The role of railroads in wartime has been well documented. From the American Civil War to today’s conflicts around the globe, railroads remain important assets and targets. Perhaps no single type of car better signifies all of the many roles the rails have played in both war and peace than the “40 and 8.”
The 40 and 8
Built for general service on the French National Railways in the 1870s, these small wagons were still in regular service when war swept Europe in 1911. With wartime traffic placing unprecedented demands on the railroads, these cars often transported more than just supplies. Their carrying capacity of forty men or eight horses gave them the nickname “40 and 8.”
Even when compared to American cars of the same era, the 40 and 8s were small. The cars also featured a pair of fixed axles and link-and-hook couplers (buffers were added to the car ends for safety.) Built before the invention of airbrakes, a small cab for the brakeman was provided on one end of the car. Nevertheless, the cars were vital to moving supplies and troops to front lines.
Amazingly, upon returning to France again in World War II, American soldiers found the same cars still in service. Since France was already occupied upon our arrival, many of our troops’ first encounters with the cars came as German POWs. Needless to say, when being used for prisoner transport the aging cars exceeded their 40 man capacity.
After the conflict not only did these cars help in the victory, they also became an iconic symbol of it. Following the war, the people of France sent a thank you gift to the United States. Known as the “Merci Train”, it included 50 of these 40 and 8’s (one for each state and one shared by the Territory of Hawaii and Washington D.C.) loaded with 52,000 gifts.
The train arrived by ship in 1949 in New York and the cars were distributed across the country – carried for free on flatcars since they were narrow gauge. Today, 39 of the 50 survive, preserved in museums and parks across the United States. An additional car, used in POW transport, is preserved at Dayton Air Force Base.
While rail canon and armored trains may seem the icons of wartime railroading, the humble 40 and 8 is a lasting symbol of railroads’ role in both war and peace.