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Swiss soldiers in Eastern Europe – escorting freight trains between 1919 and 1920

Would you like to know more about the Swiss freight trains that travelled to and from Eastern Europe in 1919 and 1920? We have scanned in our heaviest book for you to browse through online and experience the Swiss soldiers' travels to Warsaw and Bucharest.

22.10.2018 | Christine Rohr-Jörg

Swiss soldiers posing with a train traveling to Warsaw, Junei 1919.  (From «Erinnerungen an den Weltkrieg und seine Folgen, 1914-1922»)
Freight train to Warsaw in June 1919.

After World War I, trade routes to Eastern Europe continued to be unsafe and the political situation remained fragile. How were exporters to meet the demand for Swiss products in Poland, Romania or Serbia? A solution was found in the provision of military escorts for freight trains. These trains made it possible for Swiss trading companies and larger private businesses to securely and collectively transport their goods to Warsaw, Bucharest and Belgrade. Thanks to the BiG's restoration and digitising efforts, you can now delve into this little-known chapter of Swiss history.

 

The BiG's heaviest book: 'Erinnerungen an den Weltkrieg und seine Folgen, 1914-1922 ('Memories of the World War and its effects, 1914-1922', in German only). Pictured left is a deformed and damaged book; pictured right is the book in its restored state.
The BiG's heaviest book: 'Erinnerungen an den Weltkrieg und seine Folgen, 1914-1922' ('Memories of the World War and its effects, 1914-1922'; in German only). Condition before and after restoration.

The freight trains were 40-70 wagons long, were guarded by 20-50 armed Swiss soldiers and would travel for 1-5 months at a time. Soldiers were forbidden from publishing any information on their travels without previous authorisation, or from doing business while on these trips. In exchange, they received considerable extra pay. Merchants would also travel along on board these trains, so that they could be present to sell their wares at their destination. They would export goods such as condensed milk, chocolate, machine parts, glass, china, agricultural machinery and textiles. In 1919 and 1920, more than 25 such freight trains departed from Switzerland to Eastern Europe, carrying goods worth approximately 250 million Swiss francs at the time.

 

From the diary of Werner Kläy: Swiss soldiers posing in front of the fourth freight train to Bucharest, July/August 1919. This train was comprised of 75 railway wagons, was guarded by 35 soldiers, and according to Mr Kläy was transporting goods worth around 25 million Swiss francs at the time.
From the diary of Werner Kläy: Swiss soldiers posing in front of the fourth freight train to Bucharest, July/August 1919. This train was comprised of 75 railway wagons, was guarded by 35 soldiers, and according to Mr Kläy was transporting goods worth around 25 million Swiss francs at the time.

 

As it turned out, having guards present on these freight trains was indeed indispensable. Werner Kläy was aboard the fourth Swiss freight train to Bucharest in 1919 when it was attacked by bandits. In his diary, Mr Kläy further talks of war-ravaged landscapes and impoverished populations – but also of his experiences out on the town in Bucharest, and even his visit to the Romanian royal court. These railway travels were certainly adventurous ones. When one day the freight train ran out of coal, the guards stopped the next oncoming train and seized its coal – under threat of armed force. When the Bosnian railwaymen who had been robbed tried to report the incident to the Serbian government, the Swiss commander was quick to apologise and, according to Mr Kläy, explained that the Swiss team had simply failed to adapt to local customs. The commander further stated that Swiss railway workers were accustomed to this kind of treatment, and that commanding two men carrying loaded revolvers to board a train was common practice – otherwise, they would not be able to drive at all. According to Mr Kläy, several bars of chocolate and a few cigarettes were all it took to resolve the matter.

That these kinds of 'kickbacks' were often used to facilitate the journey onwards – or that they were necessary to make the trip possible in the first place – is mentioned in several reports. It contributed to the escorted freight trains being criticised on various occasions, and the soldiers on board being accused of smuggling and privately trafficking goods. The economic benefits of freight trains to Eastern Europe was also called into question, as hardly any goods were brought back to Switzerland on the return trips.

With transport safety gradually increasing, military escorts were replaced with civilian guard details for freight trains to Poland by the end of 1919, and to Serbia and Romania by October 1920.

There are many more interesting facts for you to learn about Switzerland's freight trains to Eastern Europe. Keep reading to explore this fascinating part of history!

 

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