Decauville railways | 26 Jan 1916

Decauville, the unsung hero

Speaking of heroes who are about to become incredibly popular and important. This hero has been doing a sterling job of work keeping the Entente armies supplied and reinforced since 1914, with almost no recognition. We are of course firmly in the land of logistics here. However, Decauville is not a far-sighted general, an efficient staff officer, or a gallant private. Decauville is a company, and it makes narrow-gauge railway track and engines.

You can’t just run a regular standard-gauge railway right up to the trenches. For one thing, it’ll get the hell shelled out of it. For another, steam trains require elaborate machinery and procedures to turn the heavy locomotives around and get them to the correct end of the train that they’ll be driving. You can’t just say “the railway runs to such-and-such a station”. There have to be places where trains can be turned and marshalled properly, stores of coal and water, places for railway wagons to live when not in use. It’s all a job best not done under fire. So the places where this is done are the railheads, where the Western Front’s great standard-gauge railway network ends, and all supplies are tipped out to be taken to the blokes who need them.

You can’t just leave them lying at the railhead, obviously. Man-hauling is inefficient and annoys the blokes. Cart-hauling requires a cart and a fuel-hungry horse, or an equally hungry lorry. Enter the narrow-gauge railway. They connect the standard-gauge railheads to the myriad supply depots that have sprouted up everywhere in the rear to hold everything needed to keep an army moving. Food, weapons, ammunition, digging tools, gas masks, blankets, uniforms. From here the supplies can be distributed in small enough numbers to be carried by men.

The French Army has been using Decauville narrow-gauge railways since 1888. They’re ideal for the purpose. They were specifically designed ready-made, so they could be assembled anywhere and repaired quickly by any two blokes with a shovel and a hammer. The engines and wagons are light enough to be manhandled around by those same two blokes in case of accidents. Decauville railways (and their foreign off-brand equivalents; most militaries build to Decauville’s 600mm gauge and design principles) are everywhere in this war. They’re all over France and Belgium. They’re on the Eastern Front. They’re in East Africa, and in Egypt. By mid-year they’ll be on their way to Mesopotamia. Their importance to the war cannot be overstated.

And yet, even though they’re often incredibly cute little things, they’re just not as sexy as bayonet charges, aeroplanes swooping into dogfights, or anything that goes “bang” very loudly. They’re about to have their finest hour. Verdun is currently connected to the rest of French-held France by only a single road leading back to the regional capital, Bar-le-Duc. Twelve months ago it was a mostly-obscure dirt track. Then the Germans came to the St Mihiel salient and isolated Verdun from the south. Then they cut off the western road by parking artillery next to it, daring the French to use it.

When people talk about the redevelopment of Verdun’s defences, their focus is usually the trenches and the forts. But the most critical decision of all was surely taken by Petain’s chief of staff, Colonel de Barescut, when he ordered this road (it will eventually be called the Voie Sacree, “Sacred Way”, for reasons which will become obvious) improved in quality and widened to take two lanes of traffic. Of course a single-track Decauville railway runs alongside it, which has been put into first-class working order. And thought has been given to what might be done on the roads if an attack does come.

Logistics. If your men can’t eat, can’t get medical treatment, can’t get ammunition, can’t be taken to the rear for rest, the finest army in the world quickly becomes paralysed, as the British Empire is demonstrating in Mesopotamia. Decauville railways may not, on their own, have won the war for anyone; but they made it possible to fight the war at all.

Wait. Maybe I shouldn’t be so enthusiastic about them, then. Drat.

The methodical battle

It’s time for the latest instalment in the ongoing series of “General Joffre and GQG Attempt To Un-Fuck French Army Doctrine”! Isn’t that exciting? I know I’m excited. His recent talk to General Haig of wearing out the enemy appears to be more than lip service. He now appears ready to commit fully to the bite and hold methods that have been advocated by Foch and Petain (known as “methodical battle” in a French context). The directive calls for officers planning an attack to identify successive enemy positions, which now are to be assaulted separately, with adequate artillery preparation before each new position is attacked. The search for the breakthrough has been abandoned, although Joffre still remains plainitively hopeful that sufficient attrition might cause an entire enemy sector to rupture and give way.

However, attack is not the only subject of his attentions at the moment. GQG’s staff has also been working on a major revision of French defensive doctrine. In what would surely have been a blown to German hopes for the Battle of Verdun if they’d known it, the new doctrine calls unequivocally for defence in depth. No individual trench should be considered too important to give up. Withdraw, allow your precisely-ranged artillery support to hammer the enemy as they advance, then take back and re-dig what’s left of your trench. (This is also a convenient excuse not to make trenches too deep and well-appointed; you don’t want to concede a good solid defensive position before you counter-attack it.)

The French Chief is also well aware of the need to do more than just issue radical new directives and expect them to be followed. General Petain has been pulled out of the line with his army’s staff, and put to work in charge of a giant training camp. Three corps at a time, the entire French army is to be rotated through Petain’s gargantuan new school of warfare. Already he has a reputation for training his own 2nd Army well. Now he gets captive audiences to instruct.

And, for many who pass through, Petain is being seen as the source of all this new thinking. The grapevine has told much of the officer corps how Petain wrote to Papa Joffre with stinging criticisms of the autumn offensive, and now Petain is training them in a new way of war. The man’s personal popularity is beginning to rise sharply; of course, it has so much further yet to go.

Actions in Progress

Armenian Genocide
Siege of Kut
Erzurum Offensive

Further Reading

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