"“At the beginning of the war it was realized that fulfillment of the Army horse-drawn vehicle program would require mobilization of the entire wagon industry of the United States.”1
This startling statement was made by the War Department (predecessor to the Department of Defense) in its annual report of 1919 – the first post-war report, and a document full of fresh-from-the-front observations. Interesting also is the (perhaps mostly in hindsight) realization that horse-drawn vehicles were in no way going to be superseded by motorized vehicles, at least during this war.
Wagons for War
The most basic army wagons had a canvas top mounted on curved staves and closely resembled the covered wagon made famous as the vehicle of pioneer settlers in the American west. These “prairie schooners,” as they were fondly called, were general utility vehicles with a wood bed, iron-rimmed wheels, and the ubiquitous tall canvas top, a design that had changed little in a hundred years.
The standard wagon was known as the escort wagon and weighed about 2,100 pounds. It was drawn by four mules and driven by a single driver seated on the wagon, and carried a maximum cargo of 8,000 pounds.2
By early in 1918, the government found it necessary to place orders with companies that had not traditionally been involved in the wagon industry, such as furniture manufacturers. By the time the war ended, about 75% of the furniture factories in the U.S. were engaged in building wagons or parts for them.3
Purchases by the U.S. were not the first for many of the suppliers involved in production of war materiel.
“Following the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914, industries across the United States recognized opportunity and began to shift their focus to building war materials for the belligerent nations.”4 The role of a St. Louis-based St. Charles Car Company provides a specific example:
“Founded in 1873, the St. Charles Car Company produced passenger railcars and streetcars sold nationwide. In 1899 the company, along with 12 others, merged to form the American Car and Foundry Company. With factories in St. Charles, Detroit, Jeffersonville, Indiana, and Berwick, Pennsylvania, among others, American Car and Foundry was tasked with building a variety of artillery support vehicles, artillery shells, and submarine chasers. Among the vehicles to be produced were gun carriages, caissons, battery wagons, and escort wagons.
“The American Car and Foundry Company’s St. Charles plant was tasked with the building of 50,000 army escort wagons. Because the St. Charles plant was set up to build passenger railcars, which required substantial woodworking equipment, they were the ideal plant to produce the wooden four-mule escort wagon.
In addition to the escort wagons, the St. Charles plant produced all of the woodwork and chests for the artillery vehicles produced by the American Car and Foundry Company, including: 2,535 chests for spare breech mechanisms, 2,535 chests for spare sights, 2,223 chests for spare cleaning materials, 2,183 chests for small supplies, 2,207 chests for miscellaneous spare parts, 9,992 tompions for gun muzzles, 2,207 grindstone frames, 20,800 packing stripes, 41,794 pieces of wood lining for forge limber chests, and 61,972 pieces of wood lining for store limber chests. The company was also contracted to produce cast-iron stoves used at army camps in the United States and France, of which 2,208 were produced at the St. Charles plant.5
Clearly, army vehicles and their rigging were big business.
Another example of a local economy that benefitted from wartime purchasing was that of North Carolina.
“North Carolina’s manufacturing prowess at the beginning of the twentieth century made it a prime resource for the goods and supplies desperately needed by the United States government as it prepared the nation for war. Tar Heel manufacturers secured wartime government contracts for everything from finished items like ships and airplane propellers to more basic supplies like leather, cotton yarn, and processed timber.
"Period records indicate that in Catawba County alone, at least fourteen different manufacturers held government contracts. Piedmont Wagon Company was among these fourteen.
“Established in 1878 near Hickory, North Carolina, Piedmont Wagon became an early supporter of the allied war effort when in March 1915 they entered into a contract with the French government to supply 1,000 ammunition wagons for use on the battlefield. Each wagon weighed in at 1,400 pounds and required three horses to pull, as opposed to the typical wagon produced by Piedmont, which weighed just 800 pounds and only needed two horses. The value of the contract, according to newspaper reports of the time, came in at around $130,000.
“The contract required the company to produce the full amount, all one thousand wagons, within sixty days. Company leaders, who had months earlier started running short shifts on account of slow business, doubled the size of their workforce and ran crews night and day to meet the deadline. Three to five carloads of wagons left the factory daily, making their way to the coast by rail where they were loaded onto ships bound for the European continent. When news of the Lusitania sinking broke in May 1915, it was reported that a shipment of Piedmont Wagons was in the hull.
“Following the United States’ declaration of war with Germany in April 1917, Piedmont Wagon shifted its focus to supporting its country in its time of need. A new government contract, this time with the United States, sent Piedmont Wagon wheels to the battlefront with American soldiers.6
A major issue for all producers was finding a supply of wood to build the wagons. According to the War Department Report, “the wagon industry had always required and used air-dried lumber, which required a long period for seasoning and drying. The entire supply for such lumber was soon used up and in became necessary to arrange immediately for kiln-dried lumber.”7
None of the wagon manufacturers had kilns and building them was expensive. In an early version of what would eventually be dubbed “the military-industrial complex,” the government agreed to defray half the cost of the kilns by paying a $10 surcharge for each wagon or group of spare parts.8
But wagons were just one of the many vehicles that were pulled by horses and mules.
Ambulances for Men and Animals
Early in the war the only ambulances available were animal-powered. As casualties mounted, motor vehicles were pressed into service. Private families would even send their own cars to France to fetch back loved ones.
In this chaotic situation, and as the British began to plan for a longer conflict, motor ambulances were introduced and over the course of the war, both horse drawn and motor ambulances brought the injured to medical facilities at the rear of the fighting. They were pulled by teams of two or sometimes four draft horses. These two photos of human ambulances are sourced from post cards that were created as mementos of the war experience.9
Gun Carriages and Ammunition Supply Trains
Guns were carried on a two-part vehicle which when hitched together had four wheels, with a two-wheeled limber in front and the gun on its two wheels pulled behind. Ammunition and supplies for an artillery division required 162 cargo wagons; for an infantry division, 287 vehicles were needed, which could carry a total of 740,550 pounds and take up a net road length of just under two miles.10 The infantry division also had three veterinarians, five wagonmasters, 30 assistant wagonmasters, 20 horseshoers, 10 farriers (with more advanced training than the horseshoers), 10 saddlers, and 298 teamsters, as well as cooks, agents, mechanics, and other personnel.11
Photos of restored wagons, gun carriages, limbers, and the harness that went with them, are shown courtesy of Ralph Lovett, Lovett Artillery Collection.12
Of Rolling Kitchens, Water Carts, and Pigeon Lofts
Though vastly out-numbered by supply wagons and gun carriages, some of the most unique vehicles of the war were those which were built for very specific purposes. In addition to the ambulances there were rolling kitchens, water carts, sprinkler wagons, and even pigeon lofts.
Among the horses and mules who served the war effort were other animals. Dogs carried messages and pulled carts; camels were used in the middle east as riding animals, and homing pigeons carried tiny cylinders on their legs that held tissue paper messages.
Easily capable of flying 100 miles or more, the pigeons had an innate and unerring ability to navigate back to their home loft, carrying messages between the front lines and command posts in the rear. No statistics are available on the reliability of this service in World War 1, but in later wars messages were reported to have been delivered successfully over 98% of the time, sometimes even by injured birds.
With tens of thousands of men to feed every day, the rolling kitchens were essential. Despite the fact that the conditions if France emphasized a static, slowly moving force, there were distances to be travelled in the supply and food replenishment process as they brought supplies from ports, to storage depots, and on to the front lines.
Mule wagons could travel up to 18 miles a day fully loaded under ideal conditions, but in the mud of France, this was sometimes reduced to a mile or two, and a reliable distance from supply depot to drop point was about 10 miles.13 If food could be loaded into several rolling kitchens, the supply wagon could return to its own depot for another load, rather than having to make the trip all the way to the front. Moreover, after the kitchens took on their provisions, cooking could start before the vehicle reached the men it would feed.
Field kitchens were reliant on steam technology to surround a central cooking vessel with an outer cylinder in which steam circulated. A constant temperature could be maintained and the central vessel was actually a pressure-cooker, using not only heat but pressure to cook food much more quickly than over an open flame.
The rolling kitchen was originally developed in Germany in the 1880s, and by the time of World War 1 was widely used by many armies. The cookers had various designs but all had some version of the central chimney which gave them their German nickname, “gulaschkanone” or Goulash Cannons.14
The U.S. used both motorized and animal-drawn kitchens in WW1; there were over 7,000 of the latter in France. Each kitchen consisted of a limber and a stove unit. The stove unit had a bake oven and three kettles, while the limber held three bread boxes/water containers, the cook's chest, four fireless cookers, and four kettles.15
A fireless cooker was an insulated pot into which boiling food was placed; the heat of the food continued the cooking process for hours as the heat was held in by the insulation around the pot. Soups and stews were excellent choices for this style of cooking. Thus, the meal could be started in the morning over open fires, placed in the fireless cookers, and ready by the time the kitchen reached the fighting men. The stove unit could meanwhile be cooking additional food or boiling water for coffee or tea.
An interesting offshoot of wartime rations was the development of instant coffee, which by the end of the war was being consumed at the rate of 37,000 pounds a day!16
In total, about 190,000 horse-drawn (and mule-drawn, of course) vehicles were ordered between April 7, 1917 and July 1, 1919. After the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, all undelivered orders that could be terminated were cancelled; in total, about 117,000 vehicles were actually delivered, plus spare parts to the equivalent of about 60% parts for each vehicle.17
Just as the American horse industry benefitted from wartime procurement from many nations, so did the wagon industry, including the production of rolling kitchens. In January 1915, France ordered eight thousand portable kitchen wagons from the Kentucky Wagon Manufacturing Company of Louisville, Kentucky. "...work on them was started at once, according to announcement made by R.J.V. Board, president. The value of the order is placed at between $200,000 and $250,000. The wagon company will manufacture the wagon beds, wheels and all other wooden parts of the portable kitchens. Other American concerns have received contracts for manufacturing the utensils and steel parts.”18
Just from the period between June 30, 1917 to June 30, 1918, the Quartermaster Corps ordered the following:
After The War
After the armistice was signed, the Quartermaster Depot at Jeffersonville, Indiana was designated as the depot for the storage of all surplus horse-drawn vehicles and harness.
Inbound shipments actually increased as goods already on order before the armistice (and too far along to cancel) were delivered. At the peak, about eighty rail cars a day were unloading goods at Jeffersonville, none of it needed for the peacetime army. Extensive temporary storage sheds were erected to house the influx.
The depot stored 4,000 rolling kitchens of the trail-mobile type: the kitchens were packed in boxes, each package weighing about 4,300 pounds. The piles of boxes were each 45 feet wide, 30 feet high, and 1,000 feet long. Corrugated-iron roofing was placed on the sides and tops, thus forming waterproof buildings.
Wagons were stored in galvanized-iron warehouses, each one capable of receiving 2,500 wagons, without wheels. Wagon wheels were stored in specially adapted sheds.20
Eventually, all of this would be disbursed, most for pennies on the dollar.
- U.S. War Department Annual Reports, 1919, Government Printing Office, Washington DC, Volume 1, page 789.
- Baker, Lieut. Col. Chauncey B. “Wagon Transportation for the Army,” A Lecture Delivered Before The Officers Of the Quartermaster Reserve Corps, At Washington, D.D. on May 15, 1917. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1917, p.8.
- Ibid, War Department Report, p. 789
- Ibid, Baker, p. 12.
- Ibid, Baker, p. 12.
- Ralph Lovett, Lovett Artillery Collection, www.lovettartillery.com
- Ibid, Baker, p. 11.
- Haak, Kathleen. “The Goulash Cannon,” The Carriage Journal, Vol. 55, No. 4, August 2017, p. 223.
- Ibid, Haak, quoting American’s Munitions 1917-1918, Report of Benedict Crowell, The Assistant Secretary of War, Director of Munitions, Government Printing Office, Washington – 1919.
- Ibid, Haak, p. 226, quoting Mark Pendergrast, Uncommon Grounds.
- ibid, War Department Report, p. 790.
- The Hub, January 1915, p. 35.
- Report of the Quartermaster General U.S. Army to the Secretary of War, 1918. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1918. p. 30.
- U.S. Army Veterinary Corps Historical Preservation Group, https://web.archive.org/web/20171222213802/http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com:80/~gregkrenzelok/veterinary%20corp%20in%20ww1/veterinary%20corp%20in%20ww1.html
With special appreciation to the staff of the Carriage Association of America for assistance in researching this topic.