Editor’s note: September 6, 2018 marks 100 years since the first firing of the Navy railway gun used in World War I. For the 100th anniversary, Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) will highlight the weapon system through blogs, videos and photographs. To provide additional details, NHHC Historian Dr. Gregory Bereiter discusses the railway gun on display at the Washington Navy Yard, how it was used by Sailors and the impact the weapon had in winning the war in France.
By Dr. Gregory Bereiter, Histories Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command
Visitors to Admiral Willard Park in the southwestern corner of the Washington Navy Yard are often intrigued by the massive 14-inch 50-caliber gun resting there along with other imposing naval artifacts. Those who wander to the foot of the gun, still mounted on a railway carriage, discover a large plaque giving key details of the gun’s origin, use, and service on the Western front in France during World War I.
Although plaques and other informational displays are helpful, they convey only a modest amount of information about an artifact’s historical significance and value. The massive gun on display in Willard Park played an important part in perhaps the least known contribution of the U.S. Navy to the Allies’ victory in World War I. While the Navy defended the sea lanes of the Atlantic Ocean against German U-boats and provided vital logistical support to the Allied armed forces, it also deployed five railway batteries to France in the summer of 1918.
The battery units, led by Rear Admiral Charles P. Plunkett and manned by some 25 officers and 500 enlisted men, bombarded sites deep behind enemy lines in northern France with evident efficiency. Sailors fired their giant 14-inch 50-caliber guns, which had a maximum range of 42,000 yards and were borne on special railway mounts, chiefly at German railway yards and freight centers after—not before—Allied infantry attacks had begun, hitting the positions when they were most crowded with reserves and ammunition cars being rushed up to support front-line troops. A direct hit from the 1400-pound shells could devastate a railroad line of three tracks for a distance of over 100 feet, destroying the rails, smashing the ties to pieces and blowing a crater in the roadbed.
The last shot from the U.S. naval railway guns was fired by Battery No. 4 from its position at Charny on the morning of November 11th, 1918, just minutes before the armistice that ended the war took effect. Twelve days later, as the battery units prepared to depart France to return to the United States, Rear Admiral Plunkett addressed the assembled men, telling them, “I feel with you and know that you feel that every minute and every hour which you have given to the naval railway batteries has been given in the best possible way for the defense of your country, and, with that in your minds, you can go back and face any community at any time and they can only take off their hats to you.” The men of the U.S. naval railway batteries, together with their fellow Sailors at sea, contributed to the Allied advance to ultimate victory over Germany in the terrible conflict that is still often remembered as the Great War.
To learn more about the railway gun, we invite you to watch the video below. If you would like to learn more about the role of the Navy in WWI, click here.