To War by Timetable
In the fevered Europe of 1914 no nation could contemplate a potential enemy stealing a march on it by mobilising before it had completed its own. Th us when Austria declared war on Serbia, Russia mobilised its southern armies in support of its fellow Slavs, Germany announced mobilisation. Later that day it cancelled that notice but in the meantime Russia had ordered general mobilisation in response. Germany thereupon ordered general mobilisation. Thanks to the Schlieffen Plan aimed at avoiding a war on two fronts, German mobilisation meant war for that plan required the defeat of France before turning on the Russians
Automatically, seven German armies began to march on France although it posed no immediate threat to Germany. (Actually they were carried to the borders in thousands of trains.) France had mobilised in response to German mobilisation but had withdrawn all troops from the border in order to avoid any border incidents. The move on France could have been stopped or reversed so as to mobilise against Russia only but the General Staff believed that this would cause chaos in the vast and intricate rail movements involved. So war was declared on France. It was, as Taylor wrote, 'to war by timetable.' (It is only fair to state that some believe that the mobilisation could have been reversed without causing chaos so perhaps the General Staff believed that war was inevitable sooner or later so that it might as well come now.)
The Move to France
Before the war the move of the BEF to France had been meticulously planned should it become necessary. The railways would be called upon to transport the BEF units from garrisons all over the UK to the ports of embarkation, mainly Southampton. Each of the seventy-two infantry battalions forming the original BEF required two trains. So did the twenty cavalry regiments although their trains had to have more accommodation for horses and less for personnel. The various artillery units also required trains of differing compositions.
It is estimated that during the five busiest days of the move, 1800 special trains were run by UK railways. These trains had to be at predetermined points at laid down times and depart loaded at the specified times. Paths had to be found for them across the lines of a number of companies which necessitated fresh crews who 'knew the road' ahead and the trains had to arrive at the port in the correct order and at the stipulated times in order not to bottle up the docks. On the busiest day some eighty trains were run into Southampton Docks which could only have been achieved by the strictest timing enabling an empty train to leave on time in order to make room for another train.
Unfortunately war broke out in August when the Territorials were on their way to their annual camps. Obviously they had to be redeployed to their Home Defence stations but the railway authorities were obliged to tell the Government that they could do this or they could transport the BEF to its embarkation ports but not both at the same time.
The Government decided to delay the move to France in order to redeploy the Territorials. When the move did take place it went according to plan and was accomplished within the planned nu mber of days. However, starting late it finished late, so that the British were late in taking up their position on the French left. Indeed when the leading staff officers arrived, an irate French officer snapped, 'So you are here at last. If we are beaten itwill be your fault'. Fortunately the late arrival of the British did not have any adverse tactical results but it very well could have and in any case soured relations between allies.
So here again it was war by timetable.
An Integrated Fighting System
Originally the small BEF was supplied from base ports via the French railways. At first the efficient French railways were able to cope with this extra burden in addition to meeting the needs of the civil population. As the BEF grew, however, the French had to make increasing requests for help culminating in the British doing everything to meet its own needs. This included providing locomotives, rolling stock and material for track maintenance as well as personnel, all coming from Britain's railways.
Early in 1916 with the build-up for the Somme Offensive under way, the railways behind the British sector became clogged up and serious delays were occurring, so that one of Britain's leading railwaymen was sent over to examine the situation. He was subsequently appointed Director General of Transportation for the BEF and by various means, mostly by regulating movement from the UK factory or camp to the front line, increased the railway capacity by 30 per cent.
Although the railways remained under severe pressure for the remainder of the war, they never failed to deliver the goods.
Those of the 'Lions led by Donkeys' school of thought don't like to admit it but in the closing stages of the war, Haig's armies constituted the most powerful and effective war machine in existence. Professor Peter Simkins believes (and who am I to differ?) that this was because the BEF was part of an integrated weapon system embracing industry, logistics (of which the railways were a vital part) and the skilful tactical use of the various arms available. The Canadian Ian Brov.rn argues that efficient logistics were the bed rock upon which the BEF depended and shaped its war-winning tactics. For example, a key element of the British tactics was the ability to bring down heavy and accurate artillery fire pretty well when and where needed. That required prodigious expenditure of ammunition which could only be made available where needed by rail.
John Terraine once explained that the railways enabled the opposing nations to concentrate large armies quite quickly thus leading to a deadlock. It took four long years to break this stalemate and the railways played a crucial part in finally breaking what it had helped to create.
You may be interested to learn that the learning centre at the National Arboretum now possesses a complete set of the Official Histories of Military Operations (all theatres), Naval Operations, The War in the Air and Overseas Trade. Included are the map volumes and appendices
The Bulletin of the Birmingham Branch of the WFA
Compiled by Bob Butcher