Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Bullets, Bandages, and Beans: The United States Army Logistics in France in World War I

By Alexander F. Barnes and Peter L. Belmonte
McFarland & Company, 2023
Courtland Jindra, Reviewer

Shoulder Patch, Services of Supply
American Expeditionary Force

The quote "Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics," has been attributed to General Omar Bradley, but the gist of the sentiment goes back at least as far as the writings of Alexander the Great. Nonetheless, thousands of volumes are written about the strategy and tactics of the battlefield as well as the political machinations of the governments engaged in war. However, finding books about military logistics is much, much tougher. Comparatively speaking, it's not as "exciting" reading about unloading ships or lumber production, but the behind-the-scenes stuff is arguably just as important as the formulation of attack plans and the daring exploits of Medal of Honor recipients. Bullets, Bandages, and Beans: The United States Army Logistics in France in World War I, does an excellent job of delivering the basics regarding the AEF.

Some of the Many Facets of the Services of Supply
 in Operation

What co-authors Alexander Barnes and Peter Belmonte tackle in this tome is definitely daunting. In a sense, writing about specific battles, or even a general offensive strategy, is much easier to break down. Among the hundreds of thousands who served in the AEF's logistics arm, were everything from dentists to railroad engineers. Nonetheless, the author-duo divide the effort into 11 easy-to-read chapters. The book begins with the initial (failed) effort to set up logistics in France, the Lines of Communication (LOC). Pershing and company had some great prescient early ideas (the Sections of Operation for instance and how to try and get stuff to the front from the base Ports), but as the USA's presence kept expanding and became unwieldy, the AEF’s brass soon realized they needed to reorganize the LOC. With the newly organized group came a new name: "Services of Supply" (SOS).

Massive Meatpacking Plant Operated by the SOS

As the book moves along, we are given an overview of how things ran. In a sense, the movement of troops and supplies themselves is followed. We see how ports of entry, like Brest and St. Nazaire, were set up. Then the book moves to the transit camps the men were deposited in after they made if from America, the construction of hospitals, how men were fed into the SOS (a job few desired—Doughboys wanted to fight and officers typically sought to lead troops in combat), how the postal service ran, plus summarizing the logistics network service after the shooting ended and during the occupation of Germany. Additional chapters cover Service Organizations like the Red Cross and mini-biographies of some of the more important figures in the SOS such as James Harbord and future U.S. vice-president Charles Dawes.

Services of Supply Monument, Tours, France

Given the fact that not a great deal of books exist on the subject, this is probably one of the more digestible ones. It doesn't get bogged down in numbers the way that James Harbord's An American Army in France 1917-1919 sometimes did. It's also a much quicker read than E. Alexander Powell's magisterial, but occasionally dry, The Army Behind the Army. I especially loved little tidbits that were peppered throughout, including the fact that the first four deaths from enemy fire were not Merle Hay, James Gresham, and Thomas Enright—but four servicemen at Base Hospital 5 who died from a German aerial bombing two months before that infamous trench raid. One of the quartet, Leslie G. Woods, is buried in Somme American Cemetery, and despite visiting with the superintendent during my stop there in 2018, I don't remember hearing about this incident. I would think the ABMC would have made it a bigger deal!

I hope people interested in the AEF add this book to their collection. Admittedly, I am biased in that I have two ancestors that served in the SOS. One was a member of Veterinary Base Hospital #16, and one toiled in Mobile Laundry Unit #325. Apparently, both denigrated their own service, no doubt preferring to have charged the Hindenburg Line or something “heroic.” But if men like my ancestors didn’t exist, those men on the front line wouldn’t have been able to do what they did. Obviously, General Pershing appreciated what the men behind the lines brought to the table, as the beautiful fountain at Tours which graces the cover of this volume shows. I'd like to think each of my great-grandfathers would be happy that another book on the SOS has made it into circulation.

Courtland Jindra

1 comment:

  1. All who serve or have served KNOW how important support is.