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. The French and Germans had a ready solution for the first part of this journey because they had recognised before the war that there would be an important role for 60cm gauge light railway systems.
These were like model train sets with light, narrow gauge sections of railway line that could be easily laid on the ground and relocated when they were needed elsewhere. They quickly established networks that led from the main supply dumps to the artillery batteries and then further forward to smaller supply dumps and refilling points from which the front lines could be served. The British, however, planned for a more mobile war and had decided to rely primarily on motor transport.
Over 1, civilian lorries and over buses were requisitioned at the outbreak of hostilities and were hurriedly moved across the Channel. The owners had been encouraged by a financial subsidy to purchase vehicles that met a War Department specification, a condition of which was that the vehicles could be requisitioned. These were only a temporary stopgap - although some vehicles such as London buses remained in service throughout the war - and thousands more vehicles were ordered from manufacturers in Britain and increasingly the USA.
In the meantime, a heavy reliance had to be placed on far less efficient horse-drawn transport. The fodder for the horses alone took up more transportation capacity than food and ammunition for the men. 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.
The inadequacy of motor transport was cruelly exposed during the Somme campaign from July onwards. The combination of heavy rainfall, inadequately built roads and the pounding caused by large numbers of heavy lorries on narrow, solid-rubber tyres caused the supply lines literally to bog down in the mud. The British artillery was to fire nearly 28 million shells during the Somme battles, but increasingly the 20, tonnes of supplies required daily to support an offensive on a front of about 12 miles could not be distributed adequately.
Belatedly the British also decided to embark upon the rapid development of light railway systems. However, they found to their consternation that the main British railway manufacturers already had a huge backlog of French orders. Only American industry could supply material in large quantities at such short notice to augment the limited British manufacturing capacity. By late construction of lines was under way, and between January and September the average tonnage conveyed weekly on light railways operated by British and Dominion forces expanded from barely 10, tonnes to more than , tonnes.
The network was to grow to some 2, miles of track. 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 A light railway lies in ruins on the right. Light railways could bridge part of the gap but also became vulnerable to enemy artillery and small arms fire as they got closer to the front.
Consequently, smaller dumps were established at road-heads from which horse and mule transport collected material. Often the final leg had to be carried out by the soldiers themselves carrying the food, water and other supplies to the front lines. This relentless challenge to maintain the flow of supplies forward from the supply dumps had to be undertaken largely at night to minimise the risk from harassing fire. By early these increasingly complex transportation networks - supported by a specially created Labour Corps which included tens of thousands of men recruited from China, Egypt, India and other Empire countries - were capable of supporting defensive lines almost indefinitely.
They also developed the capacity to support the concentration of forces and supplies sufficient to unleash a blow that could shatter the opposing lines. But even this revealed a further problem.
As the troops advanced, supplies and reinforcements had to be brought forward across the shattered landscape of the battlefield where roads and railways had been obliterated. Despite the best efforts, it took time to build new lines of communication. Only then could artillery and infantry be moved forward with adequate supplies.
This slowed the rate of advance, while the retreating troops fell back onto their supply lines and were augmented by reinforcements brought in by road and rail to stem the tide. At the end of offensive and counter-offensive the lines generally stabilised close to where they had begun. 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 to support the Battle of Pilckem Ridge.
British Artillery 1914–19
It was only in that these supply problems were sufficiently overcome to allow offensives to be sustained. So crucial was transportation that in the last months of the war, despite a shortage of front line soldiers, men with railway experience were being transferred from infantry units to railway operating companies. Ultimately the momentum of the advances from August onwards that precipitated the end of the war was able to be supported adequately.
But it was a close-run thing, with the Fourth Army operating 50 miles ahead of the only reliable railhead when the Armistice came into force. On the home front the possible impacts of a European war had been foreseen long before , and plans to put the British railways on a war footing had been prepared. On 5 August , the government took over the railways and vested control in a Railway Executive Committee, which included the managers of the biggest railway companies. The railways met the first test, of moving nearly , men and equipment in special trains to the main embarkation port of Southampton by the end of August.
In the following months the main supply links to France through the channel ports were reinforced with judicious enhancements to the network. The final link to the front line troops was normally carried out by ration parties under the cover of darkness. The railways rapidly faced several major challenges. Just as the demand for transport increased, many able-bodied men volunteered for military service.
Increasingly, the gap was filled by recruiting women to take on numerous roles that had previously been barred to them. There was also a much greater demand on the available locomotives, rolling stock and infrastructure. This became much more pressing from , when large amounts of equipment were transported across the Channel in response to appeals from the French authorities to meet chronic shortages. At the same time British industry, including major railway workshops, had been reorganised to massively increase the production of armaments. However, it was very evident that new equipment would be needed urgently and a simple, rugged freight locomotive previously designed for the Great Central Railway was selected in and engines were built.
Although the railways were heavily focussed on traffic to and from the Channel ports, they also had to respond to many other demands. One of these arose when the supply of steam coal from the Welsh mines for the Grand Fleet based at Scapa Flow was threatened by submarine attacks on coastal shipping. Coal suddenly had to be railed over miles up to the northern tip of Scotland, largely along a single track route that had never been designed for heavy freight traffic.
By the end of the war over 5 million tonnes of coal had been carried on 'Jellicoe Specials', but the congestion caused was a factor in Britain's worst ever rail disaster at Quintinshill in May where people died. Women took on many new roles in railway service previously restricted to men. Here five women are cleaning a locomotive. During the war locomotives travelled far from their usual haunts, like this Great Central Railway locomotive at Birmingham in September Road transport also experienced huge impacts from the war, starting with the sudden disappearance of requisitioned buses, lorries and horses.
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The motor vehicle manufacturing industry increased production but it was a slow process because the industry was generally small and fragmented. One of the best-prepared companies was AEC, a subsidiary of the companies operating much of London's bus, tram and underground services. It was able to expand its pre-war bus production lines and they alone produced over 10, lorries during the war. Although many other manufacturers increased their output, the large number of different lorry designs remained a major problem, especially complicating maintenance and repairs.
While the Western Front was relatively close to the major manufacturing centres of Europe, and was supported by extensive road and rail networks, the situation was very different on other fronts. The Gallipoli campaign could only be sustained by shipping supplies through the Mediterranean and using lighters and small vessels to take them ashore. There, the foothold on Turkish territory was so small that horse transport and men undertook most of the transportation forward. The Turkish forces also relied heavily on shipping across the Sea of Marmara to supply their forces.
For both sides submarine warfare and mines posed a serious threat to supply lines.
British Army during World War I
The British took increasing responsibility for operating the standard gauge railways supporting their forces. The overturned engine, ROD , is one of freight locomotives of a standard design that were shipped to France and Belgium from The Salonika campaign also relied heavily on lengthy supply lines by sea from Britain and France. As the submarine threat grew, an alternative, largely overland route was developed. Supplies from Britain were routed through the port of Cherbourg and trains then ran across France and Italy to Taranto where ships carried them across the Aegean to the small port of Itea.
A fleet of lorries provided the next link across the rugged mountains of central Greece to Bralo, where the final stage was completed by standard gauge rail to Salonika. Fighting a campaign north of Salonika, initially to support Serbia, presented many challenges that were different to the Western Front. To support a mile-long front, largely through remote mountainous terrain or along mosquito-infested river valleys, there were only a couple of existing railways and virtually no metalled roads. A single road, to Seres, supplied virtually half the British front, and collapsed rapidly under the traffic.
A huge construction and maintenance programme to improve communications was undertaken, including large numbers of civilian labourers and prisoners of war. Entire new railways were built including a light railway nearly 60 miles long to support troops in the lower reaches of the Struma River valley. However, the terrain near the front was often impassable for wheeled vehicles and so pack animals were used extensively.
Royal Artillery | National Army Museum
The drivers, of course, also looked after the horses and the management, condition and state of health of these animals was regarded as one of the most important functions in the battery. All branches of the artillery used horses, not just the RHA. By WWII, mechanisation had replaced the horse but the gun limbers, lorries and self-propelled guns all required drivers and the rank remained.