Wednesday, 29 September 2010


Again a topic that does not have even the most tangential impact with the Drapers' Company.  Nevertheless I thought readers might just be interested.

Tuesday night saw Christian Wolmar, the well known transport journalist and writer, launching his new book Engines of War at the beautifully restored German Gymnasium at King's Cross.  There's more about Christian on his website  and, if you are early for a Eurostar, East Coast or Midland Mainline train the German Gymnasium is, in the words of the Michelen guides, certainly worth the, five minute, detour.  More details at 

This is the tenth book Christian has written and this is the third on big railway themes.  The first Fire and Steam dealt with the history of Britain's railways, the second Blood, Iron and Gold on the development of railways worldwide and this book Engines of War on the darker, but equally dramatic, subject of railways and warfare. 

As I seem to have some experience of both subjects - on the logistics of war in particular - Christian asked me to read the first draft of the book.  From the outset I found it a good read.  Going over someone else's first draft is always a most interesting experience as not only are you commenting on another's work but it forces a personal  reassessment of one's own experience, knowledge and capacity for analysis. 

The first big idea that came out of Christian's work was that Naploeon understood the logistic techniques that would allow railways to win wars but, probably fortunately, was held back by the largely railwayless logistics at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

But the major area was his reassessment of the crucial part railways played in the First World War.  It is quite clear on all the major fronts that railways allowed the generals to deploy massive resources forward, sustain millions of soldiers and, although casualty rates were high, kept them considerably lower than they might have been with rapid evacuation of the wounded.  However the crucial weakness of a railway network was its relative inflexibilty.  AJP Taylor was wrong to claim that railway's produced an inflexible war by timetable but nevertheless they stopped rapid and deep advance to exploit initial successes.  The tragic outcome was a war that could be sustained by railways for fifty months before one side broke.

But, as with all Christian's books, it is not just high level stuff.  There is a wealth of detail and anecdote as well.

Railways will almost certainly never again play the major role in warfare that they did for the century after 1850.  But it is a great historical and military read and I am proud to have played a very small part in the book's genesis.  Naturally I recommend a very good read.

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