A Special Contribution Courtesy of
Burford Books, Inc., from their
Classics of War Series

Excerpted from:
Over There: The American Experience in World War I

Reprinted by permission of the Publisher. Available at Amazon.com

Supplying the Troops

The Services of Supply


Frank Friedel

Services of Supply
Enormous supply lines slowly came into being as the American Expeditionary Forces, finding that the French could not provide adequate ports or railroads or camps or warehouses, began building its own on a scale therefore unprecedented. All this involved much manpower. Pershing estimated that of the first million men that arrived in France no more than five hundred thousand would be available for the front lines. Thus it was that hundreds of thousands of men found themselves assigned to the Services of Supply, filling vital needs but seldom seeing active combat. Major General James G. Harbord, who was in command of the SOS in the final months of the war, has paid tribute to the officers and enlisted men who filled its ranks.

"By far the great majority of the officers and men who wore the shoulder insignia of the SOS were fresh from civil pursuits. They came from every walk of American life and from every field of its business. The sacrifice at which they served could be measured by the energy and intelligence which they gave to their duties in the knowledge that the more they gave, the sooner the War would be ended. We were engaged in what was relatively a civil task, compared to combat. Far from the sounds of the drums and the guns; unsought by the glory-hunters; absent when promotions were being distributed; ineligible even at the price of life itself for the medals that reward heroism in action; doomed to spend the rest of their lives explaining why they served in the Services of Supply-their equal in trained intelligence and general fitness for their tasks could not have been found in any other land than the one for which they so truly fought. Such men may not have been within range of the enemy guns but they did more for their country by living for it than they could possibly have done by dying for it."

Generals Harbord and Dawes

In General Harbord's view, the model American businessman in the SOS was Charles G. Dawes, who become a Brigadier General and the General Purchasing Agent of the A.E.F. Dawes, who a quarter of a century earlier had been Pershing's closest friend, was a leading banker in Chicago when the United States entered the war; he enlisted as a Major in the 17th Engineers, but in August 1917 Pershing brought him to Paris to head purchasing. Dawes managed somehow to locate and purchase in a western Europe supposedly stripped of military supplies some ten million tons compared with seven million tons sent from the United States. Despite his qualities as a purchasing agent, General Dawes did not always look sufficiently spruced to suit his friend Pershing. On one occasion Dawes noted in his diary: "He spoke to Harbord and the latter walked across the road to me. As Harbord carefully buttoned up my overcoat, which was opened, including the hooks at the top, he murmured in my ear, 'This is a hell of a job for the Chief of Staff-but the General told me to do it. Some soldiers told me that in England there was a kodak taken of John with one breast-pocket unbuttoned. For this picture I am going to search that country-to use it for justifiable defensive personal purposes."

Where supply problems were concerned, Dawes was alert and precise even to Pershing's standards. In an explosive memorandum to the Commander-in-Chief, sent in April 1918, he argued vehemently for unified military control over all the Allied supply organizations still operating competitively and redundantly behind the lines. "If we do not have military management and military control," he declared, "we may fail and a German army at the ports may save us the trouble of unloading some of our engineering material from ships, thus devoted, which should have been bringing men and food to have stopped our enemies where they are now." An inter-Allied board for the pooling of supplies did come into being, and Dawes became its American member.

The SOS evolved out of an earlier organization, the L.O.C.: Line of Communications. Through 1917 its troubles were legion. As winter approached, clothing for the troops became scarce because whatever was being produced in the United States was badly needed for the draftees pouring into the encampments there. The A.E.F. were forced to purchase uniform tunics from the British, complete with brass buttons bearing the royal crown. The soldiers' comments on the "King George buttons" were lively and sarcastic. At the same time, sufficient Christmas presents for the troops to fill over a hundred freight cars came dribbling in through January 1918.

Even when the proper supplies reached France, it was exceedingly difficult to get them to the correct divisions. Colonel Johnson Hagood, placed in charge of the advance section of the supply service in the fall of 1917, encountered one frustration after another. The Quartermaster of the 42nd Division received word from the French that 900 horses were on the way, but no forage was available. Hagood was informed by the French that the shipment could not be stopped, so the Quartermaster finally located some forage. Then the horses never arrived. The 26th Division received several packing cases addressed to a Boston department store containing quantities of baby clothes. "Trainloads of wagon bodies arrived in my area with no wheels," Hagood later remembered. "The supplies of the 42nd Division, at Vaucouleurs, were scattered out over a ten-acre field, most of it in the open and in such condition that it could neither be segregated nor used. This division had only six trucks to distribute troops and supplies over a billeting area of about eighteen square miles." In desperation, Colonel Hagood on November 15, 1917, addressed a memorandum to General Pershing's Chief of Staff, General Harbord:

"If the United States does not actually fail, its efficiency is certainly going to be tremendously decreased by the sheer incompetence of its line of communications, beginning in the U.S. and ending at the French front. This incompetence not only applies to the machine as a whole but, we may as well admit, applies to the individual officers and employees, none of whom has had experience in solving such a problem. In this, of course, I include myself.

"I am informed that 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 this end of the line the situation has been properly described . . . as an eye-sore to his division and a disgrace to the United States. One of the brigade commanders told me that his men had gone as long as twelve days without potatoes, eight days without any vegetable component at all, and that it was a common experience to have no bread. French and Canadian Officers and troops seeing the men in this pitiable condition have come to their rescue and helped them out. At one time ninety per cent of all the transportation of one American division had been borrowed from a French captain, who had secured it by a personal appeal to his own division commander.

"Not only has the L. of C. failed, so far, to function properly in the supply of our own men but it has so clogged the French railway yards, storehouses and quays in this section as to cause an official complaint to be made to the Commander-in-Chief, with the unofficial statement to me that they were being embarrassed in their movement of troops to the Italian front."

The response to these conditions was the creation of a more effective system for sending supplies from the docks to storage depots, to regulation stations, to divisions at the front. Since the overall organization still seemed unworkable, in February 1918 a board under Hagood devised a complete overhaul. The Hagood Board proposed a new "Service of the Rear"-but since ribald soldiers might associate this title with latrine duty, General Pershing substituted the name Services of Supply. Throughout its existence, Hagood was Chief of Staff of the SOS The commanding officer until the end of July 1918 was General Francis J. Kernan. The sudden replacement of Kernan came as a "great shock" to Hagood since he "had rendered most distinguished service." Pershing replaced him with Harbord, a combat general, in part to forestall a War Department plan to install General George W. Goethals, builder of the Panama Canal, in independent command over supplies.

Typical SOS Activities

Acquiring, Delivering and Recycling all the Equipment, Uniforms and Food for the AEF
Building and Operating a Network of Hospitals
Running Delousing Stations for the Front Line Troops.

General Kernan was a desk commander of the SOS; Harbord, to Pershing's delight, spent his time in incessant inspections. He immediately ordered a special train, complete with office, dining, and sleeping facilities, and with two automobiles on a flatcar. By night he traveled by train; in the daytime he used the automobiles to visit the widespread facilities of the SOS He thus spent three of four days a week away from his headquarters at Tours.

Immediately upon assuming command General Harbord spent a week with General Pershing, inspecting SOS activities in the ports and its intermediate zone of operations. He later remembered:

"Tours, the SOS Headquarters, already had a military population of nearly twenty-five hundred American officers and nearly forty-five hundred soldiers. There we began by visiting the Central Records Office. . . . Its records . . . contained the vital information concerning each individual in the American Expeditionary Forces. Such records showed his arrival, his assignments, his whereabouts, his health, his mail address, his wounds, his death and all the information on which later his bonus and all future governmental awards were made. It grew from one officer and clerk at Chaumont, and at the time of the Armistice in had at Bourges some six thousand officers and enlisted men, and over five hundred British women.

"These women, familiarly known as W.A.A.C.'s, were of the British Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, and their organization, consisting of thousands, extended from the front line to the base ports."

General Harbord also had within his empire several hundred uniformed American telephone girls, all of whom were bilingual so that they could handle calls with equal facilities either in English or French. One of them pointed out to her parents in Oregon that although the magazines incessantly hailed the achievements of other American women in France:

The Signal Corps Telephone Operators Known as the Hello Girls

"Never a word about the Signal Corps Unit of 250 girls who plug from morning until night, who scream their lungs out to trenches over lines that are tied to trees, to fence-posts, and along the ground. Not that we care. We came over here to do our work and to give quick service and to help the boys a few miles ahead of us to get what they want and what we need to get, the Kaiser."

On his August inspection, Harbord noted:

"The Chief Quartermaster, Brigadier General Harry L. Rogers, . . . assured General Pershing that the quantities of food and clothing on hand were ample to meet contemplated requirements. At various storage depots there were accumulated forty-five million rations, or about forty days' supply for the command. There was a shortage in animals, forage and labor. The French had promised us eighty thousand horses, but that would be only half of our needs. Many of these very animals had been bought in America. . . .

"There were about thirty-two thousand non-American laborers available, of different nationalities, from Italians to Chinese, including prisoners of war. The Labor Bureau, organized under Lieutenant Colonel John Price Jackson as a part of the Dawes activities, was trying to get labor from France, Italy and Spain. There were about fifty thousand American labor and forestry troops, including about a regiment of combatant troops.

"The Motor Transport Corps under Brigadier General Meriwether L. Walker, an officer of Engineers, and a good one, was finding difficulty in obtaining trained mechanics and chauffeurs, notwithstanding the numbers we had thought ourselves able to send to the French at an earlier period. Only about half the number of automobiles and trucks actually needed in the SOS were in stock at the time of our visit. This was a situation which with all our boasted mass production and leadership in the motor industry, was never remedied. At the date of the Armistice the American Expeditionary Forces were short of the prescribed motor vehicles of all kinds, to the total of fifty-five thousand . . ..

"The Chief Ordnance Officer, then Brigadier General Charles B. Wheeler, reported that ordnance supplies were arriving regularly, but that no field guns had come. . . . He feared that the French would not be able to produce enough for both their needs and ours. The powder and explosive program was up to expectations but, due to shortage in steel, the manufacture of artillery guns which had been left to the French was slowing down.

SOS Operated Port at Nantes

"St. Pierre-des-Corps, several miles up the Loire from Tours, was a great center of supply personnel and activities. Besides several thousand railroad men quartered at Camp de Grasse, there was an immense Salvage depot there, which actually saved millions of dollars to our country. . . .

"The main storage plant at St. Sulpice was about half completed at the time of our visit and everything looked well. . . . The Commander-in-Chief neglected nothing, and he strode along like a professional pedestrian. He was a hard man to follow. On the other side of the Gironde from the city of Bordeaux and about six miles down the river lay Bassens. . . . We found the freight was piled up on the docks until the engineers were figuring on the possibility of the weight causing the wharves to sideslip into the river. . . .

"The towns of La Rochelle and La Pallice were practically one continuous settlement. . . . The most interesting feature of the place was the car-erecting plant. Our railroad cars came from the United States. Knocked down and were brought here to be erected by an engineer regiment composed largely of men trained in that trade. . . . The plant was a hum of activity, and to an observer the air seemed full of flying red-hot rivets, thrown almost the length of a car and caught in something that looked like a tin funnel. They were erecting sixty cars a day at this time, but there came a time, as the end of the war drew near and the need was great, when they did much better. They ran a conspicuous bulletin board and we figured them in the Race to Berlin, crediting to the several groups the cars erected each day as so many points, and competition grew very keen. . . .

"We built berths for eight vessels to unload simultaneously at Montoir. . . . We did the inspection with a flat car and engine. The Commander-in-Chief used the tail of the flat car for a speaking platform-telling the SOS boys how important their work was, and how intimately their toil was entwined with victory at the front. The SOS needed encouragement . . . . At the Locomotive Repair and Erection Plant just outside St. Nazaire, which we next visited, he had an audience of the 19th Engineers who were doing that important work, and about five thousand stevedores and laborers assembled in the broad square near the little locked harbor. At the time the locomotives from America were, like the cars, coming knocked down. A little later they began coming set up. . . .

"The party proceeded to Blois. . . . At first it had been used by us as a depot to which officers arriving unattached to units were sent until they were needed for assignment to organizations or individual duty. Later it became a Classification Depot for commissioned misfits of all types, and for many excellent officers released from hospitals who had to be reclassified. . For many an American it was the grave of buried ambitions, the temporary home of the hopeless.

"After Blois we went to St. Aignan, a replacement depot known to thousands of doughboys as 'Saint Agony. . . . Gievres was our largest supply storage depot. . . . It covered twelve square miles in area. . . . Its supplies ordinarily went forward through the Regulating Station at Is-sur-Tille, but it supplied directly the Divisions which were operating before Paris when it was threatened in July, 1918 . . . . During the August in which we were visiting there, a telegram was received one morning at 8:15 ordering exactly 4,596 tons of supplies which were to comprise 1,250,000 cans of tomatoes; 1,000,000 pounds of dry beans. By 6:15 that evening, this demand had been filled and 457 freight cars were loaded with it and on their way to the advance depot at Is-sur-Tille."

The most serious factor with which General Harbord had to contend was the poor morale in the SOS Many of the officers had been failures at the front, reassigned to duties in the rear. "Sometimes it is merely the physical strain to which they are unequal at the front," Harbord noted in his diary; "the loss of sleep, the thought of sending men forward in numbers to die at their orders, with the remainder of the strain, cause a collapse. . . . Many lack the ability to handle men." Others fresh from the United States, both officers and enlisted men, found themselves in unfamiliar work: "Ribbon-counter jumpers are found in stevedore regiments; . . . lawyers appear in engineer units; longshoremen in the forestry regiments; railroad men in labor battalions, etc. etc."

A Narrow Guage Railroad Operated by the SOS

Tens of thousands of Negro soldiers, finding themselves laborers in France, were treated in second-class fashion. Their officers, both commissioned and noncommissioned, were white; morale improved when some Negroes began to receive corporal's and sergeant's stripes. One white officer declared, "The spirit of St. Nazaire is the spirit of the south." At Camp Williams, Is-sur-Tille, an order dated July 3,1918, and enforced for nine months thereafter, declared: "All colored enlisted men of this command are hereby confined to the limits of the Camp and Depot until further advised." Whites were allowed to visit Is-sur-Tille and surrounding towns; when Negroes defied the order, they were arrested. "On the other hand, the Negro soldiers themselves were not without faults," Charles H. Williams has pointed out. "Some of their difficulties were due to their own ignorance and to customs that they brought into the army from civil life. On plantations and public works some had been used to 'ducking the boss' and slipping away, and attempts to continue this practice in the army sometimes resulted in their being placed in the guardhouse." But on the whole the Negro troops were hardworking and cheerful. John Hope, visiting a woodcutters' camp, wrote: "Lights were seen in the narrow streets and mud deeper than I had ever seen before. In the morning the men got up at 4:45. The sound they made walking through the mud was unlike any noise that I had ever heard. Even at that early hour some were joking, some singing."

Most white troops too worked hard and complained little. Eldon Maxwell of the 319th Engineers, engaged in building a railroad to haul timber, wrote home in good humor, "About all the fighting I have done so far is to fight cooties." Others, near the front, had their share of dangerous experiences, and still others, far behind the lines, could not resist the temptation to embroider fanciful adventures in their letters home. Some took satisfaction in employing their civilian skills under strange French conditions. Private John J. Jordan, formerly of the Denver & Rio Grande, found himself brakeman first on supply trains to the front, then on the Paris-Orleans line. "And what do you know about it?" he wrote his friends. "I've got a woman boss! . . . She gets the dope on the trains, and she tells me what track to head them in on. She can't speak English so I have to worry along with my irregular French." His division had stretched 141 kilometers eastward, and it had taken from 12 to 60 hours to make the run to the front.

For some fortunate men, service in the SOS was a lark. One corporal enthusiastically informed his mother: "Practically the entire staff is going on liberty to-day, and I am left by myself . . . I am looking out the window watching the ducks play about in the artificial waterways in front of the chateau . . . This sure is a beautiful place, and it sure gives me pleasure to walk around the grounds on a nice day like this. We are kept fairly busy at the office. We have plenty of time though to go around and take in the sights. We are going to have a big athletic carnival soon, but I do not think I will be here that day, as I am hoping to get extended liberty about that time to visit a certain big city . . . I am having the time of my life, and I don't want to go home until it is all over, over here."

Major SOS Sites

Despite problems of morale, inefficiency, and shortages, the SOS record in total was so impressive that war correspondents sent home glowing dispatches replete with staggering statistics. General Dawes, in testifying concerning purchasing before a congressional committee in 1921, made comments that well applied as a balance sheet for the SOS as a whole, both in its shortcomings and its achievement:

"Sure we paid . . . We would have paid horse prices for sheep if sheep could have pulled artillery . . . It's all right now to say we bought too much vinegar or too many cold chisels, but we saved the civilizations of the world. . . . Hell and Maria, we weren't trying to keep a set of books. We were trying to win a war."

Sources and thanks: The support of Peter Burford, President of Burford Books was most appreciated. Images from the text were supplemented from AMERICAN ARMIES AND BATTLEFIELDS IN EUROPE. MH

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