More than 500 French soldiers are killed when their train derails in Modane, France, on this day in 1917. The troops were returning from fighting in Italy. There was ample warning that the conditions were dangerous, but the French officers ignored the expert advice and insisted that the overcrowded train proceed as scheduled.
More than a 1,000 (some estimate the number to be as high as 1,200) French soldiers were trying to travel between Turin, Italy, and Lyon, France, through the Alps in southeastern France to return home in time for Christmas. However, so many coach cars were attached to a single locomotive that the engineer in charge protested and refused to leave the station. The danger was not so much that the locomotive would not be able to pull the 19 cars, but that it wouldn’t be able to stop the cars since there were no brakes on 16 of the coaches.
A French officer, anxious to get the men home for the holidays, pulled out a gun and threatened the engineer until he agreed to begin the trip. Unfortunately, the engineer’s concerns were valid: As the train came out of the Mount Cern tunnel and approached the town of Modane in France, it had to descend a steep grade. The brakes could not hold the weight of the crowded coach cars and the train went out of control down the hill. Near the bottom, the train came to a wooden bridge and shot off the rails. The coach cars piled up; as they were made mostly of wood, many caught fire immediately.
The death toll was estimated at between 500 and 800 men. The fire was so intense that it burned at least 400 of the bodies beyond recognition. Although the army attempted to cover up the details of the tragedy because it implicated French officers, the engineer–who survived–finally released the full story some 15 years later.