In the weeks that followed the Allies’ victory in World War I on 11 November 1918, a U.S. Army quartermaster officer of the Services of Supply (SOS) sat down to write his portion of the after-action report. The report was neatly typed, thorough, and impressively honest. It outlined how, almost out of nothing, the Army had forged the SOS, the logistics organization that supported the 3 million Soldiers deployed “over there” to Europe as the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
Joining the Fight
In 1917, when the United States entered the war, the force structure for each infantry division included 4 infantry regiments, 3 artillery regiments, 4 machinegun battalions, an engineer regiment, a signal battalion, and a number of other supporting units for a total of 25,484 Soldiers. (Serving in these divisions, either as volunteers or draftees, were such notable men as Buster Keaton, Walter Brennan, Conrad Hilton, Ty Cobb, future Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, future President Harry Truman, boxer Gene Tunney, and future World War II leaders Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, Joseph Stillwell, George Marshall, Clifton Cates, and James Van Fleet.)
Joining the war involved intense logistics planning and execution. Just getting the units to France was a major accomplishment. German surface raider warships and U-boats were patrolling the Atlantic and had been devastating the shipping capabilities of England and France since 1914.
After arriving in France in 1917 with a small headquarters contingent, the AEF commander, General John J. Pershing, waged a continuous struggle against his French, British, and Italian counterparts who wanted to use the U.S. “doughboys” as replacements in their decimated armies. Mindful of the terrible casualty rates of the European allies in their trench warfare, Pershing insisted that the U.S. Soldiers would serve and fight as an independent American force.
The constant negotiation with the British for shipping space led Pershing to compromise to the degree that he later assigned some doughboys to train and serve with the British Army, but always as complete infantry brigades. The urgency of getting troops to France and into the combat zone increased when Russia, undergoing the Communist Revolution, dropped out of the war, thereby freeing many German divisions to join their comrades in France and fight on the Western Front in the spring of 1918.
During the peak days of fighting for the AEF in the autumn of 1918, the SOS operated water ports, ran combat convoys, regulated rail lines, fed the force, fixed automotive and horse-drawn vehicles, maintained hospitals with 190,000 patients, and milled the lumber required to build the transient camps to house Soldiers, who were arriving from the United States at the rate of 10,000 a day. The SOS worked around the clock to provide support to 43 Army infantry divisions, a Marine Corps brigade that had been integrated directly into the Army’s 2d Infantry Division, some other separate Army units equipped mainly with French weapons, some Army units equipped partially with British weapons, and a rapidly growing Army Air Service equipped with borrowed French and British airplanes.
|Services of Supply doughboys stand
in a Luxembourg street during
the road march to Germany in 1918. After the armistice, Allied forces occupied Germany in a formal state of war until the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919.
In spite of all the great combat support and logistics feats they had accomplished, AEF logistics operations still had some dismal aspects. Early operations were plagued with shipping mistakes and confusion over cargo destination and delivery priority. Discussing the early operations, the after-action report said, “The most serious delays experienced were in the case of articles which would be classified as initial equipment, requisitions for which were submitted to G–1, Second Corps. In no case were these supplies ever received.”
The problems did not end with the AEF’s arrival in Europe. Of the Allied countries, France in particular was drained by 3 years of constant warfare, and a large portion of the country was either occupied by the German Army or devastated by the fighting in the trenches that stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland. With the largest portion of their workforce in military service, the French were struggling to provide food and shelter for their own soldiers, and although they were enthusiastic supporters of the AEF, they had little left to offer the Americans. Max Brakebill, a former Hollywood motion picture studio employee and California National Guardsman in the 144th Artillery Regiment, wrote home, “The women of France deserve a lot of credit. They work like men . . . If people in the States could see what France has put up with in the last 4 years they would know what war means.”
The line of communication (LOC), while formed with good intentions, was the subject of some embarrassing episodes. In a memorandum to General Pershing’s chief of staff dated 15 November 1917, Colonel Johnson Hagood reported—
I am informed a ship lay at one of our base ports in France for forty-two days waiting to be unloaded and costing the government in the neighborhood of ten thousand dollars a day . . . at one time ninety percent of all of the transportation of one American division had been borrowed from a French captain . . . Not only has the [LOC] failed, so far, to function properly in the supply of our own men but it has so clogged the French railway yards, storehouse and quays, in this section as to cause an official complaint to be made.
Equally embarrassing was the situation in one of the earliest units to deploy, the 42d Infantry Division, whose supplies were scattered across a 10-acre field, rendering much of it unserviceable or lost. Uniforms were in such short supply that some American Soldiers, particularly II Corps troops attached to the British Expeditionary Force, had to be issued British Army tunics complete with King’s Crown brass buttons.
Not all of the AEF’s problems concerned logistics or even the eastern side of the Atlantic. Colonel Hagood also reported on the Soldiers’ lack of basic skills
training, saying that “there were men who had been in the Army four months and had never fired a rifle, had any gas instruction, or marched a mile with a pack; that many of them had spent their time on setting up exercises, learning the customs and courtesies of the service, singing and acquiring a knowledge of the court martial procedure.”
Problems with transportation and vehicles continued to be a major concern. A brigade commander in the 26th Infantry Division reported, “With traffic cops on every corner of the training camps at home and thousands of cars and trucks in reserve, we were put to the mortification of having to borrow transportation from the British and the French to keep men from starving to death.” The 33d Infantry Division commander noted sarcastically that while the streets of Washington, D.C., were filled with Army and civilian cars, his division did not have a single vehicle capable of driving more than 20 miles without breaking down. Some motorized divisional supply-train units were among the later-deployed units so that infantry battalions would have more shipping space.
Building the SOS
Realizing that the LOC was not working, Pershing decided he needed a “take charge” type of officer to reorganize the AEF’s logistics support. Pershing handed over control to General James G. Harbord, his former chief of staff, who was serving as the commander of the 2d Infantry Division. Working on the framework of a six-infantry-division corps, with four fighting divisions and two divisions designated as base or depot divisions, Harbord set about creating the SOS to support it.
Infantry divisions arriving in France were stripped of Soldiers with backgrounds as plumbers, pipefitters, masons, carpenters, bricklayers, millwrights, wranglers, electricians, blacksmiths, and glaziers. Those Soldiers were sent to build and maintain the logistics bases. Robert Koehn, an Ohio doughboy in the 83d Infantry Division, wrote to his mother, “Working on a building for a barracks and office room . . . it is 100 ft wide and 400 ft long.” And a few months later he wrote, “Dear Mother . . . this is Sunday an[d] a day off first day for 6 weeks . . . So we all went uptown to take a bath . . . first time I been to town for 2 months . . . got a big bunch of American tools in last week . . . Seems good to get hold of them kind of tools . . . Still making windows . . . That’s all I have been doing since we came to this camp.”
Similarly, because of his previous civilian railroad experience, Charles Etzweiler, a young doughboy from Red Lion, Pennsylvania, spent the war in a railroad regulating company despite his many attempts to get a transfer to the Tank Corps.
Becoming Effective and Efficient
Harbord set the pace by frequently traveling throughout the theater. He traveled by train and, for his personal transportation, always brought with him an automobile on a flatcar. He and his staff divided the AEF sector of France into “base sections” that each had a water port, “intermediate sections” for the storage of supplies and materiel, and an “advanced section” responsible for distributing supplies and parts directly to the combat divisions. As AEF infantry divisions went to the line, the supporting depots in the advanced section were responsible for documenting and loading the railcars that went to the division’s assigned railheads. From the railheads forward, each division was responsible for picking up the supplies and getting them to the appropriate units.
The statistics of the SOS’s work are impressive. The forestry units milled 200 million feet of lumber and cut 4 million railroad ties. One bakery produced 800,000 pounds of bread each day, SOS mechanics repaired 30,000 vehicles, and the advanced section depots maintained over 2 million square feet of covered storage space. By the time the armistice was signed in November 1918, there were 2,084,000 doughboys in France and 650,000 of them were assigned to the SOS.
In the meantime, Pershing was able to secure the services of a number of professional businessmen to assist in the acquisition, production, and distribution of badly needed resources. Everything the Army needed, from lumber to medicine, fresh vegetables, boots, and draft animals, was purchased and turned over to the SOS for distribution and management.
Lieutenant Jay Hormel used his background in the family meatpacking business to figure out that deboned frozen meats took up 40-percent less cargo space than very large cuts of meat still on the bone, which would free up valuable cargo space for other commodities. Hormel’s later development of Spam canned meat would have an equally significant effect on the American Soldiers of World War II.
Working with the British supply system proved to be an enlightening experience. While the American Soldiers did not care much for British food rations, an Army quartermaster reported—
We found that if we followed instructions, supplies were forthcoming. Not a requisition was sent to the base that was not properly acknowledged, with a statement as to the probability of supply. A wire was always received the day before the [rail] car so that preparations could be made to receive it. Carefully checked lists were always found in the cars, showing exactly what they contained, and shortages almost never occurred.
By the time the armistice ended the hostilities, 29 AEF infantry divisions were either in combat or moving
into the combat zone. In order to take over the AEF’s assigned 2,500-square-mile occupation zone in Germany, Pershing selected eight of his best divisions (four Regular Army, two Army National Guard, and two National Army), assigned them to the Third Army, and sent them through France and Luxembourg on a road march to their assigned sites in Germany. The movement of 250,000 doughboys into potentially hostile territory caused a wave of new problems for the SOS because these units quickly had to be brought up to a full complement of equipment, vehicles, and even horses.
Among the units now belonging to the Army of Occupation (which, through the Third Army’s lineage, is now the U.S. Army Central Command) were several of the divisions that had seen some of the hardest fighting in the final days of the war. Their pack and draft animals were in deplorable condition, so to make the move to their occupation zones, these units were given permission to draw animals from other divisions not making the move.
Soon most of the divisions were able to reach their assigned strength of 6,100 animals each, although the condition of many of the borrowed horses was not much of an improvement. One example of the perseverance and ingenuity of the American Soldiers occurred shortly after all the occupation forces were in place in December 1918. The Army Remount Service set up shop in Germany and did such a good job nursing the horses back to health that they actually created a surplus and ended up selling the excess animals to the local population.
A bigger problem troubling the AEF logisticians was how to support and maintain the forces once they arrived at their assigned occupation zone. Germany had been at war since 1914 and under blockade for much of that time. The German countryside had been stripped of anything that could produce food or be eaten, and the local population was close to starvation. Along with food, the occupying forces also required massive amounts of replacement boots, overcoats, blankets, linen, and other cold-weather gear to help them through the winter. Working with German officials and the owners of a local shoe factory, uniform factory, and steam laundry in the Coblenz-Lutzel area, the Third Army began operating a system of repairing salvaged clothing, shoes, boots, and equipment for reissue. Their output soon reached between 800 and 1,000 pairs of repaired shoes and boots a day.
In addition to supporting the occupation units deployed to Germany, the SOS was responsible for sending back home the other infantry divisions that were not going to remain in Europe. At the same time, the Spanish influenza epidemic was sweeping Europe. Sixty-two thousand doughboys died, while thousands of others were hospitalized in France undergoing
convalescent treatment. Koehn reported to his mother in October 1918, “That Spanish Influenzia has killed many of the boys an[d] a lot of the people over hear [sic] . . . quite a few died on the boat.” In the port of Brest, between September and November 1918, there were 1,817 burials of doughboys, many of whom died of influenza on the boat en route to France.
Yet, by mid-1919, the occupation of Germany was logistically sound, most of the AEF’s other doughboys were demobilizing back in the United States, and the SOS was able to close down many of its operations.
|Two doughboys assigned to a Services of Supply transportation unit pose for a photograph.
So, 90 years later, here are some lessons for today’s logisticians.
A bad beginning doesn’t mean a bad ending. The explosive growth from a 200,000-man army to a 3-million
-man army in 2 years magnified the results of every bad decision and mistake. Deploying a force of that size across the Atlantic Ocean to a country that had been under constant attack for 3 years was a complex operation that no U.S. Army logistician had ever attempted. In the end, with adaptive, creative leadership and plain hard work, the AEF grew into a combat-effective army and prevailed against a skilled veteran enemy.
Nothing happens until something moves, but it still takes planning and human effort to make things move. The AEF’s recovery of materiel from the battlefield exemplifies the importance of planning and human effort. Salvage recovery became a watchword in the AEF during the Argonne campaign. Instructions were given that, unless wounded, each Soldier returning from the front would bring back some salvaged item. The division quartermaster of the 79th Infantry Division instructed that “it might be an empty cartridge case, or a pair of shoes, but no one was to return empty handed.” In effect, each Soldier became part of the solution. Similarly, all trucks and vehicles, including kitchen carts, were used to carry salvage back from the front to preassigned salvage dumps, where it was sorted by salvage platoons and reissued if possible.
Knowing where things are is critical in getting them to the right location. In 1918, as in 2009, getting advance notice of what was in storage or en route gave logisticians the luxury of planning how to support the combat troops instead of scrambling to catch up to their needs. Without accurate inventory records and detailed packing lists, the materiel might as well have been on the moon for all the good it did the Soldier.
A well-organized, innovative, and responsive distribution system is a combat multiplier whose value cannot be over-estimated. There is no substitute for Soldiers who understand their jobs and perform them at a high level. Find your experts and use them without waiting for “enablers” to provide a magic bullet. The SOS spent a seemingly inordinate amount of time and effort in keeping the frontline troops supplied with footwear to protect them from exposure to the continuously cold and wet conditions in the trenches. It worked. As a result, the AEF suffered a lower percentage of trench foot than the U.S. Army did under similar conditions 25 years later in World War II and in the 1950s in Korea.
There will always be critics, but nothing succeeds like success. When asked to defend some of the “extravagant” spending practices of the AEF to a congressional committee in 1921, General Charles Dawes, later the 30th Vice President of the United States, replied in no uncertain terms, “It’s all right to say we bought too much . . . but we saved the civilizations of the World . . . we weren’t trying to keep a set of books. We were trying to win a war.”
When the division quartermaster for the 29th Infantry Division wrote his after-action report for the Battle of Saint Mihiel, he described in detail the struggles and ultimate success of one specific night convoy in which he traveled nearly impassible muddy roads under artillery and gas attack and endured miles-long traffic jams to get the required supplies to his units. He concluded with a simple statement and perhaps fitting tribute to all the doughboys of the SOS: “Where would the fighter be if not for the machinery that permitted him to keep fighting?”
Alexander F. Barnes is a logistics management supervisor for the Enterprise Systems Directorate of the Army Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee, Virginia. A former Marine Corps corporal and Army warrant officer, he has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the State University of New York at Cortland and a master’s degree in archeology from the State University of New York at Binghamton.