Henry Ralph Lumley was born in Marylebone in March 1892, son of barrister (and playwright) Ralph Robert Lumley and his wife Florence. Following his father’s death in 1900, young Henry was sent off the Christ’s Hospital (the Bluecoat School) for his education. He then returned to London and worked at the Eastern Telegraph Company as a telegraph operator until August 1915.
Having not being a member of the Officer Training Corps Henry went out of his way to train as a pilot sought special permission to do so for which he was granted and attended Central Flying School, Upavon from 15th April 1916. The first tragedy to strike was on the very day Henry graduated from flying school when his plane crashed; he suffered horrific facial burns, lost his left eye and could barely see out of the right eye. He had burns to his fingers and lost part or all of both thumbs. His legs were also both severely burned, resulting in restricted movement. A letter from Central Flying School to his mother stated on the same page that her son had graduated and that his aircraft ‘met with an accident’.
In early 1917, he was a patient at King Edward VII Hospital for Officers, on Grosvenor Gardens. While he was there, Sister Agnes wrote a letter about him:
I am writing for 2 Lieut H.R. Lumley R.F.C who has been most terribly burnt in a flying accident. He was boarded here a few days ago and they told him to apply for compensation. His face is burnt beyond recognition. One eye removed, the other practically blind. Legs burnt, arms burnt, thumbs and some fingers amputated. Of course they have the whole history on the [medical] board papers. He has very little to live for poor boy, but we are doing everything possible believe me.
[Sister Agnes and her sister set up the hospital for officers in their house. It is now – as a hospital for ex-service personnel – named in her honor]
(Source)Roughly a year after his crash, Henry was transferred to Sidcup for reconstructive surgery under Gillies who proposed removing Henry’s badly scarred face entirely and replacing it with a single, huge skin graft taken from Henry’s chest. A similar less extensive procedure had proved highly successful for the aforementioned Willie Vicarage a month earlier.
The two operations at Sidcup, in November 1917 and February 1918, are documented in detail in the case notes, and revisited in Gillies’ 1920 textbook, Plastic Surgery of the Face, which is now out of copyright and freely available online. A diagram shows Gillies’ ambitious plan to remove the existing scar tissue and raise a large flap of skin from Lumley’s chest with pedicle tubes providing a further blood supply to the graft. Despite ongoing complications, the initial signs were encouraging, but by day three after the second operation the graft had developed gangrene. Henry Lumley died twenty-four days later on 11 March 1918. He was twenty-six.
“One could have wished that this brave fellow had had a happier death.” Harold Gillies, “Plastic Surgery of the Face“
OPERATION, 3RD STAGE The chest flap was raised and sutured into position on the face where it arrived without much difficulty or tension. The exposed tissue on the chest and shoulders was skin grafted from two separate donors. Surgery duration of 5 hours Note: The patient was very collapsed during surgery, especially the pulse.
PROGRESS 1st Day. 7 hours. Very satisfactory with good blood supply. Improving.
2nd Day. Areas of stasis appeared and spread rapidly. Massage, pricking and cupping were kept up almost continuously.
3rd Day The whole flap has developed gangrene and the second Pedical Tubes appear to have ceased supplying blood within 24 hours of the procedure and on the 5th day became separated. These should have been tubed also.
10th Day All dead skin was removed and areas expelled a foul discharge. Pedical Tubes barely remained attached and all efforts were on keeping them in place. Cleansing and the addition of sprayed paraffin wax commenced and the patient was moved to an open air hut.
14th Day The face and chest are much cleaner with fresh eyelets of epithelium appearing on the chest. Majority of the grafts have however sloughed.
NEW TREATMENT 3/3/18 Commence exposure of the chest to Ultra Violet rays (Forbes Lamp) combined with lime dusting powder.
11/3/18 PATIENT DIED.
After Lumley’s death Gillies realized that he had tried to do too much too quickly, and that large facial grafts were more hazardous than expected. As a result he began using smaller staged grafts to create the overall result instead of a single large graft.
The lessons learned from the failure of Henry Ralph Lumley’s surgery brought about an entire reassessment as to how to treat such injuries and hundreds of patients benefited; this paved the way for the highly successful skin grafting surgery performed on the self styled World War 2 pilots ‘The Guinea Pig Club’ over 25 years later.
From Harold Gillies Case Notes:
There was a very pathetic sequel to this most terrible case, in that the patient after
having survived the ordeal of the burn, lived and regained a certain amount of strength
twi-nty months after the injury, died as a late result of a plastic operation.
He was admitted to my care fifteen months after the injury. The picture of the con-
dition shows the injury remarkably well. The colour of the scar tissue, which was an ugly
red made the appearance more ghastly than the illustration portrays. In addition to the
left eye being burned and to all the other destruction in evidence, the right eye was prac-
ticallv blind, as a result of staphyloma of the cornea.
He had received most painstaking and careful treatment prior to his admission to my
department ; included amongst other things, a skin-graft to the upper lid had been done,
which undoubtedly saved the remaining sight.
In view of the success of the two cases of burns described before this one, it was decided
to replace the whole skin of the face by a chest-flap. The flap was designed larger than
those for the two previous cases, and was of sufficient size to cover the whole face. As a
preliminary, the neck pedicles were tubed. At this stage also incisions were made into the
area of ski’n which was going to form the face, and they represented the slits necessary to
make the mouth, nostrils, and palpebral fissures. These incisions are distinguishable as
scars in the illustration, fig. 742, and it should be noted that they became keloidal scars and
did not heal up at all quickly ; they were sewn up with horsehair.
After the pedicles had been made, a rest of two and a half months was given, as the
patient was obviously slow in recovery, both generally and locally, after which it had to be
decided whether to give this unfortunate airman a further year’s rest or whether to carry
on with the procedure, knowing that the latter might not succeed.
The patient had got used to a considerable amount of morphia and a certain amount
of stimulants since the time of injury, which was certainly derogatory as far as his treatment
was concerned. Having pinned his faith on the result of the forthcoming operation, he
was bitterly disappointed and exceedingly depressed at the thought of having to wait another
long period, and it was feared that he would not wait so long.
Owing to the generally poor healing powers of the patient, it was decided to add two
more pedicles to the flap, the design of which is visible in the illustrations. The operation
was duly carried out, and was an exceedingly tedious one. Skin to cover the raw area of
the chest was taken from a volunteer, which part of the operation was very kindly
undertaken for me by Lieutenant-Colonel H. S. Newland, D.S.O., A.A.M.C.
The appearance at the end of the operation was pleasing, and the blood supply to the
flap seemed sufficient to ensure its persistence. When the patient had recovered from the
shock of the operation and the long ana>sthetic there was, quite obviously, good blood
supply in the flap. Next day, however, the patient was considerably collapsed, and the
flap itself suffered in the general depression of circulation, and in thirty-six hours became
blue. From then onwards there was a steady progress of the gangrene, which went from
dry to moist over all the flap, except a small portion of each pedicle. The skin-graft to
the chest failed to take, and despite the most unremitting care of the sister in charge, and
Captain R. Montgomery, R.A.M.C., the patient gradually sank and died twenty-four days
after the operation. Both the chest area and that of the denuded face became infected,
and towards the end mctastatic abscesses occurred in various regions.
In reviewing the case, the attempt to reconstruct the whole face is a procedure which
is obviously justifiable, and it would, in a more reposed patient, have succeeded. It
is possible that, had the author taken a very firm attitude, and could he have persuaded
the patient to wait a year, the operation, as planned, would have had more chance of success.
The author is convinced that the operation should have been done in piecemeal perhaps
that one only of the face should have been done at a time. By this means a very
presentable result mi^ht have been gained ; but it obviously would not have been as good
as the single replacement method, and the author feels that his desire to obtain a perfect
result somewhat over-rode his surgical judgment of the general condition of the patient.
The operation took much longer than was anticipated, the shock was greater, and with the
failure of the skin to take on the chest and of the flap to live on the face, the severity of
the operation was enormously increased. One could have wished that this brave fellow
had had a happier death.
Things were looking up for Germany…but then then they weren’t. The conference was totally a disaster and there is no way of twisting it any other way. Nobody supported Germany outright. Russia obviously supported France as did Spain but the real shockers was first Britain and secondly Italy. Wait what? Britain makes sense — they maintained the integrity of their agreement but Italy was the true shocker. Germany’s public defensive ally defied it in the congress and while Austria-Hungary tentatively supported Germany it was with an asterisk basically begging them to please stop being so aggressive and be more conciliatory. Germany, and more specifically the Kaiser, could have taken this as a note of the failure of Weltpolitik as a foreign policy but instead the Kaiser became more solidified in his belief in it. He would not again let himself back down and instead viewed more aggressive diplomacy necessary for it to work.
France and Britain had grown closer and at the very least Germany hoped this would drive at wedge between France and Russia. Well…it didn’t. All 3 powers supported the same decision in this conference and recognized the threat of Germany. Britain and Russia who just one year prior were actively fucking each other over began to make nice now and by 1907 would sign a series of agreements which would solidify the boundaries in Central Asia, the fate of Persia, and basically begin their friendship.
This was by all accounts the logical choice for both parties. Britain wanted to support France but to support France they would need to accommodate Russia. Also by extension of this agreement Britain would free up swathes of manpower stationed in India which were there for a significant purpose of keeping Russia in check and contesting said Central Asian territories. Although Russia herself could still go back into Germany’s arms any time she wished in this period and really did not need the French and British as much as they needed Russia, Russia felt alliance with the two powers was more beneficial than with Germany and A-H. The catastrophe in Manchuria against the Japanese and the failed revolution in 1905 as well showed the Tsar that the frontiers needed to be handled once and for all and the efforts concentrated and by dealing with Manchuria with Japan via losing and by dealing with Central Asia with Britain via diplomacy Russia could exert all of her efforts toward the West.
There can not be a greater indictment of Weltpolitik than when you consider the deep seated and long lasting (at times hundreds of years long) hostilities between France, Britain, and Russia being resolved so rapidly. In January 1904 Russia and Britain were irreconcilable, Britain and France were on uneasy terms, and France and Russia were friends but it was nothing really solid — it was really a one way agreement if you think about it. By December 31st 1907 though we can truly say the Triple Entente was formed in at least a proto state. But it was all tentative. It would be the 1911 Crisis that really set all of this into stone and really set the divisions in place that you talk about.
France, using riots as an excuse to send troops into Morocco would be quite slow to leave and were clearly making a power grab. A grab which was in clear violation of the treaty agreed upon by the congress just a few years prior. Now, this legitimately did drive a wedge between Britain and France for just a moment and Germany had an opportunity to shine if it acted diplomatically. It did not. Remember what I said about the Kaiser not backing down? Instead of operating in a peaceful, diplomatic fashion Germany would escalate the situation in true Weltpolitik fashion; she would send warships to intervene. Britain, who again held naval hegemony despite the race, was stunned. With the extension of actually not even knowing where the rest of the German fleet was the crisis immediately shifted from the French mucking up the treaty and more with maintaining the integrity of the Triple Entente in the face of German aggression. Germany would seize a sizable amount of French territory in sub-equatorial Africa to integrate into the colony of Kamerun and would in return recognize French control over Morocco. Weltpolitik would in the short sight work but in the grand scheme completely fail.
Charles Maurras, a contemporary, wrote “The solution of the Moroccan crisis is not to be found in Fez but among the pines of the Vosges. What is afoot in Morocco makes sense only if we are prepared to fight in the Vosges.” What the Second Crisis made explicit was what should have been made implicit in the first — that colonial disputes were now for the first time ever being directly projected back onto Europe and European rivalries and not treated in vacuums. This is only exacerbated by the fact that Morocco’s geographic position directly influences control of the Mediterranean which makes it harder to separate than some sub-equatorial African colony.
The Triple Entente was by all accounts solidified at this point in a mutual fear of Germany and even though by 1912 the naval arms race had almost entirely cooled down (Britain, for instance, reducing to a one-power standard in the Mediterranean) it was far too late. Britain was now in favor of continental intervention with regards to assisting France and would use her naval might to contest the German navy in the Baltics to protect the Russians. Russia who was just a few years prior in this strange land where it could still choose which power bloc to support was now fully behind France and Britain and France, despite having an abysmally low birth rate and a low population would now be able to stand up to Germany with two big friends. Italy had shown in these two crisis’ that her allegiance was only tentatively with Germany which explains their backing out of the war and even joining on the side of the Entente in 1915. Germany’s position was one of isolation with but one friend, Austria-Hungary; a nation which was imploding domestically (and that’s a whole big post for another time) and had a military which would perform embarrassingly in the war.
In the process of the past 25 years Weltpolitik had effectively isolated Germany from the rest of the world and driven former enemies into allegiance together for the sole purpose of containing Germany. It had created clear political boundaries in the formation of two major power blocs — the Triple Alliance and the Triple Entente. That is why, ultimately, people say the war was “inevitable”. When you create two power blocs like that where one is created for the sole purpose of aggressive expansion (Germany colonially and A-H with respect to Serbia and the rest of the Balkans) and the other with the sole purpose of containing the other, war is nearly inevitable. Some may point to the Warsaw Pact vs NATO and say that never evolved to war and I’d say that’s not a fair comparison because nukes completely changes the formula. This is the Cold War without M.A.D. and nuclear bombs. Even with nuclear deterrent that is an incredibly dicey situation but when we’re just talking about the risk of conventional warfare that becomes a ticking time bomb. It was by no means inevitable and I wouldn’t say that but the conditions were set in such a perfect way that most people in Europe by the end of 1911 viewed a general continental European war as a reality and began preparing for one in a very serious manner.
 Scaremongers: Advocacy of War and Rearmament, 1896-1914, Anthony Morris.
The First World War: Volume I: To Arms, Hew Strachan
The Opening of World War I, Holger Herwig
The Napoleonic Wars greatest innovation, something which would paint warfare forever after, is the concept of a citizen army — to replace the highly trained, specialized mercenary armies employed by crowns around Europe. These mercenary armies would generally be foreign and highly paid, which makes them very efficient at quelling local revolutionary tendencies. With the French Revolution, the combination of the ideas of the Enlightenment and Democracy came the idea that if this is a nation of the people then the army must also be of the people. When basically all of Europe went to war with Revolutionary France to subdue them and restore the monarchy, hundreds of thousands of men would willingly sign up and fight the invaders as a united force. They were not nearly as trained and in fact had egregious casualty ratios but their sheer numbers and force would wreck the balance of power. These Prussian and Austrian and etc. Generals pleaded with their monarch’s for armies of equal size to compete lest they be conquered entirely.
How these battles would actually be fought is too diverse to cover and would be its own major post on its own, so I’ll focus on Napoleon. Napoleon’s strategy and tactics were that of complete annihilation whether on the attack or defense — his goal was to obliterate the enemy forces under any circumstance. Absolute victory or bust. So let’s talk about an average Napoleonic battle. Napoleon’s army would be in this marching formation which allowed for ridiculous flexibility. The cavalry screen allowed much early warning and the dual army allowed him to further spread his power rather than putting his ‘eggs in one basket.’ So he detects an enemy, his cavalry returns to the communications staff and the army would begin forming.
Light infantry would approach the enemy first and begin harassing the enemy lines. They would operate in teams of two covering each other and operate with 100 in a roughly 100-200 meter region. They tended to have more camouflaged uniform (but not much). They were also the highly intelligent and generally more trained members of the group, many times even hunters and rangers before their military tenure. The Voltigeur also were designated by something that many people would not immediately think, height. Height was actually critical in designation of Napoleon’s armies — you were likely pushed into skirmisher roles if you were 4’11 to 5’1. Small and maneuverable and exceedingly accurate makes a deadly combination.
Their job was, like I said, harassment — generally of the enemies weakest links to try and further weaken them. They also had to contest with enemy skirmishers which lead to warfare that could look pretty similar to a modern soldier — small ‘squads’ with rifles operating with cover against each other. They were especially useful in urban environments to climb into and through buildings and small places to become a nuisance to the enemy.
After that the light artillery near the front would open up as the light infantry began to withdrawal. They would also target weak points in the enemy line as the first wave of infantry began to form…not into lines as you may imagine, but columns! The Napoleonic Wars, especially in the early days, was as I said a citizen army and these men never held a gun in their life and had no dream of joining the military years prior. They were not military men and it would be too time consuming and even irresponsible to try and train them in complex military tactics and maneuvers. Why bother with finesse when you have brute force?
These infantry would be organized in tight columns with ridiculous depth that rivaled Greek phalanxes centuries prior — dozens of men deep was not uncommon. A center line would unleash an initial volley and then the two sides, in their column formation, would charge with all their force into the enemy line with bayonets. Many times the threat of hundreds of men charging you with that kind of depth would be enough to cause a break in the enemy lines and a total rout which your cavalry would promptly clean up. However if it wouldn’t, you would crash into their weak point and your men would pour out and that much shock and force and men pushed into one small area immediately following artillery and a barrage of muskets would cause a route. This would have so much ridiculous success and would contribute to France winning wars against, again, basically the entirety of Europe at once consistently.
As the different Coalition Wars (ie: Napoleonic Wars) drew on, Napoleon would get more experienced troops and would fight a more finesse based style. He would utilize Grenadiers — tall men with huge bearskin caps for intimidation and as elite shock troops. He would love using his inexperienced line infantry and light infantry to hold the enemy in place while his elite troops swung around and crashed into the enemy’s flank and “rolled them up”.
The Franco-Prussian War taught a story to Europe that many would not want to hear, but would harken in an age of new warfare. As opposed to the ACW just five years prior which used muzzle loaded percussion muskets, the French and German forces would both be using breech loaded bolt action rifles using cartridges. The French had the Chassepot and the Germans had their infamous “Needle Gun” — both with an effective range over a thousand meters. I’ll quote from Michael Howard:
The German infantry did not, indeed, acquit themselves particularly well. The company columns in which they advanced into action disintegrated under fire into a ragged skirmishing line which quickly went to [the] ground, and which officers and N.C.O.s urged forward in vain. In the woods and close country which lay before the French positions the temptation to ‘get lost’ was sometimes overwhelming. Only close order could give the infantry confidence, and close order in the face of breech-loading rifles was suicidal. The answer to the problem, as the Germans discovered during hte course of the campaign, was for the infantry, so long as its armament was inferior to that of the enemy, to hold back and leave matters to the guns; and the German field artillery proved quite capable of settling matter sitself. Its range and rate of fire gave it, at the beginning of both battles, such an ascendancy that the French gunners — including the dreaded *mitrailleuses–were silenced in a matter of minutes.*
The Franco-Prussian War was a “half and half” war even more than the American Civil War. The Germans would have rapid mobilization — over 250,000 men — and would have staggering casualty rates. They would simply not be capable of assaulting positions without unacceptable casualties because of the deadliness of French riflemen and them not having the tactical flexibility to deal with it.
The Generals had no idea what to do other than to just sit back and try and flatten the target area with their artillery and send in their infantry to mop up — something we’ll see tried again in a few years with much less success. However it worked then and, unfortunately, both sides didn’t get a real picture of the futility of their tactics because of how much of a fluke the war was. The French would be duped by the genius Von Moltke the Elder into being completely surrounded at Sedan and surrendering along with their monarch Napoleon III. Paris would declare herself the Third Republic but would still surrender just a few months later after a prolonged siege. There was a significant amount of casualties (the Prussians suffered 68% casualties at Mars-la-Tour for instance) as holes began to form in ‘Napoleonic Tactics’ but the war did not drag on long enough and there were not enough battles for any of serious influence to notice. Most of those who did notice were lying somewhere face down in a field somewhere, and they didn’t have much of an influence on military doctrine unfortunately.
Well… a lot actually! At first glance there seems to be a pretty damn obvious weakness: trains can only go where there are rails. If you want to neutralize a train, can’t you just tear them up? Certainly this is been a strategy – Russian armored trains could be equipped with a special rail-ripper car to tear up tracks while retreating even – but when you are fighting for control of the rails, doing irreparable damage to the line is counter-productive. In fact, it really was the tactic of last resort. While the armored train has always been above all else intended for defensive work, protecting isolated tracks from partisans or responding to hotspots with needed firepower, during their heyday, as you will see, they could be powerful offensive weapons, and well supported trains were used as spearheads of military offenses.
With the invention of the steam locomotive and the development of the railroad, it of course was only a matter of time before they would find use in war, as they offered a speedy way to transport troops to the front, and were a major boon when it came to solving logistical concerns. But the fragility of these lifelines was of course also obvious, and it became quickly apparent that protecting the trains, and the rails themselves, was of major concern. As early as 1848, while Revolution swept through Europe, we have records of improvised armored train cars being used to protect the rail-lines, but all in all they were isolated instances, and the train hadn’t yet become a vital part of military operations.
The Train Comes into Its Own During the American Civil War
It was the American Civil War that would first see the train truly demonstrate its usefulness in military matters, first by providing the Confederates with key reinforcements at the Battle of First Bull Run, when Joseph E. Johnston’s troops were transported from the Shenandoah by rail in time to help Beauregard fight the battle. When war broke out, there was some 30,000 miles of rail in the country, with about ⅔ of it concentrated in the North, and it would continue to prove its worth throughout the war, enabling massive movements of troops and supply for both sides – although more so the North. Their importance though made them targets, and both sides made to disrupt the others’ logistical lifelines.
Probably the most famous attempt at this was ‘The Great Locomotive Chase’ which occurred in early 1862, when a group of Union raiders attempted to steal a train and ride it up to Chattanooga, which the Union Army was trying to capture. They would be destroying the W+A Railroad as they rode up it. hoping to cut the city off from effective resupply. It worked at first, and they got the train, but the Confederates were soon chasing them in their own locomotive, and the raiders were unable to do the damage to the line that they had hoped. They ran out of coal eventually, and had to abandon the train. Some were captured and executed, including their leader James J. Andrews.
The ‘Chase’ was not exactly the rule though. The Union being much more reliant on rail than the South, it was only logical that Northern lines would be targeted with much more frequency by Confederate partisans and guerillas than the other way around. Continued attacks on the PW+B Railroad as it traveled between Wilmington and Baltimore were a major problem for resupply down the East Coast, and since the entire line couldn’t be guarded en masse, it was necessary to protect the trains on the expanses of track between outposts. The result was the creation of armored cars to be included in the train, examples of which can be seen here and here.
The Confederates got into the act as well, most notable with the so-called “Dry Land Merrimac” deployed at Savage’s Station in 1862. Named for its more than passing resemblance to the CSS Virginia, the iron-clad railcar carried a 32-pound cannon pointing from its front and was pushed along by an unprotected locomotive. It proved to be a very effective weapon, but the vulnerable engine meant that it was soon withdrawn from the fight, but not before inflicting an estimated 100 casualties. Later examples, known as “cotton-bale” batteries, used wooden walls reinforced with cotton-bales on the outside for additional protection, used to attack Union forces at Galveston, Texas in early 1863. Functionally, these were more akin to railroad guns than what came to be defined as an armored train, and both sides experimented with rail-mounted artillery, the most notable being the heavy 13 in. mortars deployed outside Petersburg during the Union Siege. By the end of the war, strategic arrangements of rifle cars, an artillery car on each end, with the locomotive in the center were patrolling the Union rails and fending off banditry.
Although further development would stagnate in the USA – perhaps a little surprising given the westward expansion of the country into lands contested by the American Indians – I did find an interesting reference to the use of an armored train by law enforcement to deal with a miner’s strike in 1913. The Sheriff of Kanawha County used an example built but the C&O Railroad following attacks on their train by the miners, and dubbed the “Bull Moose Express” to do a “drive by” shooting on the miners’ camp, killing one of the miners and wounding others.
Before the World Wars
The success of the train in the American Civil War heralded widespread adoption of militarized arrangements to some degree or other. Railroad guns saw some use by the French in the Franco-Prussian War (The Prussians, never ones for subtlety, simply made hostages travel in the locomotive to discourage franc tireurs), and the Spanish regime in Cuba employed armored trains to quell unrest in the late 1890s just prior to the Spanish-American War, but it was the British who seemed destined to perfect the weapon, with lots of experimentation done by the Royal Navy as early as 1882, when they placed naval guns on railcars in Egypt, protected them with metal plates and sandbags, and manned them with Royal Marines. Mounting 20 pounder guns, they played an important role in the British return to Khartoum. The Navy also implemented an early countermeasure to further protect the train, placing empty boxcars in-front of the locomotive to trigger any mines or loose rails. The Navy’s experiments were used in Egypt/Sudan, and India, but it was in South Africa during the Second Boer War that the British trains became best known. Thirteen armored trains and locomotives were in operation at the time of the war’s outbreak in 1899, allowing the British to quickly rush troops around the region. One of the most interesting was “Hairy Mary”, a locomotive draped in 6” thick ropes to protect the crew from small arm’s fire. The early examples used second hand guns, many of them muzzle-loaders, but their inadequacies were clear, and by the end of the war they were mounting quick-firing 12 pounders. Not only used to patrol rail-lines, the British experimented with them in assaults on the Boer lines. Combined with the long series of blockhouses constructed in the region, the armored trains offered a very effective means of stymieing Boer attacks on the railroad.
One of the most famous incidents of the Boer War also highlighted the inherent vulnerability of trains operating in potentially hostile areas. On Nov. 15th, 1899, a train was attacked by a Boer force, derailing one of the infantry cars and managing to knock out its artillery with their own field guns. the train was further boxed in by a large boulder they had rolled onto the tracks behind it, preventing its escape. While the locomotive was able to push it off the track eventually and make its escape, some 50 or so troops, and one journalist named Winston Churchill, were abandoned to be captured. While not destroying the concept of the armored train, the vulnerability highlighted by the incident made clear that they could hardly operate with impunity. Their effectiveness at protecting rail lines was unquestioned, but a quality intelligence and a vigilant crew were a necessity against a skillful enemy. Despite the incident, the overall evaluation of the armored trains were high, but the British military establishment was dismissive of their usefulness outside of colonial conflicts where they were warding off attacks by irregulars, so little effort was made towards any sort of development in the UK, which is perhaps understandable given the UK’s geographical isolation from the continent.
World War I
At the outbreak of WWI, only one of the combatants had any appreciable investment in the concept of at the outbreak, and that was Russia. Its immense size and lack of quality roads made it even more dependent on rail-lines than any other belligerent power, and as such had constructed four examples (Or two. Or ten. Sources disagree). In the west, there was no pre-existing stock, but a few examples were hastily constructed by adding armor and weaponry to existing boxcars and locomotives. The Belgians had two examples in action, and the British Naval Division (an infantry unit of Royal Navy reservists and Marines unneeded for service at sea) created two as well which saw action outside Antwerp. The Germans followed suit on the Western Front with a few examples they used to protect against possible partisan attacks in Belgium, and a light armored train that ‘invaded’ Luxembourg in 1914, but the quick stagnation of the fighting saw no further advancement of the concept in the west.
The Eastern Front was a different matter though. As I said, they already had some number of trains, composed of armored locomotive and a couple of armored cars carrying machine-guns or light artillery, and already having trains ready to go at the very start gave Russia a leg up. They almost immediately saw use both offensively and defensively. The Russians already had experience with armored trains, having deployed improvised examples against Japan in 1904 and during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. In one of the earliest actions of the war, an armored train was used to capture a bridge at Stanislav. In offensive roles, infantry cars would be stocked with troops to quickly dismount before the shock of the train’s sudden arrival wore off, but the war quickly ruined any track that crossed between the lines. There remained the occasional case where the changing movement of the fronts left intact rail line allowing for an attacking role, but more generally they were restricted to more defensive roles through 1915 and 1916.
The use of a train would be to have it stay behind the front, and if there was a report of an enemy attack, it would be switched to the appropriate track and choo-choo off there to provide firepower – usually two 76mm guns and numerous machine guns. They proved to be very effective in this role of mobile defensive platforms, and the Russian Army had built nearly a dozen more by the end of 1915, with at least 15 in service at that time, spread out between various fronts. Inspired by the success of the Russian’s trains, the Germans and the Austrians copied them, with the first Austro-Hungarian example, the Pz.Zug I, entering service in early 1915, and a German train close on its heel’s that fall.
The evolution of the trains between 1914 and 1917 was quite incredible. The Russian trains at the beginning of the war were comparatively crude affairs, essentially an armored locomotive with armored boxcars attached to protect the crew for the guns and machine guns, but within a few years sleek designs that evoked the image of a battleship on land, with turreted guns and absolutely bristling with machine guns. The Austrians followed in the footsteps of the Russians, imitating their opponent in design, and putting them into action against both the Russians and the Italians. The German High Command never put as much stock into the concept, so while a number were operating by the end of the conflict, they were mostly assembled on the local level, with a wide variation in workmanship, and never taking on the finished appearance of the Russian examples.
Up to this point, armored trains had been been built in the image of any other train. The locomotive was attached to some number of cars which served various functions – infantry cars, artillery cars, command cars, AA cars etc. During World War I though was developed the rail-cruiser. Cruisers were single cars and capable of supplying their own power, giving them much greater speed and flexibility than a regular armored train. Both Russia and Austro-Hungary developed examples, ranging from the small trollies like the Motorkanonwagen to the impressive Russian railcruiser Zaamurets (later to become better known for serving with the armored train Orlik with the Czech Legion). Rail-cruisers could be attached to a larger train, but if needed, unhitched and sent off on their own. While incredibly useful in the defensive roles that they filled, even on the Eastern Front the relatively conventional fighting meant that armored trains weren’t used quite to their full potential. It would take the next big conflict to see them at their height of power.
The Russian Civil War
With the Bolshevik seizure of power in 1917 and ensuing withdrawal from the war, the Russian Civil War gave the fleet of armored trains a new purpose. The vast expanses of the country made control of the rail lines absolutely vital, and both sides made use of armed and armored trains extensively. At the beginning of the war, most of the Imperial Army’s fleet had either been requisitioned by the Germans or else fallen into White Russian hands. The Red forces quickly put into action a building program, churning out not only the well developed and battle tested designs of the Tsarist regimes from the factories they controlled, but improvising a wide array of ingenious designs, perhaps the most interesting being to build an interior wall in a boxcar and fill the gap with concrete to create a protected infantry car (these semi-armored trains were known as blindirov). In all, well over 200 armored and blindirov trains of varying quality operated with the Reds during the Civil War, and another 80 or so with the Whites. While the Reds were able to build quality trains using Czarist designs, the Whites generally lacked access to the factories and their quality rarely equalled that of their opponents’.
With the front lines much more amorphous, a general lack of air support, and neither side willing to uproot miles of vital track that would prefer to fight for control over, the train could truly perform as an offensive weapon, serving as a spearhead of the attack, instead of the savior in the defense. Trains would travel with raiding teams “desantniy otryad” of infantry and cavalry. The infantry would ride in armored box-cars providing protection on the move, deploy out when stopped and vulnerable, and also allow the train to strike away from the tracks, with the infantry operating under protection of its artillery. The cavalry would travel as a screening force to protect the train from ambush – although in numerous engagements the trains proved they could hold their own against enemy cavalry formations, such as a veritable slaughter outside Tsaritsyn in 1918. Many trains would carry an observation balloon, primarily for artillery spotting but also to allow for more effective reconnaissance outside of the narrow corridor of rail track.
With 37,000 miles of rail, and generally poor quality roads, the importance of the armored train during the war can’t be understated, and personnel were almost exclusively to be drawn from party members and the most literate at that. Although how much this was done in practice is up in the air. Railroad men were impressed into the service due to their existing expertise, and at least one foreign observer described the crew of a train he traveled on as “a choice selection of human scum”. Whether they were the cream of the communist party or the scum of the earth, the crews were certainly capable of great deeds, and when used at their best, could take on all comers, perhaps best exemplified during the Civil War by Train No. 1 Rifle Regiment in Honor of Karl Marx, which sped into the town of Liski, catching the garrison by surprise and capturing the town and two idling White trains to boot! Describing the Soviet use of trains in 1920, a Polish officer noted that, “Armored trains are the most serious and terrible opponent. […] Our infantry are powerless against them.” It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say they they were simply the best weapon of the war.
The Whites lacked the organization with their trains displayed by the Reds, and not just because they had few facilities for manufacturing. While this certainly meant that there was a lot of diversity in their fleet, the much more fractured force simply couldn’t develop a unified doctrine, although they certainly emulated the successes of the Reds when possible. In addition to the anti-Bolshevik Russian groups, both the British, French, and Americans operated lightly armored trains during their fruitless intervention of 1918-1920. And while the Whites generally were playing second fiddle to the Red in terms of effective train deployment, no one used them better than the Czech Legion as they fought their way east.
Perhaps the most famed armored train of the war – if not period – was Orlik. Originally a Russian rail-cruiser named Zaamurets that was captured from the Bolshevik’s by the Czech Legion as they trekked east in their effort to leave Russia and join the fighting on the Western Front, Orlik Vuz cis. 1 (Vehicle One) became part of their armored train Orlik. The train helped the Czechoslovakians control a vast swathe of the Trans-Siberian Railroad from late 1918 through early 1920, until they finally were able to evacuate Russia via Vladivostok. Orlik ended up in White hands before finding its way into the hands of Chinese Warlords, and eventually the Kwantung Army, a puppet force of Japan, some time around 1931.
I digress though, by the end of the Russian Civil War, the Soviets had a well established armored train doctrine, originally with light tains revolving around the raiding parties on the one hand (bronyepoyezd), and heavy trains more centered on providing heavier fire support (bronyobatoreyo). In both cases, they generally consisted of a armored locomotive in the center flanked by two gun cars, and control cars on each end. The variation was in the armament, the light train carrying 76.2mm pieces, and the heavy trains armed with between 100mm and 150mm (the heavy trains would be the least armored though, as it referred simply to the armament. A Heavy train was not meant to get close to the fighting, so was lightly armored compared to the light trains, which needed the protection. Confusing, I know!). Infantry cars could be added if needed, as well as a rail-cruiser. This was changed to three classes, of ‘A’ – the heaviest armored train, with 4×76.2mm guns; ‘V’ (or ‘C’) – 4x152mm or 203mm guns; and ‘B’ – 4x107mm or 4x122mm guns, in 1920. Type ‘M’ trains also existed, but more akin to railroad guns, mounting heavy naval artillery for coastal defense.
The Interwar Years
The years between the wars saw considerable use of armored trains, aside from the Russian Civil War that is, and few more so than the Poles, who fully embraced the concept and were running about 70 of them in the early 1920s. Their initial fleet was made up of examples captured either from the Austro-Hungarians and Germans at the end of World War I, or else from the Soviets during the Polish-Soviet War in 1919-1921, a conflict that saw numerous use of trains as raiding weapons, and even duels between Soviet and Polish trains! One of the greatest innovations of the Poles during the war was the use of flatbeds with Renault FTs placed on them, allowing the tank to fight from the train if needed, but able to dismount and range outside of the corridor of track if needed. Given the limitation on tank designs at the time, the speed and firepower offered by a train was simply unsurpassed at the time, and in regions where rail-lines went, there was no weapon a Polish or Soviet commander was happier to have at his disposal.
The other major utilization of armored trains in the period occurred in China. Plagued by warlords in the 1920s and the Japanese in the 1930s, and lacking major roads, the rail-lines were just as vital in the as in Russia, and consequently much of the fighting happened within a stone’s throw of them. I mentioned previously the long travels of the Orlik, but it was hardly alone in traveling the rails of warlord-torn China in the 1920s. The defeat of the Whites saw many of them flee from Vladivostok into northern China, where they offered their equipment and services to Chinese warlords as mercenaries. In his efforts to bring down the warlords, Chiang Kai-Shek followed suit by paying the Soviet’s for their expertise in constructing armored trains for him and training men in their use. By the time the Warlords had been mostly suppressed in the late 1920s, the National Revolutionary Army was fielding 20 trains, and the Manchurian Army under Zhang Xueliang had another dozen to support them with. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 would turn most of the latter over to the invader’s Kwantung Army. The Japanese would add a few new construction to their force, but their favored vehicle for patrolling the rail lines were armored trolleys, similar in function to the rail-cruiser, but essentially an armored car fitted with rail wheels. The Type 91 could have road and rail wheels switched, allowing it to function in either capacity and the Type 95 was a tracked vehicle with rail wheels that could be lowered from the hull onto the tracks.
World War II
As World War II dawned, it was the Poles and the Soviets who held most of the stock of armored trains. The Germans had nearly two dozen “track-guarding trains”, but they were lightly armored and improvised examples intended for use during civil unrest, not in a real combat situation. A few Czech examples fell into the Wehrmacht’s hands during the annexation, but the high command remained skeptical of them. When the Germans crossed the Polish border in 1939, much of the Polish stock had been taken out of service, but they still had ten in service, and all of quality design, having been modernized in the early-30s, with two artillery cars each, assault car for infantry and two control cars. Although some used armored trolleys attached to scouting, the flatbeds for tanks were prefered, and most trains would have a Renault FT and two TKS tankettes. The Polish tanks performed quite admirably against the Germans, proving to he an excellent defensive weapon against the German tanks. The primary vulnerability was to air attack, with most losses incurred from bombings.
Although the Germans did attempt to make use of their trains in Poland as well as the Netherlands, having pieced together seven of them using a mix of their own, meager domestic examples and the better Czech cars, they generally failed to employ them effectively in the early months of the war. Used as raiders to capture bridges, they failed both at Dirschau, Poland and Arnheim, Netherlands, either being repulsed or else the bridge destroyed. Captured Polish examples helped to bolster the forces, and by early 1941, German armored trains had been deployed to occupied France, as well as Yugoslavia where they guarded railroads against the partisans. The vastness of Russia, and the importance of rail lines for their logistics, convinced the Wehrmacht that armored trains would be an important part of Barbarossa, but the realization that the USSR used a different gauge of rail seems to have come late, as conversion only began in late May of 1941, with six trains converted in a rather haphazard fashion.
As with the Poles, the Soviets had both reduced their numbers from the early 1920s, but the 37 armored trains in operation with the Red Army in 1941 were of excellent design. The fearsome three turreted MBV-2 rail-cruiser had only just entered production, and 2 had been finished by that point. Aside from the Army, the rail force was supplemented by another 40 or so rail-cruisers being run by the NKVD, although as internal security, only nine were deployed near the western frontier at the time of Barbarossa. NKVD rail-cruisers would generally operate in groups of three accompanied by a support car locomotive, allowing them to be deployed separately as needed.
Just as the Poles did, the Soviets soon learned just how vulnerable the, but also how useful they could be in protecting rail junctions. Overrun by the German forces just as the rest of the Red Army in those early months, they put up a determined fight, but sold themselves dearly. The NKVD lost nearly its whole rail-cruiser force in the region, and the Red Army lost at least 47 trains, many of them falling into German hands to bolster their opponents meager force. Construction on replacements started immediately, first for simplified or improvised designs such as the OB-3 (Oblegechennaya [Simplified] Variant), and by the fall of 1942 78 new trains had chugged out to war. With losses replaced, concentration on new, better designs resulted in the BP-43, which used T-34 turrets to simplify construction, and utilized two anti-aircraft cars each to deal with the primary threat. 21 were built by war’s end, and it was the most advanced design used during the war.
Numerous other designs for anti-aircraft defense were also built to be attached for existing trains, and some trains were designed for the sole purpose. Some 200 PVO (Protivo Vozdushnaya Oborona – AA Defense) trains were built by wars end, used as protected and mobile anti-aircraft stations, giving commanders great flexibility in placement – assuming, of course, they were near the rails.
The capture of Russian armored trains in the summer of 1941 was a boon to the meager German fleet, but even with the improvement in quality this brought, enthusiasm for their use with the German high command was muted at best. Although they would on occasion perform the ‘johnny on the spot’ defensive role seen with the Soviet forces, the main role of the trains was fighting partisans behind the lines, of which there was no shortage of work doing. What new construction was done, such as the BP 42 and BP 44 designs, was heavily influenced by Polish and Soviet innovations, including dismount cars for tanks (usually PzKpfw 38(t)s), and Panzerjägerwagens equipped with Panzer IV turrets. But they always remained boxy affairs, looking like the secondary thoughts that they were for German manufacturers. The change of fortunes in 1943 finally began to shift the perspective on trains, and their utility as defensive weapons showed itself clearly to OKH. By late 1944, manufacturing of trains had even been placed at high priority, behind only the new Tiger and Panther tanks, but it was far too late. Finished trains rolled out at a mere trickle – only nine of the new BP-44 design were completed by the end of the war. In all, Germany would only operate some 70 trains through the war, with a high point of 55 with the construction push near the end of the war.
As for other nations, armored train use was a decidedly limited affair. The Italians used a small number for anti-partisan activities in Yugoslavia, and the British used about thirteen ungainly examples as coastal defense platforms in southern England – manned mostly by Free Polish forces, whether by coincidence or because of their knowledge of armored trains I’ve never been able to pin down. The British also deployed one in the Middle East during the brief fighting in Iraq. The Allies never deployed them in their advance from 1944-1945, and encountered only a handful of German examples, as the Wehrmacht’s use had been almost exclusively on the Eastern Front. A small number of artillery centric trains and anti-aircraft centric trains were encountered, and a few patrolled in Italy, but that was about the extent of it.
Post-War and Decline
The Second World War was essentially the last gasp of the armored train as a weapon of conventional warfare. That of course is not to say it disappeared entirely, just that the advances in airpower, and the general direction of tactics and strategy removed its purpose in a regular ground war. But it still could make its mark, especially in the role of anti-insurgency operations, where the mobile forts could protect the rail-lines without much fear of air attack. Soviet trains continued to ply the rails of Ukraine and Poland as they fought the UPA and the so-called ‘cursed soldiers’ of the former Armia Krajowa who continued to resist Soviet hegemony into the late 1940s, and some continued to patrol the Trans-Siberian Railroad well into the latter part of the 20th century, especially with deteriorating relations with China. Most of these trains were heavily armed with anti-aircraft weapons, and revolved around the speedy delivery of tanks and APCs to remote regions, where its cargo would do the real fighting. Both the MVD (Interior Affairs) and the military made use of trains in Chechnya in the past two decades (apparently there was actually an excess of them, due to lack of coordination between MVD and military commanders).
Aside from trains intended for combat, in the 1980s the Soviets also began mounting SS-24 ICBMs onto trains, a means of preventing easy targeting by American missiles by being constantly mobile. The test launch was considered a success with American spy satalites unable to locate it, and the Americans viewed it as enough of a threat to consider building their own system, although it never came to fruition due to the end of the Cold War.
Probably the most well known example was La Rafale, a French train that was built in 1948 to protect the railroad between Saigon and Nha Trang during the First Indochina War following a massacre by the Vietminh. Built and manned by the French Foreign Legion, it was an impressive train with two armored locomotives, and over a dozen protected cars including combat cars and troop transports, plus cars for freight and passengers. The Vietminh eventually figured out how to neutralize it blowing up a series of bridges to isolate it and wreck it with mines, either in although sources seem to place this from anywhere between 1951 to 1954 (Possibly due to confusion that a second one was built to operate in Cambodia in the same period). The Vietminh seem to have made their own armored trains, and there are accounts of the two duking it out inconclusively.
Other instances which my sources are unfortunately brief in their mentions of include armored trolleys (ie rudimentary rail-cruisers) deployed by the British during the Malayan Emergency, and armed trains created during the Congo Crisis. Russian trains were involved in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and multiple groups used improvised trains during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Kim Jong-Il, apparently afflicted with a fear of flying, used an armored train to travel long distances, such as an almost two week ride to reach Moscow in 2001.
The vital importance of the railroad for military logistics starting in the mid-19th century, and the inherent vulnerability of the large tracts of unprotected rail, made the development of weaponized trains a virtual inevitability. Although the armored train would reach its height of importance in the early 20th century before airpower came about to offer the easiest and most effective counter, they would continue to show their worth through World War II, and find uses even after that. Prior to the invention of the tank, these land-battleships were the most powerful weapon on wheels when well supported, bringing incredible firepower to bear and never-before possible speed. Although limited by where the rails went, a well manned armored train could nevertheless not just serve as a mobile fort protecting a railroad from attack, but could even be employed as the spearhead of an attack, charging in with guns blazing to disgorge literally hundreds of infantry to overwhelm shocked defenders.
Airpower would end the ability of the train to operate with impunity, but by no means were they done for, fighting their way through World War II and beyond. The life span can be split into four phases really. The juvenile stage where the concept hadn’t yet been developed fully (pre-WWI); the mature stage where they operated not just as defensive backstops and behind the lines, but as offensive tools in their own right (Centered on the Russian Civil War); their old age, mostly working behind the lines in a support role (World War II); and their slow death after the war, serving in a counterinsurgency role, but deprived of the ability to operate conventionally.
Addendum A: Railroad guns
Although early on I touched on the immense mounted artillery role known as the railroad gun (not to be confused with a rail gun), it is worth pointing out that I haven’t really covered them here because they aren’t, strictly speaking, armored trains. Not to say they can’t be, but railroad guns are intended to just provide very heavy artillery support, usually with immense naval guns as in the case of the United States Navy’s Mark I Navy railway mount, which carried a gigantic 14” naval gun, or custom guns such as the infamous Paris Gun which the Germans used in World War One, and mounted a 111 foot, 238mm gun.
Railroad guns can have armored protection for their crews certainly, but even then they aren’t usually lumped into the category of armored trains, although armored trains certainly could include artillery cars of impressive caliber. These would weigh in at several hundred tons (compare to an armored train car of maybe 60 tons), and many railroad guns actually required reinforcing of the rails to be fired, or construction of a temporary spur to fire from as they lacked a turret and required the entire car to face in the direction they intended to fire. Through both World Wars, both sides fielded railroad guns, and basically stated, the slow and lumbering railroad gun filled the opposite role of the speedy armored train.
Addendum B: Examples
I’ve peppered this account with a few images here and there, but not exactly with rhyme or reason. I tried not to break the flow of the narrative by getting into long winded talks about Train types, and instead decided to stick that stuff here!
American: The US military virtually inagurated the entire weapon type, with their rail batteriesand armored railcars. After leading the way during the American Civil War, armored trains weren’t really America’s style it would seem. Like their British counterparts though, they made a few in Russia in the late 1910s. These were improvised examples though, and hardly as impressive or powerful as what the Soviets were building by that point.
Austro-Hungarian: The Austro-Hunarians built some very handsome designs, such as this artillery car mounting a 70mm gun in a turret and multiple machine-gun ports. It was theMotorkanonwagen which was their most impressive weapon though, a small railcruiser that carried a 70mm gun in its turret.
British: The Royal Navy handled most of the armored trains employed by the British.
They first used them extensively, in the Second Boer War. “Hairy Mary” was the most recongizable, due to the rope protection used on the engine. You can see the metal sided carsbehind the engine. Adequate to stop small arms fire, they were still pretty flimsy, as you can seehere. The entire structure collapsed when the car flipped during a Boer attack (the same that saw Churchill captured).
This example of a car was built hastily at the outbreak of World War I using a 4.7 in. naval gun, and armored but open-topped infantry positions. This flattop car with a gun placed on top of it probably would have gone into action with sheet metal attached to protect the crew, or maybe just sandbags. Two trains were made, and fought outside Antwerp. Just after the war, a few more were built in Russia, although rather basic in design. Rail-wheeled armored cars andarmed/protected box cars for escorting passenger trains still saw use with the British – these examples in Palestine in the mid-30s during the uprising there – but they were seen as nothing more than weapons for the colonies. The closest the British came to deploying trains in Europe again would be these open-topped examples that patroled the southern coast of England, mostly manned by the Poles.
France: Although not part of a proper armored train, the French used armored artillery carsduring the siege of Paris in the Franco-Prussian War. Later on, while the British and American examples from the Allied Intervention looked kind of iffy, they at least used metal! This French artillery car is nothing more than logs and sandbags, illustrating just about the lowest end of design one can find. The French would prove to be much better with their designs when they putLa Rafale into service in Indochina, although it still used a basic, open topped design for much of the fighting compartments, with a few turrets.
Germany: During World War I, German design was ugly. Compare these “doghouse” design artillery cars to the Russians or Austro-Hungarians! This mainly reflected the lack of organization, as design and construction was done on a local basis. While this example includes a turreted car, you can still see that the train is bulky and looks like pillboxes mounted on flatcars.
Entering World War II, German trains were very few. What they had reflected the lack of design evolution from the First World War era, still being bulky, and little more than marginally protected artillery cars or reinforced box cars, seen here with Train No. 3. Design did improve, such as thisartillery car added to the same train as before in 1940, mounting a 75mm gun. Much of what the Germans put into service in the early years of the war either were heavily influenced by other nations designs, such as this Pzkpfw. 38 (t) dismount car (Although German’s didn’t have the ramps on the car originally. The crew had to unload it), or just outright taken – Polish-sourced artillery car, Polish locomotive, Russian cars, Czech Cars. For comparison of what the Germans were making, Train No. 28’s artillery cars are actually just three SOMUA S35s on flatbeds.
The first really impressive domestic production was the BP 42. Although sometimes things would vary, the train was mostly standardized and they were set up in mirrored fashion from the center where the locomotive sat. Moving outwards on both sides was the artillery car with 100mm gun, acommand/infantry car (One was the command car, the second was a backup and houses the infantry), and another artillery car with a 76.2mm gun and 20mm anti-aircraft gun. A tank-dismount car might be added after that carrying a PzKpfw 38(t) (with proper ramp!), and a pusher car last, nothing more than a flatbed to trigger any mines laid on the tracks. Two Panhard 38(f) armored cars would be included for scouting purposes, with wheels that could be switched between road and rail in a few minutes.
Here is a cool newsreel of one in “action” (its staged). It shows the general idea of train warfare pretty well, with the train charging in, pummeling the enemy partisans, and infantry detachment dismounting to capture them. The BP 42 was a great anti-partisan train, but couldn’t stand up to conventional forces, leading to the BP 44 which mainly upped the firepower. The overall configuration changed little, but all the artillery cars carried 100mm guns, and thePanzerjägerwagen was added to the mix, using a Panzer IV turret for additional anti-tank firepower. The first BP44 rolled off the assembly line in June of 1944, and not even a dozen were finished.
Aside from the standard trains, the Germans built a number of scout-cars – small rail-cruisers – to make up ‘scout trains’, or schweren Schienenpanzerspähzug These would be hooked into groups of 8-12, and mostly deployed in Yugoslavia. Some would have Panzer III turrets, and others would be machine gun or infantry cars. Three bigger Panzerjäger-Treibwagen were built using two Panzer IV turrets but never saw action. The even larger Panzertriebwagen rail-cruiser had only one example built – PT 16, as the Germans prefered the Soviet examples they captured, and it saw little action as well. It was impressivley armed though with two captured Soviet 76.2mm guns and bookended by Panzerjägerwagen built using T-34 turrets. It would be given to the Polish People’s Army after the war for hunting down anti-Soviet partisans. Additionally, dedicated anti-aircraft trains were built, essentially protected gun emplacements on flatcars.
Polish: Early Polish trains were mostly captured Russian, German or Austro-Hungarian examples, but they quickly started building their own fleet of very modern designs. These artillery wagonsdate to 1921, and carry a 100mm howitzer and 75mm field gun, plus nine machine guns. One of the best features of the Polish trains were the dismount cars, either for Renault FTs or TKS tankettes.
Sino-Japanese Conflict: A lot of the trains used in China by the warlords, National Revolutionary Army, and the Japanese were of Russian origin, so I won’t go into details on those. Domestic productions generally mimicked Russian design, not only due to exposure but because many were in fact built by White Russian exiles, such as this example from the early 1920’s Fengian Army. The Fengian Army’s stock of trains mostly fell into Japanese hands in 1931, where they continued to operate. The main example of Japanese construction wasn’t in armored trains per se, but railroad capable armored vehicles, such as the Type 91 So-Mo and Type 95 So-Ki. About 1000 of the So-Mi were built, and just under 150 of the So-Mo.
Soviet/Russian: While not their first armored train to be deployed, the Imperial Russian Army’s first standardized design was called the Khunkhuz class train, debuting in late summer of 1915. It featured an armored locomotive flanked by artillery cars, each spouting a 76.2mm gun at the end a number of machine guns bristling out. Although the Reds did control most of the factories and raw material, allowing better construction than the Whites, they still had a dizzying array of variety in quality. This is actually a Khunkhuz artillery car that was rebuilt in 1918, abandoning the turret for simplicity. The OV locomotive was a purpose built armored locomotive that became popular, and here is a rather fearsome looking example of unknown car type with artillery and AA. No given train was exactly the same in the late 1910s, early 1920s.
A few examples from the White forces include this reinforced boxcar, mounted with a Naval gun by the Whites, or this infantry car from a White train which is made with concrete. Thisexample is mostly boxcars with added turret and roofing, while this is a slightly nicer looking set of cars, but still seem to be built from boxcars. This machine gun car is rather well appointed though.
Aside from trains, there was of course the Imperial Army’s Zaamurets* rail-cruiser, which I mentioned previously, and was part of a Czech Legion train which also used Khunkhuz class cars. Smaller gun wagons were built as well.
The fleet was modernized in the 1930s, with the PL-35/37 being the standard at that time. Example of a PL-37 artillery car. Second World War examples include the NKPS-1942 and the simplified OB-3 train, which would be compoased of four artillery cars with 76.2mm guns, and four security cars with heavy machine guns. The exigencies of war meant a number of designs were constructed, many using turrets from tanks, such as the T-26 or T-28.
The final major design was the BP-43, which simplified construction by using T-34s for its four PL-43 artillery cars, and used two of the PVO-4 AA car. with two 37mm guns each, as the need for heavy air-defense was apparent. The locomotive was still the ‘O’ series, harkening back to the ‘Ov’ developed during the Civil War. Control cars and machine gun cars were added as needed.
Soviet rail cruisers were popular as well. The NVKD built numerous MBV D-2 rail-cruisers through the 1930s, but they were bulky affairs, and it wasn’t as good as the MBV-2, of which only two existed in mid-1941, despite its impressive firepower of three 76mm guns. Aside from the rail-cruisers, there were dual road-rail armored cars such as the BA-6Shd.
The post-war “tank trains” of the 1960s used no artillery cars, depending on ground firepower from the tanks and armored vehicles carried in the dismount cars, but the anti-aircraft car carried an impressive array of four ZPU-4 14.5mm quad-machine guns and a ZU-23 23mm twin-cannon. They could be supplemented with the BTR-40A (ZhD) convertable rail-car.
I’ve drawn on a number of sources for this piece. If you want to read about the topic further, I would highly suggest ”Armored Trains” by Steven J. Zaloga as an introduction to the topic. It is a basic and accessible overview, and doesn’t go into all that much detail, but where you would want to start.
Other works I’ve used include:
“German Armored Trains in World War II”, “German Armored Trains in World War II Vol. II 1939-1945” and “German Armored Trains on the Russian Front 1941-1944” all by Wolfgang Sawodny. He is considered to be the expert on German trains, and every other source cites him constantly. His most comprehensive work, apparently, is “German Armored Trains 1904-1945” which I unfortunately have not been able to get my hands on as it is insanely expensive 😦
”Armored Trains of the Soviet Union 1917-1945” by Wilfried Kopenhagen
”Armored Units of the Russian Civil War: Red Army” by David Bullock
”Armored Units of the Russian Civil War: White and Allied” by David Bullock and Alexander Deryabin
”American Civil War Railroad Tactics,” by Robert R. Hodges, Jr.
”Engines of War” by Christian Wolmar
“Forging the red thunderbolt: Armored trains provided mobile firepower during the Russian Revolution and after” by Alan. R. Koenig, in “Armor”, Vol. 110, No. 3 (May/June, 2001)
”Armored Trains a Success” from “The Science News-Letter”, Vol. 43, No. 7 (February, 13, 1943)
”The Shock-Battalions of 1917 Reminiscences Part One and Part Two” by Victor Manakin, in “Russian Review”, Vol. 14, Nos. 3 and 4 (July and October, 1955) Not actually all that useful, but there was a neat passage about a fight against an armored train on page 335.
”The Perils of Counterinsurgency: Russia’s War in Chechnya” by Mark Kramer, in “International Security”, Vol. 29 No. 3 (2004)
”The Nature of Guerilla Warfare” by R. Ernest Dupuy, in Pacific Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 2 (June, 1939)
”Mountaineer Mine Wars: An Analysis of the West Virginia Mine Wars of 1912-1913 and 1920-1921” by Hoyt N. Wheeler, in “The Business History Review”, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1976)
”The Terrible Condition of Affairs in Cuba”, from “The Advocate of Peace” Vol. 60, No. 4 (April, 1898)
”Indochina’s Railroad War”, by Paul Wohl, in Railway Progress (February, 1953)
A Japanese cherry tree hacked down with the words “To hell with those Japanese” carved into it three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor at the Tidal Basin, Washington, D.C.; December 10th, 1941.
“In 1912 Japan sent 3,020 cherry trees to the United States as a gift of friendship. First Lady Taft and the Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted the first two cherry trees on the northern bank of the Tidal Basin.”
I guess whoever felled the tree knew the symbolism.
One reason is certainly the vastness of the whole conflict. The ‘Vietnam’ or ‘Korean’ Wars can largely be said to confine within the geographical limits of those two countries. Obviously they involved the US, China, Soviet Union and extended geographically into other areas, but you get the point. WORLD WAR, however, carries a much more epic connotation.
So if we lay out a few things, I think it’ll make it clearer. Let’s discuss scope, including beligerents, the origins, and the ramifications or long-term results.
1.Scope: The enormity of the war defies logic, and it really should be classified as ‘The World Wars of 1937-1954’ if you ask me. When an American student is asked to assess WWII, s/he will often begin with Pearl Harbor, some 8 years after the start of the Asian Theatre. The Wars transformed the ‘dynamic of destruction’ begun in WWI into a truly catastrophic and epoch-defining conflict in which Race, Ethnicity and Combatant-Status were given entirely new meanings. The Wars involved nearly everyone on the globe (not literally) fighting nearly everyone else, and in seemingly any single theatre of fighting, the complexities are mind-boggling enough to almost defy explanation. In looking at the scope of destruction in Warsaw in 1939, it’s difficult to imagine that War could be more brutal, until you look at the ‘Rape of Nanking’ or the fratricidal and very confusing wars fought in the Balkans. The scope of the war also involved ideologies on a scale not really seen before. The clash of western liberalism, national socialism and marxist inspired communism really dealt a sense of seriousness and existentialism to the conflicts. By that I mean there was a real sense of an apocalyptic showdown: each saw the ‘other’ as not only the enemy, but barbaric and even ‘evil.’ Barbarism is present in all wars, but again, the scope, the severity of the death and destruction of both individuals and of groups of people, is staggering.
2.Origins: What caused the War(s)? The answer to many is even more disturbing than the actual war, because it appears to many that the origins of this brutal war lie in a decision by the victors of WWI to impose a settlement upon Germany that would end all wars. What does this really mean? It means that even without Hitler, the suffering of the Germans prior to the outbreak of hostilities was incredible. The moral and physical landscape of Europe had been ravaged by WWI to such an extent that it would seem no war could ever take place again. The Great Terror and Holodomor in the USSR had already hit their peaks by 1939 (the traditional start of WWII) and that was only the beginning. The origins of the war lie in nefariousness, in cunning, in duplicity, in deceit and in imperialism. Which means it basically started like any other war – except this time ideologies were the driving force, rather than economics. Hitler didn’t invade Poland to secure minerals, to acquire natural forests or to take advantage of their industry. He essentially invaded to secure ‘living room’ for his Germanic peoples, his ‘Volk’. In his moral landscape there was no room for the Jew, the Slav or the undesirables. At the same time, Stalin invaded to secure the territory of the Ukraine and the Baltic countries in a bid to continue his centralization of Soviet power into a country denied to him in 1921. Russia had all the natural resources in the world with the open tundra of Siberia, so he was not after resources either, his was an ideological mission to spread Communism.
3.Ramifications: We are in the year 2014 and the United States is the lone super-power. Yet in 1938 the US was far from a global super-power in today’s sense of the word. The War(s) dramatically impacted the United States’ meteoric rise to the top of the world. The US was spared the civilian bloodshed and infrastructural damage of the European/Asian wars, yet reaped the physical and moral benefits by defeating Nazism, culturally colonizing Western Europe, and catapulting her economy into superstardom through the tremendous industrial capabilities gained through the War’s result. The USSR and USA came out of the conflicts much better off, and to cut this answer a little short – the Korean War and Vietnam Wars don’t exist without the USA’s triumph in WWII. Neither does our current predicament in Afghanistan. The Soviets continued expanding and went into Afghanistan in 1980, a place even the Tsars at the height of their empire couldn’t do very well. The US’s interventions in Asia and Latin America and the Soviet Union’s interventions and expansions into Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus were direct results of the situation in Europe after 1945.
In a nutshell, that is why people are still fascinated with the Wars of 1937-1954. That and the well-publicized and relatively unprecedented genocide of Europe’s jewry which spawned our idea of, and our word for, Genocide.
The idea of an ‘intelligentsia’ is closely tied to the idea of the ‘intellectual’. The intellectual can be (and has been) roughly defined as a a certain social type: a scholar who participates in a public sphere independent from the political regime. The European intellectual (while having important forebears in the philosophes of the French Enlightenment), is usually seen as developing in the mid-to-late 19th c., and tied to the rise of mass society, the professionalization of scholarship the birth of a wide literary audience, and the growing commodification of culture.
Of course, when we transfer this standard definition to the Russian context, we immediately see some problems: the Russian intelligentsia is usually seen as coming into being in the late 18th and early 19th c., well before the development of a wide literary audience and any sort of mass society. Furthermore, it has been argued that there was no ‘true’, Habermas-ian Russian ‘public sphere’ until the February Revolution of 1917! So what, then, was this intelligentsia?
The term is incredibly slippery, and has been understood as everything from a “class”, to “an attitude” to “a body of declassé truth-seekers”. In fact, how one defines the Russian intelligentsia and where one locates its ‘birth’ is quite a political question, as it in many ways prefigures a certain reading of the Russian 19th century and the revolutions of 1917 (for example, Soviet historiography usually framed the question in terms of class and sought to legitimize their own thought through a teleological, hagiographical narrative connecting the USSR to the earliest days of the Russian intelligentsia, while Cold War western historians [and, to a certain extent, post-Soviet Russian historiography] usually told either a story of naive intellectuals unwittingly stumbling down the path to totalitarianism, or a tale of fledgling democratic thought that had been cruelly snuffed out by the October Revolution).
For a working definition, let’s call the Russian intelligentsia a varied group of educated individuals who were concerned with social justice, critical of the state, and sensitive to the contours and questions of Westernization and western European thought. However, this intelligentsia’s intellectual values, social makeup, burning questions, forms of organization, views on action, and ultimate goals varied widely overtime and even between ‘members’.
So, with all of these caveats in mind, here are some moments traditionally viewed as key stages of the Russian intelligentsia:
The conception of the intelligentsia is usually located in the late 18th century, during the reign of Catherine the Great. The spread of Enlightenment thought amongst the aristocracy led to a few isolated individuals attempting to interrogate Russian reality through the lens of rationalism, universal brotherhood, and humanism. The most famous of these was A.N. Radishchev, whose “Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow” (1790) was a sort of critical social travelogue, narrating the poverty and misery he witnessed on a trip between the two capitals. He thoroughly criticized Russia’s autocratic government and called for reform – Catherine the Great sentenced him to death (although the punishment was commuted to Siberian exile).
2) The Decembrists
Flash forward twenty five years or so. The invasion of Napoleon in 1812 and the pursuit of his Grand Armée back to Paris turned the earlier trickle of Western ideas in Russia into, if not a flood, then at least a steady stream. The mid-1810’s to mid-1820’s witnessed a rise in critical sentiment amongst the aristocracy, especially former officers of the Napoleonic Wars. This discontent with the autocracy reached a head on December 1st, 1825, when Emperor Alexander I died rather suddenly. A group of around 3,000 soldiers gathered at St. Petersburg’s senate square and refused to swear allegiance to the new emperor, Nicholas I. The demands of these soldiers, later dubbed ‘the Decembrists’, were not all that radical – they merely sought general reform and a constitutional monarchy helmed by Alexander’s uncle, the more progressive Grand Duke Constantine. However, the revolt was swiftly put down, with five of the leaders executed and the rest exiled to Siberia.
3) “The Remarkable Decade”
As can be expected, Nicholas I became one of the most conservative emperors in modern Russian history, stifling public organizations and imposing the strictest censorship upon the press. This, however, did not prevent the beginning of a vibrant period for the Russian intelligentsia. The years 1838-1848 have been called “the remarkable decade”, and are characterized by greater and greater exposure to western thought, the rise of (limited) public dialogue in literary journals, and the forming of clandestine intellectual circles amongst (mostly) the nobility(key examples being the Stankevich circle and the Petrashevsky circle). This decade is also marked by the popularity of German philosophical thought, especially that of early German idealism (Fichte, Schelling, etc.), Hegel, and Feuerbach. Intellectuals such as V.G. Belinksy (“the father of Russian literary criticism”), A. Herzen (“the father of Russian Socialism”) and M.A. Bakunin (quite the idealist before his shift to philosophical and political anarchism) grappled with questions such as the literary expression of the Russian spirit, and the role of the individual in world history. The later half of this period saw these figures moving away from the most abstract forms of philosophical idealism (perhaps exemplified in Belinsky’s period of Right Hegelian “reconciliation with reality”) and adopting ‘philosophies of the act’ – however, even this turn to a more engaged form of social criticism in the 1840s was still marked by a predilection for contemplation and idealist notions of organic spirit & historico-national development.
4) The 1860s
The decade of the 1860s saw a huge shift in the views of the intelligentsia. Gathering around the progressive journalSovremennik (‘The Contemporary’), a group of young intellectuals (most notably N.G. Chernyshevsky and N.A. Dobrolyubov) became advocates of radical materialism and forms of utopian socialism. Influenced by the latest French and German scientific empiricism and socialist thought, ‘the generation of the 1860s’ viewed their 1840s forebears as alienated, ‘superfluous’ idealists (a generational conflict brilliantly portrayed in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Dosteovsky’s Demons). Perhaps the most influential text of this period was Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done?, a novel envisioning a utopian future marked by communal social arrangements, scientific ordering of labor and the economy, and rationalism guiding all human relations and interactions (This, incidentally, was one of V.I. Lenin’s favorite books, and the source for the title of his 1902 pamphlet “What is to be Done?”). This period is also notable for the rise in populism – unsatisfied with the exploitative terms of Alexander II’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861, greater and greater emphasis was put upon the plight of the peasantry. It is also important to note that the intelligentsia of the 1860s, besides being larger than at any point in its previous history, was also far more socially diverse. This is especially due to the rising popularity of radical views among university students, whose numbers were themselves swelled by Russia’s growing urban populations and the lifting of occupational restrictions for the sons of priests. Indeed, this generation is usually tied to raznochintsy, sons and daughters of the middle classes who made up the bulk of these radical social movements.
Populism, or political concern for Russia’s peasantry, can be said to characterize all periods in the history of the intelligentsia. However, it is from the late-1860s to the 1880s that Russian populism really had its greatest impact. Questions of Russia’s political future revolved around the fate of the post-emancipation peasantry. Perhaps the most famous incident of the Populist (or Narodniki) movement during this period was their ‘going to the people’ (khozhdennie k narodu) – during the spring and summer of 1874, hundreds of young students and radicals traveled to the countryside to distribute literature, spread socialism, and generally reveal to the peasantry the facts of their exploitation and show them the path to a revolutionary new future. The movement was thoroughly unsuccessful (in fact, more than a few of these radical students were turned in to the police by the peasants themselves, who viewed them with suspicion). This did not, however, decrease the popularity of populist thought. A key populist organization in the 1870s was the group Zemlya i Volya (usually translated as ‘Land and Liberty’). Devoted to agitational work and educating the people, the group split in the late 1870s into Chernyi Peredel (‘Black Repartition’, which advocated for the gradual spread of socialist thought among the peasantry) and Narodnaya Volya (‘The People’s Will’, which advocated terrorism and was responsible for the assassination of Tsar Alexander in 1881). The social make-up of this generation of the intellgentsia was like the previous, and would generally remain so until 1917 – university students, disenfranchised raznochintsy from Russia’s urban centers, professional revolutionaries, and a scattering of individuals from the lower classes and the nobility.
G.V. Plekhanov, the founder of Chernyi Peredel (the splinter group from Zemlya i Volya that opposed the use of terror), emmigrated to Switzerland in 1880 to avoid arrest. During the early 1880s, Plekhanov read works on political economy extensively, and became a convicted Marxist (he is usually referred to as ‘the father of Russian Marxism’). In 1883 Plekhanov and a group of co-revolutionaries formed Gruppa Osvobozhdennie Truda (‘Group for the Emancipation of Labor’) in Geneva, which was the first Russian Marxist organization. Plekhanov was known as an incredibly sophisticated theorist, and his works on Russia and Marxist theory, as well as the ability of Gruppa Osvobozhdennie Truda to establish networks for the transmission of texts inside Tsarist Russia, influenced a generation of the Russian intelligentsia to shift their focus from efforts with the peasantry and their belief in utopian socialism to agitation amongst the urban proletariat and study of Marxist political and economic theory. From here we see the growing rise of conspiratorial circles in Russia and emigre circles abroad, the crystallization of Marxist trends in the Iskra period and the founding of the RSDLP, the split of this group into Bolshevik and Menshevik factions at its second congress in 1903, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the First World War and the Revolutions of 1917.
phew. My apologies for treating the end of the 19th / early 20th c. in rather abridged fashion. The Russian intelligentsia is an absolutely fascinating subject, and I’ve only sketched out for you just the most basic outline of the Russian 19th century. Missing are Bakunin, Kropotkin and questions of anarchism, Herzen’s Kolokol and the radical emigre tradition, the role of literature and the press in spreading radical thought, Slavophile currents in politics and culture, Nihilism as a cultural/intellectual movement, the rise of liberalism at the turn of the 20th century, and a whole historiography of the October Revolution (not to mention questions of gender, ethnicity, economics, trans-imperial connections, etc etc etc). I would be more than happy to answer any questions you have regarding certain events, periods, and persons.
The two classic works on the Russian intelligentsia, which cover the intellectual, social, and political trajectories of the 19th century, are:
- Franco Venturi, Roots of Revolution, translated by Francis Haskell (New York: George Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1960 ).
- Andrzej Walicki, A History of Russian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Marxism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1979 ).
A classic work on the development of the intelligentsia out of the 18th c. is also:
- Marc Raeff, Origins of the Russian Intelligentsia: The Eighteenth-Century Nobility (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966).
Separating fact from fiction in the life of Grigori Rasputin is quite possibly an impossible task. The so-called Mad Monk was rumored to be a member of the Khlysts, a sect that themselves were subject to rumors about bizarre sexual practices, and despite probably not being true (less than reputable sources still like to claim it to be so), it certainly didn’t help his reputation. When it comes to his death, it reads just as fantastical as his life, and as the only first hand accounts are from those who plotted his death, much of it must be taken with a grain of salt, a story told by men who wished to describe just how inhuman their quarry was.
The close relationship he enjoyed with the Imperial Family of Russia along with his reputation causes all sorts of tongues to wag over the possibility he was sleeping with the Tzarina, and possibly her daughters as well. The apparent influence he held over the Tzarina earned him few friends, and an attempt on his life was made in 1914 presumably over these fears although the assassin was an insane peasant woman who couldn’t be connected to any palace intrigue. Despite the deep stab wound to his gut, Rasputin survived that one.
With the Tzar having left to oversea the military during World War I however, the Tzarina’s reliance on Rasputin became only more pronounced however, and in December of 1916 a new attempt on his life was made. Prince Felix Yusupov was married to the Tzar’s niece, and, along with other plotters including army officers and politicians, invited Rasputin to his family palace. Rasputin was given cyanide laced food and drink, which appeared to have no ill effects on him. Determined to kill the man, Yusupov fetched a revolver and shot him twice in the abdomen, which seemed only to enrage Rasputin, who attacked him, and then fled up a flight of stairs from the basement room he had been being entertained in, and out the door into the Russian winter. Shot twice more outside by Vladimir Purishkevich, a member of the Duma, Yusupov then hit him over the head to ensure he was down. The body was trussed, weighted, and dumped through a hole cut in the ice of a river. his body would be found a few days later, and although the rumors were that he was still alive when disposed of, there was little to suggest he had drowned to death, and the real cause of death was probably a bullet to the head during his escape attempt.
Whether or not he was poisoned has also been called into question. Prince Yusupov claimed he had, but it wasn’t found during the autopsy. As I said at the onset, only his killers know exactly how the murder was conducted, and it is clear that they wished to ensure that their actions were seen as the noble slaying of a monster who threatened the Romanov family, and what better way to do so than describe an inhuman fanatic who survived poison, shooting, and the cold, only to finally die by drowning under the ice.
The French army expected the war to be a highly mobile one and designed its army and its doctrine around this premise. Something crucial to understanding early-Great War French doctrine is the idea of the “cult of the offensive” — that is, always be on the attack. It was almost religious the adherence by high command to this simple concept and it shaped their entire military and the inevitable destruction they would face in the upcoming weeks. Joseph Joffre, the leader of the French military, said in 1913 regulations which I like to pull out all the time: “The French army, returning to its traditions, accepts no law in the conduct of operations other than the offensive.”
Because they were to be on the attack constantly in a maneuver based war the French saw no reason to burden the infantry corps with ponderous heavy artillery. The mid and late war ideas of ‘softening’ enemies up with incredible artillery barrages were seen as unnecessary and tactically irresponsible by most staff planners. A withering barrage of bullets from their singleshot 1886 Lebel 8mm rifles would shock the enemy and then they would fix their bayonets la rosalie and ‘finish off’ the remaining soldiers in a charge.
They also, unlike the Germans, had a very restricted set of artillery calibers as they did not want to complicate supply. As such, they went in with mostly groups of 75mm mobile field artillery and very limited numbers of 105mm and 120mm heavy artillery. This would prove to be disastrous against the Germans who had a significantly larger amount of heavy artillery that outranged and outgunned the French and rendered their artillery, essentially, useless.
Cavalry was also in a unique position in the early stages of the war. Something that is wildly overblown in hollywood is the amount of death in ancient battle. The death came when the army was routed and the cavalry pursued and destroyed the scattered army who was giving their backs. That was the job of the cavalry for thousands of years — the final slam that broke the enemy armies back for good. Cavalry’s essential role in WWI was to scout and assist infantry in the attack but the latter part became…problematic. It doesn’t matter if you route the enemy army. They still have guns and they can still turn around and shoot your cavalry armed with lances and sabres if you try to slam into their rears.
This is a particularly interesting area of history for me because it was essentially the armies marching as fast as they can without any regard for rest or recuperation. It got to the point where the many times the only chance the German infantry had a chance to engage the French infantry was when the French had to stop to rest. It didn’t really matter though, since the Germans were marching for tens of kilometers straight and were too exhausted to fight.
This is a hole that would be filled up by light armor and trucks in World War II but for now was a void and thus when the French were sent reeling back from the Belgian border towards Paris the Germans could not properly capitalize. They could only pursue the French military as fast as the infantry could march which would, ultimately, lead to massive amounts of attrition. So much that many estimates put the strength of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Armies (the ones who were the “hammer” coming through Belgium in the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan) at less than 50% manpower by the time the Battle of the Marne had occurred. The battle which would break the back of the German Army’s on the “right” flank and send them fleeing back near Belgium where both sides would default to what we now know as trench warfare for the majority of the war.
Anyways, back to the actual military fighting. Aviation was still in its infantry and filled a role similar to cavalry — scouting. In fact, to get back on my tangent above, it was actually airplanes which noted the German movement South prior to the Battle of the Marne which gave the French the German army’s flank and ultimately lead to their decisive victory.
The nature of Joffre’s war centered on the offensive and the nature of the Schlieffen-Moltke Plan which called for a rapid strike through Belgium and to Paris was a lightning fast, maneuver based war that had to end in a matter of weeks — with modern weaponry. It’s a disaster waiting to happen and that’s what came to be.
For example. The French in the early days of the war advanced on a German town in Alsace-Lorraine called Mulhouse and occupied it with little resistance and the Germans prepared a counter attack. They would march into battle shoulder to shoulder in ordered lockstep and the battle would rapidly disintegrate into a bloody mess in a dense vineyard and forest. The massive heat and exhaustion took an insurmountable toll as hundreds of men simply collapsed into roadside ditches and those who did not would be cut down by French machine guns.
Part of the reason of the French slaughter of the Germans was the German insistence on usage of reserves. The Germans used their reserves on the frontlines while the French were more reluctant to do so and as such, at the Rhone-Rhine Canal, the French opened fire on disorganized Baden Landwehr (third-line units of older men often equipped with outdated equipment) across open fields. One company of the Landwehr’s alone fired off 35,000 rounds blindly. Sergeant Otto Breinlinger of the 11th RIR said that after Mulhouse his company was reduced from 250 men to 16.
Orders were not heard or flat out ignored until officers threatened to shoot deserters. In the Second Battle of Mulhouse, which had similar results, Major Leist of the 40th IR, 1st Battallion said: “There can be no talk of a connection with the Regiment; not a single regimental order was passed down during the entire battle.”
This type of battle would define the early war battles between the French and Germans before the Battle of the Marne which would send the war into what we now know as trench warfare. Incredible amounts of death to artillery, charging into machine guns, marching lockstep and charging in giant blobs into rifle fire. It seems almost cartoonish but that was really what was the strategy early on. The other great example of early war battles were the engagements between the Belgians and the Germans, where the Germans had to push on a ring of forts in the Liege region to gain control of the narrow passage into the country and keep their war plan on schedule.
Despite the Belgians inept armed forces of half trained militiamen they absolutely slaughtered the Germans. During what is now known as the Siege of Liege the Germans got lost in the dark, officers were separated from their men, soldiers panicked and shot wildly under suspicion of guerrilla fire. Further, the Germans attacked in tight formations — a rich environment for untrained soldiers to unleash mass fire upon and cause devastating damage. 150 rounds every sixty seconds and incredible artillery fire swept out massed German columns before the walls of the fort. From an anonymous Belgian officer: “As line after line of German infantry advanced, we simply mowed them down. … They made no attempt at deploying, but came on, line after line, almost shoulder to shoulder, until, as we shot them down, the fallen were heaped one on top of the other, in an awful barricade of dead and wounded men that threatened to mask our guns and cause us trouble.”
No war games or military theory provided the Germans or the French with the knowledge of what modern warfare truly was and the lethality it provided. Officers thought to overcome the firepower of thousands of rifles, dozens of machine guns, and artillery pieces fixed on their position with dash and daring maneuvers and were punished with staggering casualty rates.
Collected via Holger H. Herwig’s The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World
- Barbara Tuchman The Guns of August: The Outbreak of World War I
- Holger H. Herwig The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World
- Holger H. Herwig The First World War: Germany and Austria-Hungary 1914-1918
- Robert Doughty Pyrrhic Victory: French Strategy and Operations in the Great War