When the guns of August 1914 thundered into action, the principal means of military transport was what it had been since the dawn of organized warfare–the backs of men or animals, or wagons drawn by them.
At the outset of World War I, the faithful horse and mule were still indispensable for the movement of artillery, ammunition and the vast array of other supplies that modern warfare demanded. The motor vehicle had been in use for several years by 1914, but it had undergone only limited testing under field conditions.
When motor vehicles took to the road early in the century, their potential military value had not gone unnoticed. In the United States, Captain Alexander E. Williams of North Carolina emerged as the prime mover of the faction that advocated greater emphasis on motor-powered vs. animal-powered vehicles. This farsighted West Point graduate published an article in the Infantry Journal in 1911 about the need for motor trucks for the Army. Williams was considered by the army to be a visionary who lacked practical expertise. The Army brass took the position that the U.S. Army already owned 12 trucks. Twelve trucks, out of the 25,000 trucks in the entire country, was considered progress indeed. Those vehicles were deployed as follows: three vehicles to the quartermaster depot in San Francisco, Calif.; one to Fort Sam Houston, Texas; one to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.; and seven to U.S. Army forces in Manila, in the Philippine Islands. The mind-set of most armies at the time, including the American army, was that wheeled motor vehicles had their place but nothing could or would replace the horse.
As far back as 1897, Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles, a Civil War veteran, had introduced an experimental troop of bicyclists with mixed success. Undaunted, after his retirement Miles wrote repeatedly about the need for upgrading the road network in the United States and for organizing motorized regiments. The equine enthusiasts of the cavalry–and indeed most of the Army–merely noted Miles’ recommendations and filed them away.
Some limited, sporadic experimentation with motor transport did take place from time to time early in the 20th century. In 1902, the Ordnance Department purchased a battery wagon from the U.S. Long Distance Automobile Company, which has long since disappeared from the automotive scene. The following year, the surgeon general asked, among others, the White Sewing Machine Company of Cleveland, Ohio, to design a motor-driven ambulance that would serve as a test vehicle.
Captain Williams’ battle for motorization was an uphill fight, but he was not entirely alone. Williams had previously served in the Quartermaster Corps and had made the acquaintance of General James B. Aleshire, the Army’s quartermaster general. Aleshire was astute enough to realize that Williams might have a valid point.
In 1911 Williams was detached from the War Department on special assignment to consult with manufacturers of motor vehicles and establish specifications for a standard army truck. He purchased two vehicles for initial testing. The first was a 1-ton chain-drive truck manufactured by the Alden Sampson Manufacturing Company of Detroit, Mich. The second was a 1-ton shaft-drive vehicle, manufactured by the White Sewing Machine Company.
Williams envisioned a test under practical convoy conditions and insisted that the vehicles have cross-country capability. He visited a variety of manufacturers, including the Sampson Manufacturing Company and the Ford Motor Company of Detroit, Garford Truck Company of Elyria, Ohio, and the Mack Brothers Motor Company of Allentown, Pa. His specifications, particularly for cross-country capability, were greeted with some dismay. Most truck makers had great confidence in their products on the road, but off the road was another matter.
By happenstance, however, Williams had come upon an advertisement for a new vehicle that purportedly could operate under the most adverse conditions. This was a four-wheel-drive truck developed and manufactured by the Four Wheel Drive Auto Company of Clintonville, Wis. The company driver, Frank Dorn, took Williams through a demonstration that sold the vehicle and the concept. The car was driven through mud holes, sandpits, across plowed fields and, as the pice de résistance, up the steps of the local Lutheran church.
Williams’ report was so enthusiastic that the quartermaster general purchased one of the vehicles at a price of $1,940 for further testing. The car was shipped to Fort Myer, Va., where it was fitted with a cargo box.
Williams’ plans for an extended field test were rapidly completed. The test was to be a road and cross-country ordeal that started at Washington, D.C., included a stop at Atlanta, Ga., and terminated at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana–a distance of 1,500 miles.
The starting date was set for February 8, 1912. The convoy was led by the Four Wheel Drive truck with its newly fitted cargo box. The Alden-Sampson previously purchased by the Army was also on the starting line. The White Sewing Machine Company and the Autocar Manufacturing Company each entered stock, 1-ton vehicles. A White truck, which the Army had purchased in 1911, was withdrawn, as was the entry of the Wilcox Truck Company.
At noon, in a cloud of exhaust fumes, the quartet of contending trucks rumbled out of the capital city and headed south into Virginia. The trek lasted until March 28, when the convoy reached its destination. There was a series of close calls and near disasters due to primitive vehicles and even more primitive roads, but the test proved that, given proper equipment and reasonable roads, the motor vehicle had a place in the scheme of things.
This was an era of iron men and iron machines. With the self-starter yet to be invented, all of the vehicles utilized some sort of magneto-ignition system that required hand cranking–a hazardous endeavor requiring, among other preparations, that the spark be retarded to prevent the engine from ‘kicking.’ Carelessness in that practice could result in unwary drivers’ sustaining painful injuries. The braking system was purely mechanical, requiring a good right foot for stopping. It was the brute force school of transportation, but it moved men and materiel.
Army traditionalists insisted that the test only proved that four-legged transport would have been more dependable, less costly, and would have completed the route almost the same time. Nevertheless, Williams’ test had drawn a good deal of attention. The Army decided to try another evaluation of the motor vehicle under field conditions. The White and Sampson trucks, which had been severely abused in the first test, were repaired, and together with an Army-owned Four Wheel Drive (FWD) truck were shipped to Dubuque, Iowa. The test was for those three vehicles, together with three additional 1-ton leased vehicles, to supply a provisional regiment on a practice march from Dubuque to Sparta, Wis. The leased vehicles were a Kelly-Springfield, a Mack and a Kato. Six additional vehicles, 3-tonners bearing the names of White, Packard, Saurer, Velie and Graham, and another of the redoubtable FWDs were also leased. The rental cost of those vehicles was $12 per day each, including driver and repairs.
The smaller, 1-ton vehicles were assigned to companies as replacements for their mule-drawn wagons, forcing the trucks to operate at the walking pace of the companies. That was no problem for the mules, but it caused severe overheating problems for the trucks. In addition, the roads were in deplorable condition, and mud was a constant companion and problem throughout the march.
The heavier trucks did somewhat better on this test, since the tendency of the troops to overload the vehicles did not affect the larger trucks as greatly as it did the lighter trucks. The off-road performance was still not all it could have been, but there was little doubt in anyone’s mind at the completion of the march that the truck, as it developed and improved, would eventually replace the horse and mule for military transport.
At the outbreak of World War I, there was an almost immediate confirmation of the utility of motor vehicles in military situations. As German General Alexander von Kluck’s armies swept across France in the implementation of the notorious Schlieffen Plan, the open flank of the German right was apparent to General Joseph S. Galliéni, regional commander of the French Sixth Army.
As military governor of Paris, Galliéni only exercised nominal control over the Sixth Army, which belonged to the forces commanded by General Michel J. Maunoury. No matter. Command dislocations or not, Galliéni had spotted the weak point and was prepared to move. In a modern application of the French dictum l’audace, toujours l’audace, Galliéni marshaled the spindly Renault taxicabs from the Parisian streets and loaded them with all available troops. The French movement was so rapid and unexpected that only the Herculean efforts of General Hans von Gronau, the German right flank commander, saved the situation from becoming a full-fledged disaster for the Germans. As it was, that rapid deployment caught the Germans off balance and shook the confidence of von Kluck, the German field commander. After short but vicious engagements at the Marne and Ourcq rivers, the Germans disengaged, and the battle ended as an Allied strategic victory, with the ‘Taxicabs of the Marne’ as the tactical victors.
The United States was beginning to pay attention to developments in France, especially in regard to military transport. Experimentation in that area was still minimal, however. Neither the Army nor the National Guard had funds available for untried procedures. Money was raised by private subscription for a daring experiment in long distance military transport. The main contributors were J.P. Morgan, Brown Brothers, Potter, Choate & Prentice, and White, Weld & Company. Vehicles were donated by the manufacturers. Fifteen vehicles and more than 1,000 men scheduled to undergo four weeks of training at Plattsburgh, N.Y., left the Squadron A Armory on 94th Street and Madison Avenue in New York City at 10 a.m. on Saturday, August 7, 1915. An article in the August 15 issue of The Commercial Vehicle cited that assemblage as America’s first motor battery.
The convoy, under the command of Captain Raynal C. Bolling, consisted of one armored car equipped with a machine gun on a swivel mount, two armored motor trucks, three large ammunition transport trucks towing standard U.S. Army limbers and 75mm field guns, one searchlight truck, one ambulance, one officer’s car and six miscellaneous vehicles. One of the armored trucks, a Mack, boasted a rapid-firing one-pounder on its body as well as a machine gun. Armor appeared to be on everyone’s mind, for one of the heavy transport vehicles, also a Mack, was covered with steel plate to protect the crew and contents. In designing that hefty hauler, the Mack engineers had also placed the radiator–always very susceptible to damage–behind the engine and out of harm’s way. The useful load for the truck was 18,000 rounds of .30-caliber machine-gun ammunition, 1,800 3-inch shells, plus 500 3-inch shrapnel shells–Not bad for 1915, or even by present-day standards.
The convoy took four days to complete the approximately 400-mile journey. Considering the roads, that was an acceptable performance. Mule transport could not exceed 25 miles per day, and mules would never have been able to transport that amount of equipment without massive preparations for remounts, fodder, replacements for animals, etc. The lessons of the automotive age were being learned, however slowly.
The force arrived at Plattsburgh on Wednesday, August 11, 1915, and began training. The commanding officer of the Plattsburgh training exercise was Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, who had achieved fame as the commanding officer of the Rough Riders during the 1898 Spanish-American War.
On the night of March 89, 1916, a Mexican revolutionary leader named Doroteo Arango, better known as Pancho Villa, attacked Columbus, N.M. The reaction of the U.S. government was swift. Ordered by President Woodrow Wilson to capture Villa by whatever means necessary, General John J. Pershing mounted an expedition comprised of both Regular Army and National Guard troops called into federal service. To supply his force, Pershing called for five motorized supply trains of 27 vehicles each. Since the entire army possessed less than 1,000 motor vehicles of all types at that time, Pershing’s demands were deemed outrageous. Nevertheless, he got what he asked for, and the expedition proceeded into Mexico. As the campaign moved along, the need for more motor transport grew, until ultimately more than 500 vehicles were assigned to the expedition.
Repair shops and a supply depot of spare parts was established at Columbus, N.M., which was the jumping-off point for the expedition. The troops penetrated 400 miles into Mexico, supplied by trucks made by 128 different manufacturers. The parts supply system was a nightmare. Maintenance and repair of the vehicles were beyond the capabilities of the Army at the time, so it was necessary to hire civilian mechanics. There was also a scramble to recruit soldiers with mechanical aptitude or experience. One of the more unusual vehicles was an armored car, built by Mack Motor Trucks, that was capable of running on rails as well as on conventional roads. Unconventional situations demanded and received unconventional responses.
Among the participants in the punitive expedition was a young lieutenant who had also read about General Galliéni and the taxicabs of the Marne. Using a trio of Dodge touring cars, he surprised and overwhelmed a nest of bandits in an adobe fortress named San Miguelito. The impression made on that young officer by the efficacy of military motor vehicles and their tactical potential was to stay with him a lifetime. His name was George S. Patton.
The 11-month campaign ended after negotiations between the U.S. and Mexican governments reached a fruitful conclusion. The primary objective of capturing Villa was never achieved, but the lessons learned proved even to the most recalcitrant horse lover that it was going to be trucks–the noisy, ungainly and temperamental trucks–that would be the supply link between the railheads and the troops.
On April 6, 1917, two months after the recall of the troops from Mexico, Congress declared war against the Central Powers. By then, thanks in part to the crisis instigated by Pancho Villa, the U.S. Army’s inventory had increased to 2,400 trucks of all types. As the first contingents of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) embarked for Europe, several truck companies were included, each consisting of 70 men and 33 trucks. That was but the harbinger of the flood to come; Pershing estimated his needs at 50,000 vehicles.
American production was gearing up, and vehicles–made by 294 different manufacturers–began to leave the assembly lines in increasing numbers. To save space, vehicles were shipped in a partially disassembled state, and assembly yards were set up in France to prepare the vehicles for use. Without an all-weather road network, the United States had to rely on rail transport, despite a critical shortage of railroad cars. While its own trucks trickled into Europe, the AEF borrowed French vehicles to fill the gaps.
Draconian measures were taken to sort out the railroad boxcar problem, which could have crippled the war effort. In 1918, with shipping conditions improving, American manufacturers produced an astonishing 227,000 trucks. The transportation network, now in somewhat more orderly condition, moved the vehicles to the ports for shipment to the troops.
Some of the names the vehicles bore are still familiar today: Ford, White, FWD, Nash Quad (also a four-wheel drive), Packard, Mack and a model developed by the Quartermaster Corps called the Standard B, but always referred to by the doughboys as the Liberty. One truck, the White Standard Model A, was even awarded the French Croix de Guerre for service.
The trucks came in all shapes, sizes and designs. Rear-view mirrors were still years away. Windshields were not common, due both to tactical and other considerations. Of the multitude of vehicles employed by the troops, the Mack truck became the favorite of the AEF. With its radiator mounted behind the engine, the Mack had a ferocious look. It was cranky and balky and required a strong hand, but it had a well-earned reputation for dependability. The expression ‘built like a Mack truck’ still describes something solid and reliable even today.
The experiences of the doughboys with trucks and other motor vehicles carried over into civilian life after the armistice. Truck transport enjoyed an explosive boom in the United States, even though most roads remained inadequate. General Miles had lived to see his predictions come true, but there was still a long way to go.
The Army was rapidly demobilizing and had no need for the large number of trucks in inventory at the war’s end. The federal government made them available to state and local governments. The U.S. Bureau of Public Roads, established in 1918, was the beginning of federal involvement in road building.
In 1919, the Army decided to organize a coast-to-coast military convoy under the auspices of the newly formed Army Transport Corps. The convoy, comprised of 65 trucks and other vehicles, was under the command of Colonel Charles W. McClure, and the 300 participating troops included a young officer named Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The convoy left Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1919. The first day’s run was the 46 miles to Frederick, Md., which was the first stopover. It was the least mileage made on any day of the test. The best day’s run was made on July 22, from Dekalb, Ill., to Clinton, Iowa, a distance of 84 miles. As they rolled into San Francisco on September 6 the vehicles in the convoy were greeted by streets filled with cheering crowds.
The expertise gained in Mexico and in France had not been wasted. The convoy had taken two months to complete the journey; back in 1912, Captain Williams had also taken two months to complete his journey–covering half the distance traveled by the 1919 convoy.
As late as 1924, horses outnumbered trucks in the United States by 3 million. Nevertheless, the next 15 years would see the U.S. Army reorganize itself into a motorized force just before World War II. The credit was due to such far-sighted types as Captain Williams, Maj. Gen. Miles, General Aleshire and General Galliéni.
This article was written by William Scheck and originally published in the June 1997 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!