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Podcast 40: Logistics Of War

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Now this wasn’t done without danger, of course. Sometimes under great difficulties, not only of shell fire – oh, tremendous confusion sometimes – but nevertheless, we got the job done…

As the saying goes, an army marches on its stomach. The British men and women who served overseas in the First World War needed to be supplied with not only food, but other vital equipment and weapons, too. They also had to be transported to, from and around the fighting fronts. Much of this essential wartime logistical work was undertaken by the Army Service Corps – or ASC. Walter Williams joined the ASC as a driver, after seeing an advert in 1915.

Drivers in those days were not as they are today, ten a penny. It was quite an accomplishment to be able to drive. So, drivers were urgently required. I just went down to the recruiting office in Oxford Street, Weston-super-Mare, and went to the doctor. He passed me for the Army Service Corps. I had varicose veins and I don’t think I would have got through for the infantry, but I was okay for the Army Service Corps. I went to Grove Park in London, passed a pretty severe test on a four ton lorry, going up a steep hill and not letting it run back and so on. I was judged okay and so was mobilised to 14th M.A.C. right away and in three weeks I was in France!

New members of the ASC usually received some basic training after they enlisted. Sidney Woodcock described his experiences of this.

I was sent to Grove Park and kitted out at Grove Park with my uniform and all that sort of stuff and then I was sent down to Aldershot. In the morning there we were foot slogging, right turn, left turn, marching and all drilling. And in the afternoon and evening we were learning how to drive lorries, which I could do anyway! Driving big lorries was quite a different matter, but you had the three ton lorries and I’d only been used to driving a Ford car with two pedals, one of the very early Ford cars. I thought, ‘We’ll never get used to driving these large lorries.’ Well, being in the engineering world, it wasn’t difficult to find out how to do that.

Some received no real training. Tom Bromley enlisted in the Motor Transport Section of the ASC and journeyed to France before it was realised that he couldn’t drive.

Disembarked at Rouen on the 15th of April. I enlisted on the 7th in London, was in Rouen eight days after. I had my uniform, rifle and items of equipment – didn’t know what to do with them. No training whatsoever, absolutely nothing. But before I left Rouen, I had to take a driving test and that was the first time there was any idea of finding what I could do and what I couldn’t do. And that applied to everybody else. Well, I was taken on a Daimler and those Daimlers at that time were very tricky cars, especially for somebody like myself, who wasn’t experienced. It was a sort of test course up hill and down dale, which entailed all aspects of driving: gear changing; slowing down; steering. All the usual things that one encountered during a test of that kind. I was absolutely hopeless, no idea! So I failed the test. In fact, the officer who took me on this test was very annoyed with me and said some very rude things. But I failed ignominiously is the word!

Once at the front, there was a whole range of work for the ASC and other logistical corps to carry out. One vital role was the moving of men – often in large numbers – to where they were needed. British staff officer Philip Neame outlined the methods used in this.

The problems of carrying out large scale troop moves involve road and rail. Great use was made of the French railways was made behind our front line. There was usually enough rolling stock for a fair amount of railway moves, and one knew pretty well exactly how many divisions could be moved by rail in a given time, say in one day, two days, three days. And when there was a real emergency and it was a case of moving four, five or six divisions from one part of the front to, say, forty or fifty miles away to another part of the front where the Germans were starting to deliver a very heavy attack, you had to make quick decisions as to what was the quickest way of moving them. How many you could move by rail and how many had to go by road.

Men travelled by ship, by foot, by motor vehicle and by rail to the battle fronts. One of the most innovative ideas was the use of London’s omnibuses as a means of transport for the troops. George Gwynn, who went on to serve on the Western Front throughout the war, recalled how this came about in 1914.

In about early October, the British Government went into the London General Omnibus Company and said would they ask the drivers now driving those buses in service in London to take those buses right off the road and right over to France as they were short of troop transport – they had no transport. Once the soldiers got off the boat, they had no transport at all to take them up into the battle areas. And that’s how London buses ever became involved in the war. They asked their drivers to take those buses needed right over to France and do what they asked us to do. And the next morning, 300 of us turned up at Westminster and we said we’d do just that. We would take our buses right away and we would take them over to France and we would carry the troops as wanted.

The buses served not only as troop transport, but also as ambulances and even mobile pigeon lofts. Ernest Lock remembered the challenges of his work as an ASC bus driver.

I drove a bus for a long time out in France; I was on the bus column out there. You was on duty all the time, 24 hours. Of course you couldn’t drive it all that time, a certain amount of rest. But you was on duty, you could be out any time, day or night. You were on call, you see, for the different units going up, you see. You’d pick them up and take them from the railheads, you see, and take them up to the line and go so far up and drop them. You couldn’t get right up to the line, not drive right to it but you’d get near enough to it. Most of it was night work; you didn’t go up in daylight. Of course, the worst was when it was wet you see, when your roads were so bad. You was only travelling on coarse country roads, you wasn’t on the main roads then. Going up to the line you was all on country roads, byroads and that.

Other types of motor vehicles were also used. British private Alfred Stammers drove officers by car around the Western Front.

I went up very close because I took officers up for their sort of baptism of fire. I collected them at night time at Bray on the Somme and then I drove them up towards the line. And then, when we got very close, we just stayed there and remained there all night and the officers they went off. They looked all spick and span when they went off but they didn’t come back spick and span. I collected them and brought them back to Bray, because that was our meeting point, you see.

And Eustace Booth rode motorcycles during his wartime service with the ASC in France and Belgium.

I was always on call and dedicated for duty with anyone who wanted to make use of a dispatch rider. Which meant that I was temporarily located at Divisional Headquarters, or with Battery Headquarters. They would want me to travel up the line and find their advanced units. And I’d collect information of the number of casualties they’d had, or the effect of shells – if it was a battery, the effects the shells were having and so forth – and bring the information back again. It was a glorified messenger boy; that was my service right the way through. I’d come off a bike many a time, fallen off or knocked off. I got a few bits of shrapnel in me, but it didn’t do any harm.

Ian Ross was an ASC driver whose lorry was converted to transport men instead of supplies. But he found it was just as helpful to carry their heavy packs.

At this time, our lorries had been converted from ammunition carrying to troop carrying, which made it a much easier job for us as the cargo loaded and unloaded itself. Now, sometimes we were directed up to meet troops that were being withdrawn from the line and we had instructions that we were to load up with their kits so that it would be easier for them to march back, as they were not burdened with them. And we’d very strict instructions that we weren’t to allow any of the troops themselves on to the lorry – just kits, nothing else.

The railways were crucial for moving men and supplies across the vast distances of Europe. Royal Engineer Harry Hopthrow described the French rail system.

The trains went very, very slowly and they were very, very long trains. But they were worked in what were known as marches. I think a train left every 20 minutes – that’s three per hour. They went at a standard speed – which was a very slow one – and it was just that sort of service, a continual flow in both directions of trains. That seemed to work very well. It was tedious in a sense, being a passenger after being in an ordinary passenger train, but rather using hindsight now it appeared to work very well.

Light railway systems were also built to transport troops, supplies and ammunition and to evacuate the wounded. Bertram Neyland travelled by this means after he was injured in April 1917.

I was carried away on a light railway, which the British Army had established behind the lines on most of the front. They were light railways driven by light locomotives. The trucks were, as far as I remember, just platforms on wheels. And then the casualties were put to sit or to lie, with their stretchers, on these things. And in that particular case I suppose I would have had a journey back to Arras of about eight to ten miles on this little railway.

Across all the fighting fronts – and for all the warring nations – maintaining supply routes and networks was of crucial importance. It could make or break an advance. British ASC officer G Rae explained how key this was to the Allied force that fought in the Mesopotamian Campaign.

Obviously, the most vital question for the advance from Basra right up through Mespotamia as far as right up to Kut-al-Amara, was the question of supply. For the army crawls on its stomach, and unless and until we had the supply situation completed, we were handicapped in advancing very far up. But fortunately, we were able in the very early stages of the campaign to establish our base at Basra.

The further British armed forces ventured from Britain, the more the supply lines were stretched. The logistical challenges of the Palestinian desert pushed men to their limits – as Edgar Woolley recalled.

The rail transport, which was so necessary and important for the maintenance of supplies and staff and food to the line as it advanced, was at times very difficult. And as the first necessity was military equipment – to maintain the advance elements of the Army in case of an enemy counter attack – such normal things as clothing and food were often, I think, given second consideration. In the result at times we frequently had to go without decent food at all. The only thing we relied on were biscuits and, occasionally, bully beef. The army biscuits were like, almost like chewing – they were almost identical to dog biscuits. Personally I hated the things. I couldn’t stomach them, could hardly chew them.

On the Western Front, a vast system was put in place to enable ammunition to reach the troops. After supplies had arrived at various railheads – several miles behind the lines – they were placed on motor vehicles to go by road to divisional refilling points. Tom Bromley transported ammunition by lorry.

We were stationed between Corbie on the River Somme, which was a railhead – that is to say, the railway came up to that point from the Channel Ports. And we were engaged in transporting the ammunition from the railhead up to the front, forming ammunition dumps and supplying the gun positions. Apart from ourselves engaged on this work, there was a lot of horse transport – horse transport galore! But even so, we had 18 pounders, 4.5 howitzers, 60 pounders, 4.7’s and grenades and this and that – bits and pieces – which we transported to the front to feed the guns and build up dumps, which were obviously to be used later on.

ASC driver Frederick Dunkley found that his job kept him very busy.

With my job on the Western Front I was connected with the mechanical transport, which of course entailed the transporting by mechanical vehicles of all sorts of supplies to the front. We must bear in mind that the mechanical vehicles were solid-tyred, no windscreens and very, very difficult vehicles to drive on the roads that the conditions prevailing. A normal day could easily consist of picking up a load from a railhead of High Explosive ammunition, delivering this probably a distance of 20 km to a dump, returning to a rail head, picking up a supply of foodstuffs and delivering this to another dump of a different kind, possibly in the same area because we were a Divisional Supply Column. And then it could easily be that, when one returned to the unit, you were detailed to go to an entirely different place or railhead… Alright, perhaps, but we must bear in mind, the conditions of the roads. And these journeys were not easy.

Thomas Olive also drove ammunition around the Western Front. He described how lorries were repaired if they got into difficulty on the uneven roads.

All these columns – they used to call them columns – a column of lorries, you know, attached to the 3rd Division or 5th Division, whatever it might be. But they all had a workshop lorry travelling with them. The means of working it was with a little Douglas engine and in the floorboard of the lorry there was a big square space cut open and mounted on a block, a concrete block, was this little Douglas engine. And they lowered it onto the floor and they connected the belt up to the lathe or the drills, whatever it was. Of course, they couldn’t do heavy repairs, that was sent down to base or left or anything like that. But for light repairs – turning up a shaft or anything like that, doing valves or whatever it might be – we utilised it for that.

Ammunition was taken from the dumps or refilling points up to the artillery positions by men or by horse transport. James Goodson carried out this work in his role as part of the 4th Divisional Ammunition Column.

Evidently they were short of drivers. Probably they’d had a lot of casualties, I don’t know. But four or five of us went from the battery to help, to join the DAC: the Divisional Ammunition Column. Our job there was supplying the guns. You had to find what ammo you wanted and take it yourself. We got it from dumps in the neighbourhood where they were. We had some tricky little jobs. Sometimes the guns was up the side of the infantry. Well in that case it meant going up very quietly in the middle of the night, you know. You can guess how it was with the ground all chewed up with mud and, oh the mud. Mud – mud was the enemy.

A huge amount of food was consumed by Britain’s armed forces during the First World War. Supplying millions of men with their rations was a complex operation. Food destined for men on the Western Front was unloaded at the Channel Ports. Alec Thomson supervised such work at Le Havre in 1917.

I was made a lance corporal then, in charge of some men. We went down the docks to unload the boats, you know – beef and tinned stuff and boxes and everything like that. Sides of beef, you know, sides of quartered beef, bullocks cut up – the meat ships. Onto trucks up for the line, you know, further up. I’d maybe have 20 men some days, some days you had 30 men. I was in charge of them, you see, that was my job – seeing everything was going alright. I didn’t lift anything, oh no.

William Kirk outlined how rations were then transported and divided up for the various units.

The whole job had to be done to fit in with what was happening. We’d get an order to refill that day at a certain place. We waited, the lorries as far as they dared come, and the stuff was dumped. We took it over from them. Then we started to get it ready for the regiments. The regiment’s representative was there, often the quartermaster sergeants. We knew the strength of his regiment, could be 600, 800 or whatever it was. And we had to issue the rations which had already been demanded through the head office, like. They would come from the nearest railhead – the nearest place the roads was good enough for them to come. And then it was transferred from the lorries to the horse transport for going up to where they wanted. It all had to be done by guess, there was no scales allowed. It took a bit of thinking out – you’ve got to, it was a case of wanting to use your brain. I had to use my brains, I tell you! It bothered me sometimes, I mean, to wonder whether I was going to get through!

At the end of this supply chain, the men in the front line received their welcome rations of food. John Grover of the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry recalled how this final stage worked.

They came very well indeed. Of course in the forward areas they had to be carried up by ration parties. It was quite a business, because you had your transport lines well out of the line. And then every night the ration parties came up – the transport was horse-drawn, what they called limbered wagons – and your rations were made up by company units and they came up with a quartermaster sergeant to accompany it to some dispersal point from which they had to be carried forward by carrying parties every night. But they always arrived and they were made up in advance according to the sub-units they were going to so that you got a sandbag containing the rations for so many men.

A whole range of other equipment – from clothing to fuel – was vital for keeping men ready for battle. These supplies were issued by each unit’s quartermaster. NCO William Skipp once found himself under pressure in this role.

When I was a company quartermaster sergeant, of course, one of my duties was the issue of everything: food, clothing – an issue of tobacco or cigarettes came up, it was my job to distribute it. Well, I always remember, I had an issue of khaki and my company being the biggest company, I was the only one to get this particular issue. Well the quartermaster gave it to me; I issued it all in good faith. Two days later, after we’d had a shower or two of rain, that khaki turned purple. Well, of course it sent up quite a giggle and my particular company were known as the bright boys, you know – with other two words put in. Well, that wasn’t so bad but we had a battalion parade. And when the colonel came to my company, he said, ‘What the hell’s going on here?’ And of course the quarter bloke was always responsible for anything like that that went wrong. Well, he chewed me up – I wouldn’t like to repeat the actual language he used – but he said, ‘Get them changed by the next parade!’

Although members of the ASC worked behind the front line they were still serving in a war zone, and faced the dangers this entailed. In July 1916, ASC officer Percy Douglas was wounded while transporting ammunition.

The road between Fricourt and Montauban was a sunken road, very narrow, and it was known as the Valley of Death. Because every few hundred yards or so, there was a dead mule and a smashed up limber or wagon. And the Germans, of course, kept dropping shells all night at odd intervals along this road; of course, they had the range of it. We sort of got instructions to go up one night and I took 14 GS wagons with me and a sergeant and we went into Fricourt, there was a large ammunition dump by Fricourt. Well, we loaded up with bombs and small arms and ammunition and then we proceeded up the Valley of Death. Eventually, we got up to this dump where we were to unload the wagons. We were met there by an RE party, who unloaded the wagons. We turned them around and started to go back again. There was a tremendous bang and I came to in a ditch. I’d been hit by a fragment from a 5.9 high explosive shell…

As well as the Army Service Corps, many other units were involved in keeping the war machine in operation. A vast amount of labour was employed. Huge numbers of men built roads and trenches, worked at depots, stores and canteens and carried out many other tasks besides. Frederick Higgins outlined the functions of both the Pioneer and the Labour Corps.

Every division for the fighting troops had a regiment of some sort attached to them of what they call the Pioneer Corps. The pioneer regiment done all the work required, you know, such as helping on the trench digging and all sorts of general repairs that might be required. All sorts of work, jobs like that went on, to keep things moving or to help the troops to do their job. The Labour Corps was any man who could do a job of work, any sort of work even if it was only labouring. They’d gather them all together and distributed them out to various places, various camps, working in the camps you know and helping the cooks and all sorts of jobs. Everything that required doing, there was always somebody to do it.

Manual work was also carried out by members of the Egyptian, Indian, Chinese and other Labour Corps. Thousands served in these forces. A Fletcher worked with members of the Chinese Labour Corps at one of the ammunition depots in 1917.

At this time most of the heavy labour of our depot was done by Chinese. We had about eight hundred of them. They were not recruited men, they were not army men, they came over under contract, they came from the paddy fields of China and most of them had never seen Europe until they arrived at France for this purpose. They knew no language but Chinese and of course we couldn’t speak Chinese, they had interpreters. They were very strong and extremely good to work with.

During the war, the ASC grew to over 325,000 soldiers. These men – and others – achieved the impressive feat of maintaining the supply of men, equipment, goods and ammunition to a vast war machine across a multitude of fighting fronts. Tom Bromley was proud that, although the work could be dangerous, he and his comrades didn’t buckle under pressure.

We were under stress, if you can use that word. The question of rest didn’t enter into it; it was night and day, get what rest you could. But the ammunition had to be delivered where it was needed, regardless of the comfort of the individual. And I would say this, that our boys – practically all of whom were volunteers in the first instance – knew what was required of them and didn’t hesitate to carry out the tasks assigned to them, with a cheerful heart. They were very efficient in doing the job, keeping the lorries on the road and making sure that the guns received the ammunition that they wanted. Now this wasn’t done without danger, of course. Sometimes under great difficulties, not only of shell fire and there was great confusion, breakdowns, horse transport in the way, troops trying to come up and down, ambulances coming back with the wounded – oh, tremendous confusion, sometimes – but nevertheless, we got the job done, without complaint. Never any question of any hesitation in getting on with it.

Find out more about the First World War at iwm.org.uk. We’d really like to know what you think of these podcasts. Please rate us or leave a comment on iTunes. Listen out for Podcast 41: The German Spring Offensive