Transport And Supply During The First World War

At the turn of the twentieth century railways dominated land transport. Motor vehicles had yet to seriously threaten the railways, except for local traffic, while aviation was at an embryonic stage. Consequently the main belligerent nations of Europe built their plans for mobilising and supporting their armies in war primarily around railways. Each nation had developed very sophisticated schedules for concentrating troops and equipment at key depots and then despatching the forces rapidly to designated positions on their frontiers.

transport

Nowhere was the planning more developed than in Germany and France. Germany’s ‘Schlieffen Plan’ provided for concentrating forces by rail rapidly along both the eastern and western boundaries. It was expected that the Russian Army would be slow to mobilise, so the strategy was to sweep rapidly through Belgium and Luxembourg, invade northern France and encircle around the north and west of Paris. Following a French surrender, expected within six weeks, the forces could then face the Russians.

UNLOADING SHELLS AT BRIELEN, NORTH OF YPRES

Two technologies that were crucial in shaping the First World War were railways and artillery. Railways provided the enormous logistical capacity needed to support huge armies in the field for years on end, including transportation of millions of artillery shells. Here shells are being unloaded at Brielen, just north of Ypres, on 3 August 1917. The engine at the head of the train is one of 100 2-6-2T American ALCO steam engines built in 1917, while beyond it is a recently delivered British 40hp Simplex petrol engined tractor.

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THE MOBILISATION OF THE GERMAN ARMY

German reservists are serenaded by a military band as their train departs from Berlin in a scene that was repeated all over Europe from August 1914.

Maintaining these huge forces in the field – up to 2 million men were serving on the Western Front – required vast amounts of supplies. Every bullet, blanket, bandage, artillery battery or tin of bully beef had to be manufactured and transported where and when it was required. By 1918 each Division of about 12,000 men needed about 1,000 tons of supplies every day – equivalent to two supply trains each of 50 wagons. When an offensive was being planned, even larger quantities of material had to be concentrated in preparation for the operations that might last for months.

THE GERMAN INVASION OF BELGIUM AND FRANCE

Belgian Army engineers destroying a road and railway bridge in Termonde to hold up the German advance before retreating to Antwerp on 18 September 1914.

The next problem was how to bridge the gap between the supply dumps and the soldiers who needed the supplies – and the problems got more and more difficult the closer supplies were moved towards the front lines. This distance was too long to be bridged effectively with horse-drawn vehicles, because horses could not manage a daily round trip of this length.

DAZZLED LEAVE SHIPS, BOULOGNE

The quayside at Boulogne, one of the principal ports for cross-channel traffic supporting British forces. The dazzle camouflage painted paddle steamer at the quay in the distance is filled with troops going on leave, contrasting with the ambulances waiting in the foreground.

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RATION SUPPLY

Lorries unloading a supply train at railhead to deliver to a forward refilling point.

THE HUNDRED DAYS OFFENSIVE

Horse-drawn transport was very widely used close to the front, especially over rough ground. During the Battle of the Canal du Nord, supply limbers are seen moving up over newly won ground near Moeuvres on 28 September 1918. A light railway lies in ruins on the right. Q 9340.

BATTLE OF PILCKEM RIDGE

When the conditions became impossible for wheeled transport, pack mules were used extensively on the Western Front and other theatres such as the Salonika campaign. In this case, shell-carrying pack mules are moving forward through the mud near Ypres on 1 August 1917 to support the Battle of Pilckem Ridge.