Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Rail Transportation and the Punitive Expedition (and ultimately, in World War One).

We've been recently posting a selection of items about the transportation of the Wyoming National Guard to Camp Cody, New Mexico, in 1916.  This touches on a topic that we've posted on before, but which is really emphasized by these posts.  The complete dependency on rail transportation for anything significant in the United States prior to mid 20th Century.

From our companion blog Railhead: Burlington Northern Depot, Casper Wyoming. This depot was a 1916 addition to the City of Casper, Wyoming.  You can't board a train there anymore, as we have no passenger service and haven't for decades.  But a lot of people passed through those doors and on to a train in back for decades, including a lot of soldiers from 1916 through the 1950s.

I was in the Wyoming Army National Guard, as I recently noted in another post, from 1981 through 1987.  I covered a lot of miles as a Guardsmen.  Mostly by truck and Jeep, but some by air, and of course some by foot.  I never rode a train however.

This isn't to say that the Guard never employed trains in any capacity during this time.  They did.  Heavy items like howitzers aren't easy to move long distance, so if something like that was going a really long ways, it went the first part of that way by train.  But I never boarded a train myself.  And neither did most of the Guardsmen I served with.

New York Guardsmen, in a photo we've run previously, boarding the train.  They would have entrained in New York and have detrained in Texas or New Mexico.

Guardsmen in 1916 sure did.

For that matter, so did soldiers in the Regular Army.  They had since trains first penetrated into the Frontier.  And they would at least up in to the 1950s.  In this country, as in most, if you were going a long ways, you got there by train.

Now, we think of the Punitive Expedition in the context of the horse, about which we've already written.  Some of us might also think of it in the context of the truck, it being the first American expedition featuring any sort of truck transportation, and we've written about that as well.  But everything got to the border by rail, unless it was already at the border to start with.  The expedition into Mexico was a horse powered endeavor, one way and another, but up to the border, it was steam powered.

Note the caption.  But. . . note the rail line snaking through the camp.

And things were steam powered in Mexico too, even if the American military expedition was largely conducted on horse.  We think, of course, as the Mexican revolution and everything about as a romantic event on horseback, but even with that the popular imagination of the revolution has included the train, and for good reason.

The train was the only way to cover long distances quickly. And it was the only method which didn't require the direct participation of those being moved.  I.e., if you move a long distance by horseback, you are involved directly in that very physical activity.  If you are on foot, well. . . that speaks for itself of course.  But on a train, unless you are part of the crew, this isn't true.

No wonder then, rail lines were critical to a nation's defense and for that matter to the success of an advancing force. This had been known at least as long ago as the American Civil War, during which both sides made extensive use of rail.  Indeed, when Sherman's large advancing force began it march through the South, which as a large advancing, and foraging, army it was able to do largely without rail, it made sure to deprive the South of mobility by destroying the rail lines as it progressed.  

Union forces under Sherman heating a rail line to turn it into a "Sherman Necktie", i.e., twist it into a loop and render it useless.

And during the post Civil War struggle on the Frontier, the American Army ended up depending heavily on rail, which allowed a very small force to multiple its effectiveness.  Prior to the 1870s the Army nearly always had to engage in a very long field expedition any time there was trouble on the Frontier. As rail penetrated the country, however, this was no longer true and units in, for example, the Southwest could be moved to the Northern Plains in just a few days, and put in the field.  

Indeed, so important had rail become to a country's military structure that in Germany, which perhaps had the most advanced military infrastructure of the era, the railroads were under the jurisdiction of the Army.  German mobilization was completely based on moving troops, horses and equipment by rail, and in order to make sure that could be done effectively the Army had been given authority over the railroads.

So it should come, of course as no surprise that rail lines were heavily contested for during the Mexican Revolution. All sides sought to capture, hold and use rail lines for the rapid movement of troops. Even the US did that to some extent during the Punitive Expedition.

Indeed, rail transportation itself figured in the origins of the Punitive Expedition as it was Woodrow Wilson's allowance to Carranza to transport troops across southern Texas by rail that sparked Villa's anger.  That rapid movement, across our territory, to go into action in his, was too much from his point of view.

The Mexican Revolution saw something that would likewise soon be seen in the wilder portions of Eastern Europe during World War One, the armored train.

Almost inconceivable to us today, and certainly vulnerable as it depended upon rail, armored trains nonetheless sprung up everywhere there were rail lines, but not static battle lines.  Mexico was one example, but it was far from the only one.  They also saw fairly notable use in Russia as that country descended into anarchy.

 Armored train of the Czech Legion, which fought all the way across Russia in 1917 to emerge on the Pacific Coast so that they could be sent back into action in Western Europe.

Indeed, the armored train would figure in the Russian Civil War and then go on to see use on the Eastern Front during World War Two, a fairly amazing late appearance of that item.

Morse significantly, of course, everything of every type generally moved by rail during World War One.  Unlike World War Two, when the US and Britain would pioneer truck transport, during the Great War, all the armies relied on rail for any significant moves of men and equipment.

A "40 and 8" French boxcar, the type of rail car remembered by nearly every American doughboy during the Great War.  So strong were these in the memory of the troops that France later donated examples of them to American veterans groups, such as this example that is outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming's American Legion post.

Railroads are still with us, of course, but with air travel and good road travel, they aren't what they once were.  So, while still militarily important, they aren't dominant in the way that they were in the Teens and even into the Forties.

 Casper Wyoming Burlington Northern Depot today.This is the Burlington Northern Depot in Casper.  It was built in 1916, which would place this building solidly in the era of the petroleum and livestock fueled economic boom that happened in Casper during World War One.

Burlington Northern Depot viewed from a Ford Tri Motor

In that era, however, they were vital, and made all the difference.

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