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Coblenz 1919: The Army’s First Sustainment Center of Excellence

In October 2009, the Army Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee, Virginia, was designated as the Sustainment Center of Excellence (SCoE), bringing together all aspects of the Ordnance, Transportation, and Quartermaster Corps and their associated doctrine, concepts, and training. Although this is an interesting concept, it is hardly original. In 1919, in Coblenz, Germany, and the surrounding areas, the U.S. Third Army, out of necessity, developed a complete multifunctional sustainment operation. It not only supported a large U.S. combat force but also found creative ways to train its Soldiers, commonly known as “doughboys,” in logistics operations.

Everyone in the Army today is aware of the longstanding deployment of U.S. military forces to Germany. Since the end of World War II in 1945, U.S. Army and Air Force personnel and their families have worked, traveled, and lived in Germany. What most people do not realize is that from December 1918 to January 1923, another U.S. occupation force was in Germany, and its little-known story is equally as compelling as the story of the post-World War II force.

World War I Armistice

The armistice of 11 November 1918 was not actually the end of World War I; it was merely a truce that allowed the peace negotiations needed to end the war to take place. Though victorious, the U.S., British, French, and Belgian armies were not allowed to rest in place.

The terms of the armistice were clear and fairly precise. Condition V of the armistice agreement of 11 November 1918 stated, “The areas of the left bank of the Rhine shall be administered by the local authorities, under the control of the occupation troops of the Allies and the United States Armies of Occupation.” This meant that the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), commanded by General John J. Pershing, still had work to do. General Pershing knew that he had to build the U.S. portion of the occupying force from the forces under his command and that this force would have a mission unlike current combat operations.

Granted, this mission was one they had all been waiting for because its assignment signified the end of the fighting. It also meant, however, that the doughboys in selected units would be staying in Europe while their buddies went home.

Third Army Established

Deciding that, because of operational constraints, it would not be possible to use either the First or Second Army as the army of occupation, Pershing had another option. With the rapid influx of doughboys from the United States to the frontlines in France, plans had been made before the armistice to organize a third Army. On 14 November 1918, this army was designated as the Third Army with Major General Joseph T. Dickman as commander and became known as the Army of Occupation. Today’s Third Army shoulder patch, with its symbolic A inside an O, reflects that heritage.

To structure the new army, Pershing chose the 1st Division, the 2d Division (which had one brigade of Marines and one of Soldiers), the 3d Division, and the 4th Division from his Active Army units. From the Army National Guard, he selected the 42d Division and the 32d Division. From his National Army divisions, he added the 89th Division and the 90th Division. [The National Army was a volunteer Army (almost analogous to today’s Army Reserve) that was established in 1917 and disbanded in 1920.] All together, these eight divisions would make up the main combat strength of the Third Army. (Most readers will be more familiar with these units as infantry divisions, such as the 1st Infantry Division, but during the period in question, the Army had only infantry divisions; therefore, they were called the 1st Division, 2d Division, and so forth.)

Pershing later added the 5th Division and the 33d Division to secure the line of communication that would run from France through Luxembourg and into Germany. He also included a number of pioneer infantry regiments, corps support units, truck companies, and aviation units to round out his force. [Pioneer infantry regiments performed a number of valuable tasks, such as equipment recovery and salvage operations. They also did engineer-type work, such as road repair.]

In total, Pershing sent over 250,000 doughboys into a 2,500-square-mile section of Germany inhabited by slightly less than a million Germans. He also deployed almost 50,000 of his troops to Luxembourg. Sending a force of this size into a relatively small area had serious implications for Third Army logisticians.

Third Army’s Mission

The Third Army’s mission was quite complex and evolving. The first phase required the selected units to leave their positions in the Meuse-Argonne area of France, move by road through Luxembourg, cross the German border on 1 December 1918, and take control of the Rhine River bridges in the designated U.S. occupation sector of Germany. For some units, this meant a 300-kilometer hike to the occupation sites. The bridges in question included a pontoon bridge and a railroad bridge at Coblenz and the railroad bridges at Engers and Remagen. The Third Army had to maintain secure access to all of these bridges on both sides of the Rhine. The British Army to the north and the French Army to the south had similar missions and their own bridges to seize and guard. The Belgian Army, farthest north of the Allied Armies, occupied the area around Aachen, Germany, but did not have a bridgehead across the Rhine.

The second phase of the operation was to use the occupation sectors as administration zones for accepting and processing the war materiel (guns, machineguns, aircraft, and vehicles) that Germany was required by the armistice to hand over to the Allies. The delivery of this materiel was a major project that was not completed until late in the summer of 1919. After all materiel was delivered, the mission focus was ensuring that Germany provided the Allies with the financial reparations required by the armistice and subsequent treaties.

The Allies were keenly aware that the German Army had moved across these same bridges en route to their starting points for the invasion of Belgium and France in 1914. Should peace negotiations break down, the Allies could use these strongly defended bridgeheads across the Rhine to quickly move their forces into the heart of Germany and continue the war.

All this was in the future, though, because Pershing first had to get his troops to their occupation sites on both sides of the Rhine River.

March From France

The long march through the rain and mud of a European winter from France through Luxembourg
to Germany was a difficult one. Most of Pershing’s divisions had come straight out of combat and were in serious need of refurbishing and resupply. The Army of 1918 still depended heavily on draft animals for transportation, and they had suffered as much as the Soldiers had in the October to November campaign in the Argonne Forest.

Third Army logisticians had less than 2 weeks to prepare the selected units for the move to Germany. However, the logisticians were given the authority to take whatever was available from non-Third Army units to make up equipment shortages for the deploying units. Keeping in mind that many of the troops were still wearing the same single combat uniform in which they had started the campaign, the size of the task was daunting.

Fortunately, toward the end of the war, the U.S. Services of Supply had made some improvements in its ability to supply the frontline Soldier with what he needed. Nonetheless, as the 250,000 doughboys crossed the German border on 1 December and headed to the Rhine, their equipment and physical condition still left much to be desired. Not only were boots, rifles, gas masks, artillery pieces, signal carts, and kitchen trailers worn out, at least 90 percent of the troops were infested with lice. Spanish flu and mumps epidemics also wreaked havoc on individual Soldiers.

To make matters worse, Pershing’s Soldiers were headed into enemy territory that promised little in the way of food, supplies, or medical treatment. Germany had been blockaded for 4 years, and the inhabitants of the areas to be occupied did not have enough food and medicine for themselves, much less for an occupying force. Sustaining the force was going to require creativity, and it was going to have to be fast.

Sustaining the Troops

The initial plan for logistics support to the Third Army had called for moving supplies and equipment
by road and rail from the depots in France through Luxembourg and then into Germany. However, the French rail system had been thoroughly worn out during the war and required significant repair. France desperately needed the available rolling stock to get its industrial base back on a peacetime footing. Therefore, the French Government asked the AEF to consider another means of moving supplies to the occupation zone.

This request meant that shortly after arriving in the occupation zone, the Third Army had to completely redo its logistics support plan. After a short study, the Army decided to bring what it could by truck from the AEF depots in France and to have the bulk of their supplies shipped from the United States to either Antwerp, Belgium, or Rotterdam, The Netherlands. From these ports, the cargo would be loaded onto river barges and towed down to the Rhine riverports in to the U.S. occupation zone. Bendorf, Germany, on the right bank of the river, was used to support the 1st, 2d, and 32d Divisions.

Andernach and Coblenz-Lützel on the left bank of the Rhine were selected to support the other units. In time, large ration dumps were established at Andernach and Bendorf and a quartermaster depot was set up at Coblenz-Lützel. All of these depot sites were chosen not only for their proximity to the Rhine for receiving the inbound cargo but also for the nearby road junctions and railheads that allowed easy onward movement to the troop sites.

Army logisticians also looked around to see what was available locally to support the force. Working in the Third Army’s favor was the fact that the area around Coblenz had been a hub of support to the German Army, so with a little innovation, some logistics functions could get a fast start. The logisticians first had to work their way through the great piles of abandoned German war materiel still in the area. In one warehouse, they found 140,000 blankets, which they placed on barges and shipped up the Rhine to Rotterdam for use by refugees in war-torn Belgium. Bales of cloth for making German Army uniforms were found in a Coblenz factory and sent back to France to help make and repair the uniforms of the thousands of German prisoners of war being held there.

Among the facilities found in Lützel, a town on the north side of the Mosel River, across from Coblenz, was a complete shoe and uniform manufacturing plant. Owned by the German Government and previously a major supplier of uniforms and shoes for the German Army, the plant was well laid out and equipped with electrically powered machines. Operating the facility, Third Army quartermasters repaired 13,348 pairs of shoes in January and February 1919. By mid-February, the daily output was between 800 and 1,000 pairs.

After the long, muddy march to the Rhine, the Third Army moved quickly to provide laundry services to the U.S. forces in the occupation zone. The Army took over several German laundries to wash and clean the troops’ uniforms. Army mobile laundry units that had made the march soon joined in to augment this desperately needed service. A large German laundry with six washing machines was located close to the Lützel shoe factory, so it was also appropriated. As the Third Army later reported on the operation, “By the middle of February an output of 30,000 pieces a day was being maintained with a force of 45 German civilians working in two shifts, and the system was working so well that laundry received in the morning was washed, repaired and ironed by night.” The salary for each of these German employees was paid for by the German Government as part of the cost of occupation.

Ammunition Stores

During the first days of the occupation, in addition to salvaging German military equipment and monitoring the war reparation efforts, the Third Army logisticians had another equally important, and potentially more dangerous, mission. When the Third Army Soldiers arrived in their designated occupation zone, they found large quantities of ammunition that had been left behind by the German troops when they evacuated Rhineland-Pfalz. Most of this ammunition was found at Trier; Neuwied; Mülheim (near Coblenz), where the Germans had maintained a plant for assembling ammunition of various calibers; and at the old 19th-century forts surrounding Coblenz.

The stocks included German ammunition and ammunition that had been captured from the Allied armies. They found shells of every caliber and large numbers of fuses, aerial bombs, grenades, empty shell cases, and small-arms ammunition. They also found large quantities of gunpowder, zinc, lead, and brass used in the manufacture of ammunition. Much of the ammunition was unserviceable and too dangerous to justify continued storage or shipment to the United States.

Third Army ordnance specialists quickly demilitarized or dismantled the dangerous materials. They were able to salvage some of the munitions for future use, experimentation, and static displays and managed to recover 135,000 artillery shells, 400,000 fuses for artillery shells, more than 22 million rounds of small-arms and rifle ammunition, 3,000 heavy artillery brass cartridge casings, 36,000 naval shells, and 2,000 tons of German gunpowder. Much of this ammunition was later used in annual Army of Occupation wargames that took place each autumn and involved large numbers of live-fire exercises.

While the Third Army was working to solve many logistics issues locally, the distribution pipeline coming from the United States slowly started to move materiel. Supplies for the doughboys were first towed down the river on 23 March 1919 and continued to arrive at an average rate of 1,216 tons per week at Andernach and 1,912 tons per week at Bendorf. The new depot at Coblenz-Lützel received 977 tons of quartermaster stores to be maintained as the Third Army’s stocks. In a very short time, the Rhine River, control of which was the main reason for the Army to be in Germany, had become its support lifeline.

Meeting Other Soldier Needs

The need for some of these supplies was critical. The lice infestation of approximately 90 percent of the doughboys had to be addressed. Once the troops were in their billets in their assigned divisions’ sectors, the medics started a massive campaign to delouse the troops and free the command of vermin.

At first, only one truck-mounted steam sterilizing machine was available and the bathing facilities in
the smaller towns were inadequate. In response, the Third Army medics and mechanics worked together to build several steam-powered disinfecting machines. With this equipment and some standard steam disinfectors and portable shower-baths that arrived in the zone, the lice menace was rapidly reduced. By 31 May 1919, the lice infestation rate was down to less than 1 percent.

The Third Army also began a program of schools to train the doughboys in military and civilian subjects. Soon there were unit-level and division-level schools in a number of locations. The 33d Division, still in Luxembourg, even found time to send all of its cooks and mess personnel back to class for refresher training in mess hall operations.

American Forces in Germany

In July 1919, the Third Army furled its flag and was replaced by the American Forces in Germany (AFG). Major General Henry T. Allen, the AFG commander, was a firm believer in both field training and classroom training, and under his guidance, the school systems flourished even more. He established a regimen in which class attendance was expected, rather than just encouraged.

The school system soon included a Mechanical School featuring formal instruction in automobile and motorcycle repair, blacksmithing, welding, and driving. The Quartermaster’s School taught cooking, baking, and shoe repair. The Ordnance School focused on weapon and general equipment repair at the company or battery level. The Signal Corps and Engineer Corps also ran schools that taught everything from radio operation and repair to mapmaking and mechanical drafting. Even the AFG’s “provisional” cavalry squadron ran a school to teach stable operations and saddle repair.

The crown jewel of the Army school system was a small farm that the AFG quartermasters set up near Mülheim. Used as a teaching laboratory for agricultural sciences, it provided classes on such topics as animal husbandry, gardening, and general agriculture. Using student labor, the farm provided fresh meat, vegetables, eggs, milk, and flowers for the Soldiers and dependent families of AFG. Because of the scarcity of good milk in the U.S. zone, the farm became the source for all the milk used for patients in the local Army hospitals. The quartermaster farm also provided milk for the children of U.S. servicemen assigned to AFG.

AFG Drawdown

In the United States, the 1920s were starting to “roar,” and with the post-war economic boom and the growing sense of isolationism, no one really cared much about the German Rhineland. The U.S. congressional enthusiasm to maintain a force on the Rhine dwindled with time, causing the size of the AFG to shrink as the occupation ran its course.

With the continued drawdown, every month brought more sales of excess equipment no longer needed by the AFG. All AFG aviation activities shut down in April 1922, and all aviation equipment, including 24 Dehaviland DH–4 aircraft, several brandnew Liberty engines, and other spare parts at the airfield near Weissenthurm, was sold. Also included in the auction were all of the gardening tools and livestock that the Air Service doughboys had accumulated to supplement their diet and as a pastime for their off-duty hours at the airfield.

In January 1923, with its strength down to 1,000 men, the AFG received orders to fold its flag and return home. Faithful to the very end to the cause of innovation and self-sufficiency, all materiel that could not be carried away was disposed of through local auctions and sales. Even the AFG’s unofficial newspaper, supported completely by local subscriptions and advertising, sold off all its office equipment and donated the proceeds to buy milk for the children of poor German families in Coblenz.

By February 1923, all of the U.S. forces were gone and the French Army had moved into Coblenz to maintain the occupation. Who could have known then that the U.S. Army would return in force again to this part of Germany in March 1945? The capture of the Ludendorff Railroad Bridge at Remagen, the very same bridge once proudly guarded by the Soldiers and Marines of the 2d Division after World War I, would signal that the end of World War II in Europe was near and the second occupation of Germany would soon begin.

In retrospect, there is a lot to be admired about the Army’s “first sustainment center of excellence” at Coblenz. Though they would not recognize that name, the logisticians of the Third Army and AFG certainly earned the title. Providing support under unusual conditions in a foreign land, they showed a creative streak that ensured that the United States had a viable force to meet a varied mission. While doing so, those logisticians also managed to run a variety of school and training sites that prepared the doughboys not only to be better Soldiers but also, in many cases, prepared them for civilian occupations after their service was complete.

Whether supporting the 250,000 men of the Third Army in 1918 or the last 1,000 doughboys of the AFG in 1923, the assigned logisticians certainly earned a place of honor as part of the first U.S. “watch on the Rhine.” General Pershing put it more simply: They were part of “the best unit in the Army.”

Alexander F. Barnes is a logistics management supervisor for the Enterprise Systems Directorate of the Army Combined Arms Support Command. He is a former enlisted Marine and Army warrant officer. He holds a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the State University of New York at Cortland and a master’s degree in archeology from the State University of New York at Binghamton.

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