|Edward Tinkham in 1919,
Looking Hardly Changed After His Adventuresome War
by James Patton
Part III: Difficult times in the Camion Service
In June 1917 Commandant Adjoint Edward Tinkham had his hands full. Most arriving drivers were being sent to the Camions, because the French were still asking for more drivers, even providing war-weary trucks, and the Field Service was short of ambulances. Some felt that deliveries were being held up on purpose, others saw French inefficiency.
At the top the Service was feeling "pushback" from its donors, many objecting to the combatant role. To satisfy legality, the official name was changed from "The American Ambulance Field Service" to the "The American Field Service", and the Camion units were renamed "The American Mission" to the Rèservé Mallet, where the Americans eventually made up 14 Sections in Groupements 8 and 9, Tinkham’s TMU 526 being the first Section.
Moreover, the AFS felt honor bound to the commitment made to the French in April, even though the Nivelle offensive had ground to a halt before Tinkham and his men hauled their first cargo.
In the field Tinkham was facing command challenges.
On 14 June he wrote to a Cornell professor:
The section has just finished loading the cars at one of the big depots and is on the road towards the lines. It is early in the afternoon and they can only go to a certain point along the road and wait there until nightfall before continuing to the more advance posts. The load consists of various trench materials … It is not our task to carry such things, but during slack intervals the reserves do not always carry ammunition.
We arrived three weeks ago, just at the tail end of an offensive, and work has been diminishing ever since. The fellows get impatient at being idle any of the time – they haven’t learned that this is how war goes...Before six months are up the fellows will have accomplished a lot of real hard physical work. Much more, I think, than in the Ambulance section. But the work isn’t nearly so appealing, so it would take more courage to see it through. We go about as far up as the ambulances and take the same risks – in fact, on every trip some of the cars have run through shells, but there isn’t the same opportunity for individual action. Convoys of eight, twelve, sixteen — always together.
I knew from the start that we had an exceptionally good set of men… it is my aim to have this section be the well from which the leaders of the new sections will be drawn…I expect by the end of the summer there will be a thousand men enrolled… I wish the people in America could realize how much France needs men and supplies. Not only fighting men, but organizers and business heads. At times there are incidents that give reasons, perhaps, why the war has lasted so long.
Tinkham was fielding complaints about the mission, about the work, having difficulty training so many new men, shuffling the old men around, and was doubting the capabilities of French commanders. Consider these letters from his men:
Robert Browning, 16 June:
Tinkham called the section out for drill. We surely had some workout and all came in after two hours of it wringing wet, for this has been about the hottest day we have had …
Up near the front we witnessed an air fight between a German and two French planes. After doing some damage the German got away safe. It was a fast and exciting game while it lasted. Al in all, this work is just an everyday grind … there is no hero stuff in the Camion service and Kipling would have a hard time writing a poem on the thrills of a truck driver.
What [was written] is a lot of piffle about Captain Tinkham and his bunch of sturdy Cornell men going into the battle, cheered by the French and English soldiers as they march into the trenches.
Edward Pattison, 24 June:
We don’t go within a mile of the first line trenches, and the only danger is from stray shells, and the Germans aren’t wasting many these days. There has been only one man killed in all the sectors here since we came, and he was the last one of forty men going into a dug-out. There isn’t as much danger as there is in New York City.
And 2 July: Life has not been at all exciting lately. We seldom get sent to dangerous places in the daytime – not because they don’t want us to get shot, but the camions have some value…I have come to the conclusion that in this work I am not running any more danger than I am going to college – perhaps not as much… A few days ago we saw an exciting air battle between one of our fellows in the Lafayette Escadrille and seven Boches… and saw one machine come down… [a] fellow named Hall (note: this was James Norman Hall, the future author)… he was shot through the arm and the lung … but came to about a hundred feet above the ground, in time to turn his machine. Sounds like a fairy story.
No danger, no glamor, hard, boring work — some were yearning for the excitement in the skies. As volunteers, they weren’t stuck with Camions, so they left, especially for pilot training and artillery schools, a trickle became a stream, and another challenge for Section Chief Tinkham.
It may be that he wasn’t cut out for this duty. His command style may have been authoritarian. In the biography, in "Friends of France", it is quoted: "Tinkham is the recognized leader of the unit and whatever he says goes." He may have been sensitive to grumbling. Again a quote: "No one could be more devoted to our welfare."
A Typical Camion Driver's Day
How the Troops Made Light of It
|The Real Experience Was Frequent and Not So Comical
In September it got worse. Plans were afoot to create a U.S. Motor Transport Corps, but the Army’s attitude toward the Camion drivers in "U.S. service" was that "we don’t know what that means, but they’re not in the Army."
From the AFS:
[The] days of Camion drivers in the AFS will always be remembered as terminating on the day when the famous doctrine was annunciated at Jouaignes. For a week it had been rumored that the United States was to take over the transportation division of the Field Service and speculation had run high through the camps as to the outcome. The usual ten o’clock reveille (note: these men worked mostly at night) had been…set ahead three hours that morning when it was heralded throughout the camps of Jouaignes and Soissons that a mass meeting would be held and opportunity given for enlistment. Then came THE SPEECH, a superlative in emphasis and dramatic unappeal.
The Camion men were called "Musical Comedy costumed" and compared to Y.M.C.A. workers, even threatened with "get into the American Army or get out of France". And all would start out as privates; French ranks, ratings, badges, and decorations would be left behind. Few men had expected this; the French in the audience described them as staring "comprend pas".
Boys who had come eager to enlist walked away…days passed and the enlistments did not come in…
The new commandant of the MTC, Col. Gordon Robinson, arrived a week later to find only a few enlistees. He worked diligently to convince more and promised to work out the ranks issue (which he did), and eventually 304 men (34%) were enlisted in the MTC. From TMU 52,644 men went to the MTC, while 81 opted instead for pilot training -- one would become an ace, and another was Edward Tinkham. That part of the story will be told in a future installment on Roads to the Great War.
Sources: Cornell University Archives and American Field Service Archives