Steam Trains Were 19th-Century Super-Weapons
Europe and America pioneered war-trains—Britain perfected them
Trains were cutting-edge weapons of war in the 19th century — and all the major powers were figuring out how to deploy them. The Europeans learned how to move troops by train. The Americans — how to fight on rail cars. The British, meanwhile, found they could dominate an empire from the tracks.
In today’s world of tanks, bombers and submarines, it’s perhaps hard to believe that the train was once an amazingly mobile weapons platform. They might be locked to their rails, but for over a century trains were the fastest means of hauling troops and artillery to front lines across the world.
The invention of the railway shaped warfare for a century. Rails allowed force projection across immense distances — and at speeds which were impossible on foot or by horse.
This is the first in our new series of articles on the history of military rail-power — from the earliest experiments in post-Napoleonic Europe to the Soviet nuclear missile-carrying trains of the Cold War.
Our story starts in England in 1830 with the opening of the world’s first major intercity public railway — between Liverpool and Manchester. Britain was in the middle of an industrial boom. Railroads offered a capacity and speed that satisfied England’s thirst for raw materials.
From this first public major railway, entrepreneurs crisscrossed the British countryside with lengths of track. Their haste is readily apparent in the statistics. In 1830, Britain had just 97.5 miles of standard width tracks. This increased to 208 miles by 1833, 403 miles by 1836 and 970 miles by 1839. Passenger numbers followed along in a similar fashion.
As the world went nuts for trains, the continental European powers soon recognized the strategic potential of the steam revolution.
Prominent industrialist Friedrich Harkort was one of the first to call for Prussia to invest in building a defensive railroad in 1833. According to Harkort’s plans, the line would run between the fortress town of Minden and Cologne, close to the French border.
Other civilians were equally caught up in train fever. The Saxony writer Carl Eduard Pönitz also pushed the Prussian government to invest in rail infrastructure to the frontiers of rivals France and Austria.
In the French Chamber of Deputies, the country’s lower house of parliament, the deputy for Dieppe summed up what made the railway so attractive to the European powers over the next 80 years.
“If a country could thus speedily carry considerable masses of troops to any given point on its frontiers, would it not become invincible, and would it not, also, be in a position to effect great economies in its military expenditure?”
Speed, capacity and economic efficiency were three very promising concepts in post-Napoleonic Europe. The railway seemed to be the solution to a military problem that had plagued the European powers since the French Revolution.
Conscription changed the scale of warfare significantly. Where armies had once fielded forces of tens of thousands, Napoleon’s Grande Armée consisted of hundreds of thousands of men.
A large army created major logistical problems. Additional manpower required more horses for supply trains and mounts.
Horses weren’t even particularly efficient logistical tools. Every animal required 20 pounds of fodder a day but could only carry 200 pounds— a horse could travel for fewer than 10 days before needing a resupply. Each extra pound of ammunition, powder and rations further depleted this operational range.
Horses and carts traveled also slower than the average soldier. During Napoleon’s Russia campaign, the Grande Armée marched 15 to 20 miles a day … but their supplies traveled just 10 to 12 miles. While both men and livestock tried to live from the land, the size of the army and Russian’s salted earth retreats made foraging far from sustainable.
“Rail-power,” as coined by the early 20th-century British author Edwin A. Pratt, offered economies of scale for these immense military endeavors that the horse just could not match. Trains could transport personnel and supplies 24 hours a day at six times the speed of a traditional horse-drawn convoy. They could even carry horses forward to the lines to hasten existing logistical capabilities.
With a military revolution in the making, the entire continent of Europe embarked on a railway arms race — while Britain watched on with great interest.
Europe steams ahead
The first demonstration of the military efficacy of the railroads was the 1846 Polish Uprising. Prussia rushed 12,000 troops of the Sixth Army Corps, with guns and horses, to the Free City of Krakow to help put down the Polish rebellion. In this period of nationalist uprisings, Russia and Austria also used their railroads against similar uprisings from 1848 to 1850.
A lack of infrastructure and experience stifled the success of these early endeavors. Due to a lack of rolling stock, suitable platforms and double-track stretches, the trains sometimes operated far slower than a man could march on foot.
Austria was first to get it right. In 1851, the Austrian Empire shuttled 145,000 men, nearly 2,000 horses, 48 artillery pieces and 464 vehicles over 187 miles.
The journey would have taken 15 days on foot — Austrian trains managed it in just two.
Fighting across the continent further honed the European command of the rail — particularly in Germany. In 1871, the Prussian-led North German Confederation invaded France. Prussia deployed 462,000 men with their equipment, artillery and horses on a rail network consisting of 40 trains a day across six different routes.
The railway was important enough for the Confederation that it assigned 100,000 troops just to protect these vital supply lines.
Once inside French territory, Prussia turned France’s rail network to its favor, transporting personnel, food and materiel forward to Paris. As its forced lay siege to the French capital, the North German Confederation officially became the German Empire. Germany’s victory over France established it as the dominant continental power — in large part thanks to the train.
Britain was not entirely absent from the European conflicts of the early Steam Age. Unlike the continental powers, Britain had no interest in the railway as a means of national defense — that was the job of the Royal Navy. But Britain couldn’t consolidate its growing empire from the sea alone.
With her access to India threatened by the Russian invasion of the Danubian Principalities, in 1854 Britain went to war to aid the Ottoman-Turkish Empire.
To break the source of Russia’s strength in the Black Sea, Britain chose to destroy the naval base at Sevastopol. Britain had expected the joint Anglo-French assault on the port to be a short campaign, but Russian resistance and bad weather dragged the siege into the harsh Crimean winter.
Winter storms cut off the small dirt road which supplied British forces high up on the Chersonese plateau. Cut off from the source of their supplies at Balaclava, the British expedition began losing soldiers and horses to the cold, sickness and starvation.
Upon hearing about the tragic turn of events in the Crimea, British railway contractors volunteered to help. The three concerned railwaymen offered to build a railway — at cost — to shuttle supplies from Balaclava to the troops.
The civil engineers left England in December 1854 and arrived in Balaclava in February. Their men — “navvies,” from the navigation canals they built across Britain — built a wharf in the harbor and within in a week were laying track out of town.
Two weeks in, the workers had finished a mile of track. A week later they had reached the plateau where the allied forces were dug in. After seven weeks, the navvies had laid seven miles of double-tracked rails serviced by a combination of steam engines and horse-drawn rail cars. These trains ferried supplies to the troops — including 500 field guns — and then brought British casualties back to Balaclava for treatment.
Now well-fed and stocked with ammunition, the British and French resumed bombardment of the Russian fortifications in early April. Without the supplies rendered by the navvies, the siege would have collapsed that spring.
Crimea taught Britain an important lesson about the necessity of rail-power in post-Napoleonic warfare. Britain would build railways across its empire just like it had in Crimea. The trains wouldn’t just carry military and civilian supplies though — Britain would also learn from train’s role in the American Civil War.
The American experience
The American Civil War spanned enormous distances unlike any seen in contemporary European warfare. The war saw the maturation of the train not only as a troop-carrier, but as a mobile artillery platform. The lessons that both the North and South learned eventually informed military rail strategy across the world.
The Civil War saw the most ambitious military troop movement in history. In 1863, Confederate forces under Gen. Braxton Bragg had besieged the Union Army of the Cumberland at Chattanooga. Like the British at Sevastopol, the Union forces were beginning to starve — and trains were the answer.
Under orders from Pres. Abraham Lincoln, the XI and XII Corps of the Army of the Potomac made a 1,168-mile trek from Virginia to Bridgeport, Tennessee. The journey would have taken more than a month on foot, but the U.S. Military Railroad managed it in just 12 days. In fact, much of the infantry arrived there days earlier.
Due to differing standards between railroad companies and the advantages of narrower gauge over mountainous terrain, by 1860 America had seven gauges in use.
Not even the variations in rail gauges slowed down the operation.
In Europe, Russian military rail planners had chosen a broader gauge than Germany and Austria to prevent invasion by rail—it’s much easier to make a train’s gauge narrower than it is to make it wider. The South similarly benefited from its wider five-foot gauge thanks to the fact that the region seceded before Congress standardized the 4 foot, 8½-inch gauge in 1862.
Conveniently for the Army of the Potomac, however, many of the changes in gauge occurred at river crossings without rail bridges, where the troops and equipment had to disembark anyway.
The decisive victory of the Chattanooga Campaign could not have happened without these reinforcements. Without the additional 22,000 men, 3,000 beasts of burden and 25 batteries of cannon, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant couldn’t have reopened supply lines to the besieged force. The breaking of the siege and the Southern retreat to Georgia was the beginning of the end for the Confederate Army.
Trains didn’t just convey weapons to the front, though. In the Civil War trains became weapons in their own right, with the introduction of armored cars and railroad guns.
Armored cars were rail-borne pillboxes — ironclad carriages fitted with naval cannon, mountain guns, repeater rifles and loop-holes for sharpshooters. They gained the name “monitors” after the legendary steamship, USS Monitor.
Monitors conducted anti-raider patrols and protect bridges — the most vulnerable strategic choke-points in the rail network.
The earliest such carriages had fixed guns on floating mounts which only allowed them to fire to the front. Later versions allowed the cannon to be turned — “traversed” — to fire out the side. This allowed the convoy to place monitors in the middle of the train where its cannons could protect the convoy’s flanks.
While the monitors acted as early armored personnel carriers, the Civil War also introduced another prescient weapon. The railroad gun — the mechanized artillery of the 19th century.
Able to carry heavy loads over long distances at great speed, the “railroad battery” made a lot of sense. The sheer weight of the larger bore cannons restricted them to naval ships and forts. The train allowed the North and South to bring these devastating weapons inland.
The first recorded use of a railroad gun was during the attack on Savage’s Station on June 29, 1862. Facing superior numbers of cannon, Gen. Robert E. Lee commissioned the Confederate Navy to build a rail-mobile cannon platform. The result was the “Dry Land Merrimack” — a reference to the other famous ironclad steamship.
The Land Merrimack was a flatcar carrying a forward-facing Brooke banded 32-pounder gun with 200 rounds of ammunition. An iron-plated casemate protected both the cannon and its crew from incoming frontal fire.
The Union also made railroad guns during the war, including the 13-inch seacoast mortar known as the “Dictator.”
The Dictator was a fat cauldron-like deadly bulb of cast iron. It rained down 218-pound shells as far as 4,200 yards at the Siege of Petersburg in 1864 and 1865. The mortar’s recoil was so strong that it broke the gun’s reinforced flatcar mount after just five shots. This halted the bombardment while the gun crew repaired and reinforced the carriage.
Rail-borne artillery took much longer to mature into a useful weapon than the armored cars. During the Civil War, these cannons could only fire along the direction of the rail. This was a severely limiting factor that wouldn’t be solved until the European powers pursued complex traversing mechanisms in the 20th century.
The technological developments of the Civil War had a backyard DIY feel to them. The desperate fighting spanned new weapons of war suited to very specific tasks — but those tasks resonated with the European experience. The European powers would master both the armored train and railroad gun in the 20th century, but Britain couldn’t wait that long.
Britain’s colonial railroad wars
With the Britain’s increasing colonial and imperial interests, Britain found itself once more deploying its expeditionary rail development capabilities in the last decades of the 19th century.
Combining the lessons of Crimea with the expansion of rail-borne warfare in the American Civil War, Britain’s first tactical implementation of the railway was in Egypt following the 1882 nationalist revolt of Ahmed Urabi.
After a ferocious bombardment of Alexandria, a Royal Navy landing force took control of the city. Weeks later, reinforcements from the British Army poured into Alexandria and launched patrols into the surrounding countryside to locate and assess the size of the Egyptian forces.
The first major battle was at Kafr-el-Dawwar. An ad hoc armored train carrying a 40-pounder gun, a Nordenfelt multiple-barrel organ gun, two Gatling guns and two nine-pounder naval guns supported 2,400 British soldiers, sailors and marines as they faced 2,100 Egyptians. This reconnaissance-in-force operation ended with the British in retreat, having lost three dead and suffered 27 wounded.
Despite the overall defeat, the train performed admirably. It shielded the approach of another train carrying a Royal Marine force. The marines then detrained and assaulted the Egyptian positions while the naval guns in the armored car silenced the Egyptian cannons.
The British largely pulled out of Alexandria after Kafr-el-Dawwar and sailed for Port Said to attack Cairo from the Canal Zone.
The Battle of Kafr-el-Dawwar was a dead-end to the Anglo-Egyptian War, but it was foundational moment for British war-by-rail. These techniques were further honed in 1885 in Sudan, where Britain once more built a railroad to support the ongoing military operation — and India in 1886.
By the time of the Second Boer War of 1889 to 1902, Britain had mastered this unique way of war.
The railroad was critical not only to the British ability to wage war in South Africa, but to the conduct of the war itself. The Boers clearly bought into this — the Boer militia’s initial targets all sat along the region’s three railways.
The British had built the railroads to extract South Africa’s natural wealth in the form of diamonds and other resources. They also ferried vital military supplies from British naval bases to military outposts across the country. As a result, the railway network became a prime target of the Boer militia.
Britain had already learned that the answer to the threat against the rail network was … the armored train.
British Army Royal Engineers directed government railyards in South Africa and Rhodesia as they built 13 armored trains. The trains included monitor-like rail cars with loopholes to allow the infantry to fight from the safety of the armored car. Other cars carried Maxim “pom-pom” guns and naval guns for added firepower.
Over the course of the war, Britain used its armored trains in many different roles — supporting infantry, reinforcing and protecting rail infrastructure, escorting regular trains, reconnaissance and 24/7 patrolling. These were all missions learned in its previous colonial adventures.
In addition to the armored cars, the British mounted 4.7-inch guns on flatcars and deployed them against the Boers at the Siege and Relief of Ladysmith.
Britain had fully embraced and implemented rail-power in its colonial doctrine. But the iron, stone and timber of the rail infrastructure was far more vulnerable than they appeared.
Armored trains was always at risk from line-cutting, mines and ambushes. Here again Britain looked to the American Civil War and deployed “pusher cars.”
The pusher car was an unpowered flatcar loaded with parts and tools for repairing the railway and accompanying telegraph network. The locomotive pushed the car ahead of the train to trigger explosives, protect against rams or sacrifice itself against derailment techniques such as loosened or bent rails. The pusher car’s low profile allowed the armed carriages behind to fire on targets to the front.
Ambushes were common, but the best known was an ambush on the armored train carrying Winston Churchill, who was working as a journalist for the Morning Post.
The Boer militia blocked the railway to the front of the British train at a point near Frere. Ambushing forces to the rear used a boulder to derail one of the train’s armored infantry wagons.
Still connected to the derailed carriage, the armored locomotive at the front of the train came under heavy Vickers-Maxim gun and field gun fire. Once they freed the derailed car, the train managed to escape the ambush, leaving 50 soldiers in Boer hands.
The war ended when the British military secured control of the entire railway network in the Boer heartland. The Boer militia had kept itself running through an external rail link to Portuguese East Africa — modern day Mozambique — which it used to supply its forces over the course of the war.
Without this logistical relief, the British policies of concentration of the population and scorched-earth starved the Boers of support and supplies. By May 1902, the last Boers had surrendered.
The Second Boer War defined Britain’s understanding of how to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign and how to maintain control over its colonial interests. These were lessons the British deployed across the world over the following 60 years.
The British empire built railroads across Africa and Asia not only to extract the natural wealth for imperial profit, but also to wage limited war to maintain control of the local infrastructure and population.
The colonial context differentiated the British experience from the American and continental European lessons of rail-power. Britain’s newfound way of war would stick with it until the empire’s demise, but World War I was just around the corner — and with it, a watershed in modern warfare.