Normally, in the United States, World War I is one of what I will call our forgotten wars. Everyone seems to remember the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War II and the Vietnam War; and, of course, the current conflicts in which my country is involved. But World War I is in the same category as the Barbary Wars, the War of 1812, the Mexican–American War, the various conflicts with Native Americans, the Spanish–American War, and the Korean War – forgotten by most Americans.
I said normally. Recent years mark both the bicentennial of the War of 1812 (the United States’ part in the Napoleonic Wars) and the centennial of World War I. Because of these anniversaries, and because I have children in middle and high school, I know these tragic conflicts are receiving more attention than usual.
With regard to Americans’ attitudes about World War I, I must pause to take into account European and Middle Eastern sensibilities. How can a war that killed tens of millions, led to the total collapse of two countries (Austria– Hungary and the Ottoman Empire), and brought Communism into control in Russia, among other important results, not be in the foreground of national consciousness in the United States? I will suggest several reasons. First, the United States’ national existence was never in any way threatened by this war. In an age before nuclear weapons, my country could have stayed out of the conflict with no danger to the nation. Second, when the United States joined the conflict on the Entente side, largely out of sympathy to our close national friend, the United Kingdom, we entered late, got troops to Europe very late, and suffered relatively few casualties.
This lack of concern and knowledge is unfortunate, in my view, as World War I was one of two wars of the last century that changed everything.1 It also sowed the seeds of recent and present conflicts by creating artificial states, often from the ruins of Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) and Austria–Hungary, with Yugoslavia, Iraq and Syria being recent, and explosive, examples. Other such problems threaten our future.
As I mentioned in my previous Hungarian Review article, “Black Land”, I write non-fiction about America’s railroads, in addition to poetry. In recent years, this line of work has produced two books focused on the railroad-subject photography of O. Winston Link and Jack Delano, as well as a number of articles.2 Like many interested in the history of railroading, I collect railroad-related artefacts.
Due to my family connection, on my father’s side, with Austria–Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia and Hungary, I have long had an interest in the railroads of Austria–Hungary and its successor states. Much to my regret, I speak and read only English.3 It might be difficult to imagine, if you speak Hungarian and/ or German, how little is available in English about the history of railroading in Austria–Hungary. Sources about these railroads tend to be divided into works in Hungarian about the railways of Hungary, and in German about the railways of Austria. I have not been able to find a comprehensive history of the railways of Austria in English.4 A general history of the railroads of Hungary in English exists, but it is out-of-date, brief, and not footnoted/endnoted.5
As you can imagine, given my interests, my collection includes a number of railroad- subject photographs. About ten years ago, I discovered a web-based, Hungarian auction house, Darabanth, that sometimes offers Austrian and Hungarian railroad-subject photographs, lists at least some lot information in English, and (unlike many auction houses in the United Kingdom, for example), accepts credit cards and PayPal.6 I began to purchase occasional photos from Darabanth, mostly carte de visite or cabinet card photos of Hungarian railway workers.
Several years ago, a close colleague in writing about American photography, Jeff Brouws, co-authored a book focusing on vernacular photos of American railroading: “found” photos that he had purchased at flea markets, railroad shows, junk and thrift shops, antique stores, and the like.7 As is often the case in our relationship, Jeff, who is exceedingly creative, pointed the way and I followed. In my case, Jeff’s book led me to wonder if, particularly during the centennial of World War I, I could do something similar with my small collection of found photos of Hungarian railway workers.
It was clear to me that, at the rate I was able to acquire photos such as this, I might never have enough for a book, and certainly would not be able to collect that many images before the end of the war centennial in 2018.8 Instead, I wrote a short article showcasing these photos for the journal Railroad History, which often publishes my work.9
It would not be suitable to simply republish this article in Hungarian Review, because in it I had to explain the history of Hungary and Austria–Hungary from about 1840 to the present day for American subscribers to Railroad History, things that readers of Hungarian Review already know too well. Instead, what I will do here is look briefly at Hungarian railways and the status of Hungarian railway workers; and then review the small portfolio of photographs presented in this article.
Clearly, the connection between the major events of the 19th and early 20th century and the history of the Hungarian railway system is strong. To recap the history, railway development in Hungary began in 1828 with a test of a “rope-suspended railway powered by horses”.10 The first regularly operated railway in Hungary, opened in 1840, connected Pozsony (now Bratislava, Slovakia) with Szentgyörgy (Svätý Jur, Slovakia). The first steam-operated railway in Hungary was a line running northward from Budapest toward Vienna, which opened in 1846.
After the revolution of 1848, the Austrian government assumed ownership of the main railroad in Hungary at the time, the Hungarian Central. It was then renamed the South-Eastern State Railway. The Austrian government soon changed policy and sold many of its railways, including the South-Eastern.11 Railroad development in Hungary continued throughout the 1850s, 1860s, 1870s and 1880s.
After the agreement creating Austria–Hungary in 1867, the new Hungarian government believed that the state should control vital assets such as the railway system.12 Therefore, the Magyar Királyi Államvasutak (Royal Hungarian Railways, now the Magyar Államvasutak, MÁV) was founded in 1869 to operate Hungarian government railways.13 One of its most important early achievements was completion of a line to Hungary’s only port city, Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia) on the Adriatic in 1874.14
The MÁV continued to expand rapidly from 1880 until World War I began in 1914. In the years just before the war, most of the expansion was devoted to the construction of rural branch lines. The system that evolved was basically a gigantic hub-and-spoke network, with Budapest serving as its centre. On the eve of World War I, the MÁV was one of the largest railway systems of Europe. Ironically, Hungarian railways reached their greatest extent in 1914, the year the war broke out. In that year, the Hungarian railways had 13,960 route-miles, with 11,840 of those being in the MÁV system.15
But then came the war, and the collapse and defeat of Austria–Hungary in 1918. After the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, the Hungarian railway system’s route mileage dropped to 5,830 route-miles.16
Working for one of the largest railway systems in Europe was the world that the men in the pre-World War I photographs shown here inhabited. As railway workers, these men were highly respected members of their communities. In this, their standing was similar to the community status enjoyed by railroad workers in the United States, and this sense of gravitas shows in the features of the men depicted in these historical portraits.
Consider, first, the three photographs of Hungarian railway officers. The first, the only photo of these with an attributable date (circa 1880), taken in Budapest, shows a middle-aged man with a well-kept moustache. The photo carries continuity with the present, as the familiar winged wheel of the MÁV appears on his uniform cap. This symbol also carries history, as the cap symbol is crowned, showing it is from the Magyar Királyi Államvasutak. As in all of these photos, an air of responsibility and community standing shows in the man’s features.
The second photo shows a man who seems slightly older, in an undated photo taken in Brassó (now Brasov, Romania). The man’s expression seems to show even more authority and, like the official taken in Budapest, he sports a well-cared-for moustache. This photo carries the weight of history as well, as it was taken in a then-Hungarian city that is now part of Romania; so this man probably worked on MÁV railway lines lost to the system almost a century ago.
The final image in this group is a photo of a Hungarian railway official taken in Győr. This much younger man is almost clean-shaven; he wears a uniform cap somewhat similar to the cap the man in our first photo wears, again crowned by the symbol of the Magyar Királyi Államvasutak. This young man carries a bit less gravitas in his expression than the two older men, but he still conveys a definite look of authority.
I am including one photo here that is probably not Hungarian in derivation, “Railway officer”, taken by W. Engel, Wien, no date. Being a photo of a railway officer, it belongs with this group. Based upon an examination of the photo, this is probably an earlier image and, partially due to its historical value, I include it here. This early image of a railway officer probably depicts an employee of the Austrian railways. Note that, just as with the Hungarian railway workers, and as would be the case with an American railway worker of this period, this man also carries an air of authority.17
With regard to American railroad workers, specifically in this case about conductors (guards in European parlance), Richard Reinhardt outlined this sense of authority well, in a seminal book about railway work, Workin’ on the Railroad:
From the very beginning of his career, he was captain of the train, elected by his fellow crewmen, a ceremonial figure, pompous and grandiose, whose magnificence put the most dignified passengers in the shade. […]
Still, the Master of Transportation sat aloof on his perch. In the face of danger, discomfort and exposure, he maintained a glacial majesty of bearing that would not be shaken through the years. In time, his frock coat would give way to a long-tailed cutaway of dark blue serge, trimmed with gold buttons. His silk topper would change into a billed cap. […] But he never would become, like the airline stewardess, a servant of the passengers: he was a representative of the company, if you please, with a heavy watch chain of white gold looped across his vest and his rank spelled out in silver letters on his hat.18
As a comparison with my country, the United States, I am including a photo of Daniel Sinise, boss of a (freight) switching crew on the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad. This image is by Jack Delano and is featured in my book, The Railroad Photography of Jack Delano.19 Sinise was prominent in his community and was a respected, and well-liked, leader. The image was taken during World War II and, like all such images of railroad workers during the war I have seen, the fatigue caused by long hours of war-effort work shows in Sinise’s face. But, and as in the Hungarian and Austrian railway worker images, pride in craft, and in Sinise’s case the sense of a firm but beneficent supervisor, shows in his features.
The other group of photos includes two images of railway chief or main engineers. The first shows the only named person among our Hungarian/Austrian images, Henrik Hegewald.20 According to the information on the front and back of the image, this photo is one of our earliest images, taken in 1883. Like one of the railway officer images, this portrait carries the weight of history – it was taken in Zagreb, then in Hungary and now in Croatia. Hegewald does not wear a uniform, and what appear to be his glasses hang from a lanyard around his neck. Like the American railroad conductor of old, a ponderous watch chain is visible between his coat and vest. He has a moustache and, like the Austrian railway official, a beard, and is of a respectable, but not elderly, age. His eyes look out, alert and direct, probably to a point the photographer indicated when posing the image. Hegewald’s mouth is firm. One gets the sense, from the image, of a man of authority who was not too severe with his subordinates.
The latter image of this type, taken twenty years later, in 1903, is the only one of these images marked or embossed with an official seal. It is the certificate of identity for an (unfortunately) unnamed MÁV chief engineer, issued by the railway and taken in Szeged. The man seems likely to be a bit older than Hegewald. He is balding, with a very prominent moustache, as well as sideburns and a beard. Styles for chief engineers had not changed in a score of years; like Hegewald, this man wears a tie, a ponderous coat and a vest. He is unadorned, with no glasses and no visible watch chain. The man in this image carries Hegewald’s authority, but seemingly in a more directive, even severe, way.
All of these images were taken before the Hungarian national disaster of World War I, defeat and Trianon. Our final image is a group image, and is in a larger format than the earlier photographs. It depicts the staff of a regional railway warehouse in Hungary, a commemorative image taken in 1929. The exact location and photographer are unknown, but the image is almost certainly of MÁV employees. Consider the changes these men had seen since the date of our last image, 1903. By this time, the world the men in the earlier photos had known – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the existence of greater Hungary – had vanished. By then, Hungary was a smaller, poorer country that was about to face the Great Depression, another disastrous war, and more than 40 years behind the Iron Curtain. Also, railways across the globe were facing new challenges – from trucks, cars, airplanes. The railroader’s pre-eminent community position was being eroded, and would soon largely disappear.
On the right, in the photo, we see two men wearing caps similar to those shown in our first and third images. We also see a man wearing an MÁV cap, third from the left in the top row. Perhaps it is our perspective, knowing in hindsight what has happened, but these men look tired (see the men at the front left, and fourth from the left in front), glum, cynical, confused.
This observer has three reactions to the history suggested by these images. First, and I paraphrase a quote I love without being able to remember the source – “lucky America, bordered by weak neighbours to the north and the south, and by fish to the east and the west!”21 Until the advent of nuclear weapons and air travel, basically no one could challenge my native country, and it is still very difficult to do. The history of the 20th century as the “American century” seems, in hindsight, inevitable.22
Second, the change in how we travelled during the 20th century was as profound as the change that took place in the 19th. In the 19th century, the men shown in these photos were empowered by their connection with the railroad, a mode of transport that liberated humankind from the limitations of foot- and horse- bound travel. In the 20th century, the railroads were overtaken by air travel, the trucking industry, and the private automobile. One wonders, as population density increases, fuel sources change, and computerised vehicles are developed, what the 21st century will hold in terms of modes of transport.
Finally, and in this observer’s view most importantly, these images of a lost world reiterate an important life lesson: what appear to be certainties are often as mutable as dreams.
1 The other, of course, being World War II, which destroyed the Axis states, led to the lowering of the Iron Curtain, brought nuclear weapons into being, and, in the United States, helped sow the seeds of the later Civil Rights Movement, which eventually freed millions from segregation.
2 O. Winston Link: Life Along the Line (ABRAMS, 2012) and The Railroad Photography of Jack Delano (Indiana University Press, 2015).
3 My Hungarian grandfather, according to family legend, spoke five: Hungarian, Slovak, German, Italian and, after coming to the United States, English. The lack of proficiency in second or multiple languages in the United States is a topic worthy of attention in its own right. It is in some ways not surprising; but, given the status of Spanish as a very common first or second language in the United States, and given the multicultural history of the United States, this limitation is also, in my view, a reason both for sadness and concern.
4 In the United States, the term “railroads” is used more often than “railways”; the latter is a word from British English.
5 Hungarian Railways, by P. M. Kalla-Bishop (David and Charles, 1973). The book is from the David and Charles “Railway Histories of the World” series.
6 Darabanth Auction House, darabanth.com.
7 Jeff Brouws and Wendy Burton, Some Vernacular Railroad Photographs (W. W. Norton & Company, 2013).
8 Americans generally consider 1918 as the year World War I ended.
9 Tony Reevy, “Images from a Lost World”, Railroad History 214 (Spring-Summer 2016), 6–9.
10 P. M. Kalla-Bishop, Hungarian Railways, 13. The other facts in this paragraph are from the same source, same page.
11 Ibid., 26.
12 Ibid., 75.
13 Ibid., 66.
14 Ibid., 69.
15 Ibid., 79. This British book gives such figures in miles – as would a book written in the US. One kilometre is about 0.6 of a mile.
16 Ibid., 80–81.
17 The history of the Austrian railway system is similar to that of the Hungarian railway system, particularly in terms of the losses of mileage experienced by the system as a result of Austria– Hungary’s defeat in World War I. Sources about the Austrian railways, plentiful in German, are very limited in English. A general work in English awaits an author or a translator.
18 Richard Reinhardt, editor, Workin’ on the Railroad: Reminiscences from the Age of Steam (Weathervane Books, 1970, 281–282). In the United States, the conductor (the highest ranking guard on the train, in British parlance), held authority over the train. American trains of the period generally had crews of five: an engineer (driver in British English), fireman, conductor, head-end brakeman and flagman (or rear-end brakeman) (conductors and brakemen in British parlance are guards).
19 Delano (1914–1997) immigrated to the United States from what is now Ukraine in 1923, the same year my father, who is of Hungarian, Slovak, and Polish ethnicity, immigrated to the US from what is now Slovakia. Delano is one of the great Farm Security Administration-Office of War Information photographers who depicted the United States during the Great Depression and World War II.
20 I use the ordering of names used in English throughout this article, except in the captions for the historical photographs depicted here.
21 Web research shows this is a quote attributed to Otto von Bismarck.
22 This famous phrase was coined by American magazine mogul Henry Luce.