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The Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne derailment of December 12, 1917 was a railway accident that occurred involving a train carrying at least 1,000 French soldiers on their way back from the Italian front. The derailment occurred as the train descended the Maurienne valley rail line and caused a catastrophic crash and fire in which approximately 700 died. As a result, it is France's deadliest rail accident. The accident occurred on the Culoz–Modane railway line, part of the Fréjus Railway.
During World War I there was a shortage of locomotives able to run in the area, so the decision was made to couple two trains, consisting of nineteen coaches carrying the troops, to a single 4-6-0 engine. Of those coaches, only the first three had air brakes, the remaining coaches had only hand brakes or no brakes at all. The driver initially refused to drive the engine of such an overloaded train, which was now four times the safety limit for the engine, but he was threatened with military discipline and the train journey proceeded.
On leaving Modane, the train descended into a valley; the driver applied the brakes without effect, owing to the heavy load. After continuing with excessive speed into the valley for nearly 6.5 kilometres (4.0 mi) at speeds of up to 135 kilometres per hour (84 mph), the first coach derailed at Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, causing a pile-up that resulted in a fire. Because of the fire and impact, only 425 of some 700 troops killed could be identified.
Background of the accident
On the night of December 12 to December 13, 1917, military train 612 was returning from Italy filled with French soldiers who had spent a month helping Italian troops recapture ground lost during the October 24 Battle of Caporetto. After passing through the Mont Cenis Tunnel the train reached Modane station, where two additional cars were coupled to the train. The train was to take the French soldiers to Chambéry. There they were leave to join their families throughout France for 15 days of leave covering the year-end holidays. The train stopped at Modane for 1 hour to allow other trains to pass. Most of the officers left the train during this stop, to take the Modane-Paris express.
The train had 19 cars of Italian construction: two baggage vans at the front and rear of the train, 15 cars with bogies, and two fixed-axle cars added at Modane, giving a total length of 350 metres and total weight of 526 tonnes. By official count it was carrying 982 enlisted men. The cars were of wooden construction with metal chassis.
The train departed from Modane station at 11:15 pm. The downhill descent started normally, but from Freney onwards, a short distance from Modane, the train started going at excessive speed and its speed kept increasing. The train became uncontrollable, going at 135 km/h (84 mph) as measured by the locomotive’s speed indicator. Lacking sufficient braking for the steep downgrade of 3.3 percent, it derailed shortly before the Saint Michel de Maurienne station while going at 102 km/h (60 mph) and its cars caught fire as they telescoped into one another. The authorized speed for the section of the line was 40 km/h (25 mph).
The train was almost certainly carrying more than the officially recorded number of soldiers,[according to whom?] and was overloaded for operation on the steep grade of 3.3 percent between Modane (elevation 1040 metres) and Saint Michel de Maurienne (elevation 710 metres). It had too many cars relative to the braking power of the locomotive. Such a train should have had two locomotives. However, the second locomotive assigned to the train had been requisitioned for a munitions train by the officer in charge of dispatching. The driver (engineer), adjudant Girard, who knew the route well had refused to let the train depart on account of the risks involved, but acquiesced after being threatened with reprisals by the commanding officer for rail traffic, Captain Fayolle. The compressed-air brakes worked on only the first three cars of the train, and seven brakemen (two of whom died in the accident) had been distributed throughout the train, to set the brakes when signalled to do so by the locomotive whistle.
The first car derailed while going at 102 km/h (60 mph) where the authorized speed was 40 km/h (25 mph), and its coupler broke only 1,300 metres from Saint Michel de Maurienne station shortly after crossing the metal highway bridge at Saussaz, over the river Arc. The wooden cars smashed into one another and promptly caught fire, triggered by candles which had been lit to provide light in the Italian cars, whose electric lighting was not working. The fire was also fed by grenades and other explosives carried unauthorized by the soldiers going on leave. The fire did not burn out until the evening of the following day. The wrecked cars were also at a point where the railway line passed through a gap in the mountain terrain, leaving little room for heat from the fire to escape.
The driver (engineer) of the locomotive had been too preoccupied with his inadequate brakes to notice the absence of the cars until he reached the station at Saint Jean de Maurienne, where he finally succeeded in stopping his locomotive and its tender. Together with some Scottish soldiers waiting to depart for Modane (two British divisions had also been sent to the Italian front in October) and railway employees from both stations, he left immediately for the accident site to try to bring assistance. Their task was made difficult by the rocky terrain where the wrecked cars lay, by heat from the fires, and by the height of the piled-up wreckage. It should be noted that the station master at La Praz, seeing the train passing at a dangerous speed, had notified the station master of the next station, Saint Jean de Maurienne, who held the departure of a train full of British soldiers. He thereby prevented another catastrophe.
Both the military hospital at Saint Jean de Maurienne and the Bozon Verduraz edible pâté factory near the site of the accident were transformed into emergency assistance centers and mortuaries for victims of the accident.
More than 424 corpses were retrieved from the wreckage and officially identified. A further 135 corpses could not be identified. 37 more bodies were found along the ballast of the railway or along the right-of-way, between La Praz and the metal bridge, belonging to soldiers who had jumped off the out-of-control train, or had been thrown off as it tossed wildly. They were interred in a communal grave next to the cemetery.
Only 183 men who had been on the train reported for roll-call on the morning of December 13. More than 100 others either died in hospitals in the region, or while being transported to them during the next 15 days. Thus the number of fatalities was approximately 700.
After the accident; investigation
The accident remained a classified military secret for many years. At the time, the French military enforced silence on the French press, which reported little or nothing about the accident. The daily 'Le Figaro' devoted 21 lines to the accident on December 17, four days after the accident.
In June 1923 the Minister of Defense, André Maginot, inaugurated a monument to the victims in the cemetery of Saint Michel de Maurienne. In 1961 the remains of the victims were transferred to the national military cemetery of Lyon-La Doua. On December 12, 1998, a monument was inaugurated at the La Saussaz site, near the place of the accident.
The accident remains the greatest rail catastrophe in French history. It is also the most tragic memory of World War I (1914 – 1918) in the region.
- 'Catastrophe ferroviaire de Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne,' http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catastrophe_ferroviaire_de_Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne
- "Modane, France (1917)". Danger Ahead. Retrieved 19 February 2011.