Cover Story
War machine!

By Bill Hudgins, contributing writer

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entering World War I. WWI has been called The Great War and The War to End All Wars. It could also be called The War of Military Innovation. New weapons like tanks, machine guns, poison gas and airplanes obliterated all previous notions of carnage and destruction. Trucks and other motorized vehicles composed a significant part of these arsenals.

When fighting started in August 1914, both sides expected a short war: The German war plan called for a rapid sweep across Belgium to take Paris within six weeks. Both sides intended to use railways and horses as the primary means of transportation and supply.

But the Belgians surprised the Germans by fighting back. They slowed the brutal advance enough so France could mobilize its defenses. The war bogged down into four years of trench warfare.

Existing railways and horsepower couldn’t keep up with the needs of the men at the front. According to Great Britain’s Imperial War Museum, by 1918 each 12,000-man division needed about 1,000 tons of supplies a day – and nearly double that during an offensive.

To help bridge the gap between railways and the trenches, both sides hurriedly built light-rail systems. The 23-inch (60 cm) gauge tracks looked like model trains, but proved invaluable.

So did trucks. Trucks helped the Allies win the war of logistics and supply. The Allies – Great Britain, France, Russia and Italy (the United States fought alongside the Allies but never officially joined them) – entered the war with more motor vehicles than the Central Powers (German, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria) and quickly saw their advantage.

The Allies ramped up production, while the Central Powers remained fixated on rail and horse transportation, according to an analysis by James M. Laux in the Summer 1989 issue of The Society of Automotive Historians’ Automotive History Review.

By the end of the war, Britain, France and Italy had built some 102,000 trucks, while Germany had produced only about 12,700. The United States supplied more than 10,000 trucks to Great Britain alone, and after entering the war brought tens of thousands more.

Although U.S. builders quickly expanded production, less than half of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) trucks were American-made, according to the U.S. Army Transportation Museum, The rest were European vehicles. And the AEF never had more than 50 percent of the vehicles and 30 percent of the personnel called for in war plans.

The “Bulldog”

During its time in Europe, the AEF employed 294 different vehicle

makes – 213 U.S. and 81 European – according to the U.S. Army Transportation Museum. These included still-famous makers as well as ones now obscure – Ford, GMC, FWD (Four Wheel Drive Auto Co.), Nash Quad, Packard, Pierce-Arrow and Republic.

Two of the best-known U.S. trucks in WWI were the AC Mack and the U.S. Army’s Class B Liberty Truck.

For many Americans, the AC Mack stands as the iconic WWI truck. Mack introduced the AC in 1916 and soon began shipping them to Great Britain. The first shipment of 10 trucks so impressed the British soldiers (“Tommies”) that they hung the bulldog nickname on the tough, reliable vehicles, says Doug Maney, curator of the Mack Truck Historical Museum.

English Bulldogs were working dogs used to corner wild bulls. They were tough, tenacious and determined beyond their relatively small size.

So were the ACs. “Mack trucks have always been over-engineered to be tougher than needed,” Maney says. Also, the AC’s blunt, sloping hood and jowl-like front cross member reminded the Tommies of their beloved pooches.

Mack quickly capitalized on the nickname. The company added “Bulldog” to its 1917 marketing materials, and it’s been there ever since.

The AC’s design contributed significantly to its durability and reliability. The 3 1/2-ton version had a 4-cylinder, 48.4 hp gasoline engine, with 3-speed transmission, spoked steel wheels with solid rubber tires, a chain drive and rear transaxle.

The chain drive and other vulnerable components such as the differential were located close to the frame rails and relatively high off the ground, and the radiator sat behind the engine. This helped protect them from rocks, sticks and other debris.

Macks shouldered far heavier loads than their specs called for, Maney says. They were outfitted with a number of different bodies, but body type didn’t matter much when supplies needed to get through.

“What might have been intended as a troop transport wound up being used to haul sandbags and other cargo,” he says. This was true of most motorized vehicles in WWI. Buses often transported troops and cargo. During the September 1914 Battle of the Marne, Parisian taxis ferried French soldiers to the front to halt the advancing Germans.

the drive for standardization

The Liberty B Truck evolved out of the Army’s need for an easy-to-maintain vehicle that used standardized parts. The Army’s first major real-world use of trucks came during the Mexican Punitive Expedition of 1916. Led by Brigadier General John Pershing, the Expedition spent almost 11 months trying to capture the elusive bandit Pancho Villa, according to the U.S. Army Transportation Museum, which provided information for this section of the article.

“It was obvious that the truck’s mobility, endurance and speed far exceeded the ability of the conventional horse-drawn wagon. But maintenance was a nightmare. The Quartermaster Corps realized that a truck of standard design and interchangeable parts was a requirement for the Army.”

Once Congress declared war, the Quartermaster Corps quickly assembled a design committee of Quartermaster officers, Society of Automotive Engineers members, and volunteers from truck and component manufacturers. Participants included Autocar, Bethlehem, Brockway, Diamond T, FWD, Garford, Gramm-Bernstein, Indiana, Kelly-Springfield, Packard, Pierce-Arrow, Republic, Selden, Service, Sterling, U.S Motor Truck Co., Velie and others.

Specs called for a large engine, gasoline tank and radiator; 4-speed transmission; low gear reduction; very low first gear; demountable tires; 3-point engine suspension; locking differential; and maximum ground clearance. The committee ruled out using existing models to avoid possible delays related to patent infringement.

The work proceeded swiftly, and by October 1917 two prototypes motored to Washington, D.C., for evaluation. The tests were so successful that the government had signed contracts for all of the components by mid-November. Production began in April 1918.

Bearing a distinctive “USA” nameplate on their radiators, the first of 8,000 Liberty B trucks arrived in France in the early fall of 1918, just in time to join the Allied drive that eventually led to the November 11 Armistice.


Famed military novelist Tom Clancy once wrote, “amateurs discuss tactics … Professional soldiers study logistics.” Ultimately, the Allied powers’ greater production capabilities and their ability to move equipment and men overwhelmed the German army.

The Automotive History Review article notes that the French Army imposed rigid “road discipline” to make supply as efficient as possible. They developed timetables, established repair shops along the routes, and set up pull-offs for disabled vehicles.

During the 1916 battle of Verdun, along a 60-km stretch of gravel-and-dirt highway called the Sacred Road, as many as 6,000 vehicles a day – one every 14 seconds – might pass a given point. The U.S. Army’s Motor Transport Corps was less successful in imposing this kind of discipline and in keeping its fleet in good repair, according to the article.

Though motor truck companies were generally regarded as non-combatant units, the truth was far different, as OOIDA members who fought and worked decades later in Iraq quickly learned.

For instance, the March 21, 1919, Paris edition of Stars and Stripes reported: “Throughout the St. Mihiel drive, this unit was almost continually under fire, working under handicaps of darkness and mud, carrying shells to ammunition dumps, running their trucks without thought of danger to themselves into places of extreme danger in order to help some battery change its position, towing guns out of the deep mud onto the road, and sticking with them until placed in their new positions.”

Stars and Stripes gave a heartfelt shout-out to the Army Motor Transport Corps’ 42,818 trucks. The fleet included machine shop trucks, equipment and repair trucks, gas tanks, water tankers, trucks for analyzing and sterilizing water, dump trucks, mobile dental and X-ray units, rolling kitchens, wreckers and booms and hoists, delousing trucks, and balloon trucks to transport and tend observation balloons. There were also 5,578 trailers for a wide array of needs.

Despite the growing presence of motorized vehicles, both sides continued to use horses, mules and donkeys. An estimated 8 million equines were killed during the war. Of the 1 million that Great Britain used, only about 60,000 survived the war.


Though the U.S. Army maintained a presence in Europe for some time after the war, most soldiers came home and were demobilized.

Some trucks remained in Europe as part of occupation duty, while others were shipped home and many were sold off as war surplus.

This would have a profound effect on America, Maney says. Returning veterans who had seen what trucks could do in a war zone realized they could buy a surplus truck and make a living at home.

British soldiers had a similar experience, according to the Imperial War Museum. “Motor transport had matured, and thousands of War Department lorries were purchased by ex-servicemen and offered increasingly effective competition [to rail].”

The growth of car and truck traffic would spur road building. And the 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy demonstrated the need for a good national highway system for both national security and commerce.

Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower was an Army observer on the convoy, and decades later he would sign legislation for the Interstate system. LL