Whilst travelling around central Europe recently on the train I thought it would be apt to read Engines of War: How Wars Were Won and Lost on the Railways by the well known railway historian Christian Wolmar. What Wolmar does is show the impact that railways had on military logistics and as a consequence on military tactics. The focus is on key conflict areas since the emergence of railways - initially the Crimean War and especially the US Civil War where railways first came into their own reflecting the influence of US Federal engineer, Herman Haupt, whose work for the United States Military Railroads in preparation for several battles, culminating at Gettysburg, would confirm the strategic role of the railways in warfare and who in effect produced the key guidelines for effective railway management and coordination with the military in time of war. Haupt's two main principles were that the military should not interfere in the operation of the train service, and that freight cars should be emptied and returned promptly, so that they were not used as warehouses (or even, as happened, as offices). These may seem obvious but the only armies that used railways effectively were those who were able to make best use of these principles. Prussia's wars with Denmark, Austria and France are examined as are those colonial conflicts fought by the British prior to 1914. The survey then goes onto look at the war that was most influenced by railways, World War 1.
The most impressive point for historians that comes through is how railways altered the fundamental dynamics of warfare. Logistics were always a restraint on the size of armies sent into the field. They could only be as large as the area around afforded them to live off. Consequently campaigns had to be swift, battles short, before food, fodder and ammunition ran out. Railways changed this. Especially for armies defending. They could be constantly supplied by more men, foodstuffs and equipment by rail. Battles could last as long as the rail line was open but could not move far from the railhead. A recipe for the Great War and its offensives of attrition. The railway train contributed as much to the slaughter on the western front as did the machine gun and artillery shell. In the east where rail was less developed the war was less static, less attritional. By World War 2 road and air mobility reduced the dependency on the railhead, but rail was still central to the war economy whether in Britain, Germany, the US or the Soviet Union where lines were destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed and then rebuilt again (often in a different gauge each time) as German troops advanced then were pushed back again by the Red Army.
Wolmar bemoans the lack of prior literature on the topic also admitting he is not a military historian and this is clear in several instances. Each conflict begins with an outline description of the war itself. This will be useful for rail buffs who know more of the trains than the military and diplomatic history but can be annoying (especially some of the generalisations) to those who know more about the history. I skim read them quickly. Wolmar also writes that the dearth of material on the topic has made examination of many countries difficult. Nonetheless, I would also have liked to see more analysis on the impact of the WW2 Allied bombing campaign on Germany's railway system and the war economy of Speer as this is key to current research on the effectiveness of the strategic bombing of the Reich.
Overall though this is to be recommended as providing new insights into a neglected area. In the forthcoming commemoration of 1914-18 it will be especially valuable in helping many to understand why the armies of the west became so entrenched. The author writes this is an area crying out for more PhD research on the impact of rail on specific conflicts. This work will hopefully motivate and encourage others to do just that.