Army Service Corps water supply post, sometime in 1916.
Troops, including men of the Army Service Corps, pose for the camera in front of a Ruston threshing machine at Corbie, on the Somme. This memorial post to the A.S.C. is somewhat different to the previous eight in the series. It seems to me that the A.S.C. rarely receives the credit it deserves – and let’s be clear, without the men of the A.S.C. the British Army would have been totally unable to wage a war, let alone win it – so in this post we shall attempt a redressment, not only by introducing you to a few of the men who served with the corps and survived the experience, but also by showing you a plethora of photo-montages of the A.S.C. in action, the majority of the original photographs taken from the Imperial War Museum’s fantastic collection – catalogue numbers available on request and there will be a link to the library near the end of the post.
Three men who served in the Army Service Corps as privates during the Great War. The man on the left was well into his fifties on the outbreak of war, his service record showing over fourteen years service, most with the Royal Marine Light Infantry, but he was a private in the A.S.C. in France when rheumatism ended his war and he was discharged in June 1916. How many men were affected by rheumatism or arthritis in the trenches is, of course, not recorded. No bullet, no remembrance.
The origins of the Army Service Corps can be traced back to the French Revolutionary Wars at the turn of the 18th Century. The Royal Waggoners were established in 1794, although disbanded the following year, but the Royal Waggon Train (above, in 1812) would take over their duties in 1799 and would supply the army for the duration of the Napoleonic Wars between 1803 & 1815, eventually, because it was no longer required, being disbanded in 1833.
However, the early months of the Crimean War – the winter of 1853 – highlighted the severe deficiencies in the British Army’s supply chains, the public in England horrified by the news that filtered back of the conditions under which the soldiers were campaigning. The Army responded by creating the Land Transport Corps (above), which soon became the Military Train. During various amalgamations and splits, the details of which I shan’t bore you with, the Military Train was renamed the Army Service Corps in 1870, became the Commissariat and Transport Corps in 1880, and once again the Army Service Corps in 1888, at which time the army departments responsible for transport and ordnance were combined.
Army Service Corps troops in South Africa, officers in the top picture, and the ubiquitous British General Service Wagon on display in the other two. The Second Boer War would highlight the huge improvement made in army supply since the dark days in the Crimea, Lord Roberts commenting, in his despatch of 2nd April 1901, ‘To do justice to the excellent work done by the Army Service Corps during the war, and to give lengthy details of the magnitude of the task assigned to this department, are beyond the limits of a paragraph in a despatch’.
Scenes from South Africa. Fowler steam traction engines crossing the Modder River (bottom left), and three more views featuring the General Service Wagon, introduced in 1862 and in use, through various improvements (the Mark X, from 1905, was the final version and would be used throughout the Great War), for nearly sixty years until made obsolescent by improvements in mechanised transport.
Oxen, mules & horses do the hauling. In 1903, Sir Wodehouse Richardson wrote an account of the A.S.C. in the South African war, in which he stated, ‘If any lesson is to be learnt by the Army Service Corps, it is that they must use all legitimate influence to see that the escorting of [their] convoys be not considered a matter of form. It is just possible that the mobility of the army and its power for striking hard and fast were seriously diminished by the loss of the convoy on 13th February 1900; indeed this is borne out by many witnesses before the War Commission. Other convoys were lost, but this was an example of the inadequacy of an escort having serious results. Nothing seems to encourage an enemy more than the knowledge of the fact that he has stolen his opponent’s dinners. Of course the difficulty of conveying and guarding supplies by waggon to outlying towns and posts was inconceivably great, and indeed it was found necessary to evacuate many towns because the convoys to them could not be protected. In what is absolutely their own department the Corps seem to have had little to learn, even at the commencement of the campaign.’
Army Service Corps tractors & trucks from the early years of the 20th Century; the Aveling and Porter steam tractor, top right, was used during the war in South Africa, covering a staggering 20,000 miles in 1901 alone!
From top, A.S.C. light cars in London and at Curragh Camp in County Kildare, with tractors in the background, and a Wolseley staff car, all pictured circa 1905. Essentially responsible for transport & supply, the A.S.C. was not slow in embracing the automobile as the age of mechanised transport dawned. In 1900, a Mechanical Transport Committee had been set up under the jurisdiction of the Royal Engineers, soon replaced, in 1903, by the Motor Volunteer Corps, which consisted of some seventy or so professional or owner drivers, both automobile and motorcycle, who agreed to place themselves and their vehicles at the Army’s disposal throughout the United Kingdom (and perhaps explains the two civilians in the top photo). Disbanded in 1906, the M.V.C. was immediately replaced by the Army Motor Reserve, which served a similar role but was an all ex-officer corps, and which was itself disbanded in 1913, its duties by then carried out by serving soldiers. Which brings us to the eve of the Great War.
Thorneycroft (left) & Stewart light tractors in 1909. Top photo below: Tractor hauling a train of carts, circa 1905; this method would prove too heavy for bridges & culverts, and too damaging for roads. Second row: Two pictures of a Daimler-Foster tractor, originally designed for ploughing, but ultimately used to haul 12-inch howitzers during the defence of Paris,…
…and four more tractors used (or at least tested) by the A.S.C. in the years between the Boer War & the Great War; note the armour plate on one, and another stuck in a hedge after an off-piste excursion.
Manufactured by the Holt Caterpillar Co. Inc. in 1913 in Illinois, USA, this vehicle, stripped down in the photograph to show its inner parts, was mainly used to haul large calibre guns during the Great War.
A Karrier lorry from an A.S.C. supply column parked alongside a dump of empty petrol and oil tins on the Albert-Amiens road, September 1916. The A.S.C. supplied the British Army with food, water, equipment, ammunition, horses & vehicles throughout the Great War, using whatever method of transport was available – road, rail or river – to achieve their ends, and in late 1918 – after the war – would receive the ‘Royal’ prefix for its wartime endeavours. The largest section of the A.S.C. was, and would remain throughout the war, the Horse Transport section because, like all armies at the time, the British Army relied primarily on horse-drawn transport to move men, supplies, weapons and ammunition. And then there was the A.S.C. Remounts Service, which, although actually a smaller section of the A.S.C. personnel-wise, was charged with the awesome responsibility of supplying horses and mules across the whole British Army; at their peak, in late 1917, the Base Remount Depots in France were training some 95,000 horses and over 35,000 mules at a single time. Whilst horses mainly came from British farms in the early days of the war, supply was finite, and as early as 1915 horses were being brought to the Remount Depots in the United Kingdom from Canada, the U.S.A. & elsewhere, and all required stabling and training before they could be sent to the front – the various fronts, let’s not forget. A staggering, and on-going, task, for which the men of the A.S.C. get scant approbation.
A.S.C. horses undergo training at Aldershot in the United Kingdom,…
…roping allowing just a handful of men to control a far larger number of horses.
And horses need huge quantities of fodder. Here, women of the Women’s Forage Corps (A.S.C.) and men of the A.S.C. are pictured loading bails of hay and bagging straw on the home front at Avington Camp, Winchester, much of which would be transported across the Channel,…
…where more A.S.C. men would unload the ships. These scenes show (top) loading a fodder train at Calais, oats being hoisted directly from ship to train (bottom left), and cutting clover for transport horses in the fields near Arras (bottom right).
More scenes of A.S.C. horse & mule training at Aldershot, including gas training for both men & horses (bottom left); the horses’ mouths are uncovered as they breathe through their nostrils only (so I’m told).
A.S.C. horses, mules, and more General Service Wagons.
A.S.C. men and horses frolicking in the sea at Mardyck, near Dunkirk.
Snowy Somme scenes. Top: Horse wagons of the A.S.C. at a roadside dump near Albert. Bottom: Mule wagons at a coal dump, near Maricourt. And yet more General Service Wagons.
However, the Mechanical Transport section of the A.S.C. would also play a crucial role during the war – Britain’s army was the most mechanised in the world on the outbreak of hostilities, and it had no intention of allowing other nations to catch up, indeed it would maintain its lead throughout the war. Here, new lorries, as far as the eye can see, await issue at the A.S.C. Base Mechanical Transport Depot at Rouen.
A.S.C. lorries await their loads at the railhead at Frechencourt on the Somme. I spy a General Service Wagon (bottom right – last mention, I promise).
Top: A.S.C. food lorries waiting – how much time was spent waiting in the snow (and in such conditions, pity the poor drivers), I wonder? Bottom: A.S.C. lorries loaded with men for the front line passing through Abeele (now Abele) south west of Poperinge (left), and A.S.C. driven buses (right) performing the same duties in Dickebusch near Ypres (Ieper). Let’s hope the buses are stationary, or I sense disaster.
Four A.S.C. drivers in later years; don’t be fooled, the term ‘driver’ could apply to either horse-drawn or mechanised transport; the man on the far left, for example, was definitely a driver of horse-drawn transport, whilst the man second right was a motorised vehicle driver (you can tell by their service numbers, which are prefixed by the letter T, for horse-drawn, or M, for mechanised).
Clockwise from top left: Supplies are loaded from a supply train on to A.S.C. lorries; a deconstructed R.G.A. howitzer being drawn by a Holt caterpillar tractor operated by A.S.C. troops; men of the 4th Bn. Worcestershire Regiment, returning from the Somme trenches, fervently hope that the empty A.S.C. lorries in the background are waiting for them; unloading road material from a light railway into steam wagons operated by 69th Auxiliary Steam Company, 936th Motor Transport Company, Army Service Corps.
Clockwise from top left: Pack mules, loaded with ammunition for the guns, head for the front; supply limbers doing likewise across newly-won ground; British troops being moved by light railway on the Pilckem Ridge in Flanders; A.S.C. horse transport waiting for supplies at a roadside dump near Carnoy on the Somme.
The A.S.C. was also responsible for recovering damaged vehicles,…
…which would be transported to one of the huge salvage dumps, such as this one at the Base Mechanical Transport Depot at Rouen (note the pile of radiators on the left and the South African Native Labour Corps men atop it),…
…or this one, No.1 A.S.C. Repair Shop at St. Denis outside Paris (damaged lorries arriving by train on the left).
Some of the wrecked vehicles. Clockwise from top left: Damaged Albion lorries; Thorneycroft lorry hit by a train; mail lorry hit by a bomb at Abbeville and destroyed with all its contents; another Thorneycroft lorry, this one hit by a shell.
And still at 1st Heavy Repair Workshop, new lorry parts are cast from collected scrap.
Pictures showing a tiny fraction of the vast numbers of tyres required to keep the transport lorries running; top right shows repaired inner tubes, bottom right shows worn-out solid tyres being hoisted aboard ship to be returned to the U.K. for remaking. These photos were taken at the Base Mechanical Transport Depot at Rouen and at the tyre-pressing depot at Hesdin, between Arras and the Channel coast.
Scenes from the 2nd A.S.C. Repair Shop at Chantiers. Above, clockwise from top left: Blacksmith’s shop; foundry; tyre press; machine shop. Below, clockwise from top left: internal transport lorry; inspection pits; lorry engine erecting shop; caustic soda washing tank.
An army, as Napoleon, or Frederick the Great, or someone, once said, marches on its stomach, and vast amounts of food needed to be transported from the Channel ports to the men fighting the war, and all of those supporting them. The British Army required huge quantities of bread, each infantry division being allotted a Field Bakery, staffed by one A.S.C. officer and ninety two men, capable of producing enough bread for 20,000 men! The bakeries were generally static and based at locations some distance from the front, the pictures above showing stages in the production process, from humping sacks of flour (top left) to distribution at a roadside dump (bottom right).
The raw materials: A.S.C. men and French female farm workers operating a Ruston threshing machine (top), A.S.C. men ploughing (bottom left) and bringing in wheat for threshing (bottom right).
And not only food. How about water? Here, R.A.M.C. personnel of No. 2 Water Tank Company, Army Service Corps (attached to the 718th Motor Transport Company, A.S.C.) test river water; the collection canvas would hold the sterilised water once ready for drinking.
A.S.C. men involved in other duties, clockwise from top left, making soda (though I have no idea exactly why – officers perks, perhaps, looking at the bottles); camouflaging – very nice; tending graves; lugging stuff,…
…and here, preparing films for troop entertainment behind the lines at Boulogne.
Three A.S.C. privates in later years.
Clockwise from top left: Smart A.S.C. troops photographed at a horse show at G.H.Q. (hence the civilians in the shot); Motor Transport* staff, A.S.C., at Etaples; an instructor explains the working of a steam engine; A.S.C. men receive their Princess Mary Christmas gift tins at a camp in south-east England, December 1914.
*the Mechanised Transport section of the A.S.C. is often referred to as the Motorised Transport section, rightly or wrongly, and where the word ‘Motor’ is used in an original photograph annotation, I have generally retained it.
Clockwise from top left: Troops of the A.S.C. warming themselves around a camp fire at Neulette in the Pas-de-Calais; famous photograph of A.S.C. NCOs playing cards in a shell hole at Poperinge; drawing rations at La Flacque on the Amiens-Saint-Quentin road; A.S.C. troops enjoying an open-air dinner near Arras.
And talking of NCOs, here are three, a sergeant, on the left, next to two corporals. At the start of the war, it soon became clear to British authorities that local French or Belgian authorities were unable to supply the labour required to assist the Army in disembarking the huge amounts of stores and supplies being brought by ship to the Channel ports. Soon, labourers were being sent across from England and by the end of 1914, five labour companies of the A.S.C. had been formed, consisting of some 35 officers and 2,500 men. More companies would be formed in 1915, numbers increasing to around 21,000 by the end of the year, many of the men dock workers back in Blighty. The first six months of 1917, however, would see these companies absorbed into the Labour Corps, there being considerable crossover in duties between the two corps.
Top: Unloading and stacking cases of bacon at the docks at Calais. Bottom: Loading onions in a store house (left), again in Calais, and unloading meat at Dunkirk (right),…
…these large carcasses transported from ship to train to roadside dumps behind the front lines (bottom right), where they could be apportioned to waiting troops.
Above & below: Supplies arrive at Calais for storage. The top pictures show British troops loading steam lorries (left) and railway trucks (right) with sacks of flour, bottom right shows the vast storehouses at the docks (note two steam engines in action). Below, supplies of condensed milk, biscuits and jam are taken to warehouses for storage or trains for distribution.
Three A.S.C. privates, the man in the centre ex-East Surrey Regiment. Shellshocked in France in 1916, he would be diagnosed with neurasthenia (similar to chronic fatigue syndrome – the clue’s in the name) soon after, although his diagnosis was later changed to a case of disseminated sclerosis, a chronic progressive disease of the nervous system, (the private on the right was diagnosed with the same complaint), and seems, from what I have researched, to have been a far from uncommon diagnosis in ex-servicemen of the time.
And three more privates, the man on the left having previously served with the Devonshire Regiment. The private on the right had served for just a couple of months when an encounter with a train in June 1915 left him with an injury to the base of his skull; discharged in December 1915, his death, nearly twenty five years later, would be directly attributable to that incident,…
…as seen on the document extract above.
Behind the lines on the Somme: Men of the A.S.C. drawing water and melting snow in a dixie (top), and sorting mail parcels and cleaning harnesses (bottom).
Clockwise from top left: Brigade provision dump near Albert; A.S.C. men constructing an improvised hut on the Albert-Amiens road; travelling lorry-workshop of the A.S.C. at Poperinge; mobile repair shop of the 8th Scottish Motor Ambulance Convoy, A.S.C., at Lewarde, twenty miles east of Arras, in the final weeks of the war.
A.S.C. officers outside a former German HQ dugout at Roye on the Somme on 15th March 1918. This dugout, and Roye itself, would be back in German hands within a fortnight.
Two A.S.C. captains and, in the centre, a 1st class staff sergeant major. The captain quartermaster on the right, ex-Durham Light Infantry, had fought in South Africa and was twice mentioned in despatches during the Great War. The staff sergeant major was awarded the D.C.M. in 1916 (he was also mentioned in despatches), already owned half-a-dozen South African and long service medals, would be wounded in the left arm in 1915, and had served for twenty eight years until 1925 before he too was diagnosed with disseminated sclerosis soon after retiring from the service.
His citation, published in the London Gazette dated 21st June 1916, was brief and to the point, ‘For consistent good work as a Chief Clerk.’ Only 251 Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded to the Army Service Corps during the Great War, thirty one of them being gazetted on that particular date. Interestingly, although the majority of Great War A.S.C. D.C.M.s were awarded for bravery under fire, a considerable number on this occasion were for senior clerks. The extract above shows a single page from the 3rd June 1916 Supplement to the London Gazette, the men whose citations would be published a few weeks later listed here in alphabetical order. Eight A.S.C. men appear on this particular page and just one of them, the only private listed, received his medal for action under fire. The remainder were all clerks, five of them, including our man, being staff sergeant majors whose citations, although none are identical, all begin with ‘For consistent good work……’.
Moving on. Night-time in Serbia. A.S.C. officers tents, Christmas 1916.
The men of the A.S.C. were needed wherever the British Army found itself fighting. Clockwise from top left: convoy of A.S.C. Motor Transport lorries in Salonika; A.S.C. transport column of mule-drawn box limbers in Mesopotamia; Motor Transport Company A.S.C. drivers in Bulgaria take a tea break; A.S.C. men in the trenches, Mesopotamia; Serbian soldiers and men of the Motor Transport Company A.S.C. help extricate a buffalo from quicksand, Serbian Third Army Sector; staff of the Reserve Vehicle Park A.S.C. in Italy listen as their C.O. reads them the latest news from the Western Front.
Still on the Italian front, here an Army Service Corps breakdown lorry successfully tows a car out of a ditch.
Two A.S.C. privates in later years. The man on the left had seen service on the North West Frontier in the final years of the 19th Century, and then in South Africa, and would see more action on Gallipoli with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. It was there, in July 1915, that his eyes would be badly affected by a nearby explosion, which probably explains his transfer to the A.S.C.; he would eventually be discharged in August 1918, after over twenty one years service. The man on the right, who served with the A.S.C. Mechanised Transport section, had contracted malaria during the campaign in German East Africa, another theatre of war where A.S.C. men worked tirelessly behind the scenes as the British spent four and a half years vainly pursuing Lettow-Vorbeck’s little army.
Mountain bathhouse on the Balkan front, constructed by Motor Transport Company men of the A.S.C.
Salonika scenes. Above: A.S.C. men & civilian labourers loading carts (top left), at a firewood dump (top right), and unloading flour at a field bakery (bottom). Below: Supply dumps and civilian labourers under A.S.C. supervision.
More bread making, this time in Salonika. The top row shows ovens (those on the left transported all the way from Aldershot) and the bread store, the bottom picture shows Greek troops unloading bread from a British A.S.C. lorry.
Top: Men of the 26th Divisional Supply Train A.S.C. lining up for Christmas dinner, Salonika, Christmas Day 1915. Bottom: A.S.C. drivers being photographed by a local Salonika photographer (left), and officers’ Christmas dinner, 26th Divisional Supply Train A.S.C., again in 1915 (right).
Above: Lorries carrying fatigue parties to a fire – seen in the background – at a British store near Salonika. The man pictured, an A.S.C. private, was one of thousands who suffered from disease, in his case enteric fever, in the dreadful conditions on the forgotten Balkan front in 1917. Mind you, he did live well into his eighties. Below: A Holt caterpillar tractor hauls an artillery piece through the streets of Thessalonika (presumably some time before this event, if you remember these postcards from last summer).
The Great War would pose the greatest logistical problems that any of the participating armies had ever come across, the quantities and distances involved vastly exceeding anything required, or indeed seen, before. And the achievement of the Allied armies, and within the British Army specifically the Army Service Corps, in winning the logistical war, was directly instrumental, indeed critical, to eventual victory. In 1918, at its peak, the A.S.C. numbered around 10,500 officers and over 315,000 men, and at the time of the Armistice, had some 33,560 lorries operating in France & Belgium alone, and who knows how many horses. So the next time you visit a cemetery, whether in Flanders, France, here in Blighty, or even further afield, and you see a man of the A.S.C. buried beneath a CWGC headstone, please don’t just pass by on your way to a more interesting grave – spare a few moments for the men without whom……well, you know the rest.
As promised at the start of the post, you can access the IWM A.S.C. photo collection here (if you do click the link, just be patient). At which point I am going to call a halt to this series of posts, although not, I hope you will be pleased to hear, permanently. We shall return to these men, the men who came home, at a future date, because there are more old soldiers from other areas of service that you have yet to meet and who, perhaps, deserve a few minutes of your time. Before all that, however,…
…we’re off on a tour.