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

Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Very Big Problem of Shipping the AEF Over There

By Leo P. Hirrel 

Prior to resuming unrestricted submarine warfare, the German government calculated that even if the United States could adjust its industrial might to war production, it would be unable to transport and resupply an army across the ocean. To be sure, the Army Transport Service originated in 1898, and its troopships began crossing the Pacific the following year in response to American annexation of the Philippines. Yet these ships were not suitable for moving troops across the Atlantic, because their slow speed left them vulnerable to submarines and they could not carry enough coal for the return voyage. Even if this small fleet were suitable, it could not carry nearly enough soldiers to make a difference. 

Nonetheless, the United States was determined to send an infantry division to France by early summer if only to reassure its allies. A civilian advisory committee identified seven suitable passenger ships that were available. Although sufficient to move the token force, clearly this fleet would never work for the millions of soldiers destined for France.

Help was on the way from a most unwilling source. In 1914, ships from the German passenger fleet sought protection from the British Navy in the then-neutral harbors of the United States. As war with the United States appeared more likely, the Germans recognized that these ships might be seized, but they believed they could keep these ships from being used against them without their total destruction.

They ripped apart the giant steam cylinders within the engine rooms, believing that it would require over two years to replace them. Disregarding maritime customs, the U.S. Navy chose to repair the existing steam cylinders instead of replacing them, which placed the ships in operation relatively quickly. Altogether the United States gained 20 passenger ships this way, including the giant Vaterland, which became the famed Leviathan. These ships played a critical role in the early part of moving the U.S. Army to Europe. 

The USS Allen Convoying the USS Leviathan

The Army acquired other passenger ships through a variety of means. The  government exercised its right to commandeer use of existing passenger ships and those under construction, with payment to the owners. The United States solicited neutral nations for permission to charter their ships, and for the most part, neutral nations agreed because the war drastically reduced passenger commerce. The Netherlands, however, was unwilling to agree, so the United States simply employed a seldom-used belligerents' right to commandeer neutral property within its boundaries by seizing Dutch passenger ships in American ports, with compensation.

Ships were re-configured for the maximum numbers of passengers, and soldiers slept in shifts. Altogether, 347 ships made a total of 1,228 voyages. Even with these acquisitions, the United States still lacked the means to move its army across the ocean. To meet the gap, Great Britain provided its own passenger ships and cargo ships that had been converted to passenger ships. By the summer of 1918, the combined fleet was sufficient to move over 200,000 soldiers per month. 

Cargo proved to be the more difficult problem. Before 1917, about half of the American merchant marine was engaged in coastal trade, not transoceanic. Whereas passenger traffic declined in the war, the demand for cargo ships increased, including such added requirements as moving nitrates for munitions from Chile to the United States. Until the convoy system was introduced, the German submarines sank ships faster than the British could build new ones. Moreover, the demand for shipping accumulated with each successive increase in the numbers of American soldiers. On average, each soldier in France resulted in 28 to 33 pounds of cargo per day. An increase of 200,000 soldiers meant at least another 2,800 tons daily cargo requirements, and the numbers just kept climbing. The inability to move supplies across the Atlantic became a major impediment to American operations.

As early as September 1916, Congress had recognized the potential need for a shipping industry by authorizing a shipping board, with the option to create an emergency fleet corporation should construction of ships be required. The early history of the corporation, however, illustrates how the administration's initial reluctance to use wartime authorities to commandeer material hindered the mobilization. Ships required steel, which was in short supply and therefore priced high.

After a failed wooden ship effort, the board did turn to steel ships, including requisitioning ships then under construction at American shipyards. It also developed means of fabricating parts throughout the nation and using the shipyards for final assembly. In the process it established new shipyards, notably at Hog Island near Philadelphia. These new yards required construction of the facilities, staffing, establishment of administrative procedures, recruiting labor, and even housing for the employees. All of this required time. The Emergency Fleet Corporation did not reach full production until October 1918. In that month alone, the Corporation launched 77 ships that could carry 398,000 deadweight tons, almost one-third more than the entire United States had produced during all of 1916. These were impressive production numbers but at the end of the war.

Massive Hog Island Shipyard, Philadelphia, PA

In the meantime, the United States needed to contend with inadequate shipping and every prospect of watching the situation deteriorate. Movement of supplies to Europe was the greatest concern but not the only need for shipping. The Navy also needed commercial cargo shipping, as did the Belgian relief efforts. The nation needed to import essential raw materials, most notably nitrates from Chile but also a wide variety of other material. Some prewar trade patterns were too essential to allow discontinuance. Each segment of the oceanic trades had its own fleet, which created a situation that was inefficient in the aggregate.

In response to the rapid deterioration of the situation, the government developed the Shipping Control Committee in January 1918. The concept ended the practice of separate fleets for each particular purpose and placed all available ships into a single pool. The committee then determined the optimum use of each ship in supporting the various facets of the war effort. Ships were assigned based upon this need, not upon any ownership principles. Within a few weeks the changes somewhat eased the shipping situation until new construction could take effect.

Sources: Over the Top, September 2017


  1. The Hog Island Yard (present day Philadelphia airport) produced, I am not sure, but I think over 1,000 ships. Known as the "Hog Island" class. Many of them purchased by Japanese shipping interests in the inter war years; Japanese Ship Name + Maru. Ironically WW11 US Pacific submarines did a job on these, yes Unrestricted submarine operations; so abhorrent in The Great War, now rules of the game.

  2. Red Hook in Brooklyn, New York, was essential to the First World War effort by providing a key shipping and logistics center. The piers and docks were necessary to transport troops and supplies. Bush Terminal, now an industry city, was built for manufacturing and shipping operations. It even has a train yard. It is a great place to visit to enjoy the cobblestone streets and piers. Initially, it was created as a military supply base during WW1.

  3. Love the comments. Thank you.

  4. This awesome demonstration of American ability to perform extraordinarily was on the mind of Europe's enemies thirty years later.