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Map 11: War and the Railroads

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         The French rail network in 1914


By 1914, the leading nations of Europe all had extensive rail networks. Trains were hardly a new technology in 1914, but armies relied on them to a greater extent than they ever had before, and this helped to make World War I a bloody war of attrition. In previous wars, armies would clash until one side achieved a breakthrough. At that point, the winning army could encircle the enemy, march on the capital, or take other steps to consolidate their gains and bring the war to an end. The slow speed of transportation meant that reinforcements often couldn't reach the losing side until it was too late to avert disaster. The mature rail networks of the early 20th century changed this dynamic. Now, when one side launched an offensive, the defenders could quickly move thousands of additional troops to counter it. Yet it wasn't practical for attackers who broke through enemy lines to use the enemy's rail lines to move their troops quickly. So defenders were usually more mobile than attackers. This helped to produce the perpetual stalemate of the Western Front


(Not one of the more dramatic maps. The blue lines look like rivers, but are the railroads.)


Edited by Hauksbee

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An exception of note is the Battle of Verdun in 1916, when the French enjoyed no main railroad network, having but a narrow-gauge single way railroad to the heart of the salient. The French staff had to organize a constant rotation back and forth of a large fleet of Renault trucks on the Bar-Le-Duc to Verdun road, an artery of life and death renamed La Voie Sacrée (The Sacred Way): one truck every 14 seconds by day and night, bringing in supply, ammo, guns and fresh cannon fodder, bringing back depleted and exhausted regiments. This system was nicknamed la noria (the waterwheel). It prefigured the next step of warfare, liberating staffs from the dependence on railways: mass motorisation.


Voie Sacrée - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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