ENGINES OF WAR by Christian Wolmar


How Wars Were Won and Lost on the Railways
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A history of the impact of the railroad on warfare.

Transportation historian Wolmar (Blood, Iron, and Gold: How the Railways Transformed the World, 2010, etc.) argues that, by moving large numbers of men and their supplies over long distances at a speed previously unimaginable, railroads made war possible on an industrial scale. Their dominance began roughly with the Crimean War in 1850 and came to an end in the Korean War, just over a century later. The author notes that the era was marked by clashes between the generals and the railway men, each convinced that they knew the right way to put the new tool to use. Officers in all wars liked to commandeer empty cars after their arrival at the front, using them for everything from storage to headquarters. Meanwhile, railway companies disliked turning over their rolling stock to the war effort, fully aware that it might not come back. Engineer Herman Haupt, who supervised the Union railway program in the Civil War, devised solutions that maximized the delivery of men and supplies to the front, as well as tools for destroying enemy rail lines. Future military leaders who ignored Haupt’s principles did so at their peril, as Wolmar shows with examples running from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to World War II. In particular, the lesson that the railways give the advantage to a defender was missed by the generals of World War I, leading to bloodbaths like Passchendaele and Verdun. A little-known detail is the wide use of miniature trains to supply the trenches, a technique adopted by both sides on the Western Front. Wolmar also provides perspective on topics from the effective use of railways in the British colonial wars to the prolongation of the Korean War by the North Koreans’ skill at keeping their trains running despite constant American bombing. The author spices the narrative with odd sidelights such as the Russians’ predilection for armored trains or Hitler’s fascination with rail-mounted giant artillery pieces.

A meaty, informative book for railroad buffs as well as students of military history.

Pub Date: Nov. 2nd, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-58648-971-7
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2010


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