From track to trench: the Somme and the railway

The rapid development of the railway in Britain and on the Western front that took place during and after the 1916 Somme offensive, was key to the Allies’ ultimate military success.

Great Western Railway war recruits, Paddington station, 1916
Great Western Railway war recruits, Paddington station, 1916

Prior to the Somme, the war effort on the Western front depended on unreliable motor transport: inadequate roads and poor weather meant that trucks were delayed delivering the 20,000 tonnes of supplies needed for the Somme frontline.

The resulting shortages – including of ammunition – severely hampered the chance of Allied success during the early stages of the Somme.

Under pressure to address these failings, military and political leaders began to recognise the strategic importance of the railway: the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, appointed a senior railwayman, Eric Geddes, to address the situation. Geddes set about changing the way transport supported the armed forces and by 1917, over 2,000 miles of new rail track had been laid on the Western front.

The new rail network revolutionised military operations, the transportation of supplies and artillery to the trenches.


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