Quartermaster Supply in the AEF, 1917-1918
By DR. WILLIAM CHAIKIN
Quartermaster Review May-June 1950
In the ”Great War,” which we now call World War I. the accomplishments of the Quartermaster Corps overseas were such as to stand as a model of achievement to the generation of officers who led the Corps in the new crisis following Pearl Harbor. Officers assigned as theater, army, and division Quartermasters in 1942 and 1943-in many cases men with personal recollections of Quartermaster Corps problems and activities in 1917 and 1918-felt that, despite changed circumstances, they could no better prepare themselves for their new responsibilities than by study of the methods of organization and supply worked out at Tours, on the Marne, and on the Meuse in the Great War. Looked at in this way, it is remarkable how many of the problems and successes of the Quartermaster Corps in World War II were foreshadowed in the earlier conflict.
In both wars the functions of the Quartermaster Corps in the field were largely the same. The Quartermasters supplied the soldier with food, clothing, personal and housekeeping equipment, and performed services closely related to those supplies: laundry and salvage, bathing and disinfection. Identification and care of the dead were Quartermaster functions in both wars. Transportation of men and materials, originally the Quartermaster Corps’ prime function, was in both wars removed from Quartermaster control for separate administration, but supply of fuel, for mechanical transport, and of horses and mules and their forage and equipment, for animal transport, remained a Quartermaster responsibility in both wars. Paying the soldier was a Quartermaster function in World War I but no longer such in World War II. However it makes little difference in the over-all comparison.
The Quartermaster service in the American Expeditionary Forces was set up under Maj. Gen. Harry L. Rogers, who had served as Quartermaster with General Pershing on the Mexican border. In July 1918 Gen. Rogers was appointed Quartermaster General but he remained with the AEF in the field until the end of the war. Under his command, in little more than a year from the date on which American headquarters entered active operations, the Quartermaster Corps in the AEF grew from 57 officers and 1,268 enlisted men to a complex organization comprising 4,665 officers and 96,066 enlisted men by the end of the war. The proportion of Quartermaster personnel in the AEF was much the same as that in the European Theater in World War Il-roughly 5 per cent of the United States forces involved.
Quartermaster headquarters were located with GHQ in Paris and Chaumont during the first part of the campaign, but when the technical services were grouped together under the Services of Supply, the Chief Quartermaster moved his office to Tours with the SOS. In the second war Paris housed Quartermaster headquarters from the liberation of the city to the end of the fighting, but in the first war, when the center of gravity of the American supply line was farther south, Tours offered great advantages. There the Chief Quartermaster was centrally located in the communications zone, near the main intermediate depot at Gievres, astride the main rail lines leading from the base ports to the advance depots and the front.
The general objective of the Quartermaster service in the AEF was to maintain a stock of ninety days’ supply in France, replenished partly by automatic shipment and partly by requisition on supply agencies in the United States and by local procurement. Continual increase in demands for supplies made it impossible to achieve this level while the war lasted. The bulk of supplies were received in large base depots at the ports, where they could be classified and shipped, as needed, to cover estimated future demands
to intermediate depots nearer the front. These depots, in turn, acted as replenishing points for advance depots located at the most convenient communication points directly behind the combat zone. From there supplies required by the combat units were shipped either on an automatic schedule or on call, through the regulating stations to railheads and supply “parks” as close as possible behind the front. At these points the supplies passed to the control of army, corps, and division Quartermasters for delivery to their troops.
The establishment of this system required the creation of many new facilities. This was particularly so because the location of the American Ports of entry on the French west coast and the direction of the main lines of communication through central France, laid out to avoid the territory from Paris north, which was already crowded with French and British installations, put the American supply base in relatively underdeveloped territory. Consequently, large-scale depots and other installations were built at key points in the base areas and along the lines of communication. Much of this work was not begun until late 1917 and early 1918, and some of the largest installations, planned to serve not only the two million men of the AEF in 1918 but the four million men expected in 1919, were far from complete when the war ended.
This extensive building program was in marked contrast to the plan followed in the second war, when the overriding aim was to use available facilities with just enough repairs and expansion to provide minimum essentials. Although the AEF ‘s procedure was costly and perhaps wasteful in view of the course the war took, it did have the advantage of simplicity, fostering relative ease of central control—essentials which the ETO Quartermaster had to achieve through strenuous and continuous organizational efforts. By the middle of 1918, when the AEF was first heavy engaged, the system, although incomplete, was ready to be put to the test of Battle. It worked so well, on the whole that it was still considered a model when American troops again fought in France, even though changed circumstances necessitated other procedures.
The chief base areas for storage and other Quartermaster installations were established at St. Nazaire and Bordeaux chief entry points for supplies from the United States. At both shipping centers large lock facilities and depots were constructed under American supervision and largely with American materials. At St. Nazaire docking facilities were rapidly expanded to permit the unloading, by the middle of 1918, of over 200,000 ship-tons per month of which almost two thirds were Quartermaster supplies. These supplies moved directly to Montoir, a mud-flat four miles up the Loire that was transformed into a great depot. At Montoir the Quartermaster service, by January 1919, was assigned sixty-three warehouses containing 1,300,000 square feet of covered storage. By the end of the war Quartermaster supplies held there amounted to 400,000 tons. Quartermaster Corps personnel at the depot included 391 officers, 716 civilian and military clerks, 7,960 other enlisted men, 590 civilian laborers, and 2,150 prisoners of war. At Bordeaux other great construction projects were undertaken.
Similar facilities, although on a smaller scale are not involving so much new construction, were developed in and behind the ports of Le Havre, Brest, La Pallice, and Marseille. In each case other Quartermaster installations—local issue depots, salvage depots, bakeries, cold storage plants, remount depots—were established at or near the storage depots. By a curious stroke of fortune, none of these installations except the depot behind Marseille, which was of minor importance in 1918, were of use to the American armies in France in 1944-1945, although many of them were still in existence. The depot behind Brest was too far outside the main supply lines; the facilities around St. Nazaire, La Pallice, and Bordeaux remained in German hands until VE-day.
A great part of the Quartermaster supplies for the troops at the front funneled through the intermediate depot at Gievres, in central France, near main rail lines from both St. Nazaire and Bordeaux to the east. Here again tremendous facilities were constructed from the ground up, beginning at the end of 1917. By the end of the war there were 107 Quartermaster warehouses, the average size being 500 by 50 feet, served by 140 miles of standard gauge track handling as high as 667 cars in one day. Tonnage received and shipped increased from 1,420 in January 1918 to almost 300,000 in December. Tonnages stored rose from 1,800 in December 1917 to 300,000 by the end of the war. Quartermaster personnel at the depot reached a total of 7,560 officers and men. The depot stored and shipped all types of Quartermaster supplies from tobacco and gloves to rolling kitchens and wagons assembled from parts shipped by the base depots. But the greatest single feature at Gievres was the “ice box,” 896 by 110 feet, holding up to 18,000,000 pounds of frozen fresh meat and capable of handing 2,400,000 pounds in twenty-four hours.
Although organized as an intermediate depot primarily for shipping supplies in wholesale lots to advance depots, Gievres was also called upon to act as an advance depot and ship daily maintenance supplies to the front. This happened in July 1918 when American divisions were thrown into the second battle of the Marne. The Gievres Quartermaster went into action on a phone call, immediately shipping all supplies except fresh bread. This deficiency was overcome by the assignment of seventeen bakery companies, which produced bread in field ovens while permanent facilities were built. The combination of intermediate and advance functions threw the depot temporarily into confusion but it operated successfully from the beginning and straightened itself out within a month. In the St. Mihiel drive and later, Gievres again acted as both intermediate and advance depot. This combination of important separate functions in one installation was quite exceptional in 1918 but similar rapid changes in combat operations made the practice much more common in the second war.
The advance depot and regulating station at Is-sur-Tille was similar in layout to Gievres, but better equipped for rapid movement of large quantities of supplies. Located on a main railroad junction behind the eastern sector of the front, which was the main area of operations of the American armies, it became the chief assembly and dispatching point for supplies during the two great American offensives. Started in December 1917, by the time of the Armistice in the following November Quartermaster facilities at Is-sur-Tille consisted of 695,000 square feet of covered storage and 525,000 square feet of open storage, operated by eighty-two officers and 3,354 enlisted men. At its peak period the regulating station served forty-six railheads and 662 other shipping points.
The original conception of supply in the combat zone had been that divisions, and independent corps and army troops, would requisition on the regulating stations and draw through railheads as needed. This system was found to work reasonably well for the automatic and constant supply of rations but was too slow to take care of sudden and sporadic demands for other classes of supplies. When troops were withdrawn
from the lines it was often for too short a time to enable them to wait for the arrival of refitting supplies through railheads already hard-pressed to keep up with the constant flow of rations and forage. Accordingly, army supply parks and beyond them sub-parks, dumps, and refilling points, were established to hold a minimum reserve of fast-moving items. These consisted in the main of three to fifteen days’ supply of clothing and individual equipment.
To the soldiers in the combat zone the Quartermaster service’s prime function was the supply of the daily ration. Food came from the depots through the regulating stations by a regular system of daily telegrams and daily trains to railheads serving each division. Non-perishable items, canned meats, dried vegetables. flour, etc., could be handled by ordinary methods. Perishable items required special handling. Bakeries, such as the one at Is-sur-Tille, which produced 750,000 pounds of bread per day, were located at the regulating stations to avoid loss of time in transit. Fresh vegetables, a large part of which were grown on Quartermaster agricultural projects, were procured as close as possible to the regulating stations and shipped with little delay. Fresh meat it was found, could be supplied direct from intermediate depots. Shipped frozen solid at 0 degrees from Gievres in insulated cars “convoyed” by special crews who saw to it that there was no avoidable delay en route, the fresh meat could pass through the regulating station and reach the railheads still frozen.
At the railhead the division daily ration train was broken down by drawing units, usually battalions. Units located within about eight miles of the railhead usually drew direct in their own wagon trains. For units beyond easy reach by animal transport, rations were forwarded by narrow gauge railroad or, more often, by motor transport, to convenient distribution points. When units were far enough to the rear, or well sheltered or camouflaged, the food was served to the men directly from the unit’s rolling kitchen in which it had been cooked. Otherwise the kitchen proceeded as close to the front as conditions permitted and the cooked food was carried forward in insulated “marmite” cans either in horse-drawn ration wagons or by carrying parties. The same general system for ration supply to combat units was used in World War II, with the jeep replacing the ration wagon and truck convoy and truckhead replacing the rails of 1918.
The ration fed to the AEF ever far to the front, relied much more heavily on meat and bread than did the ration of World War II, but represented a great improvement over anything that had previously been attempted for and American Army in the field. It provided first class fresh beef, replaced, where fresh meat could not be brought up by, wholesome canned meat, usually corned beef, or canned fish, usually salmon.
Fresh bread, potatoes, and vegetables reached up to the front lines and, in quiet sectors, into the trenches; where these fresh foods could not be served there were hard bread and canned vegetables, usually beans, tomatoes, or peas. Only when cut off by enemy fire or advancing over broken ground too rapidly for supplies to keep up was the front line soldier forced to fall back on his iron ration of canned corned beef and hard tack.
A number of improvements in subsistence supply in World War II saw their beginnings with the AEF. To save shipping space and make handling easier at each transfer point and in the field kitchen, several methods of preparing and shipping boneless beef were tried. dehydrated potatoes and other vegetables were also provided in quantity. Precursor of the World War II combat rations was the trench reserve; twenty-five rations packed in a metal, gas-proof container and held in the lines for emergency use.
The food which reached the unit kitchens was not always as well prepared as its high quality deserved, and this led to some grumbling about the ration. But despite complaints, the soldier of the AEF had no cause to envy the ration of his British and French counterparts. Even in World War II, when improvements in production and packaging techniques, and highly flexible transportation, enabled the Quartermaster to send forward a much more elaborate ration, there was occasional grumbling from the ranks about the monotony and low quality of meals actually served.
The clothing and individual equipment with which the American soldier reached France was of good quality and in ample supply. He was, in fact, ordinarily provided with so much more than he could use in combat that disposal of the excess for troops moving to the front became a serious storage problem. Combat experience brought only a few changes to the uniform. The overcoat was shortened to provide more freedom for the legs; the campaign hat was discarded in favor of the “overseas” cap; wrapped puttees replaced canvas leggings. The terrific wear on shoes led to the development of the rugged “Pershing” shoe, still remembered as a model of military footwear in World War II.
The Quartermaster Corps’ main problem with clothing and equipment at the front was replenishment. It had been anticipated that the rate of destruction and loss in combat would be high, but experience exceeded all expectation. The result was that while the AEF’s calls for clothing and equipment constantly increased, and supplies poured in, the drain was so heavy that stocks rarely reached minimum reserve levels. The same problem arose in World War II and again it took some months to adjust calculated replacement factors to actual expenditure.
As a partial solution to the replacement problem and to preserve the health and morale of the troops the Quartermaster Corps set up a laundry, disinfection, and bath service, and a thorough-going salvage procedure. Near the front lines effort was concentrated on ridding the men of lice-the famous “cooties” of World War I-issuing clean underwear, and sterilizing outer clothing. The equipment used for these Operations was often hastily erected makeshift, sometimes specialized machinery provided by the French or British. Because sufficient equipment for the necessary rapid processing could not be provided close to the front, laundry service was largely confined to the communications zone, where it was handled by the Quartermaster Salvage Service.
This new Quartermaster service had been set up not only to provide laundry service but for the systematic recovery, repair, and reuse of all types of supplies. The procedure set up by the Salvage Service in 1918 followed lines familiar to the Quartermaster Corps in World War II. Each soldier and officer was required to participate in the salvage process by bringing all unserviceable or abandoned supplies to salvage dumps set up in each command. Following large-scale combat operations the permanently organized salvage squads, temporarily assisted by labor battalions and line troops, swept the battlefields and lines of advance. In these special clean-ups tremendous quantities were recovered; in the St. Mihiel area alone, Quartermaster material valued at $630,000 was collected by October 1918, the month following the battle.
Immediately serviceable material and equipment collected was held at division and army dumps for direct reissue to the troops, but the great bulk of salvage went back down the supply chain and was shipped to salvage depots in the rear. Salvage produced by troops in the rear areas was dealt with by smaller “shops” located near base ports and troop centers. Some specialization between installations developed but each depot and shop was, in general, equipped to handle all types of salvage and repair work. By the end of the war, for example, the large salvage depot at St. Pierre-des-Corps was handling almost eight million pieces of laundry per month, and repairing over 3,000 pairs of shoes per day. The rubber, canvas, leather, metals, and other departments operated on a comparable scale.
Another aspect of the desire to reduce the pressure on trans-Atlantic shipping, in World War I as in World War II, was the Quartermaster Corps’ determination to buy as much of its supplies as possible in Europe. Within a few months of our entry into the war, Quartermaster agents, coordinated with the other American and Allied buyers by the General Purchasing Agent, were active in every trans-Atlantic market where Quartermaster supplies might be available. By the end of the war the Quartermaster Chief Purchasing Officer had spent nearly $150,000,000 for 400,000 tons of supplies, of which half was subsistence. In addition the AEF Chief Quartermaster had secured, under special arrangements, over one million tons of coal from Great Britain and over 175,000 horses and mules from France and other countries. Although only the most general comparisons between the two periods were possible, the Quartermaster purchasing office in the ETO considered the AEF organization worthy of study and looked on the accomplishments of eighteen months in 1917 and 1918 as a valid yardstick of its own success.
One major activity of the Quartermaster Corps in the AEF that had shrunk to minor proportions in the second World War was the remount service. Providing draft, pack, and riding animals involved the Quartermaster service in the supply, to the SOS and the combat forces, of 181,983 horses and 61,377 mules. To save shipping, early efforts were made by the Remount service to arrange for the purchase in Europe of the majority of animals needed. Disagreements, and conflicting interpretations of agreements with the French caused wide variations in the rate of supply. The slow development of the Remount Service, due to shortage of trained personnel and absence of facilities, also contributed to a chronic shortage of horses and mules.
Because of the shortage, the number of animals allowed to a division was reduced in January 1918 from 7.701 to 7,578 and in June to 6,663. In August, when the shortage was greatest, it was proposed to motorize artillery brigades and other units and cut the number of animals per division to 3,803. Before this proposal could be acted on, various measures diminished the shortage. By the end of 1918, 135,914 horses and mules had been bought from the French, 21,259 from the British, and 18,462 in Spain, to add to the 67,725 received from the United States.
The final service which the Quartermaster Corps performed in the AEF, as in previous wars and again in World War II, was the identification and registration of the dead, and their concentration in a relatively few suitable cemeteries. This difficult task was carried out by the Graves Registration Service. The main effort during the period of active fighting was to follow up the advance quickly enough to make all necessary records while maximum information was still available. For this purpose Graves Registration units were attached to each division in action, sweeping the battlefield behind it often so soon after the ground was taken that they came under fire from the enemy. Assisted by labor troops and sometimes by troops from the line, the Graves Registration units corrected the conditions resulting from hasty battlefield actions, completing records and moving dead from isolated and shallow graves to specially dedicated cemeteries in the rear. They could not in every case identify the fallen soldier but the success of their efforts was shown by their final identification of all but five per cent of American dead. This achievement had never before been approached by the United States Army, and even surpasses the record of World War II in this respect.
Looking back on the activities of the Quartermaster Corps in the AEF, some shortcomings and even some larger mistakes can be seen. But in most cases these appear more clearly in hindsight than they did at the time. Coming into a foreign country as relatively inexperienced men to operate alongside British and French organizations that had been perfected in more than three years of battle, the American Quartermasters very rapidly reached an over-all level of efficiency easily comparable with that of our Allies. The troops that served might gripe, but they were not dissatisfied. The judgment of contemporaries was summarized by General Pershing when he wrote in his report on the operations in France, “The task of supplying an army of the size of the American Expeditionary Forces in a field of operations so many thousands of miles from home depots was never before attempted. The Quartermaster Corps carried this task to a triumphant conclusion and thereby made possible the success of our fighting troops on the Marne, at St. Mihiel, and in the Argonne.”