The railways were the defining invention of the industrial revolutions, transforming the countries in which they were established. They found plenty of peaceful uses as conduits for commerce, passenger transportation and the emergence of travel, but were also used as weapons of war. In fact, they would be used by the British Army almost as soon as the first UK railways were open to the public.
Many inventions have their origins in military technology or have their peaceful uses subverted to serve warfare. Modern examples of the former include the Internet, which began life as the ARPANET and the Global Positioning System (GPS), both projects funded by the U.S. Department of Defence. The latter is demonstrated by telephone and radio, which revolutionised the global dissemination of information thereby benefitting commerce and bringing the world a little closer together but also massively improving military signalling and communications.
It is therefore no surprise that the armed forces of several European nations seized on the possibilities offered by the nascent railways of the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, the army had started to use trains almost as soon as they were made available for passengers.
Christopher Woolmar’s excellent account of how the railways revolutionized warfare is set out in Engines of War: How Wars Were Won and Lost on the Railways. It didn’t take very long for the brand new technology to be first used by the military.
The world’s first true passenger railway, in the sense that we would understand today, was the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. It was twin-tracked and had timetabled and ticketed services throughout. The line opened on 15 September 1830 in a grand ceremony overseen by the aging Duke of Wellington.
Choosing the Iron Duke was a prophetic choice for the railway, as the Liverpool and Manchester would soon be called upon to support the army. British regiments stationed in Manchester were to be sent to Ireland to help quell the so-called ‘Tithe War’. They would be conveyed to Liverpool by the railway and then on to Dublin by ferry. A two-day march had been replaced by a two-hour train ride.
Soon, railway lines would reach London, connecting the industrial north with the capital and allowing troops to be shuttled across the country as needed. In the tumultuous and rapidly industrialising 1840s, they would be needed frequently as towns and cities broke out in periodic riots and disturbances.
One of the keenest supporters of using the railways was General Sir Charles Napier, who, after successfully responding within 24 hours to a summons from Lord Russell to bring help to London, wrote:
“Well done, steam! Smoke, thou art wonderful, and a reformer!”
It would take other generals in the British Army longer to appreciate the usefulness of the new technology. This ambivalence was reflected in Europe, where some held that allowing troops to use trains instead of marching would make them soft or even effeminate.
But the decisive role the nascent European network played in allowing thinly stretched military resources to put down the extensive revolutions of 1848 focused the minds of even the most reluctant general. By the time of the First World War, the railway network was so integral to military planning that the ‘railway thesis’ emerged to explain the outbreak of the conflict.