Engines of War: How Wars Were Won and Lost on the Railways Paperback – 1 Jun 2012
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“Wolmar writes with an authoritative tone and solid research on how railroads, with their ability to move vast numbers of troops, made "industrial-scale carnage possible."
“Very accessible and likely to be popular with readers of general military history.”
A mass market paperback with tremendous sales potential. Engines of War tells the dramatic story of how the birth of the railways shaped how wars were fought and won, facilitating conflict on a previously unimaginable scale.See all Product description
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The problem comes from the fact that the author knows very little about military history - a fact he readily admits - but which seriously hampers his analysis, and in some cases, leads to fairly basic factual errors. Whilst his explanations relating directly to the railway side of things is meticulous, some of the generalisations and sweeping statements on the military side are disconcerting, to say the least. The sources he has used are narrow - and somewhat out of date - and poor AJP Taylor comes in for a lot of stick!
Overall, it is still an interesting read, and could lead on to further reading, but I suspect it would have been much better had the author found an interested military historian as a co-author.
Christian Wolmar outlines clearly at the start of the book which areas he will deal with in detail and which areas he is not expert enough to cover.
From my point of view he covers most of key elements of the conflicts in adequate detail without getting overly technical. The book is very readable and my only quibbles are that the maps should probably have been at the beginning of each chapter and yes, there should be a map dealing with the Middle East conflicts of 1918. I would like to know some more about the cover image and where it was taken as it relates to a section on railway mounted artillery.
Those points aside, I would recommend the book as a companion to the many other books that dealt with the same conflicts and wars yet hardly ever mentioned the railways!
A book I read about the war in Russia in 1941 mentioned how the trains ran from Berlin to Moscow for three weeks after war was declared by both sides but Wolmar's book provides a much more solid context for understanding why many of the wars were started where railways were a relevant factor or how they served the progress of those conflicts. Subsequently, I think the history of the railways now has a very sinister overtone.
Wolmar's expertise lies in the railways rather than military history and he is refreshingly frank about the limitations of his knowledge of the latter. He has acquired sufficient such knowledge to make the book work well in most parts, though he places too much reliance on AJP Taylor and Winston Churchill at times. Both are very readable, extremely persuasive but also highly controversial historians and to have either as your basic source of information on events is a risky approach. That is the approach that Wolmar takes and as a result, his narrative sometimes suffers. His partial debunking of Taylor's views on the origins of the First World War, for example, make for a slightly quaint distraction given how much the debate over its origins has moved on anyway since his time.
The other blemish in the book is the paucity and limited detail of the maps, a real shame in a book that relies so much on accounts in which the relative location of places and the geography of the intervening landscape is crucial.
Neither blemish however seriously damages the book's attempts to entertain or educate, both of which it does admirably. His main thesis is that it was only the development of the railways which made the increasingly large, and so logistically cumbersome, armies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries possible. In the end, however, the railways were also their undoing because defenders could always call up reinforcements far more quickly than attackers who, as they advanced, went beyond the reach of their own rail networks. The result was that stalemate was the norm until the development of reliable motorisation increasingly freed armies from railways.
One side-story which comes up frequently is just how hard railways were to destroy. A bit of damage here and there was easy, but could also be quickly repaired. It was only well into the twentieth century that explosives made large-scale destruction of railways, at least in rugged terrain that required bridges, viaducts and the like, quick and reliable. Until then, the possibilities of speedy repair had made railways a rather robust form of transport.
Another aspect briefly touched on is how railways offer another example of technological development which could both undermine dictatorships yet also strengthen them (cf the debate over The Net Delusion: How Not to Liberate The World). In the case of railways, they both allowed dissidents and dissident ideas to move around but also permitted troops to be despatched quickly to quell unrest.
As these two examples illustrate, there is much to enjoy in this book even if you are neither a serious fan of military history nor of railways.
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