Railways at War 1870 Part II


No. 302 of the private Mecklenburg Railway, built in 1866

The French strategy of invading Prussia before the enemy could mobilize was risky but, as Westwood suggests, ‘it might have won the war if only the French railways had been properly used’. However, they were not. Perhaps the French situation is best summed up by a despairing brigadier – who was in charge of 4,000 men – complaining that when he reached Belfort he had ‘not found my Brigade. Not found General of Division. What should I do? Don’t know where my regiments are.’ Many of the men, it turns out, were having much more fun. Behind the lines, a floating mass of supposedly lost soldiers had built up enjoying the hospitality of the jingoistic locals and making scant effort to find their regiments. The numbers involved were such that a group of up to 5,000 men had accumulated at Reims in eastern France, the capital of Champagne country, and had to be physically restrained from plundering the supplies in the wagons which had accumulated there.

Metz, a few miles from the border, was the destination of much of this early traffic as it was initially the headquarters of the Army. Napoleon went there on 28 July to take control of the newly named Army of the Rhine which was already 200,000 strong and expected to expand as reinforcements arrived. After a series of defeats during August, Metz became besieged and supplies were limited, but the lack of organization on the railways made the situation far worse. Metz, in fact, had a large station with four miles of sidings and should easily have been equal to the task, but right from the start, with the arrival of the first infantry trains, there were delays in detraining owing to the absence of orders, and the supply wagons were mostly simply shunted into the sidings and effectively ‘lost’. According to Pratt, ‘everything was in inextricable confusion. Nobody knew where any particular commodity was to be found or, if they did, how to get the truck containing it from the consolidated mass of some thousands of vehicles.’ Consequently, when Metz eventually fell, the town was still awash with wagons, both full and empty, which the Germans were able to put to use. Pratt estimates that no fewer than 16,000 wagons were captured by the Germans at Metz and other parts of the French rail network, which, as he wrote, meant that ‘not only had the French failed to get from these 16,000 railway wagons the benefit they should have derived from their use but, in blocking their lines with them under such conditions that it was impossible to save them from capture, they conferred a material advantage on the enemy, providing him with supplies, and increasing his own means both of transport and of attack on themselves’.

The strategic importance of Metz led the Germans to draw up contingency plans, knowing that the town was a fortress and expecting, wrongly as it turned out, that the French would retain it well into the war. As a contingency, the Germans allocated 4,000 men to build a twenty-two-mile line around the city using material captured from the French. The railway was not a great success as it had steep inclines, limiting its capacity to just three or four vehicles per train, and sharp curves that resulted in derailments. The only notable structure, a bridge over the Moselle, was so poorly constructed that it was washed away in the autumn rains, but fortuitously for the Germans that was on the day Metz capitulated, obviating the need to rebuild the line.

This ‘Iron Cross Railway’, as it was dubbed by the locals, was an illustration of the thoroughness of the German planning. In contrast to the French, German mobilization had proceeded remarkably smoothly. Even though the Prussians did not, unlike the French, have a standing army, and therefore had to call up all its men, Moltke’s work over the previous four years bore fruit. As van Creveld suggests, ‘it was only necessary to push a button in order to set the whole gigantic machine in motion’. Crucially, Moltke insisted that the soldiers should be got to the front first, and their supplies would follow. The process was helped by the fact that thanks to the layout of the railways, and the work of the line commissions, six railway lines were available to the Prussian forces, and a further three to its allies in southern Germany. Moltke had reckoned they would reduce the time taken to move troops to the French border from twenty-four to twenty days, but in the event, after war was declared, nearly 400,000 men reached the border in just eighteen days after mobilization was put into effect on 14 July (which significantly was before war had even been officially declared). Once mobilization started, the line commissions took over and many normal passenger trains were removed from the schedule in order to prioritize military moves. So effective was the Prussian mobilization that it is possible to argue that the war was actually won before the firing of a single shot, thanks to Moltke’s ability to harness the railways to his military ends. The early battles all ended in a series of defeats for the disorganized French and the war was effectively over with the surrender of half the French army and capture of Napoleon III at the battle of Sedan on 31 August 1870.

After that victory, the Prussians headed west to besiege Paris, though they hardly made use of the railways during this advance. The Germans had expected to fight the war on or around the border and had even prepared contingency plans to surrender much of the Rhineland, whereas in fact they found that, thanks to French incompetence, they were soon heading for the capital. The war, consequently, took place on French rather than German territory, much to the surprise of Moltke, upsetting his transportation plans, which had relied on using Prussia’s own railways. The distance between the front and the Prussian railheads soon became too great to allow for effective distribution, and supplies of food for both men and horses came from foraging and purchases of local produce. This was the result of a failure of planning and a lack of flexibility. The Prussians had expected to use railheads in their own country and did not have sufficiently well worked-out contingency plans to move them forward on to the French railways when that became the obvious solution. However, they were rescued by another piece of luck for Moltke; as his tactics had by good fortune resulted in the troops being spread over a wide arc, it was easier for them to live off the land, which they did with ease as eastern France was fertile. Warfare had returned to the bad old days of a pre-Napoleonic-type of war.

Efforts were made to advance the railheads but the Prussians found that many of the French railways had been rendered unusable thanks to the sabotage at which the French became remarkably adept. The most comprehensive damage was caused to the Nanteuil tunnel on the line between Reims and Paris, which was blown up with great precision by French military engineers who managed to bring down twenty-five metres of tunnel, the explosion filling the remaining structure with fine sand. The Prussians worked for two months to unblock it, but just as they finished, a storm brought down a fresh influx of sand. They then tried to create a detour around the hill by drafting in labourers from Germany as the local population refused to work on the scheme, but even after its completion the trains remained blocked further down the line, at Lagny, near Paris, by French artillery.

This was the pattern throughout much of France. The French demolished large numbers of bridges and tunnels not only on the Est railway, whose area covered most of the battle sites, but also on the main lines of the Nord and, as the conflict spread to the west, the Ouest, the Paris-Orléans and the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée. The destruction was not always successful as there was a reluctance, born of national pride as in Austria, to blow up complete structures and at times commanders delayed pushing the button until too late. Luard, the early historian of the use of railways in war, also suggests that the French missed opportunities to wreak more havoc through guerrilla-type attacks: ‘At one period indeed, there is little doubt that a well-organized raid on the railway between Toul and Blesure [on the main line between Alsace and Paris] would have had every chance of successfully interrupting for some time the main artery by which the supplies of all kind were sent from Germany to the armies before Paris, and might possibly have led to the raising of the siege of that city.’

At other times it was sheer incompetence that left the railways intact: ‘In one case, while engineers were inspecting a bridge prior to laying charges, the train which had brought them steamed off, taking their explosives with it.’ As in the US, the French discovered that simply removing track was ineffective, since the Prussians were not averse to shifting rails from the nearest branch line to replace those which had been removed. It could turn out to be a game of cat and mouse. After the French defeat near Wissembourg on 6 August, the last French train left the nearby railway centre at Hagenau at 3 a.m., tearing the tracks up behind it to prevent pursuit, but by the morning of the next day, barely thirty hours afterwards, the first Prussian train arrived on newly relaid track to remove the wounded.

Indeed, instances of retreat always pose the most insuperable problems for the railway managers. Suddenly, hoped-for loading points become unavailable as the enemy invades and lines are cut. The military is always seeking to use the railways until the last available moment while the railway managers want to leave as quickly as possible to ensure the rolling stock is brought to safety rather than left for the enemy to use. And all this is taking place as morale is plummeting and tempers become frayed.

Another reason for the reduced role of the railway after the initial phase of the war was that the fortresses protecting the railways remained a formidable obstacle, despite Moltke’s recognition of this issue in his note to Bismarck after the Austrian war. In the early months of the conflict, several fortresses blocked the main lines towards Paris, preventing the Prussians from operating through-trains. The fortress at Toul in Lorraine was particularly troublesome and it was only when the occupants finally surrendered in September that the siege of Paris could be supplied by rail. Even then, however, because of lack of capacity, the trains were mostly used for ammunition, while the besieging troops had been sent out to forage for food. Other fortresses at Strasbourg and Schlestadt delayed the German advance, but when they were captured at the end of October, the Prussians could finally enter Mulhouse permanently. They had made several earlier forays there which, according to Westwood, ‘were registered by the local railway authorities, who would run the train service when the French held the city, and suspend it when the Prussians were in occupation’. One fortress near the border, Bitche, held out until the end of the war, preventing the Prussians from using a local peripheral line.

The Prussians were hampered, too, by the activities of the francs-tireurs , the guerrilla army of irregulars which sprang up in the wake of the defeat of the conventional forces. The francs-tireurs’ most notable success was the blowing up of a troop train between Reims and Metz in October 1870. This was real Wild West stuff as they laid an improvised mine between the tracks which was detonated by the weight of the locomotive. When the surviving troops tried to flee the wreckage, they were massacred by the French forces waiting in ambush.

In order to draw attention away from their own errors, the Prussians were wont to blame everything on the francs-tireurs and their efforts to counter them led to reprisals that were widely regarded as atrocities by foreign observers. The Prussians hit upon the idea of using local prominent people as hostages on the front of the locomotives of their trains. There was much resistance to this ghastly scheme, even among Prussian officers who, according to the historian John Westwood, would invite the dignitaries into their well-appointed carriages because ‘evidently many felt ashamed of the order and tried to make things easier for the hostages’, not least because it was a particularly harsh winter. In the event, there are no reports of any hostages coming to harm but French prisoners of war were subjected to journeys on open wagons which resulted in their freezing to death. While this may suggest that the strategy was successful, it is more likely that in fact attacks by the guerrilla forces were less frequent than the Prussians had suggested. The Prussians claimed that 100,000 of their troops were needed to guard the railways in France, a figure that was widely quoted at the time but appears to be an overestimate because that would represent nearly 10 per cent of their forces, and, as we have seen, it suited the Prussians to exaggerate the difficulties posed by the francs-tireurs. In another case, Fontenoy, a village which had the misfortune to be near a bridge on the main line between Prussia and Paris destroyed in a successful attack of sabotage, was burned down even though there was no evidence that the villagers had sheltered the guerrillas.

In fact, many of the derailments, minor accidents and track failures were due to the incompetence of the Prussian running of the railway rather than the result of attacks by partisans. Through the invasion, the Prussians gained control of 2,500 miles of French railway but operating it effectively was beyond them. They were, after all, working in a foreign country with strange equipment and with little help from French railway workers, who mostly abandoned their jobs once the Prussians arrived rather than collaborate with the enemy. In such conditions, accidents were inevitable but the francs-tireurs were a useful scapegoat though they could hardly be held responsible for the fact that chimneys kept being knocked off Prussian locomotives because French bridges were too low for them.

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