The Réserve Mallet (mah-LAY) was one of the most remarkable and least written about units serving in France during World War I. Prior to the spring of 1917, the drivers in this ammunition truck train were French, but after that time it became, like the Lafayette Escadrille, a French army unit made up of Americans. It was also what my uncle, Alden Rogers—who wrote about his wartime experiences in his book The Hard White Road: A Chronicle of the Réserve Mallet—called “unquestionably the worst military organization in the A.E.F. [American Expeditionary Force]…[but] just as unquestionably…the best motor truck train in the whole U.S. Army.”
In the years prior to its entry into the war, those in the United States who sympathized with the Allies formed the American Field Service (AFS) to supply the Allied forces with ambulances and volunteer drivers. Most American colleges, including Princeton, my uncle’s university, encouraged their students to sign up. He and more than 600 of his classmates went to France with the AFS, serving in units that remained attached to the French army for the duration. After the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917, however, Major Aimé Doumenc, head of France’s entire Service Automobiles, approached A. Piatt Andrew of the AFS with a proposal: Could the men coming to France to drive ambulances be asked to drive trucks instead? When the question was put to the men themselves, they agreed because they felt they should go where they were most needed. The Americanization of the Réserve began on May 8, when men of the Cornell Ambulance Unit took over a section of the trucks.
The Réserve, so called because it was not attached to any one army, corps or division, was somewhat larger than a battalion—about 1,100 men. It followed the French system: At the top was the Réserve’s quartier général, which was staffed by French personnel; below that were the headquarters of the two large groupements, each of which comprised four smaller groupes. Just as the Réserve itself was named for its commander, Major Richard Mallet, so were these groups named after their commanders, such as Groupe Browning after Lieutenant Robert A. Browning, Groupe Wilcox after Lieutenant Roy C. Wilcox and Groupe Lamade after Lieutenant George R. Lamade. Each groupe was composed of four companies. On paper a company was to consist of 18 trucks and 60 men, including officers and noncoms, but in practice none of them ever averaged more than 40 men. Orders came from the French, but the men’s clothes, pay and half their food came from the American Mission, the office in charge of paying the Americans in the Réserve.
Because of its free-floating status, units of the Réserve were moved from one part of the front to another, depending on need. It can be credited with participation in 11 major campaigns, both offensive and defensive, between June 1917 and November 1918. The eight operations in 1918 included, among others, the Somme defensive (March 21 to April 6), the Second Battle of the Marne (July 18 to August 6), the Second Battle of the Somme (August 8 to September 9) and the Meuse-Argonne offensive (October 1 to November 11). The three 1917 operations—the Chemin des Dames defensive (June to July), the Malmaison and Chemin des Dames offensives (October 18-31) and the Cambrai offensive (November 20- 27)—were not officially recognized by the American general headquarters. But without the often Herculean efforts of the men of the Réserve, the various French units would not have received the necessary materiel in time to fight during those operations.
At the end of August 1917, the groupes began hearing rumors that the American government planned to take over the AFS. The members then began debating among themselves about whether they would enlist in the U.S. Army. On September 29, an American officer arrived at the Réserve camp at Jouaignes to start the recruiting process. He told the men that they would form the nucleus of the Army’s Motor Transport Corps, that they were much needed for the coming offensive, that if they later wanted to transfer to other branches they could do so and— the ultimate inducement—there was the possibility of commissions. However, as my uncle wrote, “When the fateful day of enlistment [October 1] arrived most of the men signed up as buck-privates. The wise men held out and later joined the French artillery or aviation.”
The Réserve’s mission was to truck materiel comprising ammunition and trench equipment—“in fact anything [including refugees] that lacked means of transportation,” my uncle recalled—for whatever army, corps or division it was supporting. For example, during the period from June to October 1918, it hauled more ammunition for the French armies than the AEF consumed in all of its engagements in the war. For this work the Réserve used Pierce Arrow 5-ton trucks, which the French regarded as the best of all the heavy trucks then available—a belief that was subsequently justified by their performance under extremely grueling conditions. The roads of France were high-crowned, narrow and, following a soaking rain, slippery. Conditions were particularly hazardous for trucks, which were prone to skidding. While on clear nights there was enough starlight to see the hard white road running through the darker verges, on rainy nights this was not possible. After dark the convoys traveled at 10 mph or less so that the drivers could feel the position of their trucks relative to the crown, or if they were on one of the tree-lined highways, determine the location of the road from the narrow strip of sky overhead. In rainy or dusty conditions, however, it was impossible to see any truck driving in front. Rear-end collisions often occurred during convoys when a lagging truck was hurrying to catch up, but because shells and fuses were carried separately, there were no explosions, only mangled tailgates and smashed radiators.
Another hazard faced by the drivers was falling asleep at the wheel after many hours of driving. The unofficial record for continuous duty without sleep was 70 hours, set by members of Groupe Lamade during the great Allied retreat of May 1918. The men of the Réserve discovered, however, that while no one can drive while asleep, it is possible to drive while being unconscious of doing so. For example, during the second night of a drive to Châlons-sur-Marne (April 13-15, 1918), my uncle noted passing through La Ferté- Milon, near Château-Thierry, in the dark, after which he started following the dark shadow of the truck in front of him. When he came to, with a start, it was broad daylight and the convoy was out of sight. For the previous three-quarters of an hour he had been following an imaginary vehicle through an illusion of darkness. Others who fell into this state while driving were not always so lucky. Some were jolted awake when they ran full-throttle into the rear end of the truck ahead, often in bright sunshine, after it had stopped to wait for them.
The men and trucks of the Réserve made many hauls during the war, some short, some exceptionally long and varied, all vulnerable to bombs and artillery fire. Between April 1, 1918, and January 1, 1919, they covered an aggregate total of more than a million kilometers. At 450 kilometers, the Châlons trip was their second-longest convoy, while on the Montdidier trip of November 20-22, 1917, they covered 300 kilometers in 48 hours with only one hour for rest. In August 1918, Groupe Wilcox set the record for the most hours on the road for all available trucks: 669 out of a possible 744.
A short but fairly typical run occurred on September 16, 1917, during preparations for the Malmaison offensive. Two convoys, one of which carried trench mortar bombs, were ordered to haul ammunition to shell dumps along the Aisne River. The men finished loading and set out from the camp at Jouaignes during daylight, stopping in a little wood not far from Soissons to wait for darkness to cover their run along the exposed road leading to the bridge at Vailly. Shortly after they parked their trucks, a German gun opened up on the road, narrowly missing a lone French staff car that had rashly decided to make a run for it. The shelling continued until dark, when the convoys continued on to their assigned dumps. While the trench bombs were being unloaded by one convoy, the gun started firing again, the bursting shells sounding “very close and very terrifying” to my uncle. As the other convoy unloaded on the other side of the river, a shell fell 50 yards short of it, the next burst 50 yards on the other side of it, and for the next few moments, he said, the men “sat and wondered if the gunners were going to split the difference.”
During the last convoy from Barcy, on August 1, 1918—near the end of the Second Battle of the Marne—the French received word that the 103rd Heavy Artillery of the American 26th Division was running out of ammunition. It urgently needed more shells for a barrage to be laid down before an attack the following morning. In all likelihood, this was the only time the Réserve transported ammunition for the AEF.
On November 9, 1918, Groupe Browning made its last wartime run. The trucks left the camp at Asfeld in the Ardennes at 4:30 a.m., loaded at Pignicourt after waiting all day for the officer in charge of the park to be notified of their cargo, and drove over nearly impassable roads to the tiny village of Le Forest, 30 kilometers to the north. The cargo was transferred to wagons from the French 10th Infantry Division at dawn the next morning, and the convoy was on its way home shortly afterward.
After the Armistice was announced on November 11, the members of the Réserve began speculating about their chances of being back in the States in time for Christmas. However, the first cadre of Frenchmen didn’t arrive for training until March 21, 1919, and the Americans weren’t able to turn the trucks over to them until May 6. Finally, on May 29, six months after the Armistice, they received their orders to leave for the embarkation camp.
During their service in France, the young men of the Réserve Mallet achieved a remarkable record under what can only be described as extremely difficult conditions. For example, they were awarded two Légions d’Honneur, one Médaille Militaire (for Robert Lamont, whose hand was shot off while unloading under fire at the ammunition dump at Jouy early in the summer of 1917), 17 Croix de Guerre (including one for Donald Scoles for his coolheadedness in evacuating two wounded men when his convoy was bombed on the road after unloading on the night of August 13, 1918), a section citation and several Certificates of Merit. The Réserve’s casualties included only two men killed in action: H.J. Kuszmaul, whose leg was nearly blown off when his convoy was bombed on the night of August 11-12, 1918, and who died of his wounds two days later, and Lieutenant George L. Edwards Jr., commander of Company C, killed by the concussion of a shell that burst three feet away while he was making sure all his trucks were safely out of the ammunition dump where they had been unloading under fire on the night of October 23, 1918—the night before he was scheduled to return to the States. In addition, two died during an outbreak of influenza in June 1918, and about 10 were wounded.
After the war, it was said that probably no other organization had done more to cement Franco-American friendship than the Réserve Mallet. The French supplied their experience and the Americans contributed their youth and energy.
Originally published in the November 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.