The Trucks the Doughboys Left Behind: Surplus Disposal in Europe after WWI
By Tim Gosling
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
Amongst the many millions of postcards sent home to the friends and families of the Doughboys of the American Expeditionary Force is a small but reoccurring theme. It is a picture of an army truck usually with a proud Doughboy either leaning upon it or sitting in the driver’s seat and on the back the words something along the lines of “This is the truck that I am driving”. World War One introduced the driving of mechanical transport to a great number who it might otherwise have passed by. What it also did is establish a bond between military drivers and their machines, something which has happened ever since.
When the United States declared war upon Germany on April 6, 1917 the US Army owned 370 trucks, 300 of which were in service on the Mexican border. An order was placed in July 1917 for 10,550 trucks and 500 motorcycles which was immediately followed by numerous additional orders as an immense purchasing programme was launched. The established American manufacturers could not meet the immediate demand so the US Army looked to overseas manufacturers, particularly to Britain, France and Italy. This helped meet the shortfall but presented further difficulties due to the diversity of the fleet and the lack of common parts. It was recorded that by the end of the war the American Expeditionary Force operated 294 different makes and models of trucks of which 81 were manufactured overseas.
To help overcome the problem of maintaining such a diverse fleet the military looked at constructing vehicles built by different manufacturers but to a common design. Although this was a sensible concept, the first of the standardised Liberty B trucks only started arriving in France shortly before the war ended.
When the Armistice took effect on November 11, 1918 the German troops occupying France and Belgium slowly withdrew back into Germany and across the Rhine. Following closely behind them came the British, French and American forces which would occupy the Rhineland to ensure that the German army disarmed and disbanded as per the Armistice terms. The centre of occupation for the American forces would be the city of Coblenz where a bridgehead across the Rhine would be established. To undertake this task the Third Army was formed comprising approximately 240,000 officers and men spread across nine Divisions. Travelling with the Third Army into Coblenz was approximately 10,000 vehicles which they would use until July 1919 when the Third Army would be disbanded.
As the Third Army marched into Germany the remaining First and Second Armies withdrew from the front line and looked forwards to a speedy return home to America. As they withdrawn from the Advance sectors, all of their motor transport, wagons, trailers and bicycles were delivered to the small French town of Bourg. Trucks of the same make and model were classified as to their condition and were parked neatly in lines. Motorcycles, some still new in crates were initially kept undercover in tents, but the sheer volume of them necessitated newer arrivals to be stored in rows outside. Trucks which were badly damaged or incomplete were left in a holding area until they could either be returned to operational condition, or if they were beyond repair they would be dismantled for parts with the remainder being scrapped. Near to the railway, large piles of wheels, tyres and radiators were neatly established as was a giant pile of salvage which German POW’s from a nearby camp would sort through and extract anything which might be of use with the rest going for scrap. The process was well organised and as the lines of trucks got longer and longer the question was raised what to do with them? The first objective was to calculate what they had so a detailed census was undertaken. The result of this came to a staggering 126,136 motorcycles, cars, bicycles, trailers, tractors and trucks of which 7,368 came from European manufacturers.
A handful of trucks, some of which were in battle damaged condition had already been shipped back to America for disposal by auction when the American truck manufacturers became aware of this. Fearing that if all of the surplus trucks were to be brought back then the market for new trucks would be overwhelmed with them, they lobbied the US Government that those vehicles left overseas should remain there. The US Army had estimated their peace time requirements for trucks and cars as being in the region of 22,000 as well as a further 16,000 in a strategic reserve. This total could be met by trucks already held within the United States, in addition to which there was a further 36,352 trucks and cars which were now identified as surplus. Any fears that the home market would be swamped came to nothing as the Government gave these ones away to the Highways and Agricultural Departments as well as to the Post Office.
A “Liquidation Board” was established to oversee the disposal of surplus equipment overseas and they met with French counterparts to discuss the potential sale of the trucks in France. The very concept of this was met with outrage by the French who already dealing with tens of thousands of surplus French built machines on the market were faced with it becoming even more saturated with the availability of many more American trucks joining them. The only way that the French would agree to the sale of the American trucks in France would be that any purchaser would have to pay an additional 70% import duty on the value of the trucks as if they were new! The American vehicles at Bourg and other locations (particularly the channel ports) were to remain where they were slowly rusting away. The rather bored American troops left guarding them had to frequently turn away visiting entrepreneurs who hoped to buy some for resale to the public.
An agreement had been reached between Great Britain and the United States that no American built trucks within the AEF would be shipped back to Britain, but that did not include the British made trucks which had served them so well. A business consortium paid the US Government $1.2 million for all of the British built trucks which were returned to Britain, refurbished and then advertised for sale. The US Government made separate deals with the Belgian, Polish and Rumanian Governments and sold surplus US made trucks to them as well as donating vehicles to the American Red Cross who would use them for relief purposes across Europe.
In May 1919 and after much discussion it was agreed that the French Government would purchase all of the surplus US military equipment, vehicles, spares and workshops in France. The liquidation board had calculated the value of everything as $1.5 billion but after some protracted negotiation with the French a figure of $532.5 million was settled upon.
As the last American troops left Bourg, the French moved in and started to sell off the trucks to private buyers. Due to concerns over the rising costs of maintaining the camp and the length of time that it would take to sell everything off, in August 1919 everything which remained at Bourg was sold off to a private company who over the next few years disposed of what remained. This would not be a quick process and was still taking place as late as December 1927 when 350 Nash Quads and 300 tons of tyres were still being advertised for sale. Having now been sitting outside for nine years their condition could no longer be considered to be good, but these machines were very durable and could still be brought back into service.
A slightly different fate befell the approximate 10,000 trucks which belonged to the US Third Army and which were left behind in the city of Coblenz. The liquidation board arranged for the sale of everything which remained and a large stock of spares for £3,250,000 to a British syndicate. These trucks would ultimately be refurbished and sold onto customers across Europe which had been starved of new trucks since early 1914.
The trucks which were left behind found a new but hard life with their civilian operators. Many of them were used long after you would expect their useful life to have come to an end. Although surviving trucks from the Great War are few and far between, with so many left behind in France they do still occasionally come up for sale. Amongst our own collection we have a 1918 FWD Model B truck which having come from France was said to have still been hauling a fairground ride until the 1970’s, although that was probably exceptional.
Another truck in our collection which might have had an interesting but now unfortunately lost history is a British built Dennis subsidy lorry, one of approximately 3,500 built for the British army and of which several hundred were supplied to the US Army. While preparing the lorry for restoration we found a WW1 US Army tunic button which had been forcefully jammed into a crack in the chassis. It must have been placed there deliberately, but there is no obvious reason as to why. The truck almost certainly came back from France, so although it was a British Army truck was it one of those which were supplied to the AEF. Sadly we will never know the full story.
Shortly after the end of World War One the Walthamstow (East London) based truck manufacturer of AEC received an interesting letter from the United States. It came from an ex-Doughboy who explained that during his time driving trucks with the Motor Transport Corps in Europe he had driven a large variety of different makes and models of truck but none compared in reliability and strength to the British built AEC ‘Y Type’ that he had been assigned. He liked the truck so much that when he had to leave it behind in order to return to the United States he removed the data plate from the cab which had the chassis number stamped upon it. He went on to state this number in his letter and asked if they knew if the truck still existed as he would like to see it again. Sadly the reply from AEC was not recorded, but the letter does demonstrate the bond that can be built between the military and the machines that they drive. This AEC was one of the 4,306 trucks supplied by the British to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) to help overcome a shortage of mechanical transport, but which overall was a small proportion of the more than 100,000 vehicles used by the AEF, most of which would be left behind when the Doughboys headed for home.