Christian Wolmar: transport journalist

Christian Wolmar also has a well organized, and generous (in terms of material directly available) website.

Fire and Steam: A New History of the Railways of Britain. Atlantic Books. 2007. 364pp.

Gordon Biddle reviewed this work in the J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc., 2008, 36, (201) 54. The main thrust of Biddle's possibly over-generous review is as follows: "a relaxed style that makes for easy reading, [where] he traces railway development from the earliest times to 2007, so up to date that he bravely includes in the past tense events that at the time of writing have still to occur, thereby recording not just yesterday's history but tomorrow's as well. He treats his subject squarely in a social, economic and political context, and his account of the 1840s Railway Mania is particularly penetrating, while he is at his best in a perceptive analysis of the period from the 1923 Grouping to the present day which occupies nearly a quarter of the book. As the author says in his introduction, a work of this magnitude has to be a myriad of judgments between information between information overload and conciseness, an inevitability on which he has to be congratulated for handling with considerable skill. Refreshingly, he has wisely said very little about locomotives and mechanical engineering, topics that have more than enough being written about them elsewhere. On the other hand – and sadly – there is nothing about the dramatic impact made on this country by the railway's infrastructure; an impact still continuing to be made by HS1. A book like this can only be based on secondary sources, most of which are referenced in copious notes which also include additional information and comments. Regrettably there are too many easily avoidable slips, fortunately mostly minor, suggesting haste in compilation, while a number of the illustrations are well known. The book concludes with a comprehensive review of relevant literature for further reading, together with a very adequate index."

Biddle's review led to a response from Richard Maund (J. Rly Canal Hist. Soc., 2008, 36, 111) in which Wolmar is castigated for relating the myth that Northampton "rejected" the London & Birmingham Railway and cites both traditional and electronic sources which have long refuted this persistent myth (Maund's terminology).

Wolmar is a journalist and some of the slips, such as Joshua (Josiah) Stamp are worthy of the Grauniad. E.T. Bryant's Railways: a readers' guide (1968) is now extremely out-of-date and never was "comprehensive" as asserted on page 344. Thus Biddle's claim of a "comprehensive review of relevant literature" is at the very least suspect. It is tempting to suspect (using the notes as a guide) that the book was written around a relatively narrow number of sources, rather than the many suggested by the long list of references. Biddle may find it refreshing for the book to contain little about mechanical engineering, but this sometimes leads to a lack of balance. In particular the effect of railway engineering on Crewe, Swindon, and a host of other places down to that Dunwich of railway creation, Melton Constable, is largely ignored. Certain highly political issues like the relationship between the "private locomotive builders" and the railway companies' manufacturing facilities are utterly neglected. The brief account of the terrible Harrow disaster (page 272) is characterised by some very loose writing: here it is implied that the driver of the overnight train struck a local train. The fuzziness is compounded by the statement that the local train was heading north: the tragedy was that the local train was heading south and was well-filled. Such a serious error should have been picked up by a competent publisher's reader.

There are some maps, but a few more would have greatly eased comprehension. The illustrations are mainly decorative and include the strange LMS poster of a dining car interior set against a background of the Arran hills (as viewed from the Largs branch). The surreal character of this painting are enhanced by the indications that coffee is being served, presumably after lunch or dinner.

Nevertheless, the broad brush technique can at times be very satisfying. Thus, Wolmar paints a very vivid picture of the effects of the Second World War on the railways. He covers both their magnificent and frequently heroic response to being placed in what in effect was the front line. He even makes it quite clear, whilst retaining a great econmomy in words, that the bomber offensive against Germany had a major impact on railway traffic in Norfolk. He does not fail to record that this effort was achieved whilst inflicting severe disruption to its regular customers and that this would sour post-War recovery. On the other hand the statement on page 258 that "first class was abolished in 1941" failed to be qualified by suburban.

Wolmar is, as Biddle records, at his best on recent history, especially that of the deliberately botched privatization undertaken under Wee MacGregor (who's Who's Who entry is pure Sandy MacCall Smith and who appropriately resides in railwayless, bookless Norfolk). Wolmar provides an overview of railway development, but sinisterly one which largely fails to record the significance of engineering, especially mechanical engineering; thus it must remain outside full recommendation.

Blood, iron & gold: how the railways transformed the world. London: Atlantic Books, 2009. xxv, 373pp + 16 plates (44 illus.), Bibliog, index.

This is similar in literary style to the first book, but extended to cover railways in North America, most of Europe, India and Australia. Some reviews in newspapers make the claim, which the author does not, that it is a history of world railways: rather it is a history of the development and impact of railways in certain key locations. In Continental Europe the state took a far greater involvement than it had done in Britain and this often mirrored military ambitions, notably by Prussia. Defensive involvement could hinder development. Both Spain and Russia adopted broader gauges to keep foreigners out, but this stifled development. Wolmar is highly critical of non-standard gauges and is rightly critical of the approaches adopted by Australian States, but less predictably he castigates those responsible for Irish affairs for their failure to adopt the standard gauge. Losses claimed to be incurred include a failure to develop train ferries.

As this is a book intended to be read it is natural that it is at its best when describing the heroic projects. Obviously this includes crossing the Alps, the Ghats, the Rockies and reaching into the Andes and into Africa. The Cape to Cairo project is not ignored. There are lions and angry tribesmen, but Wolmar does not quite sink into Boys Own journalism for the reader is reminded of the death toll through accident and disease. Such projects produced its heroes and villains and these are identified.

Engines of war: how wars were won and lost on the railways. London: Atlantic Books. 2020. 310pp.

At first one suspected that this book floated on the strength of the writer's previous output. It has a meagre bibliography and neglects certain key areas (notably civilian moral and the influence of terrorism), but this would be an unfair assertion as , but remarkably, appears to be completely ignored.

The central thrust of this book is to assess the former strategic use of railways in fighting wars: from the Crimean War, and the American Civil War to the First Worl War where railways played a major role. They were far less significant in the Second World War, but Wolmar argues that the Soviet Union used their system effectively to defeat the Germans who failed to appreciate the logistical difficulties they would encounter. The book is very well written and highly readable which is the art of a skilled journalist.

It has an extremely meagre bibliography (how could Wolmar fail to cite Pratt's major study of World War I?) and neglects certain key areas most notably the strategic construction of railways in the North West Frontier of British India which if no other reason would show ancient the Afghanistan problem is. Terrorism waged against railways remains an enduring threat as in London, Madrid and Moscow and during the IRA campaign. These are ignored, although the transport of millions of Jews to Hitler's death camps is mentioned.

Sandy Mullay offers an alternative assessment in Backtrack concluding his review with: "In short, I would not be happy to see this book making a bulge in my Christmas stocking".  Perhaps the Editor of Backtrack could be criticised for his choice of reviewer as sveral contributors have considerable expertise in discussing military topics..

2010-04-05

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