The train station is a central place of motion; here we can clearly notice how everyday life completely adjusted to the needs of the war. The far branched railroad network is an essential element of the First World War. Whether in the station hall, on the track or in the train there are always people: the soldier on the way to the front, the prisoner of war brought to the prison camp and the refugee in search of a new native country. The railway station is a place of interchange, a stage which everybody leaves to appear at another place.
The Station Concourse
With "wide arches, empty rooms, colourful light“ train stations are the cathedrals of the industrial age. The architecture of the illuminated halls intermingles with the grime and the noise produced by the steam trains. “Half factory, half palace” train stations combine a magnificent façade, facing the city with a purely functional aspect, and a gateway to distant lands. Tickets are sold, timetables are studied and baggage is stowed; a place of consumption, of arriving and leaving, of farewells and greetings.
With the start of the war these monumental halls are transformed An eyewitness writes in her diary: "[..] as we arrived in Frankfurt, military was everywhere. Great excitement [...], luggage was not carried anymore [...], our wagon was detached from the train, and we stood for two hours between the tracks outside Frankfurt”.
At the beginning of the war public transport is restricted. Later, all civilians are denied access to the train station. The station itself changes appearance with the progression of the war. Makeshift military hospitals or kitchens are set up. As intersections train stations are of immense strategic importance, and thus often fall prey to destruction. The demolition is not only for military reasons; it also has strong symbolic significance due to the dimensions and the importance of the train station.
Even in peacetime the platform is a place where people are in transition. Here the European progression towards the war can be seen in a nutshell: the platform is where, during the mobilisation of August 1914, soldiers are sent off to the front with both exaltation and tears. Their journey leads them from the barracks via the train station to the trenches and back again for “recreation” in the rear lines. The first war refugees arrive at the train station: displaced persons without a home, stuck between escape and return.
The transition enables new forms of contact. Ordinary soldiers, mostly labourers or farmers, encounter middle-class women of the Red Cross who take care of the wounded. The city lady and the father of a farmer’s son meet in farewell. Thus the platform is a place where not only civilians and soldiers meet, but also where the boundaries of class temporarily lose importance.
Inside the Train
Trains and the railway network are the logistic backbone of the gigantic machinery of war. Trains assume a leading role in the logistics of war due to the underdeveloped road networks and the inadequate number of trucks. In the first three weeks of war alone, railways carry about 31,900 trains and about 5.2 million soldiers to the front line. Soon the wounded and prisoners of war are being transported in the opposite direction.
The wagons themselves are transformed into elementary components of the war machine. Equipped with tanks and cannons they are used at the front. Kitchens, hospitals and “photographic art-salons” are also created in the compartments. The trains are adapted to the daily grind of war. They are transformed into workplaces, dwellings, deathbeds: into arenas of fate, large and small.