The

HARD WHITE ROAD
A Chronicle of the Reserve Mallet

BY

ALDEN ROGERS
SECTION "M", T.M.U.
PROVISIONAL COMPANIES B" AND "H"
MT. COMPANY 844

 

Through the tinted village creep
        Under the moon,
Great beetles, one by one
        Whirring in tune.

Blind beetles, one by one
        That drop their iron spawn
And scuttle off. The dust streaks grey
        Across the dawn.

---E. WHITTLESEY

 

" . . . a grey old town,
At the end of a hard white road."

 

BUFFALO

PRIVATELY PRINTED

1923

Copyrighted 1923 by Alden Rogers
Designed by Frederique Warde: Princeton University Press
Princeton, U.S.A.

 

TO THE TWO WHOSE LOVE, COURAGE AND GOOD CHEER
THROUGH THESE UNCERTAIN DAYS WAS EVER
A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION
MY
MOTHER AND FATHER

 

PREFACE

THIS book has been written in fulfillment of a promise made to those who were witnesses to the daily entries in the diary I kept while overseas. It was the only detailed journal kept by any of the members of the various companies with which I served and many of the men asked me to send them copies when I returned to the States and could have it printed.

The diary in its original form, written as it usually was at the end of a hard day's work, would have been of little interest to anyone, as no attempt had been made to make it readable. It was merely a record of events in choppy sentences and, on account of the monotony of much of our work, contained a great deal that is more pleasant to forget.

I have attempted to record here in as impersonal a form as possible such events as came under my observation which I thought might be of lasting interest to those who took part in them, and I have kept as closely to the truth with regard to dates and facts as I possibly could.

Two or three books and numerous articles dealing with the work of the Reserve have been published, but most of it has been accepted by those who were 'there' as nothing more than so much hot air written to amuse the gullible public. There is no coloring for effect in these pages, and I can produce witnesses to testify to the verity of every incident recorded.

My comrades will recognize many of these incidents as events in which they have taken part and from them be able to recall many others in which I had no share. Necessarily this cannot include a complete history of the Reserve, but what it does contain is fairly representative of the work done by individual members.

My apology is not for the literary demerit of these pages ---for I make no pretense at being a writer---but is rather for the length of time I have taken to finish the work.

I am deeply indebted to the Field Service Bulletin for the use of many of the plates of illustrations which have appeared in their pages; and to Roger Squire and Frank Rice for permission to use their valuable snapshots as illustrations. There are other photographs included whose origin I have not been able to trace, but I am deeply indebted to the men who took them, whoever they are.

A.R.

Buffalo, New York
October, 1922

 

CONTENTS

 Preface

 Introduction: The Reserve Mallet

 I. Training School

 II. The Early Days at Jouaignes

 III. Preparations for the Malmaison Offensive

 IV. The Malmaison Offensive

 V. The Montdidier Trip

 VI. Winter at Soissons

 VII. The First German Offensive

 VIII Villers-Helon

 IX. The Great Retreat

 X. The Second Battle of the Marne

 XI .The Second Battle of the Somme

 XII. The Final Days in the Champagne Sector

 XIII The Armistice and After

 Appendix

 Operations in which the Reserve took part
 A Few Interesting Statistics
 Vocabulary

 LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS

 

 INTRODUCTION: THE RESERVE MALLET

"WHAT branch of the Service were you in?" is a question I have been asked a great many times and nine times out of ten the questionnaire registers a blank expression when I tell him that I was a member of the Reserve Mallet.(1 ) The French title bewilders him. My second, qualifying remark that it was a French ammunition train brings, usually, a ray of light into his eye. A man understands that it was a motor truck train, but a woman often has a confused idea of locomotives, freight cars and Frenchmen.

To anyone who has not read the hair-raising articles about us which Dave Darrah, our inspired press-agent, managed to get into the pages of the "Stars and Stripes" during that period when every outfit in the A. E. F. was edifying the public through that same medium with detailed accounts of just how they won the war, the Reserve might just as well have never existed.

It is my intention, therefore, to put down here in black and white just exactly what the Reserve Mallet was, so that in the future when anyone asks me the above question I can take forth this volume, turn to the proper page and say: "There is all the information you desire."

The Reserve Mallet was a paradox. It was unquestionably the worst military organization in the A. E. F. and yet it was just as unquestionably, as statistics will prove, the best motor truck train in the whole U. S Army. It was the most unpleasant outfit to be in that one can imagine, and yet we had more freedom and pleasure than almost any other organization in the A. E. F. It had about as bad luck in a military way as any outfit, other than that regiment in Siberia, and yet it had the most providential good luck possible in many instances where an ill-starred outfit would have met disaster. And thus it was, all the way through, the worst and yet the best. We wouldn't sell our experiences for a million dollars nor would we undergo them again for the same sum.

The Reserve Mallet was the third great automobile reserve of France. It received its name from its commander, Commandant (Major) Mallet. Originally the entire personnel of the Reserve was French. In April 1917 Commandant Doumenc, who headed the entire French Service Automobiles, asked Mr. Piatt Andrews of the American Field Service if the men who were coming to France to drive ambulances could be put on motor trucks instead. The proposition was put before the men and they decided that inasmuch as they had come to France to help it was only right for them to go where they were most needed. And thus the Cornell Ambulance Unit, taking over a section of trucks on May 8, 1917, marked the beginning of the Americanization of this outfit. It was well over a year before this transformation was complete.

In size the Reserve was a little larger than a battalion, about 1100 men all told, and called a Reserve because it was not attached permanently to any particular Army, Army Corps or Division, but shifted from one part of the front to another according to where the pressure was greatest. It was thus that those who were in it from the beginning have participated in eleven major operations offensive and defensive. G. H. Q. however, only recognizes eight of these.

Our orders came from the French, our pay from the Americans; part of our rations from the French and part from the Americans. We enjoyed the liberties and privileges of the French poilu until we went on furlough at which time we came in contact with the American Military Police, who took half the joy out of life for everyone on leave.

Many of our friends have thought that because we were with the French Armies we wore the French uniform. Not so. When we did get clothes, which was not very often, they came from the Q. M. C. of the U. S. Army.

Whether in the end it was a curse or a blessing that the Reserve had only one really military officer is a question that is debatable. After our brief sojourn at Le Mans most of us were inclined to believe it was a blessing. It was, however, rather unfortunate that most of the enlisted personnel of the Reserve did not understand the nature of this blessing. All that they saw was the military inefficiency of their officers. But the military game is a hard one to learn and still harder to put in practice and the schooling our lieutenants were given at the Meaux School for officers of the Service Automobiles was pitifully inadequate to fit them for handling a company of men. Nearly all these officers were from the old American Field Service, and there was the cause of most of the dissatisfaction among the men who had been sent over from the States in organized Motor Truck Companies. On arriving in France they were sent in compliance with the original plan of G. H. Q. to be trained by the men of the old A. F. S., who knew the practical end of the game. After their training they were supposed to be reorganized in their original companies and serve with the American Army. One train, the 101st Motor Supply Train of the 26th Division, actually did complete this schedule. The other companies arrived in the early spring of 1918 for their training, just at the time when the high pressure started which was to last until after the Armistice was signed, and so great was the need of truck drivers both in the Reserve and in the U. S. Army that the original plan was given up. The companies of the 407-8 and 9th Motor Supply Trains, then training with us, became part of the Reserve under our officers and non-commissioned officers. It was unfair to strip them of their officers and put them under men, who, although they knew convoy work from A-Z, did not know as much about drill and army paper work as many of the men who were now their subordinates. The Field Service men had been picked as officers principally because of their convoy ability, familiarity with the French language, and general prestige, except in a few instances such as are always found, when a man became an officer through boot-licking or petty politics. They were not military men in the true sense of the word.

Those, then, are the reasons why the men of the American Field Service were regarded with such dissatisfaction by the drafted men from the States.

Major Gordon Robinson was the one truly military officer that we had. He had received his training at West Point and therefore knew of things military from every viewpoint. During the winter of 1917-18 he took delight in putting the fear of the gods in our hearts by his weekly inspections. As long as he was with us we resembled, more or less, a military outfit. But in March he was called to take charge of the Motor Transport School at Decize and for the next few months the Reserve suffered from the unpardonable management of his successor, whose incompetence was responsible for his removal a little later. From then until the final days of the Reserve's existence the command was held by Major Potter, a capable officer and fine gentleman who did all that he could for the men under him, but who did not have the military background of Major Robinson.

The regime of unmilitary officers had its advantages as well as its disadvantages for we were not bothered much by drill, reveille, taps and other boring military customs, except at intervals of about two months, at which times our officers would feel that we were becoming too lax and would post a military schedule on the bulletin board which, after two or three days, everyone would proceed to forget.

Thus we enjoyed a great deal more liberty than we would have had in an American Sector. When our officers weren't using their staff cars for the same purpose we could often get them for sightseeing and joy-riding trips.

The greatest disadvantage of this unmilitary existence was the lack of discipline. A sergeant going after a detail secured better results if he used a little tact and asked rather than ordered the men to do the necessary work. The reason for this was that there was no punishment for offenders except in a few rare cases. The men did just as little work as they thought they could get by with when in camp, but while they were on convoy they did splendidly and at times did more than seemed humanly possible.

The court-martial records of the Reserve are a disgrace. Two cases which stand out above the others will serve as illustrations. The first is the case of a sergeant who was reduced to the rank of a private because a piano-moving detail of which he had charge gathered around the piano in the back of the truck and sang songs while passing through the streets of Soissons. To have a court-martial record against you is a very serious thing in the Army for it is a stain on your service record which can never be removed. Although his conduct was reprehensible it certainly did not merit any such serious action. The second case is that of a man whose name I will not mention either. He had the following charges against him with witnesses to testify in each instance: insubordination, disorderliness, drunk on duty, theft of government property, breaking jail on a previous sentence and assault with intention to kill. Offenses which warrant a long sentence at Fort Leavenworth. Through a technicality of military law, with which our officers were not familiar, the punishment which was due him could not be administered and he was simply reprimanded and let go. With such an example of justice before them the men knew that they could get away with almost anything and proceeded to do so.

Another item that made the Reserve unpleasant to be in was the matter of promotions. After Major Robinson left came the great regime of acting-sergeants, acting-corporals, acting-cooks, everyone receiving private's pay and acting in these higher capacities. Warrants applied for in February and March 1918 did not come through until the middle of May the following year. We could have made good use of the 1500 francs difference in pay which was due us, but as our warrants were dated May 12, 1919, and not the date they were applied for, there was no way to convince the paymaster that he owed us any money.

This chapter, however, is to explain what the Reserve was, rather than to catalog our many complaints.

We retained the French system of organization. Over all was the Reserve Headquarters, entirely French in personnel. In this office were the Headquarters of the two Groupements of the Reserve, Groupements 8 and 9. In each Groupement were four Groupes, each known by the name of its commander: Groupe Browning, Lieut. Browning commanding. A Groupe consisted of four companies, 18 trucks to a company. The theoretical strength of a company was 60 men, officers and non-commissioned officers included. As a matter of fact there never was a company in the Reserve which had a full complement of men; they averaged about forty men to a company.

The office in charge of the Americans in the Reserve was known as the American Mission. Its duty was to feed, clothe and pay the men. Pay came regularly; food shortage was never serious though we often wished that they would vary the diet of beans, corned beef, and goldfish (salmon). We never did have enough clothes so that the whole company could make a decent showing at an inspection until the week before we sailed for home. The shoe question became so serious that during the winter of 1918-19 we had to beg shoes from the Red Cross at Sedan.

The work of the Reserve was to supply the needs of the Army, Army Corps or Division to which it was temporarily attached. During the war the Reserve hauled principally ammunition and trench material. It also hauled troops, 75mm cannon and caissons, 37mm cannon, trench mortars machine guns, baby tanks, baggage, food, refugees, in fact anything that lacked means of transportation.

The quantity of material hauled can be judged from one swift glance at statistics: during the five summer months of 1918, June through October, the Reserve hauled for the French Armies more ammunition than the American Army used in its entire participation in the war.

And now I hope you have a fair idea of what the Mallet Reserve was: an unmilitary, undisciplined, dissatisfied, sloppy looking outfit, lazy in camp but unparalleled for work on the road. Whatever is said against it as a military organization matters not one whit. In line of duty the Reserve never failed no matter what hour of the day or night the orders came, nor how exhausted the men were from overwork, nor whether our ancient and honorable 5 ton Pierces had to be tied together with string so that they could run. The French in appreciation of the faithful work of the Reserve recommended it for decoration with the Fourragère de la Croix de Guerre, which American G. H. Q. refused to let us have.


Chapter One