just four days. As Cooke concludes, the railway turned Sevastopol into ‘the first victim of the modern application of artillery to war. Never before had so many guns been concentrated into such a small area. Never before had ammunition been available in such prodigal quantities.’ While the railway might appear to have been a modest little line, its importance in military history should not be underestimated. As Cooke goes on to say, ‘the idea of a relatively sophisticated and complex system of transport being especially built to feed the guns was being adopted for the first time. It was to reach its zenith on the Western Front in the First World War.’ Whereas previously railways had been used to carry troops, here a specially built line became for the first time a vital part of the line of communication.

After the collapse of Sevastopol, the war meandered to a halt, its futility slowly dawning on the new Tsar, who signed a rather humiliating peace treaty in Paris in March 1856. In the intervening months, however, the railway had been improved and was used to carry vast amounts of supplies to the British camp on the plateau as the generals had expected the war to continue and did not want the troops to spend a second winter out in the open. In the event, the utterly futile war cost nearly a quarter of a million lives, mostly to disease, and it may well have lasted longer had not the railway been built because the allies were intent on continuing their siege however much the Russians resisted.

Of course, not all the supplies arrived by rail. The road between Balaklava and the front line was eventually greatly improved but the railways continued to carry most of the heavy matériel, an average of 250-300 tons per day during the bombardments, the equivalent of perhaps a thousand carloads pulled by a couple of horses each, showing the huge capacity afforded by even such a Heath Robinson contraption. At its peak, the railway was worked by a huge group of 1,000 men, including many Turks, and carried 700 tons per day. The French, who fired more, but mostly lighter, shells than the British, did not have the benefit of a railway. However, their front line was more easily reached from their base, which was on the other side of the Crimean peninsula from Balaklava, partly because they had ensured the connecting road was well maintained.

As Brian Cooke sums up, ‘the railway did not save the British Army’, since most of the poor soldiers who arrived in the initial wave of landings died of disease and starvation in the first winter, but it did have a huge impact on the war through the simple expedient of allowing goods to be cleared out of Balaklava and used by front-line troops. More importantly, it taught the more far-seeing elements in the British military the importance of basic logistics since the army, until then, had seemed to assume that ‘if supplies of ammunition, food, fuel and clothing were delivered in sufficient quantities to the British base then they would distribute themselves automatically’. Peto was extremely proud of what had been achieved. After listing the achievement of building the line so fast, he said: ‘I received a letter from Field Marshal Burgoyne on his return from the command of the Engineering Staff, stating it was impossible to overrate the services rendered by the railway, or its effect in shortening the time of the siege and alleviating the fatigues and suffering of the troops.’

While the Crimean conflict is possibly best remembered for the work of Florence Nightingale, it marked another significant event: the first time that a railway was used to carry injured soldiers away from a theatre of war. While the railway was being built, the engineers and navvies had witnessed the appalling sight of the injured and dying being led down the hill to Balaklava, as Russell described in one of his dispatches: ‘A large number of sick and I fear dying men were sent into Balaklava today on French mule litters… many of the men were all but dead. With closed eyes, open mouths and ghastly attenuated faces, they were borne along, two and two, the thin stream of breath, visible in the air, alone showing that they were still alive. One figure was a horror – a corpse, stone dead, strapped upright in its seat, its legs hanging stiffly down, the eyes staring wide open, the teeth set on the protruding tongue, the head and body nodding with frightful mockery of life at each stride of the mule.’ Russell noted with satisfaction that now the railway was being used to bring down injured and sick troops: ‘Four wagons filled with sick and wounded soldiers, ran from headquarters to the town in less than half an hour. The men were propped up on their knapsacks and seemed very comfortable. What a change from the ghastly processions one met with some weeks ago, formed of dead and dying men, hanging from half-starved horses or dangling about on French mule-litters.’ As we shall see, it would nevertheless not be until the First World War that specially designed ambulance trains would carry out this task.