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NZ Railways at war

Page 2 – Railways in the First World War

The steam railway was a driving force of the industrial revolution and European imperialist expansion. Its potential as a tool for war was quickly realised; ‘from the American Civil War onwards, warfare took to the rails with dreadful enthusiasm.’[1] Europe’s dense, highly efficient rail networks were central to the industrialised warfare of 1914-18 – railways enabled the great powers to mobilise armies on an unprecedented scale, and to maintain them in the field, despite their increasingly complex logistical needs, not just for weeks or months but for years.

War by timetable

The troop train is an enduring image of the Great War. Germany’s war plans were based on a meticulously detailed 16-day mobilisation requiring 11,000 trains. The French railways delivered one million men and 400,000 horses to the front in the first two weeks of the war. In his 1969 history War by timetable, A.J.P. Taylor even suggested that the great powers’ elaborate and (he claimed) irreversible rail mobilisation schemes were to blame for the outbreak of war.

It could also be argued that railways contributed to the stalemate and slaughter of the Great War – in general, rail transport proved of greater benefit to defensive forces, which were able to reinforce their lines more swiftly than attackers could concentrate in areas where retreating armies had destroyed rail lines. French railways, rather than the fabled Parisian taxis, were the key to the 'Miracle of the Marne' in September 1914.

Over the next four years the logistical needs of front-line units would increase tenfold; a 1918 report calculated that each division now required 1000 tonnes of supplies, equivalent to two 50-wagon trains, every day.

Light railways

As the war on the Western Front settled into a stalemate, rail technology was adapted to new roles. Following the example of the French and Germans, from 1916 the British built extensive networks of light railways (usually of narrow 60-cm track gauge) to link railheads beyond artillery range with their trench systems. These simple trains, hauled by small steam locomotives or petrol tractors, greatly accelerated the supply of ammunition to artillery batteries. They also brought troops, rations, water, coal, timber, wire and other supplies up close to the front lines, often returning with wounded men.

Further forward, trench tramways provided another link in the supply chain, with wagons hauled by mules and manpower. Light railways and tramways were also widely used underground in tunnel systems such as those the New Zealand tunnellers helped excavate beneath Arras. 

NZ troops

New Zealand troops serving overseas travelled extensively on railways in Egypt, Britain and France. After arriving in Marseilles in April 1916, the 15,000 men of the New Zealand Division endured a 58-hour, 1000-km train journey to Steenbecque in northern France. Despite the discomfort, many soldiers were enchanted by the scenery:

The journey is quite an eye opener to us all the way we are journeying through beautifully cultivated land; the valley of the Rhone is quite splendid. Green everywhere such a contrast to Egypt.[2] 

Tragedy on the tracks

In September 1917, 10 New Zealand soldiers were killed in a tragic rail accident at Bere Ferrers in southern England, while en route from Plymouth to Sling Camp.

Even in the Middle East railways were crucial. The Sinai campaign of 1916-17, which involved the 1800-strong New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade and New Zealand companies of the Imperial Camel Corps, was based around the construction of a railway and water pipeline across the desert. During the subsequent Palestine campaign in 1917-18, one of the main targets of the British advance – and raids by Arab rebels – was the Ottomans’ strategic Hejaz railway, which ran south into Arabia.

[1] Ian Carter, Railways and culture in Britain, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2001, p. 16

[2] Gunner Reginald Donald, quoted in Glyn Harper, Johnny Enzed, Exisle, Auckland, 2015, p. 270

How to cite this page

Railways in the First World War, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated