Engines Of War: How Wars Were Won & Lost On The Railways, by Christian Wolmar
As someone who is interested in the intersection of war and logistics and transportation, I am surprised that more books have not come my way that deal with the importance of railroads to military operations in the nineteenth and first half of the 20th century. Armies have always been greatly constrained by their logistical operations, and have tended to ravage the land or try to remain as close to coasts or rivers where they could be fed and provisioned and supplied on regular basis. Railroads provided a means that increased the mobility of armies and gave them another logistical option when it came to feeding themselves but that also made the armies vulnerable to attacks as well as to malfunctions. If you are the kind of reader who shares my own personal interest in both the subjects of logistics and warfare, there is likely a great deal of enjoyment that you will be able to take out of this book. To be sure, at present airplanes and trucks have provided more logistical freedom than railroads, but it is important to give the rails their due for improving the ability of armies to keep themselves supplied across long distances and over less than ideal terrain.
This book of about 300 pages or so begins with a list of maps and illustrations, a preface, acknowledgements, and a series of maps that show the importance of railroads in various military conflicts like the Crimean War, the Civil War, the Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, World War I, and Korea. After that there are ten chapters, beginning with the author’s discussion of war before railways and the principles of logistics that governed the behavior of armies from time immemorial (1), after which the author looks at the way that railways were called into action during the Crimean War to overcome the failure of British logistics initially (2). The author then looks at how the North used its railway superiority in order to defeat the South (3) as well as the lessons not learned by Prussia during its three successful wars of unification against Denmark, Austria, and France (4). The author then pivots to a discussion of the use of railways in the Mahdist War, the Boer War, and the Russo-Japanese War (5), as well commenting on the way that World War I was widely anticipated given the drift of contemporary geopolitics (6). The next two chapters (7,8) contrast railroads and their use in the Western and Eastern fronts of World War I before the book concludes with World War II (9), Korea (10), and the usual bibliography, notes, index, and information about the author.
What makes this book particularly enjoyable to read? For one, the author discusses the use of railroads in war in a great deal of detail, showing himself well-versed with the problems of track gauges and their inconsistencies around the world (sometimes by design, in the case of Russia). The author also points out the strenuous efforts on the parts of armies to both build railways into war zones as well as destroy the railways of others, and shows how armies as diverse as the Chinese PLA and the Union army of the Civil War became extremely proficient at keeping the trains running to supply troops in advanced positions. And while not all railroad stories are equal, there are plenty of stories of how it was that various means of armoring trains and making them difficult to bomb helped keep the supply lines going in many conflict areas around the world. All of that effort suggests that logistics and the logistics of rail in particular, is a rich area of study that will repay the interest of the military historian.