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4.3 out of 5 stars
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4.3 out of 5 stars
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on 30 April 2016
This is a bit of a mixed bag. I have read a number of the author's books, and his knowledge of railway history, and their social and cultural impact - as well as his ability to make that relevant to a non-railway buff like me - is second to none. However, here he has perhaps taken on a bit too much. There is definitely a real story to tell about the impact of railways on warfare, and, as he points out, it is a somewhat neglected area. The book is laid out in a straightforward way, with an opening chapter describing military logistics prior to the railways, and then goes through a number of conflicts in chronological order, outlining how the use of the railways affected their course and outcome.
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 The sources he has used are narrow - and somewhat out of date - and poor AJP Taylor comes in for a lot of stick!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.
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on 17 March 2017
Well worth the money
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on 10 January 2011
Among the plethora of books about wars it's good to read a new one that deals with a subject that I have not seen covered in detail before. I have read the odd chapter dealing with subjects like the use of trains in transporting holocaust victims or troop movements in the UK leading up to the Normandy landings but this book adds a level of insight and detail that I found unexpected and useful.

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.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 27 December 2011
Both military history and the railways regularly generate large numbers of publications, with even the small details of minor events often covered in copious detail by numerous different authors. Strange then that the overlap of the two, the role of railways in military history, has generated little attention and no over-arching standard history. Christian Wolmar's Engines of War looks to put that right, and makes an extremely good attempt.

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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on 6 February 2011
Christian Wolmar's book was a series of revelations to me. I have read quite a lot about 19th and 20th Century Wars, but the key role of railways is largely ignored. For example, they enabled the North to beat the South in the American Civil War, Kitchener to beat the Mad Mahdi, the Allies to beat the Central Powers in WWI and the Axis in WWII. But what I found of most interest was Wolmar's views on the role played by railways in WWI. He refutes AJP Taylor's view that it was the rigidity of the military's railway timetables that led to war. Again, because an advancing army has to move over damaged infrastructure a defending army always had a better rail supply network behind it. This led to the stalemate of the trench war, with neither side able to sustain a breakthrough. Not mentioned in standard histories is the fact that light railways were the only effective form of transport over muddy cratered ground, and that hundreds of miles of tracks were laid by both sides. In WWII, Hitler failed to grasp the importance of rail, being a car fanatic, and mistakenly gave priority to building autobahnen, then did not build enough lorries.As well as dealing authoritatively with strategic and tactical issues involving the railways, Wolmar includes fascinating anecdotes. For instance, when trains were blacked out in WWII bulbs were stolen from the LMS line at a rate of 50,000 a year!
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on 6 October 2010
Railways and locomotives are not just limited to peacetime use.
In our memories, we may wish to associate them with happier times...day trips to the seaside, going on holiday to some other location at home (UK) or overseas, perhaps.

When pushed, we will recall the use of the railways in the great evacuations from London at the start of the Second World War...and the use of the London Underground as emergency air raid shelters.

But the railways, and locomotives have had a much more sinister, and deadly use.....as "engines of war".

The disappointing results of technology were noted by Orville Wright, one of the inventors of the airplane. During World War II he wrote the following to Henry Ford:
": "Wilbur and I thought the plane would hasten world peace. So far it seems to have done the reverse. I suspect when you introduced mass production --one of the great inventions of the ages--you little thought it would be used . . . in building tanks for world destruction. It seems that no beneficial thing can be introduced without some one finding a vicious use for it."

And so it has proved to be, in all aspects of life and industry....

Christian Wolmar's latest book.."Engines of War" traces a siimilar theme in the use of the railways in war, and for war, since the middle of the 19th century...

The book's chapters are:
1. War Before Railways
2. The Railways called Into Action
3. Slavery Loses Out To The Iron Road
4. Lessons Not Learnt
5. The New Weapons Of war
6. The War The World Anticipated
7. The Great Railway War On The Western Front
8. Eastern Contrasts
9. Here We Go Again
10. Blood On The Tracks

Whilst not exhaustive...and the author makes no claims to being a military historian...there is enough evidence and reasoning here to demonstrate amply the undeniable fact that the railways made it possible to conduct wars over larger areas, and for longer times, than was possible previously.
As the last chapter's title so well expresses it....there is "Blood on the Tracks"

For the student of railway history, this is an essential read , filling the gaps of other volumes.
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on 11 October 2010
This book covers, in ten chapters, the use of railways in war from Balaklava to the present day. Essentially, the deployment and supply of millions of soldiers in the wars of the last century would have been impossible without railways. The book is written in good English throughout and has a very useful index.

The author is very definitely a railway author rather than a military one or a master of both subjects. He mainly relies on AJP Taylor for the political/military viewpoint. It is a shame he was not more catholic in his reading, both for the wider perspective and because of the book's main failing, the paucity and inadequacy of maps. Military books normally have much better maps than this.

Let us take WWI as an example. For the Western front (over one chapter is devoted to this), there is one map, situated a long way from the relevant text. To follow the action, the author naturally uses a number of place names, the majority of which are not marked on his map. There is an inset, barely legible, of the area of the Somme, which is one of the very few places in the book where a map is inessential since the Somme offensive is only discussed in very general terms.

To accompany the chapter on WWI's several Eastern fronts, there are no maps at all. I found it necessary to improvise - for instance, the account of the Arabian/Palestine campaign can be followed with the aid of a map in Natkiel and Pimlott's excellent "Atlas of Warfare".

The author rightly criticises some of the combatants in his book, for rushing into action without adequate preparation. I wonder if the same criticism might not be fairly levelled at him.
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on 15 October 2010
In writng this book Christian has approached the subject of railways and war from a different perspective to other books on railways in war which tend to deal with the technical running of the railways etc.

His approach is to show how the military had to learn how to use this new tranport medium most effectively. From the small temporary lines in the Crimea to huge systems behind the Western Front Christian charts the learning curve that the military underwent.
In particular he illustrates how the military had to keep re-learning how to make the best use of the railways in each new campaign. Unfortunately the stalemate on the Western Front in WW1 was mostly sustained by the very efective exploitation of the railways by the military on all sides.

He also includes some intersting family history on the use of armoured trains after the Russian revolution.

He illustrates how Hitler's attack on Russia was hampered from the start by the actual physical lack of railways to supply three full armies and the break of gauge at the frontier. These problems being exaserpated the further into Russia the Germans advanced, which greatly contributed to its ultimate failure.

As a final finale to the "Railway Wars" he refers to the effective use of railways by the North Koreans in the defense of their country despite overwheaming American airpower and numerous bombing raids to destroy the lines.

All in all a good read, combining railway and military history in an very interesting way. One small quibble though I too would like more maps.
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on 28 October 2013
What Wolmar does is show the impact that railways had on military logistics and as a consequence on military tactics. The focus is on key conflict areas since the emergence of railways - initially the Crimean War and especially the US Civil War where railways first came into their own reflecting the influence of US Federal engineer, Herman Haupt, whose work for the United States Military Railroads in preparation for several battles, culminating at Gettysburg, would confirm the strategic role of the railways in warfare and who in effect produced the key guidelines for effective railway management and coordination with the military in time of war. Haupt's two main principles were that the military should not interfere in the operation of the train service, and that freight cars should be emptied and returned promptly, so that they were not used as warehouses (or even, as happened, as offices). These may seem obvious but the only armies that used railways effectively were those who were able to make best use of these principles. Prussia's wars with Denmark, Austria and France are examined as are those colonial conflicts fought by the British prior to 1914. The survey then goes onto look at the war that was most influenced by railways, World War 1.

The most impressive point for historians that comes through is how railways altered the fundamental dynamics of warfare. Logistics were always a restraint on the size of armies sent into the field. They could only be as large as the area around afforded them to live off. Consequently campaigns had to be swift, battles short, before food, fodder and ammunition ran out. Railways changed this. Especially for armies defending. They could be constantly supplied by more men, foodstuffs and equipment by rail. Battles could last as long as the rail line was open but could not move far from the railhead. A recipe for the Great War and its offensives of attrition. The railway train contributed as much to the slaughter on the western front as did the machine gun and artillery shell. In the east where rail was less developed the war was less static, less attritional. By World War 2 road and air mobility reduced the dependency on the railhead, but rail was still central to the war economy whether in Britain, Germany, the US or the Soviet Union where lines were destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed and then rebuilt again (often in a different gauge each time) as German troops advanced then were pushed back again by the Red Army.

Wolmar bemoans the lack of prior literature on the topic also admitting he is not a military historian and this is clear in several instances. Each conflict begins with an outline description of the war itself. This will be useful for rail buffs who know more of the trains than the military and diplomatic history but can be annoying (especially some of the generalisations) to those who know more about the history. I skim read them quickly. Wolmar also writes that the dearth of material on the topic has made examination of many countries difficult. Nonetheless, I would also have liked to see more analysis on the impact of the WW2 Allied bombing campaign on Germany's railway system and the war economy of Speer as this is key to current research on the effectiveness of the strategic bombing of the Reich.

Overall though this is to be recommended as providing new insights into a neglected area. In the forthcoming commemoration of 1914-18 it will be especially valuable in helping many to understand why the armies of the west became so entrenched. The author writes this is an area crying out for more PhD research on the impact of rail on specific conflicts. This work will hopefully motivate and encourage others to do just that.
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on 9 May 2014
The author writes well, and the book is very readable, but the research seems patchy.

It often gives the impression that he only read one book on the military history of each period and refers to that book repeatedly and uncritically. As a result his views are definitely one sided; he comes across as an uncritical advocate of the controversial "Lions Led by Donkeys" view of the First World War, without justifying it in the slightest, for example.

To be fair, the author is quite open in his introduction and notes about having limited knowledge of military history (as opposed to railway history), and it's a good read. As a result I would still recommend this for somebody who has only a casual interest in the topic who wants a superficial but very readable overview. If that doesn't describe you, then you should probably not bother.
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