The Motor in Warfare
Power And Speed In The Great European Conflict

By Charles Lincoln Freeston
(Member of the General Committee of the Royal Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland; Founding Member of the Royal Aero Club of Great Britain and Ireland)

[Scribner's Magazine, February 1915]

"This is not a war of men. It is a war of machines." Such was the dictum of a distinguished officer when the great European war had been eight weeks in progress and it had become evident that the quick-firer and the machine-gun were the most potent weapons of offence on either side.

But the war is also one of "machines" in a totally different sense; and whereas quick-firers and Maxims, though more liberally employed than in any previous campaign, are no new things of themselves, the feature which is new and paramount alike is the use of the "petrol" motor in its every shape and form. Without it, indeed, history might conceivably have had to record another Thirty Years' War. With millions of men drawn up in battle array at one and the same time, to handle them effectively by old-time methods would have been impossible. Even before the opposing fronts were extended to their fullest degree in France alone, they were officially declared to have attained a length of three hundred miles, and one of two hundred and seventy miles in the east—figures which not only convey some indication of the stupendous size of the engaging forces, but even more emphatically suggest the tremendous responsibilities of the commanders-in-chief.

Nevertheless, although they have to deal with millions instead of tens of thousands, the commanders concerned have never had their forces so completely under control; in every phase of the warfare, whether of transport, attack, defence, or supply, the keynote of the operations passim has been effectiveness of the completest kind. The motor, in short, has "speeded up" the war in a way that could never have been dreamed of by former generations. Never have the movements of troops been so rapid; for, instead of men having to wait for ammunition and food-supplies, these have been conveyed by motor-wagons which can travel, if need be, much faster than the armies themselves.

Never, too, have the firing-lines been kept so continuously in action, for motor-lorries have brought up ammunition in constant relays; they have been driven right up to the very front, and shells and cartridges have been served out as fast as they were required.

Though of purely subsidiary interest, of course, to the vital issues concerned, it is impossible for this universal presentment of the motor's utility at the seat of war to be viewed with aught but pride and satisfaction by the automobilists of the whole world. For years, in their respective countries, they have impressed upon the military and other authorities the indispensability of mechanical locomotion for war purposes as well as those of peace; and, though they have gradually gained more and more ground, it needed the war itself to demonstrate the truth of their contentions to the full.

But what a demonstration! Every preparation that had been made was instantly justified; every thing that had been left undone became an immediate necessity for fulfillment. In England, for example, as soon as the British expeditionary force, with an immense motoring equipment, had been safely transported across the channel the War Office placed orders with fourteen different firms for the whole of their motor-lorry output for the next fifty weeks! In other words, new vehicles of this type have been issuing from the factories and shipped to the front at the rate of a round hundred a week. Before essaying, indeed, an analysis of the ways in which the motor has made its presence felt, in one form or another, I make bold to say that, out of all the attempts that have been made by novelists of late years to depict the thaumaturgic factors of the "next great war" there has been hardly any flight of imagination that has not been exceedecl by reality itself in the present campaign, and the fact that "truth is stranger than fiction" has once again been indubitably confirmed.

It is true, of course, that each and all of the contesting armies has pressed the motor into its service, and that its benefits have been of all-round application; but that is no more a reason for disputing the advantages of motoring equipments, on the ground of mutual cancellation, than for suggesting that a naval battle with submarines and dreadnoughts on both sides marks no advance upon the days of Trafalgar and wooden frigates.

Let us consider, therefore, the various ways in which the motor has been employed in this gigantic "petrol war," as it is already known in England. It is not too much to say that practically the entire control of the tactics on both sides has been carried out by means of motors, including those of aeroplanes, and the armies could no more have gone into the field without gasolene than without ammunition for the guns and victuals for the men.

In the first place, there is the ordinary motor-car of touring type. Among staff-officers it has been in universal use. In an hour a commander-in-chief, if he wished, could bring his generals up for consultation from, points forty or even fifty miles away on either side of his headquarters, for on Napoleonic roads all things are possible. I have myself often attained speeds of over seventy miles an hour in France, and averaged sixty for long distances at a time; and, as a matter of fact, General Sir John French is using a similar type of car to the one on which I drove several thousand miles last June through Austria, Italy, and France. There is nothing to prevent a commander-in-chief from visiting his whole line, if need be, from end to end; and, unprecedented as is the length of the opposing forces, the modern car has put the respective commanders in a more favorable position in that respect than in the ante-motoring days, when armies were relatively insignificant in size. How much to-and-fro movement the chiefs have found actually necessary it is impossible to say; but I do know that General Joffre covered over four hundred miles by road on the first day of the war, and on another occasion he was so near the fighting zone that his car narrowly escaped destruction. A group of shells fell all around the vehicle, and a fragment of one struck the bonnet, but the driver opened wide the throttle, dashed on at full speed, and both the general and himself escaped uninjured.

Cars, too, have been in ceaseless use in maintaining communications between Paris and the front, while Lord Dalmeny, on a Rolls-Royce, has made repeated journeys from the fighting-lines to the coast, en route for England, with official despatches for the King. The men who volunteered their cars and their own services at the outbreak of the war comprised the very flower of British motoring, and many well-known names, too, have appeared in the same capacity on the French side. Volumes might be written of their adventures and achievements, but for the present the world must be content to wait, for no newspaper correspondents are allowed at the front, and countless deeds of daring go unchronicled. Especially significant of this titanic war is the total disappearance of the galloping orderly; his place has been taken by the motor-cyclist. Among British officers, particularly, the motor-bicycle has long been popular, and, in addition to what the army could supply in the first instance on its own account, a large number of riders, many of them from the universities, and specially chosen as despatch-bearers for their skill and linguistic abilities, have been recruited from the volunteer element and sent out as required, the first contingent being a thousand strong, with a second thousand in reserve. Theirs has been the most active, daring and dangerous work of any units of the forces, for they have had to carry instructions from point to point, often under fire, and generally under conditions of great risk. As the speed of their machines, however, is five times as great as that of a horse, and their distance capacities virtually without limit, it follows that their sphere of usefulness has been as vast as their services have been priceless.

Again and again have officers paid testimony to the extreme military value of the work of these plucky riders, who have enabled the allied commanders to maintain constant communication along the vast front from Belgium to Alsace-Lorraine. Individual acts of the highest bravery have been countless, but I may mention two as typical. A despatch-bearer ran right into a party of fourteen Uhlans. He braved them single-handed, drew his revolver, and shot down an officer and a private. The others turned and fled, and the motor-cyclist was able to deliver his despatch, which informed the corps commander that the Germans were in the vicinity, and thus prevented what might have been a disagreeable surprise. In another case, an intrenched British company observed in the distance a French regiment marching right up to a spot which concealed German artillery. The Frenchmen's fate was sealed unless they could be warned. Out jumped a cyclist, but he was promptly shot down. Another followed, and he, too, fell immediately. Then a third dashed out, bending low over his machine, and managed to pass through a hail of bullets unharmed and reach the approaching regiment just in time. The commanding officer immediately detached a decoration from his own breast and pinned it to that of the intrepid rider.

The motor-bicycle, indeed, is a vehicle of such remarkable efficiency, economy, and speed that personally I believe its use in warfare is capable of infinite extension. Just as the tendency of recent times has been to convert cavalry into mounted infantry, there seems no reason why brigades of motor-cyclist infantry should not be established for purposes of attack. Fighting is not all done on open plains nor in intrenchments, and, in view of the oft-repeated seizures, of roadside villages by the Germans in Belgium and France, there must have been many occasions in which a swiftly moving company of armed motor-cyclists could have carried the position and put the enemy to flight. If attacked by cavalry, moreover, they could throw down their machines, over which it would be impossible for horses to charge without being thrown into confusion, during which their riders could be picked off. This, as a matter of fact, has actually been accomplished in the case of ordinary cycles.

Motor-cyclists have also been largely used as escorts for the supply-trains; and here, too, they have incurred considerable risk. One of them, the son of a well-known British peer, Lord Cowdray, ran into a troop of Germans, and, along with a companion, was pushed into the enemy's trenches. There they were treated with great brutality and in the thick of an engagement attempted to escape. Lord Cowdray's son was shot down and killed, but his friend succeeded in getting clear and eventually reached the British lines. And now we come to the vital question of ammunition and food-supply, without which no army could live a week. Imagination reels at the prospect of what would have happened to the opposing armies, operating in millions over such extended fronts, if they had not been able to count upon mechanical locomotion from the very opening of the campaign. It was this factor which enabled the Germans to make so rapid an onslaught through Belgium and France, until they received their historic check almost at the gates of Paris; it was this factor which enabled the allied forces to sustain the rigors of the initial retreat from Mons. British equipment was magnificent. In addition to its own normal supply of four-ton lorries, of a special War-Office type, it had commandeered large numbers, of five-ton and three-ton vehicles. The first-named naturally proved the most serviceable, a number of the hastily acquired wagons, which had already undergone heavy commercial use at home, breaking down from one cause or another in the first two or three weeks of the war. They were speedily replaced by newer vehicles, however, and it may be said at once that the commissariat has never failed on the British side, and "Tommy Atkins" has rarely been without good food in plenty. That an army "fights on its stomach" is a well-known military axiom; it was certainly adequately fulfilled in the case of the British troops, and what particularly impressed the French was the self-contained way in which they moved throughout, carrying complete supplies and seldom needing to requisition from the towns through which they passed.

There is no reason for supposing that the French lines were not equally well served by their motor-lorry trains. Even greater secrecy has been observed as to the equipment of General Joffre's army than in the case of the British, and French papers have been all but barren of information throughout the war; but from sundry stray allusions in the English papers there is ground for believing that the French piou-piou has been well fed, and has fought in good spirits accordingly. The Germans could tell a different tale. Their initial motoring equipment was colossal in itself, but the whole scheme of supply failed by reason of the frustration of their scheme of stalking through Belgium and reaching Paris within a fortnight. The "quick decisive blow" was never realized, and, as the comfort of their "cannon fodder" was the last thing that Prussian autocrats had thought about, the German army suffered the pangs of hunger for days at a time. The Kaiser himself, however, had a fleet of fifty cars for his immediate entourage, including a travelling kitchen of special design.

Not by any means the least interesting feature of the "heavy-motor" equipment of the allied armies is the way in which vehicles designed for peace purposes have performed invaluable service. The British commercial wagons already mentioned include railway companies' vans still bearing on their flanks the bright-hued advertisements of some seaside resort; while many others came from well-known dry-goods stores, brewers, and famous manufacturers. Most conspicuous of all, however, has been the part played by the motor-'bus. Several thousand employees of the London General Omnibus Company alone are serving at the front, and great is the variety of ways in which the 'buses themselves have been employed, whether in their original form or converted into motor-wagons. They have carried now troops, now ammunition, now food, and even wounded men, while in the bombardment of Antwerp they were instrumental in aiding the retreat. As for the French army, it has used large numbers of single-deckers recruited from the Paris streets.

No less striking than the inestimable services rendered by these essentially unwarlike vehicles is the way in which it has been proved that civilian drivers, with no military training, can adapt themselves to the sternest exigencies of battle. They do not receive mention in the despatches; but private letters from the front afford innumerable evidences of the highest bravery. One British soldier, for example, testifies to the fact that food is regularly driven right into the firing-line and served out under a hail of shells. Another, describing a violent artillery engagement, states that the drivers of the motor-lorries worked untiringly, and undoubtedly saved many a wounded man who otherwise would never have got away. Nor have opportunities for valor been confined to the actual firing-line; even on the highroad there have been numerous displays of heroism. A lieutenant of the British Army Motor Transport, in charge of twenty motor-wagons, suddenly found himself confronted by a large party of Germans, whose chief officer stepped forward and demanded the surrender of the group. "Certainly not!" was the lieutenant's reply. The German officer retired and the British officer stood up, faced the long line of vans, and called on the drivers to make a dash for it. Every one of them, only a short time before, had been driving a motor-'bus on the London streets; but without a moment's hesitation they answered to the call and went straight through the Germans, who were scattered right and left, and only succeeded in capturing the last wagon in the line.

A dramatic incident may also be described in connection with a group of half a dozen French motor-'buses, though in this case they were each packed with fifty soldiers. Just as they reached the head of a long descent a large body of Uhlans was seen ahead. The officer on the leading 'bus gave the order to charge, and the driver, opening his throttle to the full, sent the six-ton mass hurtling down the hillside, while the troopers opened fire from the windows. "Horses were hit and bowled over," the narrative proceeds; "the 'bus swayed ominously, its violent skidding doing almost as much damage as the rifle-fire from the interior. This daring act of the leader had broken the resistance. Spitting fire from the windows, the other vehicles followed with practically a clear course, for after an attempt to bring down the drivers and the officers the enemy fled across country, leaving several men and horses on the field."

Yet another department in which the motor-car has been supreme, and absolutely indispensable, in view of the numbers of the troops engaged, is that of rescuing the wounded. In this respect the equipment of the British forces has far exceeded that of any of the other armies in the field. Although a continental war had been quite unexpected in England, a large equipment of motor-ambulances was provided at the first outbreak, and urgent measures were taken to augment the supply from week to week. Not only were ambulances required, of course, at the front, but large numbers were provided for conveying British and Belgian wounded to hospitals on arrival in England. When it was supposed that the service was complete, there came the news that the French troops were insufficiently supplied, despite the generous help of the American community and further ambulances were despatched to Paris, to meet the pressing need of conveying wounded from the field-hospitals to the more elaborate establishments in the French capital itself. Great suffering had been endured, meanwhile, by wounded men lying on the floors of vans, condemned to many weary hours of jolting in trains on congested lines; in fact, it was said that the trains took from ten to twenty hours to do journeys which could be done in two or three by motor-cars. According to a correspondent, however, of a Paris daily, the British ambulances represented the "last word in comfort," and I know that many were not only specially built as regards the bodies, including six to the order of the American Women's War Relief Fund, but were attached to chassis of the most expensive type. A volunteer corps was also raised in England, pledged to work on the firing-line itself and rescue wounded who might otherwise have been left to die upon the field of battle.

It is impossible to speak too highly of the invaluable work; rendered by the motor-ambulances and the brave men and women of the Red Cross service, for never before have they had to work under similar conditions. There is overwhelming evidence of the fact that not only have the Germans never scrupled to fire upon the wounded, and upon doctors and nurses actually engaged in succor—a whole ambulance company was blown to pieces while crossing the Aisne—but they have even abused the Red Cross to the extent of arming their own ambulance corps, killing wounded men, and disguising officers as doctors with the object of obtaining access to the enemy's lines and carrying back useful information to their own.

So far we have considered the forms in which motor-vehicles have been employed in considerable numbers, but various other directions may be indicated in which the gasolene motor has played its part. Travelling workshops, for example, accompany the British motor-lorries, and have thereby materially contributed to the efficiency of the transport service. The French army has for several years past made a feature at its annual manoeuvres of the use of portable search-lights conveyed on eighteen-horse-power chassis. Each of these carries a long length of cable on a drum behind the driver's seat, so that the search-light can be put into operation a considerable distance away from the vehicle itself. The French started the war, therefore, with a serviceable equipment of these useful combinations, and a large number were subsequently ordered for the British and the Belgian forces also. The British and French armies alike employ moor-vehicles in connection with the field telephone and telegraph service, and also for the purposes of wireless telegraphy.

A type of machine of which the use is confined to the German army is the motor-plough, designed for trench cutting purposes. There are no means of ascertaining as to what extent this has been employed, but I know definitely that the machine exists as a type, for a friend of my own, who was in Germany not long before the war broke out, saw a number of these mechanical ploughs in a large automobile manufactory, and noted that they were fitted with engines of no less than two hundred horse-power. They are capable of cutting a trench four feet wide by four feet deep, and can even be used for the gruesome purpose of burying the dead! The German military motor-cars are also specially equipped with wire-cutters, consisting of a framework of light steel which protects the lamps and extends over the heads of the occupants themselves. If wires are stretched across the road at night, at a height which would otherwise decapitate the driver, they are caught up by the apparatus in question and severed by a cutting edge.

The use of the motor-car for offensive purposes has been more limited, on the whole, than might have been expected. The Germans have done some amount of gun-hauling by car, while their famous 16.4 siege-guns are divided into four sections, each of which is drawn by three traction-engines, usually of British make. The French have used motor-wagons to some extent for the combined purpose of gun-hauling and transport.

French and Germans alike have a certain number of high-angle guns, mounted on automobile chassis, for use against aircraft…. The gun is one of the famous seventy-five-millimetre breech-loaders, and can be elevated to an angle of seventy degrees with the horizon. It is mounted upon a twenty-five horse-power De Dion chassis. The German aircraft-guns are mounted on armored chassis, the ammunition being, stored in a large receptacle behind the front seat.

What the war has taught us more than anything else, perhaps, is the value of the fast-moving armored car with light guns. The Germans had provided themselves with large numbers of these, before they invaded Belgium, and invariably sent them along the road as an advance-guard, effectually terrorizing the inhabitants and clearing the way for cavalry and troops. Belgium had nothing at first to withstand these raids, but set to work to build armored cars of its own, on native and American chassis, and these were increasing rapidly in number before the final laying waste of that unhappy country. When the Germans came to grips with the allied armies in France they used their armored cars for the purpose of stealing along the roads at night until they located the trenches, and then, by the flashing of electric torches, directed the fire of their own artillery.

The French equipment has only included a few armored cars, while the English army started with none. An interesting development, however, was forthcoming a few weeks after the war broke out, when the British Admiralty was found to have provided the Royal Naval Division, working with the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps, with a fleet of sixty armored cars of a new and very powerful type. At the time when these were despatched to the Continent there were many more of the same kind on order. Most of them were fitted with three machine-guns, capable of firing six hundred rounds a minute, and carried eight men per car; but even with this load they could exceed forty miles an hour. Although little or nothing has been reported of their achievements, I know that these cars have done deadly execution, their drivers thinking nothing of scattering whole columns of German troops, and one of them dashed through the line of fire and rescued three airmen whose aeroplanes had been brought down.

Sundry faults of construction, however, were disclosed in the first batch, as the result of experiences in the Antwerp region, and the later patterns built to the Admiralty's order have been less heavily loaded with armor. The frames, too, have been stiffened and twin-wheels have been fitted to the rear, while the tires employed are neither pneumatic nor ordinary solids, but of the rubber-filled type. With a single machine-gun weighing two hundred pounds, and about one thousand eight hundred pounds, of armor-plating, the total weight is not beyond the capacity of a touring chassis, duly reinforced, to support, and the Admiralty policy of associating high speed with the power of attack will, I believe, be justified in the long run.

The British War Office made a move, at a later date, in favor of armored cars, but of a very different type. They are more heavily protected than the Admiralty vehicles, and motor-lorry chassis are employed accordingly, with solid tires. Inevitably, they are not capable of the same degree of dash which their Admiralty rivals can display, but even a motor-lorry is twice as speedy as a horse and could easily outpace cavalry. It is not difficult to imagine situations, of course, in which the robuster form of armored car will score over the faster and lighter vehicle, but it will be none the less instructive, when the great war is over, to learn which type has placed the greater number of successes to its credit.

It might be interesting, from the statistical point of view, if one could give in precise figures the total motoring equipment of the respective armies but this is entirely impossible. All alike are using the automobile wherever and whenever possible; even the Russian army set off with a motoring equipment, to the astonishment of an Austrian attaché who inquired, just before he left Petrograd, why, considering that the roads of Russia were mostly bad, it was thought that the cars would be of any use. His query was met with the rejoinder: "Yes, but yours are good." Since then the Russian Government has ordered large numbers of both cars and motor-bicycles from English factories. At a very moderate estimate I should put the total number of motor-vehicles now in service at something like a hundred thousand; but, whatever the exact figure may be, it is daily on the upgrade, for the continued supplies of new vehicles are far in excess of those which are put out of action from time to time.

A final word must be accorded to that form of motor which is represented by the aeroplane. The subject could only be dealt with adequately in a separate article, but I may say here that the use of air-craft has exceeded, in its results, the most sanguine expectations of early enthusiasts, among whom, as a founder member of the Royal Aero Club of Great Britain, I may include myself. Everywhere the airman has been supreme, and the British Flying Corps alone has made reconnaissances equivalent in mileage to many circuits of the globe. No hostile army has been able to make a sudden or unexpected change of position without its movement being detected from afar, and secret operations, unless very remote from the front, have proved impossible; gun-fire has been the more effectual because aviators have located the enemy's concealed artillery and signalled directions to their own; and, in short, in proportion to their numbers, the flying men have carried off the premier honors of the war on both sides alike. What with automobiles of every shape on terra firma, and aeroplanes hovering constantly in the empyrean, warfare has been revolutionized at every point. Even thus the great European conflict may seem to be resolving itself all too slowly; but, without the motor, no one, in the face of these teaming millions, could have dared to antedate the finish.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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