English Railway Artillery



The beginning of the end is approaching. Wars cannot be carried on without railways, and the railway is emphatically the offspring and tool of civilisation — not to be maintained without civilisation. It is a weapon of defence and not of attack, and is easily rendered useless to an invading enemy.

But as yet it has only been used as a tool, and not as a weapon. Only one has yet been constructed specially— viz., the one at Balaklava; and, according to all accounts, it was a very inferior piece of construction — what is called “contractor’s way.” But this railway was merely a means of transit — not a tool of fighting. It was protected from attack — was, in short, a camp-fitting one, but never half turned to its fitting uses. Let us consider how far a railway might be applied as a means of coast defences — cheap coast defences, dispensing with artillery horses and detached forts and batteries.

As we very fortunately live in an island with water enclosing us, as a hedge does a farm, keeping out intruders, and enabling us to perform our own work without hindrance, it follows that all invasion must be by water. Supposing that some modern Van Tromp under French orders should sweep the Channel to land soldiers on our shores, what then would be our best course of defence?

I am merely arguing this as a supposition, precisely as Prince Joinville did. It is agreed that artillery, and that, heavy artillery, is the most formidable implement of modern warfare; but it has the disadvantage of requiring many horses to draw it, liable to be impeded by wounds, and the further disadvantage of being liable to flanking attacks of cavalry, whose greater speed prevents it from retreating.

Therefore the problem to solve is, how to dispense with horses, and to increase its speed for advance or retreat so that no cavalry may overtake it.

There is a simple mode of accomplishing this. Put the artillery upon our true lines of defence, our rails, and draw or propel it by locomotive engines. Mount a gun of twenty tons weight on a railway truck, with a circular traversing platform, and capable of throwing a shot or shell weighing one hundred to one hundred and a-half a distance of five miles.

A truck on eight wheels would carry this very easily, and there would be no recoil. A battery of ten guns of this kind would weigh about 300 tons, and could be easily worked at thirty to forty miles per hour. There would be no horses to take fright or to be killed, and no cavalry could approach it, and no artillery not drawn on rails could reach it.

This would practically be a moving fortress, carrying with it munitions for the guns and provisions for the men. And it could move out of its own smoke to secure a constant clear atmosphere. It will be therefore conceded that, to compete upon equal terms, an invading army must either land with rails ready to lay down and similar artillery, or it must get possession of those existing in the country. The latter condition could scarcely be compatible with common sense on the part of the invaded; the former would entail insuperable difficulties on the invaders.

But, it may be argued, rails do not extend everywhere, and the enemy would take the opportunity of landing at the points where rails do not reach. Quite true. But let us look at the railway map.

We find there that the railways radiate from London to that piece of salt water we still call the English Channel, as follows, London being the centre which in all cases the enemy would seek to possess, at all events for the purpose of plunder: The Great Western extends from London to Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth, and Falmouth; the South Western extends from Exeter to Southampton, Dorchester, and Bridport, with only one short link wanting; the Brighton, from London to the south coast; the South Eastern, from London to Folkestone and Dover; so concluding the radius south and west of the Thames.

The northern bank of the Thames is closed from entrance by the North Kent and its continuations to Margate. Another South Eastern line extends from Dover to Reigate, Guildford, and Reading. Then the coast-line extends again from Dover to Hythe, Rye, Hastings, Portsmouth, and continues to Dorchester, where a slip needs filling in up to Exeter, and thence the continuation goes on to the Land’s End.

North of the Thames the lines extend from London to Tilbury, to Ipswich, Colchester, Yarmouth, Preston, Grimsby, Hull, Scarborough, and Whitby, and so on, with an interruption between Whitby and Stockton, but which has a rear line in compensation, and so on with a continuous coast line to the Frith of Forth.

Now, all these coast railways, put to their proper uses, are really lines of defence, backed with second and third lines, and then on to a network, eclipsing any Torres Vedras on record; and, having moving batteries on their lines carrying shot and shell farther than an enemy could reach, and unapproachable by cavalry, would be the cheapest of all possible fortresses —absolutely a continuous fortress along the whole coast.

They would be to the land what the war-ship is to the sea. We have hitherto regarded the rail merely as a vehicle of transport to carry materials which are not to be set to work till off the rails. If we look at the rail as part of an instrument of warfare, we shall be startled at the enormous means we have at hand instantly available from mercantile purposes to convert to engines of war, and, what is more, at the economy of defence, immediately reconvertible to purposes of peace.

We absolutely need nothing but to construct gun-carriages for our rails, and, lo! our steam-horses are ready at hand, and our steam-carriages ready to transport our troops whithersoever we will. We have the vantage ground against all Europe combined, if we only use our existing appliances. We ourselves could not invade Europe, unless by consent of some of the nations of Europe to get a foothold; and neither could any or all the nations of Europe invade us, except by our own consent.

Steam may have “bridged the Channel,” but until a railway bridge can be constructed on the narrow sea, no batteries brought by sea can compete with our own at the water’s edge. England will be literally walled about with iron when we shall have constructed our moving iron fortresses.

It would be desirable to make a strategical survey of all our coast lines, with a view to fill in all intervals, and for this purpose the connecting highways ought to be effectively applied.

To make continuous batteries along the whole coast would be a costly affair, besides interfering, in many ways, with the operations of peace. Now, although for the most part we need special harbours and landing-places for the contingencies of bad weather, yet in fine weather the whole of our harbours are landing-places, and especially with off-shore winds.

A railway, in the ordinary sense, requires to be made in a costly manner, the ground levelled, and with all sorts of preparations for passengers and goods. But if we could make a railway at a cheap rate along the coast we might have moving-batteries, and dispense altogether with ”towers along the steep.”

The first element therefore is, if possible, to follow the surface of the ground, and thus dispense with earth-works, unless in very steep places. The usual gradients on ordinary turnpike-roads are about one in twenty, and many coast-roads run very near the shore or the edge of the cliff. Where such roads exist, they can be applied to railway purposes by simply sinking the rails to the level of the road surface, in such a mode that the ordinary uses would not be interfered with. Where the roads do not lie in the right direction, of course new roads must be opened.

Assuming the gradient to be one in twenty, a locomotive-engine on four low driving-wheels, and weighing, with full load of fuel and water, only fourteen tons, would be competent to draw behind it, or propel before it, eighteen tons of load, at a speed of twenty miles per hour. A truck on four wheels, weighing six tons, could carry on a railway platform a long gun weighing five tons, and throwing a 50-pound shot four miles. A second truck could be walled round with sheet iron to shelter the gunners, and weighing, say three tons, with four tons of ammunition; or instead of a single gun of five tons, five guns weighing one ton each might be applied.

Supposing the gradient to be one in forty, the same engine could take a battery weighing forty-six tons at the same speed, and with a gradient of one in eighty a battery weighing ninety tons.

Therefore, ten locomotives, worth probably 15002. each, would be the moving power for a battery of ten 50-pounders, up a gradient of one in twenty, at a speed of twenty miles per hour, or a battery of fifty 50-pounders up a gradient of one in eighty, at twenty miles per hour.

Horses would be entirely dispensed with, and the speed of movement doubled, with an expenditure of coal about one-tenth the value of oats and hay; and, moreover, coal being only required when in use, and not constantly, as in the case of oats and hay. The engines will cost 15,000 l., but one moving battery would be equivalent to at least ten such batteries placed in “towers along the steep,” or any number of batteries moved by horses.

Supposing no land to buy, the roods could be laid out at a cost of about 1400 /. per mile, and the roads could be used for passenger purposes; thus keeping the engines in order, with a probable profit to the government. At intervals, when covering a landing-place, earthen banks could be thrown up for shelter, and militia-artillerymen might thus be enabled to practice conveniently at objects at sea.

Supposing an enemy to land, batteries travelling at twenty miles per hour would be a serious annoyance, the more especially as he could not bring any equivalent to bear, and could not go in pursuit, unless he disembarked engines first, and railways of the same gauge, a process very simple when going to a friendly country, but very difficult when amongst enemies.

I have proposed this arrangement for coastroads, but there is no reason why rails should not be laid on inland roads as well, being applicable to the two purposes of artillery and public roads, enabling the government to keep up a stock of engines at little cost.
But with these roads communicating with the railroads, the whole railway system becomes applicable to military purposes.

The essential thing is, that the guns, instead of being mounted on the ordinary carriages worked by horses, should be mounted on rail-carriages. The advantages would be very great in the absence of horses and all the difficulties attending them. The advantages of the rails would be wholly with the invaded and against the invaders; for every engine being withdrawn, they would perforce have to march slowly by highway, while the defenders would have the rail wherewith to accumulate any number of troops; and as the rails connect the highways at various points, it would be impossible to avoid being destroyed; unless we are to suppose that the command of the Channel would give them an unlimited means of disembarking engines and rail artillery.

It seems, therefore, that the railway system is so especially adapted for defence, and so little adapted to invaders, that it should become at once a matter of experiment how best to adapt Armstrong or other guns to its uses. The process of fitting the engines with shot-proof walls to protect the drivers against riflemen would be very easy, and the steam power might very well be adapted to throwing showers of shot in case of a charge of cavalry or infantry. Nothing but artillery could damage the engines or moving batteries, and artillery could not get near them if it were desirable to keep out of the way.

It has been stated in former papers, that guns far heavier than have yet been constructed are essential to give long range and prevent recoil. These conditions render the transit of the gun in the ordinary mode a matter of increased difficulty. And of all wheel carriages used at speed, the guncarriage is the worst provided for velocity. It has no springs. Bad enough this for a gun weighing fifteen hundredweight or a ton, but rendering quite impracticable a five-ton gun.

Therefore, the railways, in giving a far better road with fewer obstacles, materially facilitate transit by the use of springs, and would do so still more if really efficient springs were used. And on the rail, weight becomes much less a difficulty. As the guns must be of great length as well as weight, in order to do their work efficiently, they could not well be used at right angles to the rail, but could be used to throw shot over the quarter or over the bow, that is, diagonally to the truck frame. Breech loaders of course, and rifled, if the rifling should on fuller experience turn out to be an advantage.

Meanwhile, it would be well to try the following experiment: Load the rifled cannon with spherical as well as elongated shot, and see whether the same effect is produced, and then try the same experiment with a smooth bore of the same diameter. Ascertain how much of the result is in both cases due to the prevention of windage, and the diminution of resisting surface.

With these batteries any number of carriages can be carried bearing riflemen or sharpshooters. The whole of the banks may be earthworks to shelter the men from skirmishers; and all elevated spots along the line can be outlooks communicating by telegraph. We talk of hedges and ditches to protect riflemen, but no hedges or ditches could be so effective as the railway cuttings and embankments, and with forts — instead of fixed towers — travelling at flying speed, with a very small proportion of intelligent men doing all the work.

The great economy of this system is worthy of remark. One gun transportable would do the work of ten which are fixtures in forts; and there would be no men to take prisoners, for no forts would be captured. Instead of a gun with field-tackle and horses, there would only be a gun with rail-tackle and without horses; the steam power being at work earning money till wanted for war purposes, wherefore the actual cost of guns would be diminished.

On the new lines of coast road for steep inclines and for rails on highways, new locomotives would be required; but these are precisely the conditions required for new railways; and every railway official and servant would be an intuitive rail militia-man. The more this system is thought of, the more the conviction will grow that it is the simplest mode of rendering the country impenetrable to invaders at a comparatively trifling cost; for facility of transit is equivalent to the multiplication of men; and every line of rail would be a pitfall to the foe and a protection to the defender.

And what is very rare in warfare, there is no sinking of capital in an investment without return. Every rail laid down and every locomotive constructed may be used as an implement of reproduction. The reputation of such a system of defence once established, there would be an end at once and for ever of irritating innuendos and annoying anxiety, and we could afford to send our ships out of the channel on an emergency.

In war he who has the greatest facility of movement and the greatest facility for transporting huge guns must be the conqueror. And supposing in case of accident that a battery became immoveable on the line, and were attacked, cavalry or infantry could do nothing but be destroyed by musketry from behind iron walls. Supposing a battery to be taken by the invaders owing to mismanagement, it could only retreat where it could be followed along the line of rails, for the numerous batteries would otherwise destroy it. The invaders would not be suffered to turn it to account.

What is wanted then is:

First—To construct a pattern piece of ordnance of the largest weight and longest range adapted for moving on its own carriage on ordinary railways.

Secondly—To lay down a simple railway on a common highway, forming a connecting link with ordinary lines.

Thirdly—To form a short coast line of steep gradients as a pattern.

Fourthly—To construct a locomotive to work on such a gradient with the longest practicable gun.

Fifthly—To commence with a small corps of men—say the Coast Guard—to practise the new system.

Sixthly—To form the whole of the railway men into a body of railway artillerymen.

Seventhly—To work the new lines on highways as ordinary passenger lines, to keep up transit over them, and keep the working stock in order at little cost.

This is precisely the kind of arrangement that could never grow into an instrument of tyranny in England, for the maintenance of the rails would depend upon the will of the general community. Every man would look upon them as his own property and safeguard; the trippers up of intruders. Our great advantage in the Crimean war was the facility of converting the appliances of ordinary industry to war uses.

This system of railway defence would open up a larger source of war application without any waste whatever. And no one could accuse us of making any preparations for invading the territories of others. The war in Italy has shown the value of railways, though they were only used for transit, and not for actual fighting. If ever Italy becomes free, a defensive system of railways would be her safeguard against all invasion. The Alps would make her a practical island. How to make defences not convertible into offences is, in the present condition of the world, a most important study.

The Channel being our practical “break of gauge,” the enemy cannot approach us. In whatever country a “break of gauge” can be accomplished by a mountain range, a similar advantage will be obtained.

The proverb says, “threatened folks live long,” but it is an unpleasant condition of existence. The impossibility of executing the threat once demonstrated, a better condition of health will be indicated by laughing faces smoothing the wrinkles from the brow.

Author: W. Bridges Adams.


About libros19blog

Central Florida
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