Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, March 6, 2023

Railroads and the Great War — A Roads Classic

British Rail Yard at Poperinghe, Flanders

The First World War began and ended on rails. The 1914 mobilizations of the powers were accomplished with thousands of trains moving troops to their jump-off points. The fighting ended with the Armistice signed in Marshal Foch's private rail coach in a clearing in the Compiègne Forest. In between, the rail networks were essential for sustaining the fronts during the long period of trench warfare, and for assembling the shells, food, and stores for launching the great battles like the Somme. The Miracle of the Marne turned on Joffre's superior use of rail to re-array his forces. Creating and sustaining the trenches of the Western Front was impossible without the support of vast rail networks.  

Advanced German Supply Depot

Later, the big battles of the war would depend on transporting huge stocks of shells and reinforcements for both attackers and defenders. France's defense of Verdun, for example,  was sustained during the great 1916 assault by a light-rail line paralleling the Voie Sacrée. And when the great rollback of the Western Front occurred in 1918, the Allies staged their battles either to protect their own lines such as at Amiens and  near St. Mihiel or to attack the German network as in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which successfully closed the strategic Metz-Sedan-Mézières line. For all that is written about the tactical excellence of the German Army, it is not an exaggeration to say that the Allied leaders consistently showed a higher appreciation of the importance of railroads for their armies throughout the war.   With our Centennial point of view, this year we will be featuring material on the American participation this year. One of the greatest contributions of the still-arriving American Expeditionary Force would be a massive expansion of Allied rail capability. They would bring over 1,000 locomotives and 20,000 cars, add 1,200 km of lines and provide tens of thousands of engineers  and laborers to operate and maintain the rail network. 

American Labor Battalion Repairing a Spur

My view is that railroad's story is the most neglected important aspect of the Great War. MH


  1. Initially, troops of the 32nd Division AEF (and probably others) was put to work building railroads and warehouses in preparation for receiving more troops and materiel. Perhaps more should be said about the French having different rail gauge than the American standard locomotives.

    1.,_American_Expeditionary_Forces states there was about a 1mm difference in RR gauge between US and France in WW1 - was negligible and no change was required to accommodate US RR equipment. I with draw my comment about RR gauge.

  2. Very interesting! Have enjoyed trains all my life - from Lionel to the Big Boys

  3. Would love to read more about railroad operations for the AEF. My grandfather was a gas/diesel mechanic at Sorcy (near St. Mihiel) and was wounded near Varennesvwhile running a supply train following the Army into the Meuse-Argonne. Would love to know more about the supply side of hat big push.

    1. Try typing "AEF" + "Railroads" in the little search box on the top left.

  4. Excellent article. Here is an excellent U-Tube presentation at the National WW I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City on May 18, 2019 by Rudy Daniels entitled "The Great Railroad War: United States Railway Operations in WW I" (see: ).

    Dr. Rudy Daniels wrote an excellent book by the same title listed on Amazon books (see: ). I've gotten the book and it is a real gem of little known history of American railroad operations in the US and overseas in WW I.

    David Thompson

  5. Great article and comments! One of my favorite topics. Always wondered if WW1 and 2 just took too much man power and resources from the rail system in the US. Was it the highway system after 2 that doomed rail passenger transportation or did the US just exhaust and never replenish the system?

  6. In an article I wrote for the Minnesota Historical Society Spring 2015 issue entitled "The Mail is Coming" (see: ), I noted in large part railroads wanted to get out of the passenger train service which didn't generate the kind of money freight service provided. Combine that with the US Post Office moving away from transporting and sorting mail in Railway Post Office cars on most passenger trains and increasingly moving mail by air and truck, it eliminated the need for RPO crews on passenger trains saving labor costs.

    Hauling an RPO car and mail storage cars for the USPS represented nearly 50% of all passenger train revenue for railroads and when that manner of postal transportation came to the end, railroads shut down their passenger trains in days and solely went into the freight business in 1971.

    I noted the impact of technological change in the article: "Technological change, which had given birth to the Railway Post Office system (in 1864), also rang its death knell. Railroads wanted to get out of the uneconomical passenger train business as ridership dwindled in the 1950s due to automobile travel on the new inter-state highways. By the 1960s the Post Office Department could move mail more efficiently and effectively after the invention of the zip code (1963) and automated machines that sorted faster than any human. The mail began to be handled in large mail-distribution centers and sent to its destination by air or truck in presorted pouches or containers, with no need for RPO clerks. Mail could go long distances by air faster than by
    train and shorter distances by truck to places trains no longer traveled.

    In 1930 more than 10,000 trains had moved the mail into every city,
    town, and village in the nation. The Transportation Act of 1958, which
    granted the Interstate Commerce Commission money to bolster the
    nation’s ailing railroad passenger service, failed to achieve that goal, and mail carrying passenger trains declined rapidly. By 1965 only 190 trains carried mail, and five years later the railroads hauled almost no first-class mail. On April 30, 1971, the Post Office Department eliminated seven of the surviving RPO's. With the RPO's gone off of passenger trains, representing close to 50% of passenger train revenue, railroad companies got out of the passenger train business in days.

    David Thompson

  7. A few words about the Railway Mail Service bringing the mail by rail to dough-boys in France in World War I. I wrote on the topic for the Spring 2017 WW I Centennial issue of the Military Postal Historical Society's MPHS Bulletin.

    Long & Dennis in their book, "Mail By Rail-The History of the Postal Transportation Service" tell the WW I story of the Railway Mail Service overseas with the AEF: “In France was created, mostly by RMS personnel detailed to the AEF Postal Administration, the largest network of military RPO lines and terminals ever set up by Americans at any time. By 1918 eighteen American RPO’s and six additional closed pouch lines had been activated on the French railways; plus the new Bordeaux RMS Terminal, which received United States-bound mail from the lines and sorted 84 percent of it out to direct packages for American cities, towns, or RPO routes (pp. 210-211).”

    The Mail by Rail authors go on to tell of the network of RPO’s that ran up to, but behind the battle lines, in France in World War I“. Main-line military RPO’s were from Paris north to Boulogne (APO # 751); south to Orleans (797), Chateauroux (738) and beyond; Paris west to Le Mans (762); Le Mans to Rennes (940) , and also to Tours (717), on the Le Mans & Tours RPO., whose postmarks are most commonly found. Other lines to Bordeaux, Nancy (915), and Dijon (721), were similarly named; postmarks read “North” or “South” in lieu of train numbers, plus the letters “M.P.E.S.”…Military Postal Express Service (p. 211).”

    In addition to AEF RPO’s on French trains in World War I, which distributed and transported the mail to the troops and back home to their families, the Railway Mail Service used the Bordeaux RMS Terminal to receive, sort and distribute the mail to RPO’s in France to get mail to the troops and to gather and distribute outgoing mail from the troops to place it on ships back to the United States.

    The American Bordeaux Terminal RPO played a critical role as a mail transportation hub in serving our WW I AEF troops in France:
    “The terminal distributed up to 44,555,000 letters a month (582 tons of mail), dispatched in sealed pouches. When ships were due to sail, no hours were too long and no conditions too forbidding to prevent a speedy all-out dispatch (p. 211).”

    The Railway Mail service also set up postal detachments around the world to serve our troops during World War I. Long and Dennis writes:
    "United States postal detachments manned by RMS personnel were set up in other parts of the world- at Vera Cruiz, Mexico, and even as far away as Siberia. A leading member of that far-flung unit was the late Joseph P. Cleland, of the Omaha & Denver RPO (on the CB& Q RR), who was renowned as a three times-round-the-world traveler (p. 212)."

    On the home front, at the other end of this mail pipeline to and from the AEF in France in WW I stood the Chelsea RMS Terminal in New York City, running the length of Pier 86 at West Forty-Sixth Street. The Chelsea RMS Terminal’s task was to gather all the mail from across the U.S. going to the servicemen of the AEF in France and get it placed on ships to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Bordeaux RMS Terminal for distribution to soldiers at the front. In turn, the Chelsea RMS Terminal received all mail from the Bordeaux RMS Terminal off ships that transited the Atlantic Ocean and distributed it to post offices and RPO’s in the United States to speed the mail home to families concerned about their doughboy serving with the AEF in France.

    A number of U.S. Post office Department employees of the Railway mail service left their jobs on Railway Post Offices on passenger trains in America and volunteered for service in France to bring the mail to the troops. In July 1, 1918 the US Army took over the handling of the mail
    by troops assigned to postal duty for the AEF and started the Military Express Postal Service (MEPS). Today, the Military Postal Service still serves our troops today.

    David Thompson