February 2013

To War by Timetable

In the  fevered Europe of 1914 no nation could   contemplate  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      France  had mobilised    in    response    to    German mobilisation but had withdrawn all troops from the border  in order  to avoid any border   incidents.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.


Bob Butcher




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

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