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The United States Naval Railway Batteries in France

Publication Number 6 

The Historical Section of the Department of the Navy published seven monographs on the U.S. Navy and World War I between 1920 and 1923. The monograph The United States Naval Railway Batteries in France was the sixth in the series and was published in 1922. This 2017 essay from NHHC historian Chris Martin provides an introduction to the monograph as part of the centennial commemoration of World War I. The text of the monograph itself along with a downloadable PDF is available in the Navy Department Library Online Reading Room.


Rather than a lengthy comprehensive history of the Navy’s actions in the Great War, the Department of the Navy chose to publish seven different histories, each highlighting a separate aspect of the Navy’s participation in the war.  Begun under Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels, the series continued until 1923 under the direction of his successor Edwin Denby. In 1922 the Navy published The United States Naval Railway Batteries in France which detailed the operations of the U.S. Navy railway batteries that operated in France from 6 September to 11 November 1918. 

Compiled and written by Lieutenant Commander Edward Breck, USNR, Publication Number 6 relies on a much wider base of sources than previous publications in the series on the U.S. Navy in World War I. Rather than narrowly focused records generated by command leadership, Publication Number 6 utilizes applicable documents from the files of the Bureau of Ordnance and secondary sources to develop a very comprehensive report. Publication Number 6 is divided into two sections, with the first providing a general overview of why and how the Naval railway batteries were created and their operations in France. Section II dives into extremely specific and often useful material on each battery, the sailors who operated them, and the effects that naval railway gunfire had on the course of World War I. However, Publication No. 6 isn’t only useful from a technical historical perspective. Of the seven publications in the series on the Navy in World War I, the construction and operation of the naval railway batteries offers perhaps the most direct lesson to officers and enlisted personnel in the 21st century U.S. Navy.  

In his Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John H. Richardson identified four core attributes necessary for the Navy to achieve victory in a world dominated by decentralized operations: integrity, accountability, initiative and toughness.[1] Publication Number 6 offers direct lessons on the value of creating a command culture that permits sailors to exhibit initiative and ingenuity to accomplish their mission. The benefits of such a command culture are vividly illustrated with concrete examples in Publication Number 6 and a series of articles written by naval battery commander Rear Admiral Charles P. Plunkett that were published in Popular Science Monthly in 1928.

The final components of each battery arrived in France on 20 July 1918, and sailors immediately encountered a problem. When they started construction, sailors were shocked to discover that the components had been shipped without any blueprints. Fortunately, sailors didn’t have to wait for naval authorities in the United States to fix this oversight. Sailors who had been detailed to Baldwin Locomotive Works and Standard Steel Car Company to assist with the inspection of the battery components had kept detailed notebooks with sketches that illustrated the key steps in the construction of the battery. Unfortunately for the Navy, this would not be the final hurdle sailors had to overcome to even get the first battery to its testing ground.

Sailors cleared the hurdle of the missing blueprints only to find that what were supposed to be boxes of rivets instead contained stove bolts (which are sometimes now referred to as machine screws). Sailors found themselves with the daunting task of constructing the 72 railway cars that would comprise the armored trains without all of the necessary fasteners to do so. According to Plunkett, “we just started out and ‘borrowed’ rivets all over France. In a few days we had rivets, of all shapes and sizes, but all based on the metric system. Our mechanics drew the large [rivets] down to size by hand.”[2] Because of this initiative, sailors completed the construction of the first battery on 11 August.[3] Unfortunately, this would not be the last of the problems with the railway batteries that Plunkett’s sailors had to solve.

After successfully constructing the first battery, sailors faced a different problem in the form of an obstinate French railroad official who attempted to block the armored train’s passage through a tunnel under Paris because some of the railway cars’ rivets, nuts, and bolts were so large they posed a hazard to the railroad fasteners. Sailors again refused to be deterred in the completion of their mission. Before the French official completed his “lengthy address,” detailing reasons the Americans should turn around and return to St. Nazaire, sailors had used an oxy-acetylene torch and cut off the offending nuts and bolts.[4] Furthermore, the bearings used on the train cars that comprised Battery Number 1 frequently overheated. According to Plunkett, “we got along only because some of our railroaders recruited from the Baldwin Works rode along hanging just clear of the roadbed, where they could feel the bearings’ pulse and feed them oil through a rubber tube made by cutting up a tourniquet tube from a first aid package. They would lie for hours in a sort of improvised rope hammock swinging over the car side, and when they got out they would be aching, stiff, and sore. You couldn’t order men to do that, but these men insisted on doing it.”[5]

Because of a command culture that clearly valued initiative and ingenuity, Battery Number 1 successfully completed testing and prepared to move to the front on 2 September 1918, less than a month after Sailors finished the battery’s construction.

Essay by Chris Martin, Naval History and Heritage Command Historian, June 2017 


[1] Admiral John H. Richardson. Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority. Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, January 2016, 5. 

[2] Rear Admiral Charles P. Plunkett. “Big Guns in France,” Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 112 No. 2, February 1928, 29. 

[3] Department of the Navy. The United States Naval Railway Batteries in France. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922, 8.

[4] Rear Admiral Charles P. Plunkett, “Big Guns in France,” p. 30.

[5] Ibid.

Published: Tue May 15 16:03:51 EDT 2018