Pancho Villa, Coffee, Mermites, and Chemical Warfare
This week, as we all remember the centennial of American entry into World War I, a lot is being said about that war’s influence on subsequent history. While many note the geostrategic upheaval wrought by the war, most miss the major changes the war brought not only to military operations but to the operational art of war – the design, organization, integration, and conduct of strategies, campaigns, major operations, and battles using resources efficiently and effectively to achieve strategic objectives. This is the level of war where logistics, support, traffic management, and all else that exists in an army’s “rear,” links to its tactical units engaged in the fight. If tactics is the tip of the spear, logistics and support of that operation is the shaft. Gripping that shaft and wielding the spear is the art of operations.
Now, CBRNPro.net usually spends its time talking about the interface of CBRN operations and history, among other topics. So why are we talking about rations? Well, in addition to showing how much the First World War affected the modern United States military, this story has a chemical warfare component, one that you’ll have to read to the end to discover. Along the way you’ll learn a lot about the AEF in World War I. It is also a good way to introduce topics we’ll be writing and publishing a lot of material on over the next year and a half as we celebrate the centennial of American involvement in World War I as it relates to chemical warfare. Chemical warfare was itself a resource intensive and widespread operation in World War I, intricately linked to the vast systems of supply and logistics developed to feed the American Army in World War I. As for Pancho Villa, well, that's a surprise, so keep reading.
Napoleon is famously remembered to have claimed an “army marches on its stomach.” Yet, for most of history, an army feasted on something locally “acquired,” usually as an Army moved through an area - preferably belonging to the enemy. Pre-World War I armies were like locusts consuming much of what they encountered. Supply was notoriously haphazard for most armies, the United States included, right up to the Spanish American War. While that conflict resulted in significant reforms to military logistics and support, it was the First World War, the first truly “industrial” war of the modern age, that led to new systems to deliver modern conveniences to men at the front, or just behind it - from postal delivery to hot food - all delivered to the front lines or at least within range of German artillery.
While some of the American support in the World War depended on non-military organizations like the Salvation Army, YMCA, and volunteer ambulances of the Red Cross, feeding and supplying the American Expeditionary Force was part of the “SoS” of the AEF – Services of Supply. Modern ideas of military logistics developed directly from these systems, known in World War I progressively as “Line of Communications,” “Service of the Rear,” and at the General Headquarters level as Services of Supply (SoS). Likewise, the modern staff organization of “S-Shops” and “G-shops” developed in the American army in World War I, as adapted from the French system. However, logistics at the Division level and below did not have its own staff section (S-4). Logistics staff were at the Corps level and above until after the war. American divisions, which were twice the size of all other European combatants, did have a significant support structure of medical, quartermaster, and other assets assigned to them.
While these systems were adapted from the French (and to a lesser degree the British), many were uniquely American and in many surprising ways their legacy is readily visible throughout the modern US military, often in ways we don’t realize. From the beginning, the American system of logistics and support in the war developed in support of an expeditionary force – it had to scale and project men, equipment, and supply from the continental United States half way around the world on a scale unprecedented in history.
Force projection wasn’t new. Obviously, the Europeans had engaged in it during their various colonial enterprises, but no one had ever fought such a war, on such a scale, at such a distance. The legacy of the First World War experience, upon which the Second World War military built, is still felt today. No other country in the world can project power like the United States military. Much of that legacy is down to two men – Major General James G. Harbord, commanding general of the Services of Supply in France from July 29, 1918 until May 26, 1919 and the occupation of the German Rhineland, and a young George C. Marshall, whose genius for planning and organization was behind the 1st Division capture of Cantigny. That operation – the first American offensive of the war, lead to his reassignment to AEF headquarters. There, he was the brains behind planning both the St. Mihiel operation and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. In particular, he was responsible for the the incredible shift of forces from one front to the other -itself a Herculean feat arguably unequaled until D-Day. If Harbord was Pershing’s right hand man – Marshall was his left. Marshall’s experience in the First World War paid dividends when he was placed in charge of the American effort in World War II.
For the US Army (and its small contingent of Marines fighting as part of the Army’s 2nd Division), World War I was a massive undertaking. The US projected, by wars end, two million men across the Atlantic, and supported them in a resource hungry war of attrition. Another two million men were also supported stateside, preparing to deploy, when the war ended a year earlier than anyone anticipated. Yet, prior to April 6, 1917 - 100 years ago this week - the United States was singularly unprepared to wage war. Woodrow Wilson had forbidden the Army from conducting any planning for war in Europe prior to the war, and had relieved several generals when he found out they were doing it in secret.
While the National Defense Act had finally passed Congress in 1916, setting up the system by which the Army would expand and mobilize for war, its expansion of the Regular Army was paltry compared to what was required. Most of the spending in the act went toward the Navy and a new Air Service of the Signal Corps based at Langley Field in Virginia, instead of the Regular Army, as was originally proposed by Secretary of War Lindley Garrison (later replaced by Newton Baker). Garrison originally proposed expanding the Regular Army from its then strength of about 100,000 to over 400,000. The House of Representatives opposed this measure, preferring instead to direct such an expansion to the National Guard (and their home districts).
If it hadn’t been for Pancho Villa’s raid into the United States, the bill would never have gotten out of committee, but that action (not the European war) led to Congressional action, as the proposed “punitive action” envisioned in Mexico was beyond the means of the Regular forces then under arms. Still, the final bill focused primarily on the National Guard as opposed to increasing the Regular Army as the War Department preferred, authorizing an increase in active force end strength to just 175,000. When the US entered the war in 1917, the active regular army still hadn’t reached the new manning level, even as the declaration of war authorized a Regular Army end strength of 286,000 men.
The Regular Army was supplemented with National Guard forces of approximately 450,000, and a “national army” of over a million men (primarily made up of draftees) - the national army forming the basis for the modern Army Reserves. These three components, originating in the 1916 act, continue to form the basis of the modern "Total Army" in the form of the Active force, National Guard, and Reserves. Even the numbering scheme for the divisions developed in 1917 remains largely intact, with a few minor modifications. Under current law and mobilization plans, if the United States were to implement selective service and restart the draft, those draftees would primarily flow into the modern reserve divisions, just as they did in 1917-1918. The 1916 act, which also established the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), has remained the underlying structure of the US Army since it was passed, even though it was amended several times and eventually replaced with new legislation.
In any case, as the AEF deployed to France under command of General Pershing, it was horrifically unprepared. In addition to lacking artillery – the dominant arm of the war - it lacked gas masks and nearly every other piece of equipment needed to wage war in Europe. Its forces had no training in trench warfare or chemical warfare. The units that deployed with Pershing, and the first national guard and regular army units that followed, were fresh off their expedition to chase Pancho Villa in Mexico and that operation was not far removed from those of the frontier army of the Indian wars.
Because of these issues, the American army in World War I was entirely dependent on its allies for much of its equipment and training - mainly the French. Only its rifles and uniforms were American made and even then one of its two issued infantry rifles was an American copy of the British Lee-Enfield. The AEF wore British helmets, though a few officers and units wore the French helmet either out of preference or due to their assignment under French command. They carried British Small Box Respirator Gas Masks, used French and British machine guns, and used French artillery, artillery shell, and chemical weapons (in some cases manufactured using American supplied chemicals and steel). The US flew French airplanes (running on American fuel) and trained under French officers and NCOs, with a few Brits tossed in for good measure. It should be noted the British were viewed somewhat dubiously by the AEF and with some justification – the “special relationship” was something that came out of World War II, not World War I. Most Americans serving in World War I had a decidedly anti-British bias, which had a long history in the United States owing to the nation's origins and aggressive British colonial and commercial actions during the 19th century, including its support for the Confederacy and interference in the Caribbean, Central, and South America. America's generally adversarial relationship with the British did not truly end until the late 1930s and Lend-Lease.
The sale of all this equipment, ammunition, and supply was an unacknowledged boost to both the French and British. Prior to American entry in the war, the United States, along with Argentina, was a major supplier and lender to the European combatants, especially the French and British. This had led to a major outflow of European gold to the US and Argentina and the combatants all leaving the gold standard during the war. All the combatants owed banks in the United States massive amounts of money. As the bankers of choice, the United States benefited economically from the war, one of the motivating factors for staying neutral for so long. American entry into the war, and the necessity of acquiring large quantities of French and British supplies, represented a major and vital influx of hard currency (dollars backed by gold) into their war-strapped economies, even as the German economy began to collapse in 1918-1919 leading to its now infamous post-war hyper-inflation. It was this economic cycle that led to the British and French imposition of German reparations after the war as an attempt to get Germany to provide the cash they needed to cover their American loans. It was also the beginning of the dollar as the international currency, cemented at Bretton Woods in 1944.
There were a few things, however, that the Americans had to ship to Europe other than men in uniform. Of course, that is all the British and French wanted – men - they opposed the creation of an independent American Army, and wanted to use American units as replacements for their own forces – American units operating under their command. Ultimately several units would be assigned to French and British command between January and August of 1918 as American units began to enter the front and the French and British reeled under the pressure of the German Spring Offensives. But by September of 1918, the Americans were prepared to field a complete American Army and take over their own sector of the front, despite repeated attempts by the French and British to stymie the effort that continued right up to the St. Mihiel offensive. General Pershing is said to have come very close to punching Marshal Ferdinand Foch, newly appointed Supreme Commander of the allied effort, during one heated argument over an independent American Army. Even after Pershing had “won the argument,” right before the St. Mihiel operation was set to begin, the French made one final attempt to disrupt the effort, while the British pulled promised supporting forces from the planned American effort in the Meuse-Argonne.
It didn’t work. One of the only orders Pershing was given by President Wilson prior to deploying to Europe was to create an independent American Army. In fact, it was his primary strategic goal. The US did not truly deploy to "win the war," or to make the world "safe for democracy," but to be part of winning it. Wilson and the Secretary of War Newton Baker did not involve themselves in the war overseas, preferring to focus on supporting it from home and Pershing operated independently in Europe (even Peyton Marsh, then Chief of Staff did not interject much). Pershing's political masters at home all understood that if the United States hoped to have any influence in peace negotiations after the war, it had to have an army in the field. Pershing understood this as his most important challenge, and his goal. The French and British failed to understand that Pershing's desire for an American Army was Wilson's desire too. It was a political and strategic imperative. As soon as sufficient trained forces were ready, Pershing created the First Army. That Army first conducted operations against the St. Mihiel Salient, followed immediately thereafter by the Meuse-Argonne Offensive just to the north of St. Mihiel.
It was in the Meuse-Argonne where the Army would fight right up to the end of the war, and where the American military came of age. While historians disagree as to the significance of the Meuse-Argonne operation to ending the war, Pershing achieved his strategic goal of a successful, independent, American force in control of territory, even if it was ultimately squandered by Wilson at Versailles. Further, the leadership of the Second World War was forged in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne. Nearly every senior officer of World War II (with the notable exception of Dwight D. Eisenhower), and their future President, Captain Harry S. Truman, all served there. Patton, Marshall, MacArthur, the Roosevelt sons, and many other names now famous from World War II, had their first taste of battle in French Lorraine during 1918. The senior leadership of World War II learned how to be warriors in 1918 and many from Pershing directly. Patton, for example, idolized Pershing as his mentor and role model and was Pershing's aide in Mexico before taking over the formation of the tank corps in Europe, though he was wounded early in the St. Mihiel campaign and missed the rest of the war.
While St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne allowed American forces to come into their own, it was also where one of those things the Americans could not do without had to be shipped from home. Something essential that fueled the American effort in both campaigns. Yes, we are talking about coffee. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in Europe knows that the American version of coffee is dramatically different from European conceptions, and if you have ever spent time in the American military, you know that prior to the widespread distribution of “Rip-Its” the military ran on large quantities of the dark brown liquid. Coffee was to American troops what the wine ration was to the French.
To support this, coffee beans were imported into Europe by Harbord from the United States and Latin America, before being roasted at AEF Coffee Roasting Plants located in Corbeil and Gievres. These plants, part of a much larger system of AEF operated factories, supply bases, and depots, provided quality bean to the entire AEF in France. By war’s end, Corbeil was the largest coffee producer in Europe – cranking out 1.5 million rations of coffee per day. Given that many of the AEF’s leaders (unlike some of their French counterparts) tended to sleep very little, it is safe to assume that they consumed a lot of it. Marshall, for instance, would arise early and walk the two miles from his quarters in a French village to AEF headquarters, arriving around 8:00 a.m. He would work until two or three in the morning, before returning to his quarters to grab a few hours’ sleep.
Water, essential to survival (and the brewing of coffee), was pumped from natural springs by units of the pioneer infantry, usually made up of African American troops. It was also brought forward in horse drawn tanks, pipelines, and on light rail supply routes. These light rail systems, akin to the miniature railroads one might ride at a children’s amusement park, crisscrossed behind both the German and Allied lines, bringing forward everything from water to artillery shell – beans to bullets. The British even developed a method of using light rail to deliver a chemical attack they referred to as a “beam” attack.
The water supply effort led to several common developments still familiar to military members. The first, “Lyster Bags,” were developed shortly before the start of the war, based on the work of Major William J.L. Lyster of the Army Medical department who, based on the principle of chlorine purification of water advanced by Major Carl Rogers Darnall of the Army Medical School, figured out how to purify water using a small solution of calcium hypochlorite. His “Lyster Bags” were suspended from tripods placed in American trench positions and around the battlefield for soldiers to refill their canteens while separate water supply points were set up for the animals supporting the American and French armies. These water points were then resupplied in turn from the rear by special units, including the 1st and 2nd Provisional Water Tank Trains. Just as the Lyster bag (later misspelled as a “Lister” bag) became a familiar component of American military life for the next century, the water “buffalo” tank familiar to modern military members, is a modern version of those drawn by horses in 1918.
Of course, coffee and water, as important as it was to the Army, was not its sole means of sustenance. Feeding the Army was also a major operation. Much of the food itself was acquired from the French, who were already feeding their own large army, and it included more than a few products from its overseas empire, including rice from the French colonies in southeast Asia, which like the troops moved from St. Mihiel to the Meuse-Argonne, were sometimes delivered in trucks driven by French Colonial troops from Vietnam. In addition, bakeries were established throughout the AEF sector, the largest at Is-sur-Tille. An entire storage depot at Montlouis was devoted solely to the storage and distribution of potatoes, mostly from Ireland. Beans, macaroni, and other staples were imported from Spain and Italy. Meat, locally acquired, was butchered and processed at a series of abattoirs overseen by the veterinarian corps, and stored on ice delivered from AEF ice production plants. The “chili-mac” familiar to any veteran of the US armed forces, finds its origins in the macaroni procured by the AEF in Europe, along with several other staples like beans and rice and corned beef hash, commonly served items due to the simplicity of preparation and their high protein and carbohydrate content.
Most AEF units were fed twice a day, receiving some form of prepared rations, akin to modern “A-Rations.” Delivering the food to the front involved the use of either motorized or horse pulled wagons or trucks specially designed for the purpose. These were akin to a modern field kitchen and included a stove unit with a bake oven and space for heating large kettles. These field kitchens also included storage and bread boxes, fireless cookers, and space for extra kettles. Units would move to a location behind the lines to eat chow from one of these field kitchens, or food was carried forward to the men in a large “garbage cans” suspended from a pole carried by two men. Gathering together could prove disastrous, as the Marines discovered at Belleau Wood when they were hit with a large concentration of German chemical shell while gathering to eat, resulting in significant casualties and nearly wiping out an entire company of 200 men.
Ultimately, Major General Robert Lee Bullard recommended that the AEF adopt the French “Marmite Norvegienne.” The French Marmite itself came from an old means of French slow cooking that used hay or another insulator around an iron or earthenware cook pot –the early French version of a crock pot. The French military versions were essentially a giant thermos. Inside these insulated containers, smaller metal kettle pots were stacked containing the heated food from a field kitchen. Even by the time of Bullard’s recommendation some American units had already acquired these from the French, and the British had also adopted a similar device. The Marmites could then be carried forward either on poles as previous rations, strapped to a mule or donkey, or on a soldier’s back using shoulder straps as part of a “carrying party.”
The Army took Bullard’s recommendation, and a version of the Marmite entered the US military after the war. These remained largely unchanged through to the Korean War, until being redesigned into a rectangular version familiar to troops from Vietnam to the early 2000s. In recent years, the older, heavy, metal “Mermites” as they were (again) later misspelled, were replaced by lighter and larger plastic versions. The French versions, while made of newer materials than those of previous years, like the American versions, retain the shape and style of those used in World War I. Incidentally, Marmite is also a brand name food spread made from brewer’s yeast, similar to the Australian Vegemite and popular in Britain and New Zealand, and named for the same French cooking pots. It was originally marketed before the war in containers resembling the French pots. The current jars still have a picture of a French Marmite on the label, despite the product having nothing to do with French methods of slow cooking.
Marmites had a bonus feature in addition to helping deliver hot chow to hungry troops. Because they were sealed containers, food placed in Marmites was resistant to chemical attack, an important consideration given the widespread use of chemical agent in 1918. Unopened containers could be decontaminated and still used to feed troops.
So, with that, we’ll wrap up this post. Please stay tuned to CBRNPro.net for more in coming weeks!
Sources and Further Reading:
National Defense Act 1916, U.S. Army Center of Military History, http://www.history.army.mil/news/2016/160500a_natDefAct1916.html
American Battle Monuments Commission, Chapter 9, "The Services of Supply, American Armies and Battlefields in Europe: A History, Guide, and Reference Book (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1938). https://www.abmc.gov/sites/default/files/publications/AABEFINAL_Blue_Book.pdf
Mitchell Yokelson, Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing's Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I (New York: New American Library Caliber, 2016).
Lawrence T. Fairhall, "A Modification of the Lyster Bag Treatment of Water for Field Use," The Military Surgeon: Journal of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States, Vol. XLV, (Washington, DC: The Association of Military Surgeons of the United States, 1919). https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=A4ZMAQAAMAAJ&rdid=book-A4ZMAQAAMAAJ&rdot=1