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The Railway in War

Railways in Wartime During the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

Derailed armoured train at Kraaipan


WHEN we consider the stirring events that have taken place during late years it seems a far cry to the conflicts which preceded the Great War, dwarfing them, so to speak, into puny insignificance. It may be interesting, however, to view from a distance the part the locomotive took in them. At the outbreak of the Boer War there is the scene at the English station, where the Regular, Yeoman or Volunteer is bidding farewell to those he loves; a scene of deep sorrow underlying all the cheers and handkerchief-waving that accompany the train as it slowly draws out of the platform with its load of “troops for the front”. At the Cape the same men are entrained a second time, in trucks maybe, and borne for hundreds of miles across the rolling sandy veldt to where they will have a chance of at last coming to handgrips with the enemy. Behind the troops roll up long trains of provisions for man and beast; trains bearing the deadly artillery; trains fitted up with all the appliances of a hospital; trains of horses that will, ere many weeks are out, leave their bones to whiten under the stars.

Early in the war we read of trains packed with English fugitives from Pretoria and Johannesburg - strong men and delicate women, all sorely tried by fatigue and heat, hunger and thirst, the taunts of their enemies and the knowledge that they have left all their worldly possessions behind them to take the chances of war. Then there come down the same line supplies for the Boer army now advancing on their hardy ponies to meet the English army of Natal. Soon follow in quick succession the battles of Dundee and Elandslaagte, the hurried retreat, the disaster at Nicholson’s Nek, and the investment of Ladysmith; from which General French escapes in the last train that left the town.

Whichever way we look, or to whatever period of the war, the railway looms large, for it was in many districts the sole means of transporting troops and supplies. The very first act of hostility was the derailment by the Boers of a train at Kraaipan. For months the sound of dynamite, doing its fell work on culverts and railway bridges, was heard. Every other day we read of a train being derailed and burnt, after the mails had been scattered to the winds, and of the exploits of armoured trains. At Mafeking an engine laden with explosives is sent flying along the track towards the besiegers. From Pretoria the President escapes over the railway to the ship awaiting him at Delagoa Bay. Far up in Rhodesia men are being painfully transported from Beira to Salisbury along the ricketty narrow gauge, and southward to the relief of Mafeking. When the tide turns in favour of England the engineer gets to work, mending the ruined culverts, replacing the shattered bridges, clearing the ruined tunnels. Engines and rolling-stock are captured and accompany the advancing army to Bloemfontein and Pretoria, whence they presently return crammed with captured Boers. The British soldier, a thousand miles from the Cape, was utterly dependent an the steel bars that ran through country inhabited by people who, if they were not openly against us, were certainly not on our side. Again and again communications were cut by a few pounds of explosive laid cunningly on the track.

A hard task indeed fell to the lot of the men who had to watch, organise, and control the railway traffic. There was no class more worried and worked than the railway staff-officer. He rose in the small hours of the morning, and till late at night was engaged in a constant struggle with a host of perplexing problems - the provision of vehicles to transport large bodies of troops, stacks of stores and military equipment; the endeavour to do his duty by a host of superiors all requiring their own particular needs to be attended to first; the reading and despatching of cypher telegrams when his head was already dizzy with two good days’ work crowded into one. Yes! the traffic manager of an important English railway had an easy time as compared with the gentleman who at some wayside railway station in the Colony tried to hold the balance between the military and railway authorities.

Thirty years before the Boer War a very similar state of things was existent in France, when the Germans and French were locked in the most terrible conflict known till then. The Germans have pushed their armies across to Paris and are feeding them, reinforcing them and supplying all the munitions of war over the railway. Bridges and tunnels have been blown up; desperate men have struck desperate blows for their country by wrecking trains; but the conquering flood still rolls on. There is the same tremendous activity at the railway depots.

“Apart from its importance, there was not a more interesting place in the whole of the occupied country than the Nancy railway station. At that great crossroad on the highroad of the invasion, where the Saarbruck-Paris line and the Strasburg-Paris line converge and unite, every minute some picture belonging to and formed out of the war, presented itself. The beautiful city of Nancy, which, as a whole, is not less beautiful than Paris, and which in proportion to its size possesses more fine streets, spacious squares, and picturesque gardens than any city in France, had returned in a great measure to its normal condition. . . . But the sight of French prisoners always affected the kind-hearted Nancois, and painful scenes used often to occur when prisoners were marched in large bodies through the town. After the surrender of Toul the prisoners were all sent to Strasburg or to Saarbruck by rail; and the railway bridge at Nancy was crowded with sympathising spectators whenever a convoy of prisoners reached the station. . . . The German Governmental authorities therefore erected a hoarding on each side of the railway bridge at Nancy, so that no one might see the trains of prisoners arrive. In view of these unexpected barricades the townspeople armed themselves with gimlets, and the boards were soon perforated in all directions, and the bridge was crowded whenever it was known that a fresh convoy of captive Frenchmen had come in.” [The Germans in France H. Sutherland Edwards]

The importance of keeping open their railway communications was such that the Germans took a very strong line with would-be train-wreckers. To remove rails or place obstacles on the line was a capital offence, when the culprit could be found. If he could not, a fine of 1000 thalers was imposed on the nearest commune, or, if it could not pay, on the members of the municipal council of the nearest town.

The invaders brought with them five railway detachments, whose business it was to repair any damage done to the line by the invaded. These detachments consisted of navvies and engineer troops. When the army advanced they reconnoitred the lines, removed obstructions, restored broken bridges, adapted the existing stations to military purposes, built new stations where required, and directed the traffic. In case of a retreat, on them devolved the role of destroying the track sufficiently to impede the enemy.

At Nancy engines of all kinds had been collected in large numbers. French and German locomotives jostled one another on the four main lines and in the innumerable sidings. “At times every inch of line”, says Mr. Sutherland Edwards, “was covered, and the trains extended half a quarter of a mile beyond the station each way. To look for any particular train was like looking for a carriage on Epsom Downs; but you could make your search if you liked; . . . you might walk between the trains, cross between the carriages, jump into a carriage while the train was in motion, jump similarly out of it, keep the carriage doors open or shut as you felt inclined, do anything in short except drive the engine.”

French engine-drivers and signalmen were impressed to work the sections of the line that they knew. In order to prevent train-wrecking, prominent French citizens were often carried on the engine, where, in case of an explosion or accident, their safety would be imperilled even more than that of the troops in the carriages behind. Armed guards also kept watch over the drivers to see that they did what was required of them. On one occasion a driver and his stoker overpowered the soldiers and threw them off the engine. They uncoupled the latter in the middle of a tunnel and made off with it until they had covered a mile or more. Then they reversed the gear, turned on steam, and sprang off, leaving the locomotive to dash back into the train and work havoc among their enemies. Such actions, however, rarely occurred, fortunately for the French, since they only served to make the lot of the vanquished harder than it had been before.

As soon as the Germans had a firm grip on a length of railway they proceeded to send artillery over it for the siege of Paris. Hundreds of guns of all weights and ages were loaded into trucks, along with suitable ammunition, of which huge quantities were expended before the capitulation of the metropolis. Here and there, in the neighbourhood of a town, and therefore within reach of its guns, the railway had to be deflected on to a temporary track which “turned” the obstacle, since the guns must be brought up at all costs. In October 1870, 230 pieces of artillery from Germany were delivered at Nanteuil, whence they were distributed by road to the various positions surrounding Paris.

The Germans had one great advantage over the English as regards the use of a railway as a means of support, in that, supposing the track had been destroyed, they would still have the excellent roads for which France is famous to fall back upon. As we know so well from printed accounts and photographs, South African roads are alternately dust trails and quagmires, punctuated by terribly difficult “drifts”, through which long teams of oxen painfully hauled waggons and artillery. Furthermore, our troops were not able to “live on the country” as did the Germans. They could not requisition food when there was no food. For sustenance, they depended entirely on the railway.

In turn, Russia’s present position is infinitely more precarious than that of Britain at any period of the Boer War. For five-sixths of the total distance to the front our troops were transported in commodious vessels, maintaining an uninterrupted speed of 18-20 miles an hour for weeks on end. And when they reached dry land below the Equator, they might be carried to the front on any one of four tracks - from Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, Beira - as occasion demanded; and three of these lines were well laid.

Contrast with these facts the case of Russia in her struggle with Japan. She possesses one possible means of comm-unication between Europe and the easternmost parts of Asia, a line nearly 6000 miles long, which originally cost her £100,000,000, is for the most part badly built, and strategically weakened by the break at Lake Baikal. The difficulties arising from imperfect construction are aggravated by natural obstacles, chief among which is the intense cold that for many months in the year aids the winds to smother the track under deep drifts of snow. Have we not read of congestion of traffic, the sufferings of the soldiers, the utter disorganisation resulting from the sudden tremendous calls made on this immense railway by the outbreak of war at its eastern extremity? There have been plenty of rumours of bridges wrecked by secret agents, an apparently inevitable feature of a contest in which railways play a part. We read, too, of attempts made to destroy trains, after quite the approved methods of the Franco-German war. A favourite device, and one that has often been resorted to, is for some person, evidently familiar with locomotives, to creep into the engine sheds by night, get up steam on an engine, switch it on to the main line, and then let it run wild, after jumping to the ground. Such attempts have ended in failure, thanks to the telegraph, which has enabled the signalmen to turn the runaway into a siding before it encountered a train.

On account of the secrecy observed by the Russian authorities with regard to the management and fortunes of the line, little reliable news was allowed to filter through. We were fully aware of the strenuous efforts needed to hurry large numbers of fresh troops into Manchuria, and to feed them, if the Russians were to have any chance of ultimate success. The situation centred on the railway; if it proved utterly unequal to the strain cast upon it, Russia’s hold of Manchuria was gone. As a correspondent of the Daily Express put it: “It [the railway] is the artery of the war. If the accident of nature or the schemes of the Japanese should fasten a ligature upon it, the Russian cause in the Far East must perish.” History has shown the truth of the prediction.

Apart from its importance, then, there is nothing much to be said of the Trans-Siberian Railway as a war machine. But in America, when the States were convulsed by their terrible Civil War, many a romantic incident was connected with the iron road. Some of the boldest raids of the cavalry leaders on both sides had as their object the destruction of railways. Bridges were smeared with tar and fired; rails were torn from their ties, heated in bonfires, and twisted so that they could not possibly be replaced. Then up came a body of troops representing the other side, and workmen organised for this especial service would quickly repair the injured track, and trains would shortly be running as before.

It soon became evident that for a really serious destruction of railway property the destroying force must occupy the line for a considerable period; and some desperate fighting was witnessed before the stronger party finally managed to tighten its grip on a railway. Then the destroyers set to work in earnest, showing, as has been said, almost as much ingenuity in preparing means for its ruin as had previously been evinced in its erection. Military writers of the United States ordered that not only should the piles and woodwork of the bridges be smeared with tar, but shells and grenades with fuses of various lengths should be arranged to keep up recurrent explosions, in order to prevent any attempt of the enemy to extinguish the fire. In case of a bridge being inaccessible, heavy timber rafts were to be sent down the current to smite them like battering rams; and if these failed, fire vessels should be tried, or floating torpedoes exploded by electricity.

The siege of Atlanta, where the Confederate army had taken up its position against General Sherman, was brought to a successful issue for the Federals only after Sherman had effectually severed the railways connecting Atlanta with the Southern States. The general in person superintended the work of demolishing the track. “For twelve and a half miles,” writes one of his staff officers, “the ties were burned, and the iron rails heated and twisted with the ingenuity of hands old to the work. Several cuts were filled up with the trunks of trees, logs, rocks, and earth, intermingled with loaded shells, prepared as torpedoes, to explode in case of an attempt to clear them out.”

In the neighbourhood of Atlanta one of the most stirring events of the early part of the war was enacted; and as its scene was the railway, it may suitably be described in some detail.

In March 1862 the Federal and Confederate armies were approaching each other in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. The former, under General O. M. Mitchell, occupied Nashville and Shelbyville on the line running south from Louisville and Cincinnati. The Confederates, who were pushing up northwards, had their base at Atlanta, and held the railway which put that town, via Chattanooga, in communication with Corinth in the west and Richmond in the east. It was along this line - connected, by-the-bye, with the Nashville branch - that their advance lay; and as long as they occupied it there was a serious danger of a wedge being driven in between the two Federal divisions.

Some men therefore volunteered to enter the Confederate lines in disguise and work their way down the railway to Atlanta, where they hoped to be able to capture a locomotive and return north, burning and blowing up bridges as they went, and otherwise rendering the track useless. They reached Atlanta safely, but owing to the absence of the engine-driver who was to have joined them there, they had to abandon the project and return to their own party as best they might.

The leader, Mr. J. J. Andrews, a Kentuckian, did not give up hope. He asked for a larger number of men to help him in a second attempt, and in response so many volunteers came forward that he was able to select twenty-three persons best suited for the work in hand. These included five engineers, so that in case of a mishap there might still be left one or two capable of running a train. The brave little band were drawn from the Twenty-first, Thirty-third, and Second Ohio Regiments.

On his first expedition Mr. Andrews, a man of fine presence and one who, by his manners and bearing, could easily pass himself off as a cultivated southern landowner, had possessed himself of a time-table showing the hours at which trains would leave the various stations between Atlanta and Chattanooga. The party assembled by night at an appointed rendezvous in a wood, and there received their final instructions. They were to separate into several groups and travel on foot or in hired conveyances to some station on the Memphis and Charlestown Railroad near Chattanooga, and thence travel by rail to Marietta, a station a little north of Atlanta. In order to avoid suspicion they must represent themselves to be Kentuckians going south to escape the Federals and join the Confederate army. If suspected, they should at once enlist in the enemy’s ranks.

After many adventures the gallant twenty-four found themselves in the small hotel outside the Marietta depot. Their position was indeed perilous. As one of them said, “Our doom might be fixed before the setting of another sun. We might be hanging to the limbs of some of the trees along the railroad, with an enraged populace jeering and shouting vengeance because we had no more lives to give up; or we might leave a trail of fire and destruction behind us, and come triumphantly rolling into Chattanooga and Huntsville, to receive the welcome plaudits of comrades left behind, and the thanks of our general, and the praises of a grateful people.”

The men were to embark on an early morning train and travel in it as far as Big Shanty, where it halted to allow the passengers to get some breakfast. Then would come the chance of uncoupling the engine and a few cars from the rest of the train, and making off with them.

This programme was carried out to a nicety. When the conductor, engineer, fireman, and passengers had adjourned to the refreshment room, the conspirators quickly distributed themselves into their allotted places, and before a cry could be raised the locomotive and three cars were speeding northwards on a journey such as has never been paralleled in railway annals.

The steam soon gave out, and it became necessary to halt and replenish the furnace with wood. The fugitives built their chief hopes upon the difficulty that the Southerners would experience in getting hold of an engine to send in pursuit. At Kingston, thirty miles north of Big Shanty, they would meet an irregular train, and, that once passed, they expected to run at top speed for the nearest bridge, burn it, and hurry on, serving every other bridge they crossed in a like manner. As they went they would destroy the telegraph, so that no messages could be flashed back to Atlanta.

Keeping on regular time, they reached Kingston, two hours after the capture of the train, without having in any way damaged the line. As their own train had been scheduled as irregular, Andrews claimed to be a Confederate officer of high rank, who was running a special powder-train through to the army of General Beauregard at Corinth.

Unfortunately, the local southward-bound freight was late at Kingston, and the conspirators were obliged to lose valuable time in a siding. At last it arrived, and passed. But it carried a red flag, signifying that another train was just behind it, and must also be awaited. On this Andrews had not calculated; and the fact was soon explained by the conductor of the first train, who said that the Confederate rolling-stock was being hurried south before the advance of General Mitchell.

To wait would have been fatal. Andrews decided to risk a collision, and ran his train on to the main line. A minute later it was flying north at forty miles an hour for Adairsville, in the hope of reaching that station before the expected freight. A short distance south of this station the train stopped, and the men dismounted to cut the wires and remove a few rails, which were loaded on the cars along with some sleepers that happened to be stacked there. At Adairsville they met and passed the expected freight, and a passenger train at Calhoun. The road then lay clear to Chattanooga. Their hopes rose.

A little north of Calhoun was a bridge spanning the Oostenavla River which they had determined to burn. As a precautionary measure, Andrews decided to remove a rail to obstruct pursuit by any of the trains which had been passed. They had just wrenched this free when, to their dismay, they saw an engine bearing down upon them! The pursuit had indeed been pressed hard!

We must now return to Big Shanty, and briefly follow the doings of Fuller, the conductor of the captured train.

As the locomotive left the platform, Fuller and two companions pursued it on foot amid the jeers of their companions. He expected that the fugitives would abandon their prize as soon as they had cleared the Confederate outposts, and he therefore hoped to be able to retake the engine and bring it back to his train. But some severed telegraph wires soon undeceived him.

The three fell in with a party of workmen and a hand car. These were at once pressed into the service, and the pursuit now continued at seven or eight miles an hour. Their one hope of success rested on finding at Etowah, 13 miles from Kingston, an engine which worked a branch line to some ironworks. Great was their delight when they saw the old “Yonah” standing in the station, its head turned towards Kingston. On to it they sprang, and their former crawl quickened into nearly a mile a minute. But when Kingston was reached the birds had already flown. Here they changed engines, and with a force of a hundred armed men continued the pursuit until, beyond Calhoun, they sighted their quarry.

Transferring our attention once more, we will join Andrews and his party.

As they had a rail removed between them and their pursuers, they hoped to be able to burn the bridge before the damage could be put right. But Fuller’s train managed, in an almost miraculous manner, to clear the gap and continue merrily on its way. The driver attributes this extraordinary feat to the fact that the blank occurred in the inside rail and on a curve. As the train was travelling at a very high speed its weight was thrown mostly on the outside rail, and kept up against it by centrifugal force. With quick decision he increased the speed, and after a sharp jolt the engine and its cars were on the farther side of the gap. Had Andrews removed an outer rail, the whole history of subsequent events would have been altered.

Seeing that it was now impossible to fire the bridge, the brave Northerner cast loose a car in the hope that it might wreck the pursuing engine. But Fuller pulled up in time, and, picking up the car, proceeded, pushing it before the engine. A second car was then dropped, with as little effect.

The “Great Locomotive Chase” during the American Civil War

The fugitives next proceeded to throw the sleepers they carried on to the track, and so managed to impede the “Shorter”, as the other engine was named. Short halts were made to cut the wires and take in water and fuel. As long as the pursued had anything on board which could be used as an obstruction, the pursuers were obliged to keep at a respectful distance - just far enough behind to see what was being done by those in front.

Thus the chase continued mile after mile at express speed. Idlers in the stations were amazed by the sight of a train dashing past closely followed by another. To the travellers the country appeared to spin past giddily; then the leading engine would be suddenly reversed, and the brakes applied with such suddenness as to cause the occupants of the one remaining car to cling tightly to its sides. Scarcely had the wheels ceased to revolve when the Northerners were on the track, desperately loading ties or cutting the telegraph wires. At the signal all sprang aboard again, and the engine bounded forward once more at such a pace that it was a wonder how it kept on the rails at all.

Mere speed could not, however, save Andrews’ party from an even swifter engine. Not far ahead of them now lay Dalton, a junction for the lines running east and west. It was the southern apex of a triangle of lines, the other two corners being at Cleveland and Chattanooga. If they managed to clear Dalton it would be of no avail, since news of the flight would reach Chattanooga via Cleveland before the locomotive. However, they passed Dalton unmolested, and soon entered a tunnel where they determined to play their last card. With great difficulty they set the car ablaze, and cast it adrift on a long covered bridge. The other party simply pushed it ahead to the next siding and left it there to burn.

Little now remained but to abandon the railway, and make for the Northern Army across country, through the woods and mountains. Some of the bolder spirits did, indeed, suggest that it would be worth while to form an ambuscade near an obstruction, and, while the pursuers were hard at work, to fire upon them, board their train, and send it flying back to collide with the one following behind. But Andrews overruled the suggestion, and the flight continued at a slower speed, as the supply of fuel now began to fail. Twelve miles from Chattanooga the fugitives reversed their engine, jumped off, and left it to do any evil that the exhausted furnace could urge it to. Fortunately for those behind, the “General’s” force was expended, and it came to a standstill before reaching them. With the subsequent adventures of the brave twenty-four - their capture, imprisonment, the execution of eight (including Andrews), the escape of eight more, and the final exchange of the remainder - we will not here deal, as they are in no way connected with the railroad. It will be interesting, however, to notice the opinions held by both sides as regards the importance of the enterprise which so nearly succeeded. “The expedition failed,” says Judge Advocate-General Holt, in a report to the Secretary of War, “from causes which reflected neither upon the genius by which it was planned, nor upon the intrepidity and discretion of those engaged in executing it. But for the accident of meeting these trains, which could not have been anticipated, the movement would have been a complete success, and the whole aspect of the war in the South and South-West would have been at once changed. The expedition itself, in the daring of its conception, has the wildness of a romance; while in the gigantic and overwhelming results which it sought, and was likely to accomplish, it was absolutely sublime.”

A Southern journal says: “We doubt if the victory of Manassas or Corinth were worth as much to us as the frustration of this grand coup d’etat. It is not by any means certain that the annihilation of Beauregard’s whole army at Corinth would be so fatal a blow to us as would have been the burning of the bridges at that time and by these men.”

The pluck shown by Andrews and his comrades was equalled by the determination of Fuller and his party. The people who at Big Shanty mocked the conductor as he pursued the train on foot little knew that that pedestrian feat was to avert a great disaster from the Southern arms. Fuller thoroughly deserved all the credit he got.

Note: For a more detailed description of this incident, the reader is referred to Capturing a Locomotive by the Rev. W. Pittenger (1885), who was himself one of Andrews’ associates.

You can read more on “The General”,  “Railways at War 1” and “The Trans-Caspian Railway” on this website.